By Harmony Button
Sometimes writing — as well as reading — is a kind of bushwhacking. Sometimes, the path exists, and you can almost feel it, underfoot, even when the scrub oak has reclaimed the openness above it, growing in from either side. Sometimes, you think there is a path, but all there is is your own inertia, and when that stalls, there’s no going forward.
This is what happened, the last night of my summer break, the night before I had to re-become my teacher-self and re-be school-responsible and all that good adult-like stuff: Jason and I started up the canyon as the day was slowly fading.
It takes a while for the sun to set inside a canyon — there is a surprisingly long lingering of diffuse light after the source has disappeared behind first the trees, and then the canyon wall, and then finally the far horizon, all the way across the valley, beyond the Oquirrh’s western range, through the double sunset that reflects back from the face of the Great Salt Lake.
There is a certain kind of clarity that comes from spending time in forests — as if the forest canopy was the equivalent of a giant tin-foil hat on the world, blocking out all the alien mind-probes and toxic corn-waves. The denser the forest, the greater the protection, the sweeter the bubble of purity: a space set aside from the openness of other types of wilderness. In the lovely little poem “Sweet Darkness,” the poet David Whyte writes that “the night will give you a horizon / further than you can see.” A forest, like darkness, is a kind of closeness, and a boundless expanse. It is womb of limitlessness. Still, there comes a time when the emotional horizon stubs its toes against the literal rocks, and a flashlight comes in quite useful.
We wanted that night’s hike to be a new one, but we’d hiked so many trails that summer, “newness” was a matter of re-combination. So it was we set out to go up a favorite trail and come down another. The two were joined by a ridge line that was easily visible on Google Earth.
Jason loves Google Earth, with its topo maps and zooming feature with overlaid red zig-zag of a man-made path. Whereas I tend to launch myself into the wilderness at the mercy of a trailhead and a well-marked path, Jason always wants to know where the trail is going, how gets there, how it fits into the geography of the mountain range, itself.
So, we scoped it out — from the Mount Aire saddle, our trail should run (just this way) a mile or so along the ridge before it met up with the big Burch Hollow intersection, and from there we could come back around to the car by way of the flat Pipe Line trail. One of us is more fond of loops than the other because they give a sense of having done something which is not then un-done on the return. Me, I find the pleasure of the hike in the walking, not the where-ness of the journey, but I can understand how loops can be compelling: you end up where you started, but you’re not the same.
When I was little, I used to spend hours in the swimming pool, tooling around with my head stuck under the plastic seat of an inflatable inner tube. I loved to go underwater and come up under the pocket of air that was trapped there, hot and shallow, between the chlorine slick of the water and the soft plastic layer of the seat. I would float and sip the air, daring myself to stay there even when the oxygen ran thin and the air pocket tasted of my own stale lungs. In the tiny plastic grotto underneath the inner tube, I was my own Darth Vader: I heard my breath coming and going, the impermanence of the air pocket and the odd glow of sun through thin plastic made all the more sweet by their delicate natures. It felt like getting away with something — a kind of shelter and a finger in the face of death.
Sometimes, I have this same feeling in forests: the air between the ground and upper branches of the trees is somehow made more precious by its separation from the sky. Visiting a forest is a way of being inside in the outdoors. It’s as magical and transgressive as opening an umbrella inside the house. Feel the difference: air has weight.
It all made sense on Google Earth. It wasn’t as if we knowingly went off to blaze a trail — the path existed on the map — but once we got up to the ridge line, it was clear that nature had reclaimed any delineated walking space. Any paths we found were siren songs, mostly likely sung by moose. They all ended in odd circles of flattened sage and grass. These were beds and eddies. These were moments when I felt myself a visitor inside the forest: I should not sleep here, tonight.
It shouldn’t be that hard, we said. We knew the lay of the land: stay on top, follow the ridge. But just as the sun was setting for real, the scrub oak became thicker and taller, taller and thicker, until I blinked and found myself completely cocooned in spry, clingy branches, even the ground underfoot uncertain as I pushed and bounced and crunched and pried my way through a thicket in the all-the-sudden dark on the top of a mountain where there were obviously moose.
I grew up playing in the woods behind my parents’ house. They were your standard east coast kind of woods, full of densely wrinkled rolling hills, swampy creeks and an assortment of moderate-sized, mostly leafy trees. I’ve since learned that the classic mix of deciduous and coniferous trees that is common in upstate New York is actually quite unusual — this kind of arboreal arrangement is rarely natural to an area outside of New England and certain parts of China.
Then again, I thought my childhood was pretty typical, too.
In these woods, I remember feeling completely at ease, as if all paths were intuitive and getting lost was not an option. I picked boysenberries and kicked skunk cabbage and collected crazy-gnarled mushrooms that grew like fans out of the sides of trees. After an ice storm, I found a tree uprooted, the root system hanging high in the air, every little filament and finger encased in ice. I crawled into the hole in the ground where the tree had been, and looked up through the crystalline root structures, into the still-falling snow. I felt as if I had born witness to something significant, even if I couldn’t tell you what it was.
This is what reading poetry first felt like: something beautiful and dangerously significant, something that existed with or without me.
In my Salt Lake mountains, bones are visible as rock, unflinching as jawbones bursting through the skin of earth. In my mountains, forests are not flat: their canopies are scaffolded, like sweeping stadiums without their empty, grassy centers. What are games to mountains? Mountains gather for the sake of gathering. They have no need for witnesses. They move slowly. What is won and lost is rarely fun — and yet, this forest seems to always chant the pre-game song: we will, we will —
As with poetry, you know a forest when you’re in it. There is a feeling to it, as if oxygen exists in all directions, not just in the air in front of you. The text is not performative. There is an openness to all the spaces, even when the path invites you — come this way. In the forest, you wonder if the “thereness” of things is defined by spaces that are full, or spaces that are there for moving through. In a poem, every fullness is a gateway; every empty space is also full.
Here are the technical differences between forests and woods: a wood is often a smaller geographic area, and it is only 25-60% shaded by overlapping tree canopies. A forest, on the other hand, has between 60 and 100% canopy cover. It is sprawling, large. From the inside, you can’t see the outside. It is as if there were no borders, only more forest. Horizons exist in the gut, not in line of sight.
Woods are commonplace; forests are wild. Woods are flat in their conception — they are comprised of trees, and paths, and sometimes larger mammals, such as wolves. Forests, on the other hand, are the stuff of imagination and complexity — they are populated by insects, fungus, spiders, moss. They are made up of the small and the huge, and they tend to make a lot of noise. Forests have creeks and ecosystems and emergent layers.
From the common usage side of things, it’s easy to tell the difference between forests and woods when you think of their extremes: a forest can be exotic and lush and tropical, but who’s ever heard of a tropical rain-wood? Forests are for foresters and scientists; scary stories much prefer the woods. If you’re a novice backpacker, a forest turns into the woods at night, when everything becomes a backdrop for your fear.
My first poems were words in the woods; it took me years to find the forests, then to stumble deeper into fear and wonder and rich technicality. I could feel the difference, when I read: some words make flat, tidy paths; some words moved in multiple directions, all at once.
The dog was not happy — every branch I pushed past sprang back to thwack him in the face. His hiking pack (which he carries in order to feel useful, not because he really needs to carry gear) kept getting caught on scrub and branches. The dog is a herding animal: he is genetically inclined toward trails. Like me, the dog enjoys a nice worn path. He also isn’t sure about the dark.
It happened all at once: a feeling of becoming suddenly ungrounded and re-grounded, as if my inner-compass had just re-calibrated, zooming in and out, the way the view on Google Earth does when you first type in an address: there we were, planet Earth, northern hemisphere, Wasatch range, jagged ridge line, in the thickest thicket of the forest in the dark.
Sometimes, you’re not in the forest until you’ve lost the path, until you’re in the dark and feel the tug and cling of forest branches holding you. Be still. We’ve grown here in the space you are now attempting to fill. You don’t fit, but we will fit around you because here you are.
This feeling was disquieting to me. I felt myself a foreign object in the throat of the forest.
Jason, however, is at home in the trees. For him, the only difference between a path and not-a-path is merely the ease of movement. This makes me think: my partner is not a poet, but he lives in ways that are pleasing to the poetry of things. Perhaps this is why I love him, and why that night on the top of the mountain in the woods in the dark, I was not afraid.
This is awkward, said the dog, body half draped over a springy branch of scrub oak, unsure of how to proceed. I agreed. And it was dark. And in less than twelve hours I had to be standing in teacher-shoes at the front of a classroom of children inside civilization, not stuck in the forest. And I am legitimately afraid of moose.
On the surface, the forest isn’t complicated. The forest isn’t kind, or un-kind — it’s a kind of generous that extends offers beyond borders. The forest enters and invites. Of course the forest exists without anybody, but your presence in it marks a moment. You find structure in the forest at the point at which the forest finds you. This suggests a depth of meaning that is pleasing, but not necessary. The forest can be complicated — its simplicity is in its stillness, not its stasis. You move through the forest. The forest also moves.
No wonder people often feel as if poetry is exclusive, as if it is a secret language that is not available to them. The poem is not the problem — the poem is just a forest, and we are rarely prepared to navigate those kinds of options and uncertainties. Not all paths go where you need to go.
Look here, where the trail is not a cut but an elevation: a bridge, a stone, a series of roots. What is the baseline for ground level? Does the forest know it has a ground level, or does the origin of the forest’s X/Y axis actually fall somewhere lower than the layer of dry mulch rustling on top of the rich forest floor? Is the origin found inches under loam, in the mulch of leaves that has begun to gather — has been gathering? Where is the beginning? What is forestry ground zero? There have been so many years of growing and of mulching, no one knows where to mark a point of measure any more.
“A forest” is a singular noun. When we say we are going over the river and through “the woods,” we really mean that that we are going through “a wood,” but common usage has pushed this technically correct terminology into the realm of science: no one says they’re going to go for a hike in “a wood.” Instead, “the woods” function like a collective noun with improper verb agreement: we do not say that the woods “is scary at night.” Everybody knows that the woods “are scary,” instead. The woods are plural, even as they flatten into a singular otherness. The woods create a sense of distinct boundaries: they are the opposite of the town, the dark closet of all fairy tales; the woods are the maw of the uncivilized world.
In our human stories, both the forest and the woods are dichotomous, evoking strong connections to peacefulness as well as discomfort or alienation. A forest is the most home-ish of home places, a place to turn for rest (spiritual and physical), as well as a cartoon metaphor for everything uncivilized — a place of darkness, fear, and ambiguity. In media, forests and woods are places where big-eyed fawns frolic with butterflies in idyllic sunbeams, where soul-searching adolescents find inner-courage and purity of heart. But popular representations of forests are just as likely to turn sinister: dark and brooding trees have branches that snatch and claw at passers-by; swamps are mouths that burp and swallow. Bambi is long gone from these representations of forests, eaten up by the sucking, stinging, unexpected dangers of the human psyche.
Of course, neither of these visions of wooded wilderness areas is anything remotely close to correct. I tend to see this dichotomy as indicative of a vision of “the woods” as either a flat, static backdrop, or a malevolent character. In either form, the woods are reactionary — they exist in relation to an other, an intruder, a visitor: you.
There is a difference between being lost and being stuck. That night, we were never lost: how can one be lost, when the whole valley spills itself in dusky wonder to the east and to the west, and the big moon sits in the same spot on the horizon? In the mountains, out is down, and down is always obvious, if not always a convenient option. So in this moment, we weren’t lost — we were where we were, which was awkward.
Even in its most blissful incarnations, the forest is a symbol of the amoral world, a place where the “civilized” mind can’t seem to make a dent in the order of things, as the ever-wise William Blake knew: “Tyger Tyger burning bright / In the forests of the night / … Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” In its utopian pastoral mode, the forest is just naturally beatific — this version of the forest is one of peace and harmony because that is what it claims comes “naturally,” not because it made itself into a force of goodness. The little birds flock to the finger of the princess who is pure of heart (which is to say, empty of soul).
This vision of inherent goodness has always bothered me. Not only is it one of many reasons why I think most Disney princesses present an incredibly shallow and limited version of feminine virtue that ends up scarring all the little girls who, despite acquiring all the sparkles in the world, grow up to be Real People instead of bird-attracting airheads who are pure of heart. I distrust this vision of goodness because it runs so deeply into the core of the American psyche. You don’t have to have spent much time in American studies to feel the ghost of moral “purity.” Some people may call this kind of natural piety an ideal to strive toward, but I see it as a kind of guileless goodness, a fallacy that suggests that doing good things should feel effortless, when in fact, I believe that doing the right thing is often painful, conflicting, and very very hard.
The forest is the forest — not good, not bad. It just is: Tyger, Tyger, burning bright.
I was the one who called it: no more. We were done. The forest didn’t want us going farther. So we let the thicket cough us out like so many crumbs, and we backtracked down the ridge and hiked back down the canyon in the same way we’d come up. The next morning, I went to school with welts and scratches on my arms and legs: forest kisses, evidence of having been somewhere and done something and been a real part of it.
How do we know ourselves? What do we believe?
That I am I.
That my soul is a dark forest.
That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.
That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.
That I must have the courage to let them come and go.
That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women.
It is in the forest that I feel the light in me. Even in the darkness of the canopy, I can feel its diffuse glowing. Who can look directly at the sun? Walking is an act of honoring my limits, and the light. There is only so much ground I can cover with these feet.
That night, I fell asleep re-reading Craig Dworkin’s Reading the Illegible, an odd and brilliant little book about the politics of illegibility and the poets who use styles of “radical formalism” — erasures, cancellations, over-printings, appropriations and palimpsests. Dworkin himself is charmingly self-deprecating as a critic; in the introduction, he writes a cheeky kind of epic invocation: “May it please Heaven that the reader, emboldened, and become momentarily as fierce as what he reads, find without loss of bearings a wild and sudden way across the desolate swamps of these sombre, poison-filled pages.” He enters the endeavor of writing criticism the way a human enters the forest: with the intention of moving through space, uncertain of exactly how that space itself will move. Even the most clearly marked of trails does not match the map exactly. Reading, like hiking, is a process of collaboration. Dworkin approaches this kind of criticism “with a firm belief that even critical writing can be a productive experiment: actively generating unknown results through a process that prevents it from becoming a fixed and predictable report on the already known.”
It was not out of boredom that I fell asleep. Indeed, sleeping in books is one of the most comforting, life-affirming things I know how to do. Falling asleep in a book is not about checking out of the book, but letting the book launch me into unconsciousness. Far from poison-filled, I find the swamp of Dworkin’s book to be a most pleasing forest of the mind, populated by all kinds of nerdy and good-hearted little gods, as D.H. Lawrence would call them. So it was that I woke up and understood: all language is a kind of artificial mulch; all books are a kind of layer-cake of mulch; the forest is nature’s original palimpsest.
Suddenly, everything I read spoke to the forest. I woke up feeling a great peace, as if the mulch and dirt of the forest had agreed to coincide to something thought-based, just because I saw it that way. It took almost an hour to un-see, but by then it was too late to run to the source, to try to get it back — I was still in the valley, trapped in the dire isolation of civilization. The mountains maintained a very tactful silence.
Susurrus is a beautiful word for a beautiful sound: the whistling of wind through trees. Susurrus is singular, although the trees are plural. A forest is a singular thing made up of innumerable pieces. Each piece is also a whole thing. A forest is a whole thing made of wholenesses. Have you been here before? Every time, there is something new. Even if the forest didn’t change, it would have changed you.
Or, as John Fowles wrote, “In some mysterious way woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me.” There is divinity inside a forest. There is always the possibility of death within everything divine: “And what shoulder, & what art / Could twist the sinews of thy heart?”
A forest is an opening: there are always alternative truths.
Let me tell you this: in the thicket, I was not afraid, but I was wicked pissed: “In what distant deeps or skies / Burnt the fire of thine eyes?” This was obviously someone’s fault. There should have been a path — a real path. I should have noticed when we moved from path to not-path. How could we have missed it? How could we be so stupid as to try to just… push through?
On the way back down, when we were back in the openness and stopped to see the moon dip its long beard into the thin reflection of the lake, I lost my sense of righteous indignation. Who could I blame? Jason, for having come with me, for wanting to keep going when I said I could go farther even though I didn’t want to? Myself, for being at the end of summer and not feeling ready for it? The trees, for being so thick and scratchy? “On what wings dare he aspire? / What the hand, dare seize the fire?”
I leaked a little salt out of my face-parts then, and Jason didn’t quite know what to say. I told him that I wasn’t crying about the path, even though I get a little freaked out in crowds of anything when they push up against me — people, trees, whatever. I told him that I was just feeling many things and needed a minute to feel them, strongly. “What the hammer? what the chain, / in what furnace was thy brain?”
Sometimes, in the openness that is the darkness, on the day before you re-become a version of yourself you know and don’t know yet, when you’re sitting on a rock facing west and you’re feeling kind of beat up in all kinds of metaphorical ways, you just want to leave some salt on the earth, as if to say, this was significant, what we did tonight before you pick yourself back up and move downhill. Sometimes, as David Whyte says, “it takes darkness / and the sweet confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anyone or anything / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.”
In a dream, a sudden understanding: a poem is a forest, a canopy and undergrowth, a sense of interconnectivity, everything simultaneously parasitic and symbiotic, a sense of ever-evolving equilibrium. Nothing is static. Everything alters, everything adjusts. A beam of light holds life in emptiness; there’s no such thing as empty space. A tree sprawls, falls, opens room for growth. If all life is competitive, then competition is collaborative — another word for individual, for discretion, for imperfect. A world of sunlight and a world of shade. And see us here, scrawny ants that we are, running up and down and up and down the gnarled trunk between them: sun and shade, sun and shade; heart and word, word and heart.
In the forest, you are not lost. You are not stuck. You are not good, or bad. You’re just in the dark, which is not to say, illegible. You’re just in the thicket and the thick of it. Welcome in the distance and the darkness, feel around for your not-path and follow it until you feel at least a little better about how the distance makes you ache. Doesn’t it smell piney? Doesn’t pining feel so right, some times?
Oh yes, says the forest — yes it does.
Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy of American Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at harmonybutton.wordpress.com.
Image Credit: Sunlit path in the forest maritime forest habitat by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service