A recent waning summer evening found me rounding a curve on the road to my parents’ cabin in Ellijay, Ga. Having traveled it since I was a toddler, I know this stretch of road like the back of my hand.
An urgent request from my daughter revealed that nature called and she wouldn’t be able to make it to the house, so I pulled my Camry onto the wide, clay dusted shoulder and retreated a few steps into the trees with her.
As I was waiting for her, I looked around and realized how still the woods was — almost as if it was waiting for our visit. Golden, dwindling sunlight danced on the pine trunks, and a clearly defined little deer path trailed off between the trees into uncharted woods. If my daughter hadn’t been with me, I very well might’ve slipped off on it in full anticipation of Irving-esque bowling games and 100-year naps. This stretch of hardwoods and pine looked like it could have been one John Muir explored a century and a half ago. Robert Frost’s words — something about the woods being lovely and deep — floated up to me, although they held none of the melancholy the poem suggests.
The forest, in that moment, offered up all the magic and promise I remember from my days as a barefoot 7-year-old scampering along worn, pine needle-laden paths in search of nothing more than the next patch of molton white sunlight or the jeweled surprise of a wild violet.
And then, something shifted. Maybe it was my consciousness catching me at the knees, or maybe it was the barely whispering pines drawing into themselves, but I suddenly realized how utterly alone we were a mile from the cabin. The hairs on the back of my neck involuntarily rose, and the surrounding hush seemed almost oppressive.
“Oh, but you are still so very wild, my old friend, aren’t you?” I murmured under my breath, scanning the woods that had so quickly passed from familiar to a little intimidating.
I quickly ushered my daughter back to the purring Camry, and we moved away down the age-pocked mountain road into the deepening evening. Do I believe something was watching us from the depths of one of those gently sloping hollows? No. And if it was, it meant us no harm. But there’s something about being alone in an untouched portion of nature that does — and should — give us pause.
Bill Bryson speaks about the human tendency to grow wary in the wilderness in “A Walk in the Woods,” his rolicking depiction of an adventure on the Appalachian Trail, some of which takes place near my stomping grounds in North Georgia. For all the hilarity that makes Bryson’s account such a masterpiece of a travel story, there is an acknowledgement that the Appalachian forest is vast and undiscovered in places.
His conclusion seems to be that although the woods can be a balm to the soul, prolonged solitary exposure can begin dismantling a person’s sense of security. After all, humans are social creatures, and instinct tells us there’s safety in numbers. And I have felt this dichotomy all of my life. I remember long walks with my mother through the swales and ridges of the Southern Appalachian foothills that surround our cabin. I felt safe because I was with her, but I always knew not to step too far off the beaten paths because I sensed that the portion of the woods that I had never seen dwarfed the parts that I knew.
Perhaps this knowledge shows how far modern society has wandered from any kinship with the natural world, or maybe it’s just a gentle reminder that no matter how closely we feel we live with nature, it’s still necessary to be aware of its potential dangers. I like to think the latter is true and that no matter how our road blasting and mining and timbering scar the land, it remains untouched and a little foreboding beyond the edges of our intrusions.
In other words, it remains its own entity. And perhaps this idea is why time in the woods can be so restorative: We can commune with it, but we can never conquer it.