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29 March 2017

Take a Walk in the Woods

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It’s widely held that time spent out in nature can be a positive, healing, even inspiring experience. Most people love a good, unspoiled landscape, especially if it’s a breathtaking, inspiring vista like the Grand Canyon, or the Himalayas. Something big and magnificent that a human being can get lost in, get a good reminder that one is, relatively speaking, small and insignificant, and that one’s only real meaning is derived from their relationship with their surroundings. But the lessons taught by these postcard vistas can be taught by other, less spectacular instances of wilderness: empty deserts, rolling grasslands, the open ocean, and plain old boring forest anywhere. The regenerative benefits of nature are not limited to its more spectacular examples—one can find a whole lot of benefit by just taking a walk in the woods.

Southern Missouri does not, by most evaluations, feature an inspiring landscape. Heading westish from Cairo, the flatlands stretch in fields away from the Mississippi River until they meet the gentle rise of the northern part of the Ozark Mountain Range. It’s all grass and trees cut by roads and rails and fences, which is green enough in the summer, but in the winter, it’s all browns and greys. Nothing, in short, to write home about. But there are woods, plenty of woods. Woods is a thing here, think hunting and visiting the Ozarks. Places like the Mark Twain National Forest, scattered across much of South Missouri, including right across the street from Addie’s mother’s house. We walked in those woods every day we could, because we loved the peace and the perspective and reminders that came with every walk.

National Forests are pretty amazing: they’re federally managed woodland that is used for logging, hunting, and recreation. The point is that the land is publically-owned, to be employed for the public benefit. Some is leased to loggers, some isn’t, the usage changes, balancing interests. The woods across the street were once logged, but recently their usage changed to hunting grounds, and now, when it isn’t hunting season, a network of biking and hiking trails snake among the trees covered hills. This is not breathtaking terrain, it’s just a bunch of middle-sized trees and wet-weather creeks, but that doesn’t matter. The point of the woods isn’t scenery, it’s peace and the accompanying perspective, and you can find that in any woods

I think a stand of woods, or any other wilderness, is so beneficial for perspective because it provides a bit of respite. We are surrounded daily by human attempts at order, and they work, most of the time. The only thing is, its nerve-wracking, thinking about everything it takes to keep up our normally accepted human way of living, our world of structures and engineered systems both physical and ephemeral. We put up this complex, awkward, and bewildering thing, civilization (seen the news?), because it feels good. Because it is. BECAUSE WE BUILT IT TO BE. It doesn’t matter, everything tires out, especially the built world. The constant tension of building and decay, the race against the enemy: time or someone easier to find, it all has a price, and it’s often worthwhile. That’s the game we play with civilization and we curse its toll, but the game we play with the woods is much older, and had its own toll. Mankind struggled eons longer in the woods than in the cities! Though we struggle now to adapt the environment to us, in the woods we are in the very environment our ancestors adapted to! And no, I’m not advocating returning to semi-nomadic wilderness existence (for everybody, anyway. I’d try it for a few summers, at least…), I just think it’s interesting. It’s interesting to try to understand what it would mean if the world was not built for any purpose. If it didn’t have to be “designed” for it to work. That if anything, the world designed us!

Take a walk in the woods, any random wild piece of land, stay open, pay attention, and it’s easy to feel that sense, and it is quite soothing, something ancient and very familiar. A vague memory that nature does things its own way, follows the random outcomes of its own patterns endlessly, and that this isn’t a bad thing; this is how the whole natural world came to be: trial and error, birth and death, and it’s always been messy. This busy, seemingly pointless, strangely fluid system that doesn’t appear aware of our purpose? This is reality. Purpose is a human construction, a system which arose among people roaming in wildernesses far more living than these, to inspire greater effort and closer cooperation. So to me, a walk in the woods is a reminder that I exist within a much larger, uncontrollable system, and my part to play is limited but vital to those around me. This map we’ve drawn in our heads is not the territory; the woods remind me to re-center the universe such that I am not in the middle. The woods like those in the Mark Twain National Forest exist on a forgotten edge of the human world both historically and geographically, and it’s good to remember that such edges, and the world beyond them, are out there.

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