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Stopping by the woods.

So wrote Robert Frost in the early part of this century. Generations of American writers have been inspired by the woods. Though some, like the literary naturalists John Muir and Aldo Leopold, have described its natural beauty or clarified its environmental conditions, more often the creative writer, in stopping by the woods, has found there a renewed vision and clarity of purpose for life outside the forest.

America's first writers generally shunned the forest. William Bradford, from whom we inherit the stories of Plymouth Plantation and of the first Thanksgiving, viewed "the whole country, full of woods and thickets," as "a hideous and desolate wilderness." And St. Jean de Crevecoeur, a colonial farmer, believed that the woods were destroying the American character, turning responsible citizens into irresponsible hunters. "Something in the proximity of the woods," he wrote just before the American Revolution, "puts the gun into their hands" and "makes them neglect their tillage."

By the start of the 19th century, however, the forests had stirred the imagination of America's finest writers and artists. James Fenimore Cooper, one o four first novelists, wrote a series of five books that endure as the greatest epic of the American forest and frontier, The Leatherstocking Tales. Raised in Cooperstown, New York, on an estate his father had carved from the forest, Cooper understood the complex contradictions between progress and preservation. Among the forests and the clearings around him, Cooper perceived American values in conflict, and he sought to dramatize those conflicts in his fiction.

Cooper's hero is Natty Bumpo--also called Leatherstocking--whose rapport with the wood is so great that he seems to give the forest a human shape. But Leatherstocking's life in the woods is relentlessly threatened by the encroachment of civilization, until he is at last driven out to die alone on the prairies. "Woods!" cries the 70-year-old Leatherstocking at the end of The Pioneers. "I doesn't call these woods . . . where I lose myself every day of my life in the clearings."

Once among America's most popular authors, Cooper is seldom read today. Yet his work explores social and environmental complexities that remain fiercely relevant nearly two centuries later. In The Pioneers, for example, the issue of killing a deer out of season reveals a much deeper, irreconcilable division between the laws of the forest (by which Natty lives) and the laws of society (by which he is arrested and finally displaced). "But might makes right here," laments the ostracized woodsman.

While Cooper was creating these great legends of life in the woods, his friend William Cullent Bryant saw the forest as a cathedral. "The groves were God's first temples," he wrote in his poem of 1825, "A Forest Hymn."

Be it ours to meditate, In these calm shades, thy milder majesty, And to the beautiful order of thy works Learn to conform the order of our lives.

As a liberal Democrat, a lawyer, and an influential editor, Bryant vigorously fought for various humanitarian reforms. But his popularity as "The Poet of Our Woods" surpassed his political reputation as he encouraged men and women weary with toil to:

enter this wild wood And View the haunts of Nature. The calm shade Shall bring a kindred calm, and the sweet breeze That makes the green leaves dance, shall waft a balm To thy sick heart.

Other romantic temperaments were not so easily cheered. To Nathaniel Hawthorne, haunted by the ghosts of his Puritan ancestors, the dark woods around Salem, Massachusetts, seemed gloomy and mysterious. In Hawthorne's greatest tales, such as Young Goodman Brown," "Roger Malvin's Burial," or in his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, individuals must confront their own psychological depths deep within the great, dark forest. How they come to terms with their guilt or sorrow or hidden motives of the heart, once they leave the protective cover of the forest and return to the community, is one of the most provocative and enduring themes in Hawthorne's fiction.

In 1845, Hawthorne's neighbor, Henry David Thoreau, borrowed an axe and set out for the woods near his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. Years earlier, Thoreau's mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had taught: "In the woods, we return to reason and faith." But Emerson had never actually lived in the woods. So the young Henry Thoreau built a tiny cabin from some tall white pines and recycled lumber, and kept a journal of his life alone in the forest. His account of that experience, simply called Walden, or Life in the Woods, has become a centerpiece of American literature. No other writer has so vibrantly explored the dynamic tension between life in the woods and life outside the woods.

I went to the woods," explained Thoreau, "because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach." But he also concluded, "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there." Indeed, much of Thoreau's popularity today stems from that sort of practicality; he does not urge his readers to flee to the forest, but rather to appropriate what the forest can teach them. "From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind."

Exploring the wild woods provided Thoreau with a metaphorical language for exploring the inner life, allowing him to express profound spiritual insights clearly and directly. About solitude, for example, or of defining one's personal boundaries, he observed:

"There is commonly sufficient space about us. . . . The thick wood is not just at our door, nor the pond, but somewhat is always clearing, familiar and worn by us, appropriated and fenced in some way, and reclaimed from Nature."

Or, looking into Walden Pond--"a perfect forest mirror," as he called it--"the beholder measures the depth of his own nature." Once, in the winter of 1846, he surveyed the bottom of Walden ponds before the ice broke up and discovered, to his surprise, that the greatest depth of the pond was to be found not in the center, as he had expected, but at the intersection of the lines of greatest length and greatest width, which he obtained by measuring into the coves. "What I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics," he proposed:

"Draw lines through the length and breadth of the aggregate of a man's particular daily behaviors and waves of life into his coves and inlets, and where they intersect will be the height or depth of his character."

Never popular in his own lifetimes, Thoreau's pure drops of philosophical wisdom, distilled from the forest, have only improved with age. In The Maine Woods, published posthumously, Thoreau noted:

"Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires. . .; but most are content to behold it in the shape of many broad boards brought to the market, and deem that its true success!"

By the end of the century however, the closing of the American frontier and the growth of such popular movements as the Audubon Society brought many back to the woods to see "how the pine lives and grows and spires." Nature writing flourished; and the work of such literary naturalists as John Muir, George Bird Grinnell, and John Burroughs helped to establish many of our great forest preserves.

Women writers as never before were taking to the woods in pursuit of birds and other wildlife. Sarah Orne Jewett composed a quiet masterpiece about the coast of Maine with "its long stretches of shore all covered by the great army of the pointed firs, darkly cloaked and standing as if they waited to embark." The Country of the Pointed Firs, first appearing in 1896, then neglected until the mid-20th century, has now become a literary classic; it evokes a sense of kinship with the earth and reclaims seemingly forgotten human values: sympathy, friendship, wisdom, and understanding.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is a fictional world inhabited almost entirely by old women whose lives are tenaciously rooted:

"There's sometimes a good hearty tree grown' right out of the bare rock, out o' some crack that just holds the roots," says the elderly Mrs. Todd. "You lay your ear down to the ground an' you'll hear a little stream runnin'. Every such tree has got its own livin' spring; there's folks made to match 'em."

Today only scattered pockets remain of the nation's old-growth forest, mere symbols of the vast timber that once covered our continent. Yet even as symbol, "the woods" have remained firmly planted in our cultural consciousness. Consequently, when Robert Frost invoked "the woods" in his most popular poems, modern readers responded to whole sets of complex attitudes and values that the woods represent: "Whose woods these are, I think I know," and "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood." Like so many forest writers before him, Frost wrote not of woods merely but of the problem of making choices; and Americans readily identified themselves within these poems, finding in their lines courage to take "the road less travelled" or comfort in considering "the road not taken."

Frost's finest poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," expresses the ambivalence of one torn between the call of the "woods" and the call of the "road"--between those desires that invite us to retreat and those obligations that drive us on. Most reflective people have at some point found these competing calls equally compelling: a life socially positioned versus one planted in solitude, a determined life versus living deliberately, riding the swell of progress or resisting its flow. These dilemmas run throughout the literature of the American forest.

The recent works of Annie Dillard and of the late woodsman Sigurd Olson assure us that the forest will continue teaching us of our place as humans in a complex world. Dillard, who spent one year in the woods and produced her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek before she was 30 approaches the woods with a sharply focused, penetrating eye. She sees the fecundity and intricacy of the forest, its extravagant and savage details--the gnawed trees, the parasites, the torn and slashed creatures--and asks, "What is going on here?" Her answer is full of wonder and exuberance: "not that it all fits together like clockwork . . . but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek."

In contrast, Sigurd Olson, whose entire life was devoted to the Quetico-Superior wilderness and who was over 50 before his first book appeared, looks upon the north woods with a softer, panoramic vision. He describes the song of the loon and the timber wolves, and, gazing into the campfire, speaks of wholeness, simplicity, beauty, and courage--those intangible, natural values that he believed essential for human survival.

"We need trees," he wrote in Reflections from the North Country. "We need them for industry and building and paper. . . but we must never forget there is something in trees besides the practical."

Though stylistically divergent, both Dillard and Olson combine mysticism and scientific insight in ways that help us to see what we have lost. "Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery," Dillard says frequently.

Perhaps in the next century, if the woods remains, we'll even fulfill that hope expressed by Enos A. Mills, who served as government lecturer on forestry under Teddy Roosevelt: "The forests are the flags of Nature. They appeal to all and awaken inspiring universal feelings. Enter the forest and the boundaries of nations are forgotten. It may be that some time an immortal pine will be the flag of a united and peaceful world."

Thomas Becknell is a professor of American literature at Bethel College in Minnesota and has a passionate love of the north woods.
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Title Annotation:forests in literature and poetry
Author:Becknell, Thomas
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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