Lost in the Woods
On a Tuesday afternoon at one, three of my classmates and I set out into the woods with the task of finding points scattered throughout the snowy forest. Our goal was to use a compass and map to make our way between those points and arrive back at the central campus by four. We had had minimal training – our teachers explained how to use a compass, then we put on snowshoes and set out. Walking away from campus, the woods looked inviting. I had studied, worked, and played in these woods for the past month – I could tell the difference between the sugar maples and white ash trees, see the ones that I had cut down a week ago, and notice the ski tracks that I had made the day before. In a bout of overconfidence, our group decided to find the points without using the compass. We got to the first point, but as we started towards the second point, we got confused. We decided that we should keep moving, hoping we would intersect with the trail. As we walked, the canopy shifted, from the shorter, leafless deciduous trees that let light in to taller, foreboding hemlocks, making the forest look darker, and I suddenly realized I had no idea where we were.
I had been reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau at the time. When I read books by authors I really love, my thoughts start to sound like the author’s voice as I get sucked into their world. I will read a book by Virginia Woolf and my thoughts will start to sound stringy and poetic. A Haruki Murakami novel will leave me with succinct and outlandish thoughts. Reading a novel by Toni Morrison will make me think musically and cleanly. At that moment, I had been sucked into the world and language of Henry David Thoreau, with its elaborate explanations and beautiful descriptions of nature. I had been carrying my battered copy of Walden all over the Mountain School campus for the past couple weeks – this book had taken me a long time to read. Although I love reading books at a fast pace, there was something special about taking a long time to read Walden, because I became so fully immersed in the world that Thoreau portrayed that it became conflated with my own. Once I realized I was lost in the woods, I looked at it like Thoreau would – “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” as he says in Walden. At one point in the book, he finds himself lost in the woods after dark and locates his way home by feeling the bark of the trees around him. Looking at the trees around me, I imagined him being in a similar situation 200 years ago and shivered at the extraordinary power of nature. One of the most beautiful things about nature is how powerful and incomprehensible and scary it is – that moment took my breath away.
We managed to follow our footprints all the way back to campus. When I found my teacher to check in, it was well after five. He asked me how it was to get lost. I laughed – I thought that he was making a joke about the trouble that our getting lost caused for him. He was being serious, though, and commented that it can be fun to get lost. It was fun. Thoreau might have agreed. It reminded me of the way that reading makes me feel – being lost in the woods took me out of the world for a few hours and returned me back home with a slightly different view of the world and a little bit more knowledge.