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Camp Meeker Beat - December 2014


Camp Meeker Beat - December 2014

by Tom Austin

As I write this column, I am enjoying one of the quintessential pleasures of Camp Meeker: sitting inside on a cloudy winter day with a cup of hot chai, a happy wife, and a cat purring by my side. With none of that bothersome sunny weather beckoning me to waste my time in activity, I can concentrate on more reflective indoor pursuits – although a good Japanese monster movie later in the day would not go amiss. 

This is our quiet time of year. If seasonal affective disorder is your companion, this is the trying time of year. It gets dark early, and we earn the sobriquet “Damp Sneaker”. But if you’re an introvert…you don’t have to make excuses for why you are holing up with a book by the fire. In this season, holing up with a book is the smart play, the winner’s parlay.  

But what book, exactly?  Pondering that selfsame question led me to the larger topic: what would be the quintessential Camp Meeker winter afternoon read?   I submit to you the early and odds-on favorite: Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.”     I don’t think I even have to explain that one. All literate, introspective Camp Meekerites are already nodding their head in agreement. 

But for those who have already read that one (or skimmed it in High School as I did), what are some other good choices? Who else writes about the forest?

Pretty much everyone, it turns out. The forest in winter is one of our major Jungian archetypes. From “Hansel and Gretel” to “Blair Witch Project”, the wintry forest is a lonely, sorcerous place where bad things happen to the unaware and unobservant. 

From Thoreau’s drinking buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson there is “Nature and Selected Essays”. And who could forget Robert Frost? Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I, I settled down and bought a cabin. And of course in fairy tales, the hero ALWAYS goes into the forest. Enough of a rich lode there for another entire column. I will stick to the prosaic and the present-day for this month’s rapidly shrinking space.  

Clearly some Bill Bryson has to be listed here. His “A Walk In the Woods” is a classic, Bryson at his wry, witty best as he traverses the Appalachian Trail. And if you will allow a forest of another kind, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” used the wild jungle as his overarching metaphor. Science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin stated her metaphor very concretely in “The Word For World Is Forest”.      (Hint: watch “Avatar” again after you read that one). If you’re in the mood for some nonfiction, there is Colin Turnbull’s magnificent “The Forest People” about the Bambuti pygmies of the Congo. I’m sort of wandering back into quasi-mythology here, but another good book about little people in the deep dark forest would be Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”.    

You’d be surprised how hard it is to keep this list going without veering into children’s stories and fairy tales.  Comparatively, there aren’t that many grownup stories set in the forest – and many of the ones that are, are dipping at least one toe into the magical – Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, for example.     It’s as if the forest is one of the first “childish things we put away” when we grow up and have to go to the big city to make our way. The forest becomes that thing we visit briefly on vacation, where we dimly glimpse our childish selves for a fleeting moment before we again shoulder the harness of adulthood. 

Lucky are we of Camp Meeker that we remain surrounded by the mystical, witchy winter forest. All we need do to recapture the childhood of our imagination is to take our warm cup of tea to the back porch, sit quietly and listen to the myriad tiny sounds a forest makes as it breathes.

Did I miss any great forest writing?   Let me know. I might have to take a hero’s journey into the forest of stories for our inner children next month.