There’s something you forget about nature when you’ve been out of it for too long. You forget how sun-through-trees feels and how grass smells and how water sounds when it’s running down a stream that’s actually quite near, but is hidden by clouds of leaves. You forget that, hey, this whole woodsy business came first, and that these trees are older than you, older than your grandparents. You forget that spiders and slugs are supposed to be here, that they were here before we’d gone to all the trouble of building deoderized apartment buildings and come to believe in an ecosystem of just humans, housedogs, brick, and treated steel.
Odors are natural. Spiders are natural. Gnarls are natural. Gridded neighborhoods and rivers too dirty to touch are not.
In Chicago, where I live, most of the trees aren’t old. Many of them aren’t even locals. They’ve been uprooted, imported, replanted beside slabs of concrete, the way explorers used to plant flags in earth as if to say, “The very land is mine.” Who knows where the trees come from, all lined and pruned and tethered to the ground. China, probably. But here they are, and this is how we live.
And having lived this way for years now, having turned the fabrications into natural, I tend to forget just how pleasant real nature feels.
So it came as a freeing reminder when, last weekend, I paid a visit to good old pure Michigan, where there are still acres of things like old forests, unpaved fields, unmined hillsides.
The first thing you think when you enter the woods west of Bass and Deer Lakes is that it is beautiful, more beautiful than you remembered from your childhood, and differently beautiful than blue-glass skyscrapers. The second thing you notice is that you do not control this land—the mosquitoes do.
You notice that the trees are not tied down, except by their own roots. You notice animal sounds, uninterrupted by trains and car horns. It almost makes you a little worried, to think you are so far from civilization, even though you’re not that far at all.
But then you embrace it. You think this is the way life should be. You’re glad there are still places like this. It crosses your mind to leave your phone off, or leave it in the car and not think about it for the weekend, because what could be less natural than the sudden blast of a punk-pop ringtone in the middle of an empty glade.
You think you could write a fantasy in these woods. Or film a nature movie. Or write your personal Walden. But you almost don’t want to, because would that cheapen the whole thing?
It’s that sort of consideration—the slight lure of utter purity, “leave no trace” taken to a greater extreme—that keeps you from taking photos, because nature is here, now, breathing, and can’t be contained on a computer screen months after the fact.
You think you could go vegetarian—not really for reasons of animal cruelty, but for reasons of sustainability, doing right by the natural order of things. You think, will these woods be here for another generation? Will they be here next year? You think about what it means to preserve and protect, and wonder if turning land into state parks will do the trick when air, water, and animals come and go in whatever way is best for them, not according to legislation.
You think you are the glory of creation, but you are still within creation. For dust you are and all that.
You think, I should see the redwoods soon. I should go to Tuvalu before it’s underwater.
The words “aquifer” and “steward” seep into your mind, slowly, subconsciously, like urban creep in the brainstem. What are they doing there? You don’t know, but you know you should consider them now, because you won’t when you return to the city where infinite noise and bustle and billboards will distract you from all the things not manmade.
It feels good to carry everything you need on your back. It feels appropriate—not because it is easy, but because it is, somehow, right. If everything needful is here, why have I spent so much time on Amazon? It makes you think about what you need, and what is superfluous.
When it rains, you aren’t mad, even though you’d rather be tramping around on the lakeshore. You aren’t mad because why would you be? The rain is no one’s fault. It’s not even an inconvenience. It just is, and pretty soon you’re out in it anyway, fishing or walking or just being, as though rain were of equal worth to sunshine, the way the flowers feel.
It takes a good half hour to make breakfast. You had to rig up a shelter to guard the flames from the wet sky. But the fingers of smoke are perfect on you. You know, when you eat the food, that you earned it more than any McDonald’s you’ve ever had. Rarely does food taste as good as when cooked over a fire in the out-of-doors.
“Colors of the Wind” strikes you in a way it never did before. You could probably marry Pocahontas right now if she came down the deertrail—that’s how positively indigenous you’re feeling. Where dirt has become clean. Where smoke has become perfume. Where insects have become truer animals, not specks of dust that can be squished in Kleenex and thrown into a plastic bag. It’s suddenly clearer how people could think trees and stones have souls.
You think about the distinction between natural and organic. There are mushrooms here, and berries, and a temperate deciduous forest that just screams the wheel of life. Could you survive out here? Could you never go back?
Maybe you will see a bear. At first it’s a nervous tingle, like caterpillar legs on your neck. Then it’s altogether a thing you’re hoping for. To come face to face with something big with a heartbeat. But then the trees become just as great, just as alive, as do the coyote voices in the night, throwing voices like ropes to reel in the moon.
Nature. Something about it. You feel a part of it, but somehow separate. As if this is a home you’d stayed in as a child and since forgotten. As though instinct tells you everything is right and everything cares for you with blankets of wind, but you can’t take it with you.
You like it, you think.
Then a mosquito bites you, or a deerfly, and you slap your arm, the shake of percussive flesh, and you’re not really mad about it because you’re thinking, yes, this is real now.
After a few years spent correcting grammatical errors and writing subtle, clever headlines in a Chicago newsroom, Griffin Paul Jackson (’11) now does aid work with refugees in Lebanon. He writes about that, God, and, when the muse descends, Icelandic sheep. Read him here: griffinpauljackson.com.