Into the Woods

The storyline of one of my most frequent dreams goes like this: I am in my own home, and I discover that it has a series of rooms I’ve never been in. They’re nicer than the ones I’m used to: More spacious, brightly lit, and full of new, expensive furniture. Or I am in my own yard, and I discover a garden I had no idea was there. It’s full of blooming spring flowers, perfectly landscaped, and so unlike anything actually growing here at the farm.

In both scenarios, I wake up as soon as I begin making plans to inhabit these new spaces.  And so I’m left feeling that I’m missing out on something wonderful, something within reach, something I could have if I just knew where or how to look for it.

As I grow older, I find these dreams more compelling. To be clear, I could care less about what they say about my psyche (Is there anyone who really knows herself?). And I’ve quit looking for unexplored spaces inside our house, though granted, on rainy days, we have found things we did not know existed, like the original hand-carved toilet seat from the old outhouse. (Read In the Between.) Instead, these dreams have inspired me to discover the land I’ve been living on for twenty years.

But first I had to break some old habits. I’d grown accustomed to sticking to the perimeters and paths, for example, which automatically cast me in the role of “landowner” and focused my attention on fallen trees and littered beer cans rather than, say, the orange-breasted bird in the thicket or the swathe of blue flowers in the ravine. In hindsight, I believe that blazing trails through our woods was a big mistake: It’s true that I can hike without worrying about poison ivy and nettles, but it’s also true that since I can wear tennis shoes and shorts in the woods, I’d quit detouring into rough or unknown terrain. Sometimes I even timed myself to see how quickly I could get from one end of the trail to the other.

The upshot was that I’d begun to know my woods only by whatever flanked the trails I walked on. Which meant I really didn’t know my woods at all.

And so early this spring, I set new rules for myself:

  1. I will go where I don’t normally go.
  2. I will go when I don’t normally go.
  3. I will be present, wherever I go.

My new rules are paying off. Two weekends ago Keith and I pushed through a thicket of cottonwood saplings and billy-goated up a steep hillside we found covered with bloodroot and round-lobed hepatica, wildflowers we had no idea grew in our woods. We made a point of going back the following weekend, and this time the hillside was thick with dutchman’s breeches and patches of wild ginger. This week I slogged through a mucky meadow in my gum boots, and while I was standing still, cataloguing buttercups and cutleaf toothwort and spring cress, I found a golden morel. And then another and another—three dozen in all. While I was studying the ground, I also found a colony of trout lilies, which are fairly rare in this part of the country. They are lilies in miniature, bright yellow with chocolate brown stamens, and they sit upon their brook trout-like leaves and rule the woods—for a very short time: When we went back a few days later, they already were gone.

To be sure, following my new rules fills up a lot of time. But it also makes time full. And that’s the real point of those dreams of mine, isn’t it? They want me to fully inhabit my own life.

While I still can.

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