A word from the woods

by Terence MacNamee

When one goes out for a walk in the woods in the summertime, it inspires one to write. There is so much beauty, so much of interest to describe. It is good to write about the woods. The problem is to write from the woods. Really. Thoreau didn’t write about Walden till he had left it. I have always wondered why.

In Thoreau’s day, writing technologies were not particularly portable. If you didn’t have pens, ink and a supply of paper at hand, it was a good excuse to postpone the effort of writing. At most you might jot down a few “field notes” and hope to make sense of them later, comfortably installed at your desk at home.

Fortunately, with portable electronic technology getting lighter and more manageable, it is not such a bother.  We can write just about anywhere on laptops, tablets and the like. But have we developed the way of writing in the moment to go with it? I doubt it.

Writing typically calls for some kind of withdrawal, as Walter Ong noted. We absent ourselves from folk and friends, and retire to some secluded room to write. Especially, we absent ourselves from our readers. When they read the article or the book, we the writer aren’t around – that’s the whole idea. But we also absent ourselves from what we are writing about. For Wordsworth, poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, in other words, describing the experience not while it’s happening, but afterwards.

There is another reason why we find it hard to write in the woods and from the woods: the spell of the place upon us. Alphonse Daudet has a famous short story about this. A local administrator on the way to a public meeting gets his driver to drop him off in a wood at the side of the road so he can write his speech notes. But the birds sing and the scents are heady and the shade is cool, and after a long time, when the driver goes to look for him, he finds the administrator sitting under a tree composing verse.

The trouble is that in the woods you forget your purpose, like the man in the story. The pen slips from your hand, as it were. You reach the edge of language, that frontier zone where words for things seem to dissolve and the things, mute as they are, enter into their own. The trick is to be able to keep writing, and let whatever you have to say write itself. “The unseen Genius of the wood”, as Milton says, will hopefully look over your shoulder and prompt the words you should choose.