John Willard: Access/Barriers to Wild Places

Beauty often beckons us to the trail, but something else inspires our return.

In Maine, trees are accessible to us all. Hide and seek is challenging in this state, for the seeker that is. But how many of us actually know these trees, these forests? How many of us see the burl that to a woodworker is a beautiful bowl? How many of us know tree flowers, dangling up there in the canopy every spring, humbly going about their pollination rituals? What about the convention of insects just beneath the bark or the cavities patterned by pileated beaks? Or what the hunter knows of the leaves overturned by turkeys, their wet undersides revealed? What is the price of entering in?

Some would say nothing. It’s free. Apart from state or federal parks or nature centers, there are no admissions fees. There are no membership dues. We need not belong to anything. We need only to show up. If we venture to more vast woods, perhaps there are fuel, transportation, and time costs. And if we desire an immersion experience, there are accommodation and facility fees. Even these are nominal. So why do we hold ourselves out of these woods where Thoreau went to confront only the essential facts? Why do we choose the clutter and overwhelm of modern life? More importantly, why do we see time in the woods as one more line item to check off, instead of an opportunity to simplify the whole list?

If a man with Multiple Sclerosis can ascend a peak in an all-terrain chair with six “sherpas” maneuvering him, certainly I can walk a hundred yards to the brook at the edge of my property. What holds us back are not the external barriers but the internal ones, the perception that it’s too hard, that it takes too much time, that it prevents us from accomplishing other things or at least tending to them. Deeper than that is a fear of the quiet. In a culture that values the words, the sounds, and the immediacy of response, the opportunities for quiet have become endangered. Oriah House beckons, “I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.”

Sometimes a person has to walk the entire Appalachian Trail to have a transformational experience. Sometimes it happens in a mere moment of witnessing—the exquisite or the mundane—that awakens us to who we are. Beauty often beckons us to the trail, but something else inspires our return. It could be the absence of regret, never once having wished we’d done something different with our time. Quite possibly it’s a sense of connecting authentically to an ancient and wise world, and the ancient and wise that lives within us. Where everything has its place and there is no opposite to belonging.

For some, walking in the woods is routine. But, perhaps you were not born into a tradition of woods walkers or hunters or fisherpeople. Perhaps you deem yourself the wrong “type”, however it is that you cast yourself. Perhaps you feel unequipped. Perhaps there isn’t the time. Or maybe you feel physically unable. Set the timer on your watch for ten minutes. Wear what you would normally wear to go out into the weather. Walk until you come to a tree. Crouch down. Look up. Look into the sun or the rain or the wind-thrown canopy. Ask a question. Listen for a response. When the story in you ceases, there is space for another’s story to begin. That’s how you know you have truly entered in.

Photo and video by Daniel Casado. Text by Jenn Barton.