"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, May 12, 2024

A Nature Lover Goes Bad - When The Woods Become Only A Boring, Buggy Place

One morning deep in the Shenandoah on a bright, sunny morning in June, Bob Porter opened his cabin door, took a deep breath of the bracing mountain air and dressed for his day hike in the mountains. These trips out of the city had always been inspiring. There was nothing like being alone in the woods, a John Muir, Emerson, Shelley or Rousseau finding beauty, solace, and a profound spirituality there.  

Like these poet-naturalists, Bob had found his Walden Pond, his redwood forests, and his Mont Blanc. 'In wildness there is life', wrote Hinkley Barnes, and American logger turned naturalist who, like others who had been converted, knew that he had found the truth.  'I have cut my last tree', Barnes said, leaving his chain saw, ax, and cinch on the empty, clear-cut ground of an old-growth forest; and with that wandered north into the rain forest of northern Oregon and never left. 

His slim volume of poetry was part of the litany of naturalists everywhere, a paean to forests, woods, wetlands, and mountains.  Every verse sang of the miracle of nature and the epiphany realized by the lone wanderer.

Who is to know what the owl knows?

Who can cipher the lark's trill?

And who has an eagle’s eye?

Some say God, and some say I


Bob carried Barnes' volume with him whenever he walked in the woods, often stopping at Lionel's Ledge, a rocky promontory overlooking the river valley below where, if the day was clear, he could see almost to Richmond or north to Cumberland.  

The adder and the snail

An unusual pair

Nature's way of saying

God's universal prayer 

Yet on his way back to the cabin, his mind wandered from the laurel, oak, and rhododendron to Janey Vibberts, the girl with the dragon tattoo. In his usual daydreams she was as quiet and serene as the woods, and he saw her as a wood sprite, a gentle, graceful fairy, a creature as subtle and beautiful as the wood nymph in Barnes' poetry.  

This time, however, his thoughts were of hours of stuporous sex in her Adams Morgan walkup - licking, fucking, sucking until the cat climbed the curtains. As much as he tried to shake these thoughts he could not.  Every pine, fern, and lone birch was a distraction, and the more he walked, the more he wanted the woods to be over and done with.  

The leaves were no longer dappled, the bark no longer reminiscent of an Anselm Kiefer painting but worm-holed and cracked.  Exposed roots got in his way, he tripped over rocks that hadn't been there on his way out, the sun got in his eyes, and the mosquitoes were fierce.   


This often happens with what psycho-social literature calls 'Un-Nature Shock' an often epiphanic moment when the woods-walker suddenly wants to ditch it all. Preceded by emotional fatigue and niggling moments of impatience, the 'shock' comes as a surprise, almost psychedelic in its weird reversals.  What had been the most graceful, beautiful, meaningful trees on the planet became only boring, repetitively familiar things.  Sunsets over green valleys meant time for bed, and sunrises only suggested the prospect of more woodsy drudgery. 

And so it was for Bob Porter.  When he stopped for lunch at one of his formerly idyllic spots - a glen surrounded by subtropical vines and, because of the peculiar microclimate of the area, rainforest-worthy succulents and thick flowering bushes - something was off.  In the past the glen had been a wonder, and being there meant being embraced by the forest and one with it.  This time it was a nasty, airless, dark bug-infested hole. He sat for minute on 'his' patch of wild grasses, then irritated and impatient, hurried back to the trail. 

What was it that had seduced him about the woods, he wondered as he drove back to the city? He was soldiering through his marriage, his job was of desultory but of reasonable interest, his friends common but tolerable, so his life couldn't be the real reason.  Yes, it was nice to 'get away from it all', but there was nothing compelling about the pull from house to forest. He knew the woods were filled with hectored husbands, but he wasn't one of them. 

Was it those old coffee table books by Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams?  The tableaux of Moran and Bierstadt? Images of John Smith and the Powhatans? All he knew was that the seduction was a fait accompli, the tart tasted, the well drained dry.  And when he thought of hot ticket Janey Vibberts and their Saturday bacchanals, the idea of time wasted in the bloody woods especially now that he was getting older with middle age dangling and about to become that awful thing ahead, was maddening.  


As he crossed the bridge over the Potomac, he had a moment of indecision - back home to an awaiting roast chicken dinner or to Adams Morgan for a set-to with Janey Vibberts?  The question was a rhetorical one, since he had been thinking about Janey for three whole days, so he turned right into Georgetown and over the Buffalo Bridge.  Ahh, back to my stomping grounds for the first time in many years, since coming home from the Shenandoah had always given him a sad, nostalgic feeling but now a delightful one. 

He knew now that the nature phase of his life was over and done with; and although he never thought this day would come, he was relieved.  There had always been something flimsy in his appreciation for the woods.  He was not exactly a poseur - the forest when it was cool and crisp and there were no bugs did indeed clear the pipes after a week of desultory, tiring work at the office - but he was no Thoreau or Rousseau who built a whole philosophy on his idea of The State of Nature.  No, he was a tourist at best, gawking at trees like any one of a million Japanese tourists at the Eiffel Tower. 

He was a city boy, born and raised.  Civilization had been built on cleared land.  Louis XIV had gotten rid of a thousand acres of trees to make way for his formal gardens, lawns, and palace grounds.  Rome was a hilly, simple place until the Romans built the coliseum, temples, and baths. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon weren't nature's doing but the shah's. 

In bed with Janey Vibberts - lovely, desirable, hot Janey Vibberts - Bob said, 'What was I thinking?', turned over to kiss her and promised never to leave. 

She smiled, thinking that now, finally, he was ready to leave his wife; but he only meant that he would never again bother with the woods and would be in bed with her more often than not.      


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