Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Be you writer or reader, it is very pleasant to run away in a book.

The woods have fallen silent with the death of Jean Craighead George.

George wrote more than 100 books, but the one that comes to my mind is My Side of the Mountain. It tells the story of a boy who runs away from "a life of quiet desperation," as the linked obituary calls it, and lives on the land. He hollows out a tree for his home, trains a falcon to help him hunt, and seeks to live as Thoreau did. George excelled at this kind of character, one that has a deep respect and affinity with nature.

Sometime in elementary school, I won an essay contest with a short treatise about conservation. I cannot for the life of me remember what I wrote, but I know I won a beautiful sketchbook that they called a coloring book, and a copy of My Side of the Mountain. 

It was an important book for me. I read it several times. It planted the seeds for my fondness for backpacking. There is a certain self-sufficiency and freedom that comes with walking into the woods with everything you need on your back. It frees us from the tyranny of things, of the to-do lists and suffocating responsibilities that come with more belongings than we can carry. While it would be years before my first solo backpacking trip, the concept stayed with me, the silence and beauty of the woods at night, the freedom of wandering without a schedule, the self-reliance of being alone in the wilderness.

When I became a parent, I bought a copy of My Side of the Mountain for my son, a Boy Scout. He had been out in the woods since he was in diapers - before, actually, having technically been camping in utero when I was about six months along with him. As a toddler, he literally hugged trees. I have pictures to prove it. He was as enamored of the book as I was, recognizing the same qualities of independence and symbiosis with nature.

When I told him Ms. George had died, his face mirrored mine.

In an otherwise annoying movie, You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan's character tells us that when you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of you in a way that nothing else ever does. Even those of us who devoured books as children only have a small number of books that implant themselves in our imaginations this way. For me, This Side of the Mountain was a life-changing experience. I learned to appreciate the feel of fresh air, to walk barefoot outdoors, to observe nature without impacting it.

Another book I read much more recently was The Last Child in the Woods. It postulates that our children's disconnect with nature has a terrible mental and societal cost. In my era, a child could play in the back yard and get his nose right into the grass. I romped through streams and got lost on the woods for fun. For many of my son's classmates, the closest they will get to nature is playing Kingdom Hearts. They lose something vital when they live their whole lives behind closed doors, breathing stale air and exercising nothing but their thumbs. It's not just about ossifying into obesity; it's about an indefinable difference nature makes within their minds.

I challenge you to go back and read Ms. George's full obituary. She led the life about which she wrote. The daughter of naturalists and married to another, she raised her children among the woods as her characters did. While 173 pets might seem excessive, she lived in harmony with nature as few do. I find myself envying her, and missing my time on the trail, the way the sunlight falls between the trees at dawn.

We could all use a few moments walking barefoot in the grass.

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