In May 2014, my ten-year-old son stood atop Bear Mountain, and recited Carl Sandburg’s “Wilderness” to his book club:
There is a wolf in me . . . fangs pointed for tearing gashes . . . a red tongue for raw meat … and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.
It was a harder hike than the year before, and the boys huffed and puffed and perspired and spat. They complained to the dads chaperoning and demanded frequent breaks for energy bars. A few boys went ahead on the wrong trail and got lost. The 2015 hike was harder still. Ticks bit and shoes slipped. Near the summit, the boys lumbered right up to a bear, just 20 feet from the tips of their own toes. No little baby runt, but a big, brown beast on all fours in bear-warrior-pose. The boys huddled into a tight group and lifted their voices high. They were scared; their growing bodies filled to the brim with adrenaline. The bear observed them for a moment, as if trying to remember their names, and eventually wandered off in a different direction, unimpressed.
Waiting at home, I received only this text message from my husband: Saw bear.
Some moms might have been worried. I was thrilled. I wanted these New York City boys to feel the wolf inside them. And I wanted them to associate that wolf with books. My own experiences as both a reader and a hiker have affirmed my conviction in the importance of exposing children to literary adventures and to the inspiration of the natural world.
During a recent hike up Giant Mountain, one of the Adirondacks’ “forty-six” high peaks, I felt my own breath stitch together with the wind. The terrain was jagged and unpredictable: flat earth gave way to sinewy tree roots, to slippery mud, to rocks of all sizes and temperaments. At times, the ground was so steep I had to scale the stone on hand and knee. As the altitude rose, words left me, and the instinctive part of me took over. My animal body negotiated where to place my foot or how to angle myself so as not to fall.
My thoughts bore deep, triggered by a smell memory of earth, into a certain moment 20 years before, sitting in the woods as a student, reading Hilda Doolittle poems I didn’t quite understand. Bare feet mingled with blades of grass. Lines like “Whirl up, sea—/ Whirl your pointed pines,” socialized with the images from within my own mind. I remember the heightened feeling, the recognition of something more powerful than myself, something grand and graceful and altogether unknowable.
This dramatic rising of my soul has become familiar to me now. I suppose it is a feeling others find inside a church, during a great song, or while baking bread. I come upon it mostly in two places: in the wilderness and in books. Both are spaces of constant creation and change. Just as the earth renews itself each spring, words stand together in new order, at different angles, reshuffling over and over, in each book. When I read a line that attains a fever pitch of beauty, I feel it euphorically in a place reserved only for special things. Sometimes I feel this exhilaration when writing, when reaching into the wilderness inside me to make something out of letters and symbols that had been naked just the moment before.
As soon as my son and I started a book club several years ago, I realized it was an opportunity to draw the boys inside this euphoric feeling, to build the connective tissue for them between the many levels of creation—the energy embodied in mountains and streams, the inspiration of artists, and the creative fires inside themselves.
Such opportunities are rare for the modern child. I’ve been worried about how hard it is to expose my kids to outdoor adventure in any meaningful way since reading Michael Chabon’s provocative essay, “The Wilderness of Childhood,” in 2009. In this chapter from his book Manhood for Amateurs, Chabon bemoans the loss of wild spaces in contemporary childhood. He laments this loss, in part, because of the degradation of the experience of youth itself. But he also worries that the demise of wild childhood will mean the loss of art:
Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?
For Chabon, the space for exploration need not be the woods. Any vacant lot will do. The important part is for kids to have adventures somewhere—anywhere—on their own. I might quibble a bit here with Chabon; for me, the forest itself is a vital component of the marvels of youth. My own childhood was the exact one that Chabon describes: running and sledding through small woods tucked between the houses of our neighborhood, biking alone and for great distances, peering through the stalks on the perimeter of the corn fields. Chabon points out how different childhood is today, full of organized activity and parental control, lacking in independence, adventure, and tussles with nature. Indeed, my corn fields are now gone, felled to make way for woods-less single family homes with kids who attend scheduled playdates instead of meeting in packs on the street.
The essay does an excellent job of pointing out the problem with modern childhood, but it does little to suggest a solution. There is an air of inevitability to the piece that is both true and sad. We are not going back to the wilderness of childhood, at least not in our New York City or his Berkeley. Chabon has left me craving, all these years, for a way to give my kids the childhood he describes, the one I had. Book club adventures are my insufficient, imperfect nod toward this impulse.
The first boy I recruited into the club was the son of a man who’d been an Eagle Scout into his teens, a man who knew the hikes in Harriman State Park along the Hudson River, a mere hour from the city, like a hawk knows its prey. Having a seasoned ringleader and a few dads to assist perhaps runs counter to the ideal of adult-free exploration that Chabon dreams of, the kind of adventures that the children of Narnia, Homer Price, and Peanuts enjoyed. But at least the particular dads in our club are less likely to worry about safety, to hold tight to a leash, to control the conversation, than the particular moms in our club. Boys have been temporarily lost, frequently soaked, and occasionally injured on their watch.
I began the preparatory lead-up to the first hike deep in the winter, with the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid—a series that is all about spurning the grown-up world. To set the tone, I invited a decidedly not-yet-adult art school student to suggest some cartooning techniques, and then I disappeared. The boys seemed thrilled to be required to read a book their parents had previously discouraged them from even touching, to draw with a young teacher who gave wide berth to their bathroom humor and the “inappropriate” subject matters of their comic strips, like Penis-Man-to-the-Rescue.
Wimpy Kid gave way to another graphic novel that was more obviously set in the woods. Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness is the shorter, illustrated version of Lost on a Mountain in Maine, the true story of how twelve-year-old Donn Fendler survived in the woods after being separated from his family during a hike. For the club meeting on this book, the host mom set up a tent in the living room, tossed in some marshmallows and graham crackers, and let the boys have at it until the neighbors from downstairs called to complain.
The boys followed Lost Trail with My Side of the Mountain, the classic tale of a kid who runs away from home to the Catskill Mountains and learns to live off the land. We moms did not have the boys “discuss” My Side of the Mountain in a living room. We did not consult the reading guides on the web. We resisted highlighting any of the narrator’s wonderful observations, like, “When the sky lightened, when the birds awoke, I knew I would never again see anything so splendid as the round red sun coming up over the earth.” Instead the boys experienced the book viscerally, without grown-up intervention, through taking their own hike.
Some day, I hope the boys’ experience will be more than visceral, that they will formally study the central role wilderness has played in literature since the earliest writings. I hope they read the Greek and Roman poets—Hesiod, Theocritus, Ovid—whose pastoral pieces celebrated the rustic life of shepherds in the field. I look forward to discussing with them the Romantic poets—Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth—who continued the natural-leaning tradition, as well as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Phillis Wheatley, and Mary Oliver, who shored it up even further. I hope the boys will also read the great prose writers who have accompanied the poets—Margaret Fuller, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard. And I look forward to the day when my son might realize how barren our literary landscape would look without the words: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”
I have pointed out to the boys that they would be hard-pressed to find a writer who has never used an image from the great outdoors, and I think that they are already beginning to feel the heft of nature in literature, even among writers whom we do not consider “nature writers.” But before the boys undertake the journey into structured study of nature-writing, our book club hikes allow them to experience first-hand the simple reason for the ubiquity of nature in literature: the wild is so full of majesty, so inspiring, that the human spirit instinctively yearns to describe it, to praise it, to understand it, to break it down, to build it back up, to save it for later. The brain seeks eternally to roll its metaphorical body through the grass; it is an impulse as constant as the waves beating against the shore. As Tina Welling explains in her book Writing Wild, “The urge to create is a wild thing. Creative people need nature, a relationship with wildness.” Indeed, the urge to create is a wolf inside us.
I thought that a stroll through My Side of the Mountain and Lost on a Mountain in Maine, when combined with a solid hike, would help the boys access their inner wolf, much like Buck does in Call of the Wild. The combination would inspire their imaginations and teach them to engage their senses with the great outdoors. I imagined them looking out for salamanders and ospreys and sphagnum moss, feeling the fresh blisters on the soles of their feet, smelling the lingering skunk, pondering how the things they saw might help them survive if they were lost like Donn Fendler. Would that rotting log there come in handy? What about those cattails? Or that patch of dogtooth violets? Are they edible?
My husband reports that the hikes are far less contemplative than I imagine. The boys burp and make fart jokes. Their senses are not always heightened; sometimes they are even dulled. They argue about which fast food joint to hit on the way home. Even if they are feeling it, they do not mention any cosmic connection between the wild and literature and their own creative power. A lot of the conversations on the walks are about the video game Destiny (the grown-up-free wilderness of the modern boy), and go something like this:
“What level are you?”
“Have you gotten a legendary piece of armor yet?”
“No, but I got an exotic piece.”
“I just got my 23rd mode of light. So I bought an exotic piece from Xur.”
Harriman State Park contains an abandoned iron-ore mine from the 1870s that succeeded in stealing the boys’ attention back from the world of video games. There is also an old settlement in the park, aptly named Doodletown. Founded in 1792, it once boasted a school, a church, two cemeteries, and seventy homes. In the 1920s, the park expanded, buying up these houses, and, by the 1960s, it was a ghost town—doodle erased. The boys climbed through the mine and walked over the remains of Doodletown with their curiosity fully ignited. Abandoned less than a hundred years ago, and already the boys could barely make out the foundations of the old homes under all the vegetation. There was a whoop and then a hush as they observed how quickly the wild can reclaim itself from humanity. The boys couldn’t help but let the trappings of modernity—Xur, electronic devices, fast food—fall away in this space. A respect for the greatness of their surroundings, for the primordial, swelled inside them.
Over the years, there have been many such moments, often triggered by something quite small, like the orange salamander that hunkered down beside the vernal pool one hike. They had been walking for some time before a boy spotted it out of the corner of his eye. He called to the others, and they clustered in a gaggle around this single, marvelous creature. The salamander ignited in them the desire, indeed the need, to observe and describe. The salamander became a story my son had to tell me upon his return. “The orange was so bright,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I didn’t see it right away!” Yet it blended in so perfectly with the surroundings that it was as if their eyes had to adjust, to become open to the sight of it. Once recalibrated, the boys saw orange salamanders everywhere—and invasive emerald beetles, too. The boys probably didn’t realize that the observations they were making about this very particular piece of wilderness are exactly the kinds of images that have been bringing poets to their pens for centuries. Yet I’m quite sure they felt the euphoria of their discovery—the same euphoria I felt on Giant Mountain. And, for all their preteen desire to act “cool,” each boy wanted to read the nature poem he had brought to the top of Bear Mountain, a poem he had selected with care with his parents before the hike. These young boys listened to each other proudly recite Carl Sandberg and James Dickey and Walt Whitman with the same attention they gave that lowly salamander.
Salamanders tend to come out after a good rain, and just before the boys had set off on their first hike, it had rained like the Hudson River was bearing down from over their heads. The earth was marshy in spots, and creeks full-to-brimming had to be crossed. When they finished the trek, the boys were wet and raw. Yet they looked satisfied in a way they had never looked before. They asked to go back to the woods.
Maybe next spring, as their pre-hike appetizer, the boys will read Small as an Elephant or Snow Treasure. Perhaps it will be The Sign of the Beaver, Hatchet, or Edna in the Desert. Maybe they will find another woodsy poem to stuff in their pockets for reading beside the campfire. It’s up to them. Next time, they have told us, they plan to bring tents and sleeping bags. They want to stay a while.