I went for a walk in the woods yesterday.
Though it's not the regular occurrence in my life I wish it was, it wasn't just the fact of being in the woods that made the walk important to me. It was the fact that, after thirty years as an orphan from the woods of my childhood, I was once again walking in woods of my own. Peter and I are buying a house, and the house has woods behind it.
The woods will not literally belong to us, but to a non-profit located next door. That's all right. The woods I walked in nearly every day of my girlhood were not my own, either, beyond the two acres my family held the title to.
I couldn't even guess how many acres I rambled over as a child. From my backyard to the two oaks; from the path across the street to the ledges and the maple grove; from the end of the street to the Peak and the oak scrub and trails beyond it. I hiked over streams, across farms and orchards, in snowstorms, fog, blazing sun and, on at least one memorable occasion, through a small wildfire. But very little of the woods I hiked through was mine or my family's, in any legal sense.
Maybe the right way to say it is not that I grew up in woods that belonged to me, I grew up belonging to those woods. Not just any woods, and not the idea of woods, but those particular woods.
Properly considered, woods belong to themselves, and the thought of people owning woods is as obscene as that of people owning other people.
Will we ever see it that way? My despair says, no, but my memory of history says, maybe. It was not self-evident to my ancestors that slavery was wrong. Perhaps to my descendants, it will be self-evident that land cannot be owned, but rather, as a particular living, breathing, soulful thing, it should be cherished and respected for itself.
For now, however, the woods of my childhood are lost to me. There are big expensive houses built between me and them, where the woods have not simply been cut down to make room for manicured lawns. Of course, before the woods were woods, they were pastures and farms. Woods in New England have a habit of coming back: a hundred years ago, the land was almost naked. Now, it is the clearings that are vanishing, and not the trees.
I know that, but I have missed having woods that are my own--or whose human I am, to say it properly. And so it was quite an experience, yesterday, to walk past raspberries and mountain laurel, oak and hemlock and stones and swamps, knowing that, as in a marriage, I will have time to get to know this land.
"How would you like to spend the next thirty years getting to know these woods?" I asked Peter, at one point.
He said he'd like that just fine.
Loving land of your own, that you live with and on, is as different from admiring land that you travel to as is marriage to a one-night-stand. There are more beautiful patches of ground in many places: this plot of woods is not Niagara Falls or Mt. Lafayette or the Cape Cod National Sea Shore. It's not the Knife Edge or Cathedral Trail on Mt. Katahdin (one of the most beautiful places I have ever personally visited) or even a lake shore on a calm morning. It's "just" woods... just as Peter is "just" a guy. But he's my guy. I get to love him. I get to know what he looks like with crumbs in his beard, and when he's too sleepy to keep his eyes open another minute, or when he's covered with sawdust--even in his eyebrows.
Land wants us to love it that way. It wants us to remember where we once saw a ladyslipper growing, or when the big windstorm took out that specific oak--that one, right over there--or where the last of the chestnuts still has a stump-sprout growing. Land wants us to know which old stretch of tumbledown stone wall holds a colony of chipmunks, and which is home to a snake.
Land, like a person, wants to be--deserves to be--loved in its particulars.
I have been away so long, lonely so long. It is going to be hard, in a lot of ways, making this move work. Money and time and energy are going to be hard to come by.
But I'm so, so glad at the possibility of falling in love again, at last.