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My mother’s walks in the woods January 21, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, memoir, nature, poetry.
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Mom on a walk along the Potomac, mid-1970s. She would have been in her early 50s. The ground is spangled with Virginia bluebells.

Recently my hiking friend Greg Hoover mentioned his mother’s appreciation of wildflowers in a post about Fort Harry Falls. His words have prompted some fond memories of my own mother’s love of nature and in particular the family ritual of Going For a Walk in the Woods. Yes, the words were always capitalized in my mind—especially the word “Woods.”

One might think that since I am such a dedicated hiker, I must have grown up in a family constantly engaged in vigorous, athletic, outdoor activities—hiking, camping, canoeing, archery, God knows what. This was not the case. We were a family of quiet, pale, bookish people. We did not go on hikes, we went on Walks. I came to realize over the years just how non-outdoorsy my family was, each time my longtime companion, Bob, pointed out yet another place, seemingly across all of New England, where his family had gone camping. It became a running joke, as we drove along through western Maine or central New Hampshire or southern Vermont: “Oh, my family used to camp here.” The thing was, his Mom and Dad were not the slightest bit athletic. Yet they were quite willing to load up the car with a giant tent that would be set up quasi-military style with trenches dug all around, the lawn chairs and the tarp set up, the food set out on the picnic table, as the kids ran down to the lake or the river or whatever the attraction was. The point was, they were putting in many, many hours enjoying the Great Outdoors (more words that need to be capitalized).

My mother and father loved nature, but we never stayed out overnight in it. I’m not even sure exactly why not. We didn’t have any of the gear, and we never acquired it. It wasn’t that any of us minded getting dirt under our fingernails or slapping at a few mosquitoes or maybe encountering a snake or a bear. It just… never seemed to occur to us.

At any rate, in the area where I grew up, in Arlington, Virginia (the family moved to Massachusetts later on), we would take walks in the woods right behind our house, in Glencarlyn Park. Further up the Potomac, Great Falls was a popular destination, or the C&O Canal towpath, or Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. We probably seldom walked more than five miles. But we walked almost every weekend, and Mom and Dad continued to walk together after the three kids had left home, both of them taking walks up to within a year or so of when they died, Dad in 2001 and Mom in 2007.

Mom and Dad had slightly different angles on the woods. My father loved to identify trees and to locate especially large specimens of different kinds (I will write about this in my next post). Mom knew her plants, trees, and animals pretty well, but for her, that was not really the main purpose of being in the outdoors. For her, the Woods were a mystical kind of place. It went back to her childhood, full of the classics of children’s tales such as Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book. As I have written elsewhere, the forests of those tales were full of danger and mystery. They were not a place where, for example, children’s environmental consciousness would be raised.

Hansel and Gretel. Illustration by H.J. Ford.

For Mom, the Woods were a place where mystery, beauty, and science came together. I will try my best to explain. The mystery was a deep sense of awe about the place. Not exactly reverence—that seems too deferential, or too pious, or something. Just a gut-level feeling that something extraordinary was going on out there.

Mom’s sense of beauty caused her to notice and admire things that were not usually seen in the first place, let alone focused on. She would point out to us the texture of a blanket of moss, or the way a tree’s shadow was moving in the wind, or the sound of rain gently pattering on the leaves. She gave the three of us kids a tremendous gift: the ability to see things that did not neatly fit a word or a concept or a label.

Now, the science part. Again, this had nothing to do with environmental education—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Mom, being the unconventional person she was, had an interest in the philosophy of science, especially the oddities of quantum physics. It was an interest she took up in middle age and studied deeply. So when she went for a walk, she tended to find things that fit some pretty abstract ideas she had about the way the universe works. The best way I can convey this kind of thinking is to share one of her poems.

Weed Field

All over a newly-plowed field

neat, clean-cut weed sprouts

materialize as heedlessly

as spatters of rain.

Each weed takes a well-ordered

form according to its coded

instructions—and then grows

from soil of chaotic black

rot and silt, a random

distribution of rainwater, and

plain white, unsorted sunlight.

Yet every leaf that appears

fits the pattern exactly.

*     *     *


Mom, Jenny, Peter, Dad in back, Betsy in front. At Great Falls, 1961.

Part of Great Falls (from Maryland side)