Home > Essays > from The Woods: A Meditation
Published: Fri Apr 15 2005
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
from The Woods: A Meditation

What brought me to the woods was grief. My mother died of cancer when I was twenty-one. She was forty-eight. Hers was a long harrowing death with remissions and tatters of hope and experimental treatments and long stretches of sheer suffering alleviated by morphine oblivion. She was in and out of hospitals for the better part of six years. I walked the long linoleum corridors and talked with the doctors and interns and nurses about dosages and the weather, about radiation and baseball. For every dire intention there was a correspondent distraction that enabled each person to keep going on.

I sat by her bedside reading aloud to her from her favorite distraction— Victorian novels. She was wild about Anthony Trollope. The vicars and lords and widows whose cordial yet machinating lives Trollope recounted seemed reasonably settled, yet being people they managed to muck things up. Both the settled aspect, the golden dust of autumnal England, the material weight of furniture and dresses and jewels, and the making a mess of things pleased my mother. She had lived, but she wanted to live more. She had wanted to visit Europe and see cathedrals and parsonages. She had wanted to breathe the ripe air of history. Now there were a hospital bed and duration and books.

I lived with death on a daily basis, a companion of sorts, mute but tireless. When I shaved in the morning or stopped at a drive-in to get a hamburger or walked from one class at the university to another, I felt death’s presence. In that sense, part of me was dying with her as I watched her valiantly struggle with her disease’s mindless depredations. What did those dispiriting cancer cells know? How many nights had I sat by her bedside when she was asleep, too weary and sad to pick myself up, and listened to the noises of the hospital, the squeak of shoes and the rolling creak of gurneys, as if they might bring me an answer?

What brought me to the woods was the prospect of living on earth with nothing between me and the earth—none of the electronic gibber- jabber. I craved directness and quiet. What brought me to the woods was an impulse to get lost, to almost literally be off the map. America was vast and a fair amount of it still looked as though not many people lived there. I liked the prospect of thinking about land not in terms of building lots but acres. What brought me to the woods was generational. My wife and I were part of the back-to-the-land movement of the Sixties and Seventies, the little tide of people who wanted to return to a countryside they had never experienced. What brought me to the woods was romanticism. I wanted to feel elemental sublimity, the full force of the stars and rain and wind. What brought me to the woods was pragmatism. I wanted to learn how to take care of my self. What brought me to the woods was my being an urban Jew who was ready to leave behind the vestiges of assimilated religion and culture that had been bequeathed to me. I wasn’t ashamed of it. I craved, however, something different from the largely asphalt landscape I grew up in. What brought me to the woods was the longing to be with words in an undistracted place. “Woods” and “words” were almost identical.

When we look for one thread of motive, we are, in all likelihood, deceiving ourselves.


We lived for over twenty-three years on forty-eight wooded acres that we purchased from an old Mainer who had bought up land in the Thirties like postage stamps and sold off a parcel every now and then when he needed some money. We lived off the grid—no conventional power, no electric lines, no light switches, faucets, or spigots, no toaster or hair dryer, no flush toilet, no furnace, and no monthly bill from Central Maine Power. Often when we told people how we lived, they asked us forthrightly how we could live that way. What was with us? Frequently they assumed that we were ideologues of some sort, that we were living without electricity to make a point about the dry rot of Western civilization. Perhaps we were latter day Luddites or devotees of Rousseau or Thoreau. We must be of the company of the sanctimonious, those who live to judge others.

I never blamed people for making such assumptions. Anything out of the ordinary tends to be taken personally. The fact was that we had situated our house a few hundred feet beyond what the power company considered a reasonable distance to put in their poles. Beyond that distance, a customer had to sign a contract and pay a bunch of money up front. We never had that money and so we never got power. We could have situated the house closer to the poles to begin with—there was plenty of road frontage—but that logical consideration never entered our heads. Other concerns—aesthetic, intuitive, and earthy— guided where we built our house. It was on a rise where, once upon a time, a farmhouse had sat. There was a dug well there that we wound up using. Despite the rapidity with which a dooryard became the woods again, there was still something of a south-facing clearing there. We had rented our share of dark apartments and wanted all the sunlight we could get. People had lived for eons without electric lights and water pressure. Though we had never done it, as blithe and hardworking spirits we felt that we could too.

At first we said,“Next year,we’ll get power. This is just temporary.” Years went by, however, and we got used to going to the outhouse, hauling buckets of water, heating with wood, bathing in a metal tub, lighting kerosene lamps. Right from the beginning we had a small gas stove that ran off propane tanks, which we cooked on when the wood-fired cookstove wasn’t in use. We never considered ourselves purists. The fact is that we got to like the simplicity of it, how physical action A produced result B. Nor did we expect anyone to be particularly enthused about how we lived. Most Americans believe in progress of some type; going backwards seems perverse. Though we had our material enthusiasms— hand tools, for instance, and cast-iron pots and blue jeans and ceramic vases—the way we lived took some air out of the sails of acquisitive desire. A friend called us “cheerleaders for the nineteenth century.”

For my part, I always took heart from what Hazel in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood said. His landlady was upset about the mortifications that Hazel practiced. It was medieval, something no one did anymore: “It’s like one of them gory stories, it’s something people have quit doing—like boiling in oil or being a saint or walling up cats.” To this Hazel responded,“They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.” All it takes is one naïve or committed or stubborn person to undo any behavioral law. I don’t think of us as stubborn but we definitely were naïve and committed.


We built on land that was at the end of a dirt road in a rural community in central Maine. Beyond our house were hundreds of acres of trees dotted here and there with long-abandoned farmsteads. In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, virtually all the land around us, including our own, had been field. Our town had been a patchwork of small farms—cows and crops. Now it had all grown up to mixed woods, the camaraderie of pines and poplars.

It was a rare day when we didn’t go for a walk in the woods or on an abandoned road. One road directly in back of our house was used as a snowmobile and ATV trail and was relatively clear. Walking along that road we could see low stone walls that stretched in every direction and showed where the fields once had been. The ground within the walls was relatively level. There were no sloughs or holes where tree stumps had been. Someone had leveled and plowed it. We could imagine the cattle and sheep and horses, the barns and troughs and cribs, the deep rituals that animal care entails. We could imagine the land in different seasons. We knew, for instance, that once there had been a whole world of horse-drawn sleighs in the winter. It had happened right where we stood—before Ford’s Model A ever came down the road.

The stone walls had been carefully built. Despite many decades of utter neglect and endless frost heaves, most walls sat there staunchly. A round stone or two might have tumbled here and there, but that was the exception not the rule. Similarly, the walls of the abandoned cellar holes into which we peered were largely intact.We marveled at the weight and size of the cut granite blocks and the teams of oxen that must have hauled them and how the builders had maneuvered the blocks into place without the huge cranes that today we take for granted. An old-timer told us we would be surprised what a couple of pulleys could do.

So much precision and care and all abandoned. How bittersweet it was. We had moved to a place that seemed to be forgotten, a place people inevitably left. The whole continent beckoned, and during the twentieth century, as the economics of small farms became impossible, people gave up on this place. By the time we arrived, the backcountry farmhouses had caved in along with the barns, the sheds, the chicken coops. Some days when we looked at the piles of gray, weather-beaten lumber and the scattering of busted crockery and rusted pots, it seemed as though people had left in the middle of the night before an advancing army. They hadn’t, however. This was America. They left for a better life.

It was unsettling to become so aware of what had been lost. We fingered the patent medicine bottles and hinges and stove lids and nails as if we were archeologists of the soul. Who had these people been? Their descendents were living in Florida and California and Texas and perhaps had stories in their families of grandparents who once had lived in Maine or perhaps they didn’t have those stories. Perhaps shame and silent grief had accompanied a generation’s leaving the land.Yankees were reticent to begin with. They didn’t confess or blurt. “Times got tough” or “The War came along” would be enough of an explanation. It was hard to know. America was so huge on possibility and so scanty on the quiet suffering of history. Who wanted the blues of loss? Americans were boosters not lamenters. Newcomers to ruin,we picked up an intact bottle and took it to our house and cleaned out the dirt and set it on a windowsill as a totem and keepsake and reminder.


Not much seemed to happen in the woods. In the fall, the leaves and needles came down. They did this variously and one could come up with many verbs to describe their descent. For some reason, the letter F seems the impulse for many of those verbs—fall, flutter, fly, feint, frolic, flit, flail. For a few weeks in October, transience created a spectacle. In pointillist May the trees would begin to fledge pale, almost translucent greens that slowly and steadily revealed themselves. Mostly, however, to the casual, going-about-its-own-business eye that looked for large-scale events, nothing much was happening.

Which is to say that we lived in the woods for over two decades and never saw a black bear. We saw tracks occasionally, and every summer we saw blackberry and raspberry canes bent over every which way. That meant bears had been pillaging the patches that had grown up where logging had occurred. We saw fresh scats and once in a long while we noticed pines whose bark had been peeled off to get at the sap, but we never saw a bear. This lack of a sighting as we went our irregular rounds pleased me more than it disappointed me. The woods were mysterious and vast and the creatures there knew what they were doing. Like people, they came and went, prospered and waned. If we had shown up around the turn of the twentieth century, we would have encountered very few wild creatures, because out of need, commerce, sport, and sheer wantonness humans would have shot or trapped most of them. As it was, their lives had their own orbits, and avoiding us, as we galumphed along talking about politics or some book we had read and smelling like the oily humans we were, was part of it. The bears were succeeding.

The life occurring around us was small-scale but intense, and I came to love the feeling that the woods were alive with energy I couldn’t hear or see. When I could hear that energy, as when the cicadas buzzed in August, I still couldn’t see them. For those hot, drowsy weeks the air sizzled with sound. Mostly, however, it was quiet in the woods, yet the work of digesting matter was always going on. If I took note of some fir or pine that had blown down in a big wind and came back from summer to summer to observe it, I could trace its progress back to the soil. Even before the bark began to loosen, dry up, and flake off, platoons of beetles showed up. I admired the ingenious tunnels, cavities, and holes they made. Sometimes I peeled off a strip of bark and found “frass,” little powdery deposits of digested wood. Time seemed palpable to me. It was what was chewed up. If on a summer’s day you sat by a downed trunk that had been out in the weather for a few years, you could hear borers munching away.

When we saw the likes of an animal, a moose or a fox or a bobcat, it was an event—like a coronation. We were pleased and excited, but most days we saw nothing out of the ordinary. The hemlock branches moved in the wind like green filigree. Boulders sat still for the millennia that dwarfed our days. Ants ran along the earth full of what seemed like purpose. Robins patrolled our patch of mowed lawn. Paper wasps built nests and fed on the pollen of goldenrod. The ordinary was, of course, hardly ordinary. Who could imagine in his or her head even a fraction of what any acre of any woods or field held? In a wet September we would walk in back of our house and marvel at the mushrooms. Where had they all come from?


We resolved to build our house ourselves. Though my wife had studied architecture for a time and was a capable designer, the world of practical carpentry was a mystery to us. We knew what a two-by-four was and what a hammer was but we didn’t own a Skil saw, much less a table saw. Perhaps we would do the whole thing with a handsaw and an ax. What did we know? What we knew came from a book or two that showed how houses were built. We would follow the instructions just as we did when we encountered a new recipe. We were college graduates. We could learn whatever we had to learn.

It’s hard for me to fathom how simple-minded yet determined we were. I look back at us at the beginning of our sojourn in the woods as somewhat holy fools—serendipity will provide. It did. Illumination, to say nothing of practical help, appeared in the form of a Maine carpenter and jack of most trades named Caleb. Word must have gotten out in the neighborhood that some hippies were building a house or a camp or a cabin or something utterly unspeakable in the woods. Caleb was curious enough to brave the morass of our road. He got out of his battered, early 1950s pickup and sauntered up to our site, a man in his mid-sixties with a limp, a potbelly, a ruddy complexion, and very steady blue eyes. We (which meant myself, Janet, and her younger brother Dave) were pondering the mysteries of concrete—not actually pouring any but just pondering. We did have the old dug well from which to draw water. We had a wheelbarrow to mix the stuff and we had a lot of empty tubes to fill, on which the house would reside. Due to heavy rains the holes in which those tubes sat were mostly full of water. Small frogs were hopping about everywhere with what seemed like great abandon.

Caleb’s Maine accent had a musical twang. His voice moved slightly up and down as he spoke his introductions, though his tone was steadily bemused. We chatted about the weather (we all agreed it had been rainy) and how it seemed as though more and more young people were moving to Maine. Then very politely Caleb looked the scene over and asked us in a mild, wry voice if we had ever built a house before. “Well, not really,” we replied. We didn’t even bother with some qualifying “but.” “How,” he asked after a brief, respectful pause in which he tugged at the visor of his green cap,“would you like me to build this for you? Take a couple of weeks. A jiffy.” He halted. “You can help.” My wife and I deliberated for a few seconds before nodding wholeheartedly. Caleb smiled a false-toothed smile. “We’ll get her up before you know it. You just see.” We talked over a few details about mixing concrete and what we had for lumber. Caleb shook our hands; he was missing the tops of two fingers on his right hand. Then he headed back to his truck. We never talked money.

The next morning we started very early—around six. Caleb favored the cool hours of the morning. He’d get up in the dark of four or five a.m., eat a bowl of oatmeal, and go off to work. He was still very strong, and when he worked it was with a kind of reckless determination. I’d never until that day seen anyone work the way Caleb worked. He kept moving constantly while directing Dave and me (we were manning the wheelbarrows) and two of his grandchildren who knew how to carpenter (and who were, of course, grown men). He didn’t pause. He didn’t look around. I don’t even recall him excusing himself to take a leak behind a tree. I was surprised he didn’t finish the whole job in a day. As it was,we poured all the concrete and started cutting the sills. If he hadn’t been so good-natured, I would have thought he was possessed. Dave and I collapsed with fatigue as soon as he left.

Caleb turned out to be the Maine that we wanted to be close to. He had finished school after seventh grade (“Had enough of sittin’ at a desk”) and gone to work in the woods. He had worked in lumber camps and carpentered his whole life. Though he had worked for various men and companies, he preferred to work on his own. He loved to build rough structures—barns, chicken houses, outbuildings. He never had been a finish carpenter and his favorite phrase was “close enough—spike it.” An eighth of an inch didn’t keep him awake at night. Though he did use a level, he didn’t let it deter him.

He lived down the road from us and had with his devout wife raised six daughters. He never went to church (“for women”) but was a clean living man. “I seen too much of what liquor does to people.” Caleb believed in the gospel of work. Until he knocked off around two his energy never flagged. Then he went home, took a brief nap, accepted visits from his enormous clan, ate dinner, and read a tattered Western by the likes of Zane Gray before turning in around eight. He was at it again the next morning at six.

Like many old-timers we were to meet, Caleb had little use for authority. That’s where, despite our very different backgrounds and despite our ages, we clicked. We never talked politics for a second. There wasn’t much need to. Caleb had little use for anyone in a suit and tie. “What kind of work can a man do in a suit and tie?” Caleb snorted. He had never voted. He wasn’t proud of it or ashamed. It was just a fact. He was that bracing blend we were to come across in rural Maine of the upright and the anarchistic. His moral code was utter honesty and frank contempt for anyone who didn’t live up to that code. He wasn’t cut out for latter-day America and he knew it. That was fine with him. As long as he could limp along (his hip was going) and work, he was happy.

What Caleb liked to do during lunch or while we were waiting for the lumber truck to show up was tell stories. He had been all over New England as a young man. If he didn’t like a situation, he left that situation. Once when he was walking down the street of a town in northern Maine, he realized he only had a quarter to his name. Caleb promptly threw it away because he’d make that and more. He had eaten every food known to man. “Ever eat woodchuck, Red?” he asked me one day. “Worst knot in my stomach I ever got.” A great bestower of nicknames, Caleb had deemed me “Red” for my hair and my brotherin- law “Lightning” for his sometimes dilatory work habits. Caleb had never gone west, but he was a part of that American restlessness that always had to be doing something. The only stillness he recognized was fatigue. He loved exertion, but he also loved the thinking that went before the exertion. He was always considering what had to be done next. For all his bluff ways, he was thoughtful.

Our modest, Cape-style house was done in a month and not long afterward we moved in with our two-year-old daughter. Featuring cedar shakes from a local mill, six-over-six windows, and a back porch with hemlock posts I had cut in the forest, it was a testament to the beauty of wood. Caleb came by regularly to check on us. There was no telling what such naïfs might do. He would wink at us when he inquired how we were getting along. We had no idea what we were up against. He did, but he never let on. In truth, our romanticism appealed to his. Despite his patina of practicality, he loved the freedom of following his own nose. That’s how he’d showed up in the first place.


When my first book of poetry appeared, the Portland paper ran a feature on me with a banner announcing, “Small Town Librarian Hits Poetry Big Time.” Beyond the amusement afforded by the bodacious enterprise of headline writing, the words brought up the curious issue of being a poet in the United States. What was that? Something to emblazon on one’s T-shirts? Something to hide? Something to bring out only in the company of fellow travelers? Something accessible? Something academic? Something recondite? All of the above?

I came to poetry through loving to read poetry. Night after kerosene night I read Frost and Shakespeare and Donne and Dickinson and was terribly happy doing so. I wrote no papers nor kept a journal, talked occasionally with my wife about a poem or read her some lines, and kept reading. I was entranced. The feeling of how much could happen in such a small space was heady. The ardor of the enterprise, the mix of daring and composure compelled me in a way nothing else quite compelled me. It wasn’t love exactly, but it was obsession. Over and over I could witness these bravura performances. Over and over I felt how a mere word could move me as much as a struck piano key. Words were notes, too, and could vibrate accordingly. I would put down a book and stare into space for minutes. “Okay over there?” my wife would ask. “Okay,” I would reply. Somehow these people had found ways to communicate the very thrill of being alive (and of facing death) through language. Poetry resided in that thrill.

I could see where an adult might not want that thrill. Life was already doing whatever number it did on a person in terms of mortality and heartbreak. Why seek further in poems? And what could one do with those poems? How did one communicate them to others? For my octogenarian neighbor who had been made to memorize pages of Whittier and Longfellow as a boy and who still could repeat those pages, the answer was simple—one quoted those poems to people whenever the topic of poetry came up or the moment struck him as poetically appropriate. For Stanton, poetry stopped there. Those poems were talismans— he knew there was such a thing as poetry and he knew some poems by heart and that was all that needed to be said about it. What the twentieth century went and did was the twentieth century’s problem. That it turned its back on the moralizing, ballad-influenced poem that had once been as common as pennies made it all the worse.

Stanton never would have picked up my book and I can’t say I knew many people in Somerset County who would. In certain ways, that was okay. I would never be in the position of getting a swelled head and, after all, the writing had started for me quite adventitiously. I hadn’t gone to any academic setting to pursue an advanced degree. I didn’t harbor notions of a career. What happened was disarmingly mundane: my wife took the children down to her parents’ house in Massachusetts. After unrelieved years of the blab, thump, whine, shriek, and giggle of two very young children, I had a few silent days to myself. That weekend I started writing poems. I had no idea where they were coming from, but there they were. I had worked on a novel and a book about architecture in my twenties and enjoyed doing the writing although neither manuscript had been published. Now there were these poems.

The connection I sensed inside me was that the reading elicited the writing. Something in me wanted to make those things called poems. This making is the primal urge and the issue of audience is bound to be secondary and problematic. A quatrain excited me and made me want to make one, the way any made thing—a patchwork quilt or a dadoed bookshelf or a cable-stitch sweater or a honey cake or an iron poker— might impel a person to want to make one. I wanted to butt lines up against one another and see how they fit. I wanted to see how the shape determined the line and vice versa and how rhythm and sound created what seemed like infinite texture and density within a stanza. I wanted to feel the weight of such a slight thing, for I knew it had a weight and that the weight varied from one stanza to another. I wanted to order the sounds that the syllables and accents made into patterns that pleased me. I wanted the strange precision of such an endeavor—exact and inexact, steadfast and dream-like, all at the same time. I wanted to practice balance and imbalance, trace symmetry and asymmetry, toy with words and honor them. Such making offered an expressiveness that went far beyond the perquisites of the blurting, declarative self.

As to who might consume it, I had no idea. Once poetry left the harbor of a more or less homogeneous, rural society, such as Stanton recalled, it found itself on the seas of more contentions and viewpoints than it could ever count. The bewilderment often voiced about poetry seems to stem from nostalgia. Wasn’t this all much simpler, once upon a time? One quoted a love poem to one’s sweetheart; one basked in the simple, pale glow of sentimentality; one was stirred by patriotism and excited by exploits. What had happened? A brief look at modern times would answer that question many times over, but disillusion rarely has seemed the stuff of inspiration. In fact, the thrill of being alive on earth will never go away and poetry is steeped in that ardent biology. The thrill, however, is bound to come up against the worlds humankind has created. However intense it may be, a love affair—to cite a standard occasion for writing verse—is not shielded from historical circumstances. Far from it, as Romeo and Juliet attests. If poetry wants to flee from such knowledge and celebrate an impossible purity, the impulse is understandable. The words in a poem, after all, are on furlough from daily life. An attention is being paid to them that is uncommon and almost insupportable. Though I had no idea where the stanzas were coming from, they excited me. Though I had no room of my own or even a desk of my own, I did have a pen and a legal pad. Just to feel a part of such a long-standing and deeply human enterprise felt good.

See what's inside AGNI 61

Baron Wormser has a ninth collection of poetry, Impenitent Notes, forthcoming in March 2011 from CavanKerry Press. He served as the Poet Laureate of Maine for six years and has written a memoir about his experiences living “off the grid” in rural Maine. He has received honors including the Frederick Bock Prize, the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. (updated 6/2010)

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