Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Pull

There once was a boy who grew up in the woods.  Not speaking literally.  There was, of course, a bedroom he shared with his brother and a table he was made to set and clear before and after dinner.  There was a roof to keep the rain off and a garden full of peas and tomatoes and corn.

But his heart was in the woods, walking with his dad and brother, and sometimes his dad's best friend.  During those walks, the men often regaled the wide-eyed boys with the tales of their own fort building and campfired youth.  How they'd vowed, as young teens one summer long gone, to spend the entire time away from school living off the land.  And how hungry that proposition soon became.  Stories of cooking squirrels on sticks and digging cattail roots for sustenance.  Of Alaskan homesteading dreams and long soggy nights spent huddled over sad, sputtling little fires together.  And the time a chipmunk shit in the butter.  They only used language like that in the woods back then, a small step in the secret rite toward manhood.

The boy was enchanted.  He vowed he would be a woodsman too.  He would grow a beard, wear flannel shirts and chunky boots, and eat what he killed with his own bloodied hands.

They still rest there, the volumes updated.
A lover of books from the beginning, he was soon devouring everything he could lay hands on at the library concerning bushcraft, wilderness survival, and famous explorers.  In elementary and middle school classrooms he stared out the window at a forested hillside, and dreamed of being out there practicing his novice-level skills.  The doodles in his Trapper Keeper were of deadfalls and snares, and a solar still he once read about constructing with a parachute in an Air Force survival handbook.  He slept with field guides to wildflowers, trees, and birds mixed in with the London, Tolkien, and Asimov on his little bedside table.

Even in high school this pull toward the woods did not wane.  While there were girls and cars; music, sports, and hormones; he still spent plenty of time splashing around in creeks, hunting small game, building snares and knapping flint, and lying on the ground staring up at the cathedral of trees.

Then the boy moved to the big humming city to sit in other classrooms, and he forgot a lot of the things he'd learned in the woods.  There were so many new things to learn there in the bustling, metropolitan hive that he couldn't hang onto all of his old life, try as he might.

In the beginning he learned how to navigate busy streets, keep pace with all those people, and make new friends.  He learned about the wonders of keg parties and chasing women.  Of live music and dead tired hangovers.  Of a certain green-eyed beauty who laughed at his fumbling jokes and made him feel everything and nothing at once.  She followed him into the wilds sometimes, listened and learned as he parroted what he'd been taught, but her heart was in it only for him, not for the woods.

Over the course of a couple decades in the city he learned a great many things.  How to interview for jobs.  How to work with people he detested and lose people he loved.  How to get the good table.  Where to get the best late night pizza and early morning doughnuts.  That a suit and a shave sometimes get you further than cargo shorts and sandals.  The best tailgating spots and how to snag a much-vaunted taxi after the game.  That people absolutely lose their minds and manners while encapsulated safely in their cars.  These things and many more.

There was still the pull to the woods and occasional weekend excursions there, but he was of the city, with a designated parking space at work and neighbors who looked down on him for being a gun owner, among other things.  His wilding needs were met more often with the words and deeds of early American frontiersmen such as Meshach Browning and Simon Kenton, read to the ever-present din of traffic noise.

Now the boy is no longer a boy, but a man with gray in his beard and aching knees at bedtime if he doesn't do his stretches.  And he is no longer a man of the city, having returned to the countryside of his youth.  The trade-offs have been many concerning his move out of the metropolis.  He still can't find truly great bread locally, and he stays in most nights as his skills in the kitchen far outpace all the fare offered by TGI Applebee's Sysco Garden in the nearest town. 

Hello, old friends.

The difficulties associated with the move pale in comparison to its rewards.  Many of those important things he forgot while jostling and pushing in town are slowly coming back to him.  The swing of the splitting maul becomes more powerful and precise.  The smell of bar and chain oil, mixed with freshly cut white pine battered over the long winter, stops him in his tracks, quite literally.  The names of spring wildflowers and migrating warblers flitting about rush into his mind from the past unbidden, and with them the great joy of encountering old friends.

He stands around staring genially at stuff more than he probably should now.  He misses that feta pizza in the city, with the spinach and caramelized onions, but he's getting closer to replicating it.  He misses warm pre-dawn blueberry doughnuts from that slightly odd walk-up drive-through window in the garish neon light, but the pull of the woods is stronger.

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