Reflection on Connection to the Woods

by Lauren Chuhta, intern with Vermont Woodlands Association

The rock wall reaches only to my knee now, and the hike up does not feel as long. My parents no longer have to pack a backpack of juice boxes and crackers to motivate me to reach the top, and my father does not have to hold my hand anymore as I climb over the tree stumps and fallen logs that break the path. “Lala’s Lookout,” my family calls that spot at the crest of our wooded hill. I have been hiking to it since I was first given that nickname, and after seventeen years it has remained unchanged.

Seventeen years is not so long compared to the history of matters bigger than myself, that I do know. But for me, it is all I know so far. How is it that I have changed so drastically in the same period during which my wooded retreat has undergone no transformation? There is a wonder to the forest its regular visitors know well, a sense of comparative minimalism that stems from this juxtaposition. The woods has watched me grow up- what else has it seen? 

There is a slant in the corner stone of the old wall that provides the perfect seat. From here, you can look out at the hills of grass below. There is an outcropping of forest to the left that blocks the neighbor’s house from view, but their small fishing pond and its fence of oaks is visible beyond the patch of golden rod that arises each summer. Past that, the county road that hugs the side of the subsequent hill and disappears over its crest, and an old yellow farmhouse framed by the mountains of Vermont.

Sometimes I like to think about those who enjoyed this view before me. I imagine the artist who held this land prior to my family unpacking brushes and paints after an early morning hike, using the crumbling rockwall as a shelf as she unfolds her easel, sets up her canvas, and begins to paint the sunrise. I wonder what she was able to capture, if she was happy with the way it turned out or if she was reminded once again of the inferiority of any image compared to the real view. I wonder if she worried about the Cold War or the economic recession while she was up there, or if that was the spot where she could find retreat from her stresses in the comparative clarity of the natural world.

I think about the sheep farmers who used this land not simply for recreation but for their source of life, and the different sense of appreciation they must have held for it. I can picture them- a father and son, perhaps, driving a horse up the steep slope, falling a tree, and dragging it down with them to use for firewood or a new barn. Perhaps, on one occasion or many, they were led to chase a stray sheep up to the summit, and, upon catching sight of the view, were able to release their worries and lead the animal home with a heightened sense of peace and gratitude. The wire fences would have been newer then, upright and complete instead of buried in leaves and peeking out in patches. I wonder if the woods appreciated their consistent company, if it misses the days where its landholders expressed their need for the land more directly.

I like to think about some of the first people to appreciate this little plot of forest, the members of the Mohawk tribe who lived off the land in many ways. The land was the basic foundation of their culture, by both subsistence and spirituality. I can picture them hunting whitetailed deer beneath the maple that now holds my father’s treestand, farming maize in that little valley below the lookout. I believe that they saw the face of the Creator in this unique arrangement of fields and trees and peaks because to this day it is still visible. Perhaps there was another seventeen year old, one of a different time and life, who liked to rest at the top of this little hill and look out at the mountains beyond. Perhaps they, too, took their moments there to think about the nature of the land, found a solitude that grounded them to their role in the saga of the forest. There would have been no yellow house, no rock walls or sheep fence, but still they would have seen the same view as I, an appreciation for the woods, its history, and our place in it.

The artist, the farmers, the Mohawks- I can understand my connection to them through the land we each have loved. This enlightenment has granted me insight into not just what has preceded my seventeen years but what will stretch beyond it, and the sharp uncertainty of the forest’s survival. The future of the woods is not guaranteed, especially as unsustainable human activity threatens even the most remote and intimate places of the natural world. In several intervals of seventeen years from now, I could come back from the life I have built to find the fishing pond dried up, the fields of grass developed into housing complexes, the crumbling rockwall removed after being deemed an eyesore. I could stand there and try to remember the people I had once felt so close to but the memory of the artist, the farmers, and the Mohawks are connected with the land and so they, too, would be buried beneath the spread of urbanity. My goal and ambition is to not outlive the natural world, to prevent this hypothetical future. I owe it to those who have come before me as well as those yet to enjoy it. The woods connects me to my antecedents; the support and motivation they provide ensures me that I can be true to my word.