Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On the Coffee Table: Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is an absolutely wonderful read - the best book I've read in quite a long time. If you're interested in hiking, nature, history, geology, plate tectonics or just well-told stories with engaging characters, Bryson covers all of that and more in his book about his adventures on the Appalachian Trail. Apart from being thoroughly informative, the book is often very funny - funny enough for one to be self-conscious about reading it with other people in the room. Spit takes, aplenty!

Enthused by our new family hobby of hiking the Long Trail, My Wife borrowed the book from a colleague at work and we both read swiftly through it in a week. It was the perfect companion for our vacation at the Tree Farm. I am both grateful and relieved to report that neither of us has been inspired by it to tackle the 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail but I do feel encouraged in our own more modest pursuit. I also feel encouraged to check our gear inventory.

I was able to relate to Bryson early as I get the sense that he hikes much the same way I do. Mind you, I'm nowhere near as ambitious as he, but I do tend to focus on the trail in front of me without adequate appreciation for my surroundings. Even on a bad day, the Vermont woods are breathtaking. I do need to look up from the path more often and enjoy that.

Where I really connected with him is in his reverence for the forest. When I say forest, I don't mean a stand of trees in a city park. I mean the sort of dense woods where humans are the clumsy, unwelcome invaders. Trees are better than we are. I look out my living room window at an old maple which is bigger than I, also stronger, older, more beautiful and far better suited to survive the elements. As it has endured more Vermont winters than I will ever see, it is also probably much wiser, with more and better stories to tell. It provides food and shelter for the life which surrounds it. And one cannot forget the miracle of photosynthesis which makes the planet inhabitable for all of us. By any cosmically meaningful measure, that tree is my superior.

Multiply that tree by a thousand and a thousand more. Now we're talking forest. A forest is a universe unto itself, dependent upon a very delicate balance to thrive. The symbiosis of life in the woods makes all human enterprise seem quaint and contrived. And yet, when that balance is in peril, it is almost invariably because humans screwed up. Invasive species? Because we planted something in a place where it wasn't meant to be. Too many deer? Because we killed off all of their predators. Polluted streams? Acid rain? We all know how those things happened. Don't even get me started on forest fires.

I try to remain conscious of the fact that I have lived most of my life on stolen land - stolen from the Native Americans, certainly, but just as surely stolen from the forest. Where once was nothing but woodland between the Atlantic and the Mississippi, we now have a world of concrete and asphalt. I'll admit that I don't stay up at night with these thoughts, nor have they propelled me to any great cause but I do think about them. I am glad to live in a part of the world where the forest is making a determined and largely successful comeback.

Alright, I'll get off my Lorax stump now. Have I mentioned that the book is thought provoking? Anyway, even if you never make it past the armchair stage of hiking, I expect you will find the book immensely enjoyable.

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