In the woods

through_the_woodsThere were endless woods to be explored in the small town where I spent my elementary school days. On every weekend I would wander the dark trails and musical streams as they meandered through stands of pine and oak and maple, looking for new places and new adventures. I called these outings “exploring,” and I imagined I could understand Christopher Columbus’ amazement on seeing the New World.

The woods were always unnaturally quiet — or more correctly, quiet in the way the world had once been before jets roared through the air and cars groaned along the highways. My footsteps were muffled by an ancient bed of damp pine straw and decaying leaves. I thrived on the solitude, often wandering for hours without seeing another soul.

Trees have to be climbed, and from their tops I gained a new perspective on my little world. I imagined that I could see things as God does, taking in the whole chaotic mix of human activity at a single glance.

In the tops of trees I would sway in the breeze, the only sounds the deep groans of straining trunks, the thunk of a falling pine cone, or the occasional clack of branches colliding.

If I was very quiet, sometimes another intrepid explorer would pass below, unaware that he was being observed. It thrilled me, to observe without being seen. It was an important skill in the games we played, which usually involved hiding from each other and trying not to be discovered by the “enemy” team.

There was one massive oak — perhaps six hundred feet tall to my eight-year-old eyes — in which someone had constructed a platform in a crook of the lowest branches. But this crook was fifty feet in the air, with no branches lower down to use as steps. The trunk of the tree was too large for even three adults to reach around, so shinnying up was out of the question.

I had to get up there, so I gathered up scraps of lumber and cut the boards into steps. I brought nails and hammered the steps into the side of the tree. With each new step, I could climb a bit higher, hang on carefully and hammer a new board into place a little higher than the previous one.

It got a little dicey at the top. You had to step sideways onto a big limb and make a short jump to the platform. It wasn’t so hard going up, but coming down meant laying on your belly and stretching your toes back into space to feel for that top step, which was unfortunately the least secure of them all because I had run out of the really good nails by the time I had gotten that far.

There were springs! Remarkable dark holes in the brown earth where pure, cold water bubbled up to the surface and ran downhill into a noisy, fast-flowing stream. Crayfish moved among the rocks of the streambed, feeding themselves from whatever nourishment washed along the bottom. Their pincers were sharp and quick — if you didn’t grab them just right you’d pay for it.

In the woods, in the imagination of my youth, I was seeing things no human had ever seen before, exploring hidden places no human had ever trod. Heady stuff for an eight-year-old. And from those earliest days, I felt a joy in the woods that I feel even today when I go hiking in the desert. I sensed that God was present, that he had created that mysterious place just for me, that he was smiling as he watched me play in his forests and sip cool water from his springs.

I always felt he was right there, watching and listening, when I walked in his woods.

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice!
Tell all the nations that the Lord is king.
Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the fields and their crops burst forth with joy!
Let the trees of the forest rustle with praise before the Lord!
For he is coming to judge the earth.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!
His faithful love endures forever. — 1 Chronicles 16:31-34, NLT

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  1. Living in the Canadian bush was kind of like that.