A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it…or you defy it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart.

Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception.

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive. So woods are spooky.

It has been a running theme this year that going back to finally read things that I probably could have, or should have, read years ago. A Walk in the Woods isn’t quite the oversight that some of the other books have been, but other than hearing about the recent movie this book only came to my attention when it was recently given to me as a gift. It was very much my speed.

A Walk in the Woods is a literary travelogue of the summer of 1996 when Bryson decided that he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail. At the outset of the story Bryson has just moved back from the UK and settled in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he gets obsessed with hiking. From there, he is consumed by a bit of temporary insanity, deciding with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym) that he is going to become a true mountain man by completing the entire thru-hike. Of course he doesn’t make it.

The adventures of Bill and Stephen form the narrative backbone. There are the eccentrics met on the path, the decision to subsist primarily on Snickers, and the simple pleasure of a shower after days on the trail, as well as the interruptions, challenges, and pleasures of hiking, alone and with partners. Bryson then weaves the history of the Appalachian Trail and commentary about the geological and natural features encountered along the way. These sections, while less silly and humorous than the main narrative give the impression of someone ambling through the woods lost in thought—something Katz allegedly complained about on multiple occasions. Some of the science has advanced since 1998, but it held up for the most part, with Bryson explaining in graphic detail a) the consequences of global warming and b) the scars of human encroachment on the landscape. Technology might have advanced past where it was in 1996 when this trip took place, but these issues remain.

Bryson’s prose is light and humorous, which keeps the pace moving through the hundreds of miles that he and Katz hump packs north from Georgia. Hiking is hard work, which he acknowledges from the outset, and makes clear in the book how woefully unprepared both of the mountain men actually were.

I read A Walk in the Woods on a recent trip to Vermont. It still made me wish I were out hiking, but at least I got to read it while surrounded by woods.

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I haven’t had as much time to read recently as I’d like and so am still reading Fahrenheit 451.

Orwell and Nature

In a fit of inability to do aught else, I have been thinking about Orwell and idly reading some of his essays. He is most known for his position in industrialized society, not least because of the dystopia he conjures in 1984 (particularly since Animal Farm is a poignant allegory rather than a true account of a farm). His other works typically focus on urban and industrial England. For example, Coming Up For Air is a dark comedy about the comforts of urban life and the nostalgia for lost nature. Sure, nature comes up a fair amount, but the theme is that that nature is a thing of the past. This side of Orwell stands in particular contrast to Hemingway, who is known for his hunting excursions and wilderness adventures–despite some of his most famous works being largely set in Paris.

Nonetheless, it seems that Orwell was more aware nature (as it were) than he seems at first glance. At the very least, his preoccupation with industrialized society seems to have made him keenly aware of the nature world besieged by industry. Curiously, he also indicates in his essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” that his readers did not appreciate any discussion of nature. In fact, he states: “I know by experience that a favourable reference to “Nature” in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters, and though the key-word in these letters is usually “sentimental”, two ideas seem to be mixed up in them.” He answers his critics by pointing out that his interest in nature is not due to sentimentality or his mere lack of familiarity with the soil (there is something to his argument, though he is clearly interested in discrediting his critics and may overplay his hand).

I have no real conclusion here. In Coming Up For Air there is a sense that there are two worlds, neither of which is fully real even though one of those two worlds no longer exists. In “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” Orwell reminds the reader that that the nature world does continue to exist and resist. Though some people may attempt to keep people from enjoying that natural world, they are not allowed to.

“I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets. But I am aware that many people do not like reptiles or amphibians, and I am not suggesting that in order to enjoy the spring you have to take an interest in toads. There are also the crocus, the missel-thrush, the cuckoo, the blackthorn, etc. The point is that the pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing. Even in the most sordid street the coming of spring will register itself by some sign or other, if it is only a brighter blue between the chimney pots or the vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site…life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle…I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and–to return to my first instance–toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.

At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”