February 6, 2024

Being a Nemophilist

There exists today a general disconnect with nature.

I have always loved the forest and most especially what I like to call “The Deep Dark Woods,” that place that is totally off the trails and beaten paths.

Growing up in the Southeast with easy access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the mountains of western North Carolina, I made my escape to these locations frequently. Upon explaining this to an erudite coworker over lunch one day, she said, “Well, that makes you a Nemophilist.”

I replied: “You’re not going to let that get around work, are you? Because you know it sounds like that could call into question my well-crafted image or something…”

She then explained that it simply meant a “haunter” of the forest — someone who just likes being in the woods.

Well, fair enough, because I do — and I have loved being in the woods since my age was counted in single digits. The senses become more attuned, stress begins to fall away, and for me a great sense of peace and belonging overtakes me.

Due to early exposure to remote places and deep woods, courtesy of my father and his friends whether on hunting or camping trips, I have never had a fear of the dark, deep woods, or being in the dark in deep woods.

This should not be surprising, as mankind has spent the vast majority of our timeline in nature. We just need to reconnect with it a bit to regain our comfort. There is even a growing body of evidence that suggests a simple walk in the woods is a medically effective method of treating stress and depression, can lower heart rate and blood pressure, can increase cortisol levels, and can even accelerate recovery from illness.

However, a disconnect with nature in general is becoming more prevalent and trips to the wild and remote wilderness areas less and less common.

If a fear of the wild or wild animals is holding one back from venturing into the woods, then the opening of a poem by Julia Donaldson is a good mindset to follow: “A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood. A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good. ‘Where are you going’ to, little brown mouse? ‘Come and have lunch in my underground house.’ The mouse responded, ‘It’s terribly kind of you, Fox, but no – I’m going to have lunch with a gruffalo.’ The fox asked, ‘A gruffalo? What’s a gruffalo?’ Mouse replied, ‘A gruffalo! Why didn’t you know? He has terrible tusks, and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws.’ Fox asked, ‘Where are you meeting him?’ Mouse replied, ‘Here, by these rocks, And his favourite food is roasted fox.’”

Sometimes you have to “outfox the fox,” and in the deep woods and wilderness, that just means good basic preparation.

When I was a child, my father would take me on hikes deep in the forest. He always carried a knife, a compass, and a Zippo lighter that had been in his pocket since he parachuted into Normandy, France, on D-Day with the 101st Airborne. That was his basic preparation. And for that generation, maybe that was enough. After what many of them had endured in World War II, the “I will survive” mindset was powerful preparation for any situation.

Today, with modern effective lightweight gear, you could fill a daypack with far more than what my father carried, be well equipped and hydrated, and still be traveling light.

Statistically, one stands a far greater chance of harm on the streets of our large cities than in our most remote wilderness areas.

After relocating to the Great Plains a decade ago, my woods walks became less frequent, but I discovered that walks on the prairie have similar benefits. Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president, discovered this during his time in North Dakota. His experiences here on the Plains in many ways shaped his travels and adventures that came later in Africa and the Brazilian wilderness.

The important thing is just this: Get out and get away from the crowds and rely on yourself.

In “Through the Brazilian Wilderness,” Roosevelt wrote, “The ordinary traveller, who never goes off the beaten route, and who, on this beaten route, is carried by others without himself doing anything or risking anything, does not need to show much more initiative and intelligence than an express package.”

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