Post- Magazine

into the woods [feature]

on the forest's teachings

My sister is a forest dweller. She leads a pastoral existence—the trees are her companions and the stars her teachers. At Colby College in Waterville, Maine, the rustic wind nudges time forward. The woods’ many creatures waylay adventure-hungry students skipping astray in the hills, nibbling at their heels until they surrender back to the library. I imagine this place to be a rural oasis. Like water in a desert, Colby is a refuge amidst a world of blaring city lights and screaming taxi cars. Students wear hiking boots and check their skin for poison ivy stains when returning to their dorm rooms, untroubled by metropolitan dangers like smog or speeding vehicles. 

I arrive at a bus station in Augusta, the nearest urban center to Colby, as an October dusk drapes itself over the white pines. A place of desolation, the station is located on the side of a road with a field as its only neighbor. One by one, my co-passengers are retrieved by friends and relatives parked in nearby cars, en route to a more final destination. I, on the other hand, do not have an escort—just Uber and Lyft. I wrest my phone from my jacket pocket to summon a driver, only to find the app struggling to load, perplexed by my blue location dot’s new rural whereabouts. My fucking phone does not even know where I am.  

I am alone at a bus station in the middle of nowhere. For a moment, I consider my uselessness. A metropolitan girl in the countryside—her telephone and academic fervor and interpersonal skills, once her most valued assets, rendered futile in this rurality. This weakness makes me angry. I Facetime my mom in annoyance and the screen glitches violently, her features frozen in place. Phones do not enjoy functioning in the wilderness—just as I imagine the wilderness despises these technologized vibrations that interrupt its intrinsic rhythm. Neither of them wants to function in tandem, yet I bat my screen with a finger, determined to defy their dissonance. My mom comes alive again. Apparently, a small, Augusta-based taxi company has gleefully agreed to retrieve the stranded daughter from the bus station. 

The driver arrives in an oval-formed, faded blue minivan that screeches faintly to a halt along the sidewalk. “We only take cash,” he remarks while shoving something into the glove compartment, not looking at me. “Yes, sir,” I respond. I cannot remember the last time I was in a taxi. He begins driving and I feel the car’s underpinnings vibrate beneath my feet, the vehicle emitting a peculiar buzzing sound that concerns me slightly. He turns up the music so that I no longer notice it. Excited to hear that I am from California, he speaks of his escapades in Mexico, his tales embellished by the “very beautiful women” he met along the way.


I see the fuzzy shape of buildings peeping from the abyss outside the window and am relieved. Colby College is perched atop the hill ahead, the pointed bell tower of Miller Library heralding the institution's presence like a lighthouse. We drive and the picture I see framed by the windshield comes into focus, the quaint brick buildings now proudly defying the darkness attempting to engulf them. Light posts kiss the sidewalks with a warm yellow, outlining the curving paths that shepherd students from class to class during the daytime. The campus is so cute, like a quintessential colonial town, that the irritation brewing in my chest is forced to recede. It feels as if my surroundings are begging me to smile. And I do. 

I see my sister’s smile from yards away, and I almost beg my driver to stop. It’s raining now, but I am not scared anymore; I trudge through the darkness, my bags slamming into my hip bones as I walk. I nearly squeal when I see her, wrapping my arms around her body—the small frame I know so well now cushioned by the new puffer jacket she dons. She looks beautiful. It is a funny thing, sisters uniting within a world created not by their parents, but by themselves alone. It feels almost unnatural—to be together outside of our childhood home. It also feels exhilarating.


Emily had three criteria to which her prospective college had to adhere. “It needs to have a body of water nearby, uniform and consistent architecture, and a forest,” she would say. Contrasting my “I-probably-can-adapt”-attitude, she knew what she wanted, and I admired this. I had been to Colby’s campus before and enjoyed it, but walking into her dorm, into the space she has established for herself, I can sense that this place is exactly what she had wanted and imagined it to be. Outside her window is Johnson Pond, a picturesque body of water, its shine visible despite the curtain of pine trees veiling its perimeter. The buildings do appear uniform, each dorm and academic hall appearing like a brick homestead, the former indistinguishable from the latter. 

And the school does in fact stand within what could be considered a forest. The 714 acre campus is situated on Mayflower Hill, overlooking the Kennebec River Valley in Central Maine. Kennebec Valley is the largest north-south region of Maine, covering more than 5,000 square miles. The Abenaki occupied the Kennebec River Valley at the point of first European contact, adorning it with the name "Kennebec," which means "snaky monster" or "long quiet water.” The river was one of the first explored by Europeans in the New World, who eventually settled along the banks to use the river for transportation and commerce of fish and furs. Mills for textile production and grist mills for flour were slowly littered along the shores, and the major cities Augusta, Gardiner, Skowhegan, and Waterville emerged later on, becoming sites of ship tonnage production and ice harvesting. Now, the Valley is well-loved for trout fishing, hiking, biking, and bird watching, and even offers its own ‘moose safari’ for interested visitors. The region is still relatively rural; the native gray birch tree, Canada lynx, and black-capped chickadee exist in harmony without fear of too much human encroachment. 

For Colby students, the forest is intrinsic to their emotional and academic growth. Each year, Colby inaugurates new freshmen students with a COOT: a Colby Outdoor Orientation Trip. Students can choose from a wide array of outdoor activities to commence their time at Colby, including backpacking, canoeing, fishing, rock climbing, and surfing—Emily met her best friend, Julia, on her COOT whitewater rafting trip. In addition to fostering interpersonal connection amongst Colby students, the forest also encourages academic achievement. In my sister’s “Landscape and Place” class, they would often venture into the surrounding wilderness to garner inspiration. For all the Environmental Science classes, labs take place outdoors. Colby is also the only college with its very own Island Campus: located off the coast of Maine, the Allen and Benner islands have become sites upon which Colby students study climate change, atmospheric pollution, and biodiversity. 

This belief in the pedagogic and inspirational value of nature has been shared by countless others outside of Colby as well. Henry David Thoreau embarked into the woods adjacent to Walden Pond for two years and two months as an “experiment,” drawing “close to nature” and contemplating “the final ends of his own life,” as described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In 1854, Thoreau would publish the results of his reflection in his seminal work, Walden, writing that the world would be better off if “all the meadows on the earth were left in a wild state.” Siddhartha Gautama found spiritual enlightenment in the woods, leaving his palace behind against the will of his father and journeying into the nearby wilderness. He seated himself beneath the Bodhi Tree in meditation posture and vowed not to rise from meditation until he had attained this perfect enlightenment, which he eventually did. Taylor Swift retreated to the woods as well, spending time in upstate New York to write her sister albums Folklore and Evermore. In the song “Seven,” she writes, “picture me, in the weeds, before I learned civility.” To me, her songs feel olive-toned—almost fire-lit. They are rustic and beautiful and unique, and won her a Grammy award. The woods may be where humans achieve their best. 


And yet our forests are dying. During the European colonization of the Americas from the 1600s to 1870s, the eastern region of what is now the United States lost about half of its woodland. Advances in lumber processing during the Industrial Revolution further stimulated this forest removal due to the increasing demand for clear land that could be used for agriculture, industry, and residence. This was the cost of modernity—the stripping of what is natural to make way for what is new, for what is ‘advanced.’ 

The mythos of cities mirrors this association between urbanization and progress. In the Bible, John saw the “Holy City” of Jerusalem and knew that there would be “no more death or mourning….for the old order of things has passed away.” In the Emerald City, the wishes of the Lion, Scarecrow, Tinman, and Dorothy can all be granted. John Winthrop envisioned America to be a “city upon a hill,” a beacon of hope amidst uncertainty. And today, nearly 180 of the nation’s largest companies are headquartered in just six major cities. It is estimated that 83% of the U.S. population lives in these infamous urban centers.


I see this rhetoric of metropolitan supremacy in my conversations. Some have said that Colby’s rural location is an “escape from reality,” yet commend my friend, Sophia, for “being brave enough” to live in New York City whilst attending NYU. They say she must be “maturing so much” (which I don’t doubt, Sophia). Yet who is to say that my sister is not experiencing a similar type of monumental personal growth while isolated from American cities? 

The last two centuries have associated industrialism with modernity, and forest with incivility and antiquity. A city’s lights can bring terror and challenge—but what about finding yourself in a desolate place, no silver buildings present to guide you home, no honking horns to drown out your thoughts? I think it may take even more courage to do just this, to be in the wilderness without the comforting cushion of civilization. I think that, maybe, urbanization was created to distract. Living in a city, one forgets all that they do not know about the world below them—about the power that Earth will forever hold over humans. To be in the wilderness, to be at Colby, is to surrender. One stands in the forest, aware of their forever inferiority to the grounds atop which they stand. To be in the “middle of nowhere”—a place that has been an important somewhere all along—I think this action may be more ‘advanced’ than any skyscraper we could ever construct. 


The other day, I was speaking with my grandfather and he asked if Emily had “survived” the -20 degree temperatures experienced by Maine just a week ago. 

“You know, I admire you, Ellyse, but it’s Emily who I think is brave…going all the way from southern California all the way up to Maine,” he said. 

“Yeah, she is pretty brave. And I am so proud of her.”

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