Walking in the woods and then reading ‘North Woods’

The other day, while walking with my dogs on a path in the woods, I had this thought that the trees, grass, flowers, rocks, birds, bears, etc. have a life that goes on whether we humans are present or not, or have anything to do with it or say about it. Nights pass, owls hoot, stars shine, grass grows, a limb falls and crashes through the underbrush. A whole life, a whole world, with no human witnesses. I guess this isn’t really an original thought at all, though it did strike me as so at the time, giving me pause on my afternoon ramble.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” A kind of thought experiment, a Zen koan kind of reflection, it’s a phrase mistakenly attributed to George Berkeley (1685-1753), an Anglo-Irish philosopher whose main claim to fame was a theory he termed “immaterialism” (later known as “subjective idealism”) which denies the existence of material substance, contending that familiar objects like teapots, chipmunks, toothbrushes, ice buckets and the like are ideas perceived by the mind which do not exist without being perceived.

Material substance aside, “If a tree falls in a forest…” is close to the kind of rumination I was having that day on the path. As far as the sound a tree may or may not make if you and I are not there to hear it, I would assume that yes, sure, there’s a sound. Maybe a bear hears it or a bird. And in the absence of any ears at all … well … what I am getting at in a very roundabout way here is that there is this whole life that goes on out there in the woods and beneath the surface of the lake and up on the tops of mountains that is its own, apart from our human witnessing of it. For some reason, this sort of blew me away as I walked along pondering it.

And then, not long after my woodland musing, I picked up “North Woods” by Daniel Mason, a book that vividly and painstakingly conveys and evokes that sense of life beyond human life, time beyond our measuring of it, nature beyond our witness and exploitation of it. For instance: “During its brief existence, the spore has never left its host tree. Shaped like a blunt spindle, bisected by a thin septum like the scoring on a pill, it has lived forever in the damp depths of its chamber, arranged with its brethren in orderly rosettes. Release, therefore, when the west wind comes sweeping sheets of spores off of the ruined forest, brings about a transformation that is nothing less than ecstasy. Loose, tumbling, it rises above the death around it, departs its host’s crown, skims the canopy, swirls through the tugging eddies of a waving summer pine, and is sucked into the sky.”

This is absolutely one of the best books I have read all year, maybe in several years. It takes on history, succession, ghosts, botany, memory, destiny, biology, and in its own unique and patchwork way, opens up doors to ideas like … well, ideas like the one about the tree falling out in the forest when no one is around to hear it, as well as the passage of time, our legacies as finite human lives on this planet, passions, war, love, jealousy. It’s epic in its scope. And the writing is gorgeous, intelligent and searching.

The novel begins in colonial New England in “the freshness of June,” with a runaway couple, “chased from the village by its people, following deer path through the forest, the valleys, the fern groves, and the quaking bogs.” “They were Nature’s wards now,” the running-away man informs the running-away woman; “they had crossed into a Realm.” “North they went, to the north woods, and then toward sun-fall, trespassing like fire.”

The book’s beginning conjures up the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve, their bliss and their banishment — the book is full of references to apples — yet these two runaways are no innocents. We are told briefly that he was a troublemaker back in England; she was to have been married to a minister twice her age, a widower. But they manage to escape their Puritan village and run away together, “a comet lighting the heavens in the direction of their flight,” into the wilderness of western Massachusetts, hotly pursued by “solemn men … with harquebuses cocked in their elbows.”

But, as it turns out, we don’t spend much time with these two fugitives, though their story is compelling and somewhat mysterious (definitely left me wanting more). Instead, we are spun — airlifted and blown like dandelion fluff on the breeze — into the future of the land the fleeing pair claim, with “a wide, flat stone” pried from the earth “laid gently in the soil,” as home.

As time rolls on, one early inhabitant of the place is Charles Osgood, a man obsessed with apples and a genius at growing them. (Lots of apple details and descriptions, folks.) And then, his rather odd and socially isolated daughters, Alice and Mary, twins joined at the hip (not literally) and more complicated than they look, whose lives end tragically and whose ghosts do a bit of haunting later on. And then there is an abolitionist, a landscape painter secretly in love with another man, a rich businessman intent on converting the property into a deluxe resort for hunters … oh, and his schizophrenic grandson. The list goes on.

The house that gets built early on, on the spot where the original pair laid their wide, flat stone, goes through many metamorphoses “all the while serving as a not-quite-silent witness to the lives — and deaths — of its occupants,” writes Rand Richard Cooper in the New York Times, who goes on to describe “North Woods” as “a hodgepodge narrative, brazenly disjointed in time, perspective and form. Letters, poems and song lyrics, diary entries, medical case notes, real-estate listing, vintage botanical illustrations, pages of an almanac, modern-day nature photographs, a true-crime detective story, an address to a historical society: Mason stuffs all this (and more!) into his bulging scrapbook of a novel.”

I loved this book. Magical, wise, funny, thought-provoking, multivalent, meditative, a little kooky, highly compelling. From the frontispiece: “… to build a fire on Ararat with the remnants of the ark” (Nathaniel Hawthrone, “The American Notebooks”). Perfect.

Highly recommend. Hard to describe. Hard to put down. Brilliant. A plus plus.