By Kim Bowers
In “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost stops to watch someone’s “woods fill up with snow.” He stands there for a long time but must leave because his obligations to society pull him back and because the woods do not really belong to him. With a shake of his harness bells, Frost’s horse reminds him of his duties, and Frost breaks his deep meditation and returns to society.
So often we think of the world as split in two: the natural and the cultural. Frost, like many of us, would like to spend more time in the natural, but his obligations to society prevent him from staying as long as he would like. Nature offers a place for us to stop and rest between one obligation and another; it’s a source of renewal. That’s how many of us see nature.
I went to ACRES’ Bicentennial Woods this morning. As I headed out on the trail, Frost’s opening line rang in my head. “Whose woods these are I think I know.” But unlike Frost, I then thought, “these are my woods.” Although they belong to ACRES, I can enjoy them dawn to dusk on the trail. ACRES has preserved them for me.
These woods comfort me with their familiarity. I have been enough times to trust I won’t get lost and I know the terrain. Regardless, the woods still surprise me; they continue to offer me new thoughts and experiences. They beckon me to see differently, to open up to possibilities unconsidered, and to test my commitment to the natural world and to myself. As I bounded down the familiar path, I thought about that commitment.
I am a natural wanderer; I feel at home in nature. I am not, however, that familiar with the natural world. I don’t know the various names of trees and flowers. I cannot recognize a bird by its call or, very often, its image. I would like to know these things, but they belong to a category of matters I haven’t yet made time for. Matters I’ve filed in the back of my mind for another day.
But as Frost reminds us in another poem, we often don’t get to things we reserve for another day. With this truth in mind, I silently committed to get to know these woods better. To come back more often, to research the wildlife, to return with a friend who knows the trees and plants and to commit the names to memory. Although my knowledge of birds and plants will not save them, it will endear me to them, and that might encourage me to care for them more, to see that care as a joyful obligation.
Toward the end of my walk, I ran into two men and four young children. They were headed down to “a little beach,” a strip of land next to a stream. The children laughed as they wondered at the change of temperature down by the stream. They listened to the stream; ran their hands down a nearby tree, feeling the texture of the bark; picked up rocks. These are their woods too. I hope they will grow with the knowledge to care for them and all their inhabitants. I hope they won’t see them as separate from the world of obligation but as a joyful part of it. A world that must be cared for, preserved, even as it is enjoyed as a space for renewal.
I’ll come back to these woods. Perhaps when I can see them in the snow. Definitely many times over in the spring so I can watch life return. Each time I’ll return with a little more knowledge, a little more care, and a commitment to pass that on. ACRES has preserved these woods for me. It’s time I get serious about my role preserving the life therein.
Kimberly P. Bowers is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Saint Francis where she teaches a variety of classes including Environmental Literature. Her students read poetry, essays, short stories, and the occasional novel to think more deeply about the natural world, human connections to it, and how nature impacts our relationships. She has published essays on environmental pedagogy and the Dixie Chicks.