I learned a new word this fall, not an everyday occurrence for a writer turned forty. Nemophilist, a word so rarely used that even my friend Spell Check doesn’t know it, and I thought that dude knew everything. Possibly an invented word—I’m in Vermont right now without easy access to a printed dictionary, and there has to be another word for someone who cannot fully trust a dictionary without flippable pages and little indentations on the leaves where a seeker can stick in a finger and flop over to the right neighborhood before tracking down the exact location of a word. A word other than Luddite, I mean.
Nemophilist—whether real or invented—is a word that means “haunter of woods.” It means those of us who walk about through the sidewalks and car doors and Starbucks of everyday life giving all the world the impression that it is seeing us without understanding that the Real Emily (or Catherine or Henry) is actually hovering—massless—out in the woods, waiting for the body to slip away from the sidewalks and car doors and Starbucks of everyday life and come back to the rotting limbs and fallen leaves.
The great man said he went into the woods because he wanted to live deliberately, and I’ll back a brother up to say there is no better place to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.
In the woods, we nemophilists know, the trees can actually stretch out and accomplish something. There they are free of the scolding of civilization. And so are we. That’s why we’re there, because the sidewalks and car doors keep hardening the rind around our Selves.
Any woods will do, but they do differently. For the true nemophilist, there are many kinds of woods. I have a wood down the street from me here in Vermont, one I walk many times each time we come. It’s not a challenging hike, except maybe for my five-year-old, but it’s beautiful in its familiarity. We know each other, me and this wood. I know its trails and the spaces within, know the trails well enough to cut between them now and then. I know the wood it is when I am alone and the wood it becomes when I go with my children, because the wood is different when it’s distant background to my thoughts than it is when I’m listening to a seven-year-old grumble about his shoes and then suddenly tell me to stop because he wants to listen to the creek.
This is my wood, although it belongs to many others, as well. It does not offer monogamy, but it also never demands it. Fidelity, absolutely, but not monogamy. It knows I need my affairs, my one-day-stands with a hard hike or a long showshoe up some other wood or even forest. It is not jealous. It understands that I need the thrill of the unfamiliar, the rush of adrenaline that comes with challenge and discovery. It knows—my wood does—that I will always come back, that its curves in every season are intimate to me—its leanness during its autumn diet, its fullness when it’s plump and bootylicious in the summer, its padding under a winter coat, and its outfit of myriad greens as the mud sucks my shoes during spring. It knows I love each season more than the last, even though that’s a circular impossibility. Mostly, it knows me, because it’s there I leave that little part of me—that one tile in the mosaic that cannot come out among the sidewalks and the car doors and the Starbucks—the last little bit that makes me complete.