A lot of recovery is corny. I spend a lot of time listening to long-past-shopworn phrases and breaking them down word by word to ascertain their meaning and then reconstruct them in ways that don’t make me cringe when I say them aloud. I’ve come to expect the old chestnuts in meetings or anytime a group of sober people gathers together (what should that be called, a group of sober people? Crows get “murder,” walruses get “pod”… what is a group of drunks called? Oh, probably a “waitstaff,” now that I think about it), but when I’m trying to pin down and articulate how I feel about something in a one-on-one conversation — or trying to type it all out here — I really do try to sidestep the obvious bumper sticker sort of syntax that so much of the recovery industry (and there definitely is one) relies on. I suspect it’s a game I can’t win, but I try regardless.
That urge to express something uniquely has cropped up in a different context this week. I’ve been in the Appalachians, huddled with my dog, Mabel, in a tent for two rainy nights, with two clear ones still ahead of me. My notebook has been open the whole time, the pen loaded with ink, awaiting all-new amazing insights to just tumble down the jumbled mountain stream right outside my tent door. I could kill Henry David Thoreau for saying everything about trees first. Fuck John Muir for getting to mountains before I could. And I’ll slap Annie Dillard just for good measure; I’m sure she got to all of what was left long ago. I certainly now know how Mary McCarthy felt when she lamented about the impossibility of writing about Venice because everyone else had already said it all.
I didn’t take up the outdoors until I was forty and, already long-mired in drink and delusion, I was happy to drop everything and go sit in the woods alone on the spur of the moment. Since then, the motivations for doing so have shifted. Originally, it was all about isolating. I could stock up and drink alone for two days, sleep well into the third one, hop up and return to my life, still slightly dulled but with newly-inspired vocabulary to tell everyone that I was in some way “restored.” Now it’s about pure solitude, which might seem like just a semantic difference, but it’s really quite the opposite. My being alone in the woods isn’t about not being with people or hiding from them; it’s about being with myself, completely and utterly present and engaged with whatever task I have at hand: hiking a trail, setting up camp, cooking food or perhaps just sitting and being quiet for a little while.
A lot of those earlier, isolating trips are lost in a particularly, uh, damp fog. The first thing I’d do when I got to a campsite was have a few glasses of wine; I’m still not certain whether I ever set up my tent correctly…I know I never started a fire the right way. All of the memories and photographs from that time have a particular kind of off-kilterness to them, like the separate color plates have been printed slightly out of registration. After I sobered up, I hesitated to jump back into camping and hiking expeditions; “camping trips” was frequently just code for “drinking trips,” and I was keenly aware of possessing the peculiar skill of being alone in the woods and knowing exactly where the nearest liquor store was, almost like I was a wine-soaked divining rod. But I should’t have worried about returning to the woods. I’ve managed a handful of trips over the last year and all of them have only furthered my conviction that it’s a right, necessary, thing to be doing and each time I go, the final color image that I take home and keep gets clearer: the C, the Y, the M and the K of it all seem to align perfectly and display a perfect twin of my present being and mood.
Yesterday, I spent a good deal of the morning trying to hunt down an adult American Chestnut tree, one of only a few of the post-blight species left alive in North America; it’s supposedly quite nearby. It’s the sort of thing that I always thought sounded like “a very DG sort of thing to do,” but would never go actually do. I didn’t find it, but I have two more days here. Trust me, I’m almost embarrassingly conscious of how clichéd that sounds, tracking down the remaining trace of something long thought extinct. It’s what I’ve been doing for the past fourteen months, and no one is rolling their eyes reading this as much as I am while writing it. So I can’t be John Muir this time around, I can’t stake any territory Thoreau didn’t get to. But I can find this chestnut tree and press a leaf from it between two pages in the analog version of this blog and move on to the next “very DG sort of thing” that just two years ago I thought I’d never be around to do.