Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding by Lynn Darling is a beautifully written book of finding her way after her only daughter leaves for college. A widow already, she moves to a run-down cabin in the woods by herself where she hopes to find her reason to live.
Her first venture out to her new home in Woodstock was telling of how the rest of her time there would go. Shunning GPS and even the knowing advice of locals, she sets out on her own with just broken maps to find it. “I needed to get to where I was going according to my own lights, along a path I had chosen, not one generated by some witless computer program, or traced out by helpful strangers” (15). Of course, she gets lost.
One of the aspects she found strange in moving to a place where she had previously been a visitor was the small details: “What was hay exactly? Such details had seemed exciting and curious once, but a visitor sees things differently than a stranger trying to settle down in a place… Mulch? What the hell was mulch?” (48). She describes the moment when her choice to live in Woodstock completely overwhelmed her.
In her solitude at Castle Dismal she wonders if her feelings of seclusion with this new place has to do with not knowing the names of the birds and the trees “Was it better to know the names of things or not to know?” (52). She reflects on the connection she made between a bird that had visited their previous vacation home every spring and how its disappearance preceded her husband’s diagnosis. She hated the bird, but also grieved for it as well. “We name things so we can know them, and, knowing them, won’t be afraid of them. Maybe we should be afraid.” Darling brings up deeply important questions without answering them. Rather, she doesn’t spell them out right away. I appreciated the way she did this, trusting the reader to make these connections between her own diagnosis, her relationship with the land, and with herself.
Similarly, she describes the wolf tree and how much it meant to her while weaving in the story of her mother’s decline. A beautiful metaphor for a devastating and harsh way to lose one’s grip on the world. “It seemed desperately important to get our mother to recognize what was happening to her, because if she could still do that, then the relationship was still intact. But, of course, for her, it was an admission she could not make without the very ground beneath her feet dissolving” (219). She lost the tree and her mother around the same time, and she knits the two stories together: her mother was a kind of ‘lone wolf’ as a child, fighting for survival; wolf trees usually begins as sole survivors in a cleared meadow, “their solitude protects them” (224). As she brings in the arborist to describe her woods and essentially “name” all that surrounds her, Darling seems to find even more meaning in the woods – she is no longer afraid of them.
“A tree dies from the top down. The crown withers, the branches become fragile, the center dries up and hallows out. Still, the tree will stand, to all outward appearances alive, like an ancient warrior brandishing his weapons against all comers” (227). A near exact description of her Darling’s mother, clinging to her last chance of survival like she had always done, her mind slipping away while she is otherwise relatively healthy for a woman of her age. “You can’t think about the forest without thinking about the soil, [the arborist] said. You can’t think about soil without thinking about bedrock. And you can’t think about bedrock without thinking about time” (228).
Going through her mother’s things she finds an old photo of her mother as a young woman. She took the photo home to remind her to be gentle on herself. “[I]t reminds me to remember how much of what happens to us now happens because of the vagaries of ancient glaciers, because of the way in which continents collided in generations no longer remembered. You did good, I tell the picture… You did the best you possibly could” (232). Darling needed to come to realize her similarities with her mother, and also reconcile her feelings of losing her mother and the associated feeling of being lost in the world without her.
In her continued drive to NOT feel lost in both her little part of the woods and also in her life, she gets private lessons of how to find her way with a map and a compass. Her success at finding her way on the “Harriet Line” is a great triumph: it builds her confidence in parting from her mother, healing her body after cancer, and finding her way in this new world she has found herself in.
Overall I really enjoyed this book. Her conclusions are poetic and create a calming effect after the tumultuous journey she took over the previous years. She finds herself at the beginning of a new adventure. “I wasn’t any of the things I had strived to be, or tried to escape. I was just a walker in the woods, who had learned a thing or two perhaps about finding her way, one who would get lost again and again” (267).