Forest as Chapel

To some of us, an altar in the forest.

Like most of the nation I was horrified and nearly speechless after the horrific acts of a presumably depraved individual yesterday in Newtown Connecticut. For those who are parents we understand that losing a child is our worst nightmare. To have lost twenty children in one town by a senseless act of violence is unspeakable.

My wife is an elementary school teacher. The terrible news from December 14th was almost too much for me to bear. Perhaps it was too close to home. Perhaps even the passing thought of anything happening to my wife or children was too overwhelming.

I was driving to the Post Office when I heard about this terrible set of events on the news. For some strange reason I yelled as loud as I could “GOD DAMN IT!” and instantly realized that only I could hear my outrage. I felt sick. I wept as I drove. I was overwhelmed with grief in an instant.

Looking across thousands of acres of forest out in back our where we live.

There is nothing quite so precious as a child. They hold all of the promise in the world. They laugh. They cry. They bring joy. And if they are your child they are the continuation on you and your partner; in spirit and it flesh. They are, in every sense of the word, your future.

I can’t imagine how the parents of these children who have lost their precious lives will cope. I’m not directly involved and this is still very difficult for me to comprehend and fathom.

This morning I woke well before dawn. The eastern sky was pink as the sun began its modest ascent on the horizon. For a brief moment I forgot about the events of the previous day. As the fog cleared from my brain it all came back to me. And I wondered how anyone could ever recover from this.

While drinking coffee I turned on the news. Candles lit the previous night in Newtown were still burning on temporary altars in parks, on the street, on the window sills of people mourning. Town folk had flocked to church to pray, to reflect, and to try to understand. Perhaps facing this with a familiar group is comforting to some. For me it would be nothing less than disarming.

The thought of seeking solace in a chapel seemed somehow appealing. I thought about going to a church before others arrived and then I realized that this is not who I am. So I put on my coveralls, tucked my long hair under a cap, and, ironically, grabbed my black powder rifle. I knew that I could not really hunt on this day but brought it along any way. Old habits die hard for a hunter.

Ground cover struggles to survive on bedrock but succeed it will!

I have lived my life in the woods. As a child I escaped from sexual abuse in the woods spending long and nearly countless days in the woods hiding. I learned that the woods could provide comfort. I learned that the forest was a life force; rejuvenating my spirit and giving me a place where I was free of everything I could not understand. I went to the woods frequently going deep into swamps where no one could find me.

And the truth is I found myself.

At the summit, December 15th 2012.

This place, where people find comfort, spirituality, and find the strength to heal is called, in my mind, a chapel. In my life the chapel has been the forest. It breathes life into me. It restores my soul. It brings me joy. I married my wife Maureen in this chapel-our forest-and here we raised our family.

Forests, in any part of the world, can be brutally honest. They hold life and death. They hold joy and sorrow. They hold every emotion known to this world, good and bad. It was this early understanding of the natural cycle that helped me to survive childhood. I made it through the dark days alone. Alone but not without. I had the forest to protect and guide me.

So on this day I head out into the chapel. The air is fresh and still. There is nary a sound and it is about a half hour into the light filled day. I climb to the highest part of our forest filled land and get into a tree stand. I leave my rifle leaning against the tree at the base of the stand. I cry until I can cry no longer.

A chickadee lands, unannounced, on a branch only about three feet from my head. It stares at me and shouts out its little “chickadee-dee-dee”. He seems, somehow, unabashed and honest. It is a simple joy that makes me smile. I have been in the woods for well over an hour and this is the first sound that I have noticed.

Frosted turkey tail fungi and dewberry.

The bright voice of this little bird has given me a realization. The world moves on. There will be joy in the forest. The little bird moves from one branch to another; each one further away.

Only now I notice the woods are full of sounds. Lively and joyous sounds. The tapping of a downy woodpecker, caws of crows in the sky, the raucous call of a blue jay in the distance. There is life.

There will always be life as there will always be sorrows.

The forest is my chapel. I shall not want.

Wood Fern under frost!

Written for in December 2012.

  • Sue Sweeney

    so completely true. the forest is where some of us are home.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks for stopping by Sue. Yes, home, but more. A place of personal salvation, a fortress, a link to another time, an impenetrable harbor, and a destiny. And much, much more.

  • Emily B

    Bill, I’ve been wondering how to put into words what I feel about this tragedy, and I haven’t been able to do it. You have found those phrases and sentences, though, and it was a comfort to read them this morning. I feel the same way about the woods-as-chapel, about anywhere peaceful and wild as restoring hope. I think I’ll go for a walk today too.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Emily. This was easy to write. Straight from the heart.

  • wendy

    Bill, I too found my way to the forest on Saturday and found myself creating mandala prayers to Wholeness. And as I walked and prayed and let the wild place ease my heart, one of the prayers at the edge of a limestone cliff became a heart. The making of forest prayers showed me we are made of broken things, our hearts, our prayers. Our wholeness is not separate from but made up of all our brokenness, old limbs, stones, scattered dry leaves, even sunlight and wind. I send my heart prayer to say thank you for your walk and the words you share with us.

  • Wild_Bill

    Your way of understanding this and dealing with this was somewhat akin to mine. I really liked your active prayer as part of understanding this tragedy. And that you found that wholeness is in part made from broken dreams and sorrows, as well as a myriad of other entities is wonderful. You seem to be so in tough with our planet and universe. Thank you for sharing this.

  • ccpoplar

    Beautiful fern and frost at the end here.

    Thankful for your ease of thoughts to pen – and of your wide-eyed tuning-in, Bill. And for your sharing of your need to retreat away from the crowds away to the haven of the wild. You know through your wife how vital schools can be. I have to say Obama was the most eloquent with his insights into how children make us do our best. Glad to come here tonight to your words – again!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you. I always enjoy your comments a great deal. The wild is our heart and soul, it is just that many can’t fathom that. I didn’t see President Obama’s speech but I’ll be sure to look it up now.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    There have been woods in which I most definitely felt I was in the finest cathedral in the world. Nothing quite like the solace of nature. What a good place to be after the horrifying news. I’m glad you found some measure of peace there.

  • Wild_Bill

    We all have our chapels, don’t we?

  • craftygreenpoet

    I always find peace in the woods, lovely post

  • Wild_Bill

    The forest is mostly peaceful, but holds all of the violence of nature as well. It is the cycle of life that gives me the connected feeling. Thanks for stopping by, haven’t heard from you in quite a while!

  • Barbara

    Oh my friend, how I too ached for those families, for the whole town. I cry still, thinking of that awful horror and the terribly sad troubled and pitiful individual who made it happen. Your words about your chapel in the forest are among the most eloquent and touching I’ve read in a long time. I will carry them with me. They are in themselves a prayer for a better more loving world.

    You know me well enough now to know that when terrible tragedy happens, I too had and have to be outside in the fresh air, looking at the trees on the wee piece of land that owns me, listening to the birds in the day or the coyotes and night sounds in evening… all give me solace as they do you. It’s comforting to share this peace with you and with all those who commented on this essay – they are like-minded it seems to me…a blessing to be part of this community of souls. May this Christmas season bring peace to the world somehow some way.

  • Wild_Bill

    In the week since the tragedy I have had to go to the woods several times to sort our my emotions. There is no easy way of digesting such horror. That we are all struck by this in such a serious way is an indication that there is real hope. If any good can come from this I hope we look at how we treat the mentally ill, how we allow anyone to purchase any kind of weapon, and how we have tolerated such a violent society. This country (USA) has been at war for something like 12 straight years. This has to have an impact on those who have hardly ever known peaceful times. And above all we much learn to be civil again. The last decade of uncivil behavior is a primary reason that people have such strong, irretractable feelings. Perhaps we should all take a step back and look at ourselves. I know I have and I have noted some things that absolutely should be corrected. And thank you Barbara for being such a good friend. Even though we have never met I feel I know you fairly well.

  • shoreacres

    For me, it is the water that heals my wounds most quickly, but going to the water or the woods, the purpose is the same – to connect with the natural rhythms of life. So much of our life has become unnatural. You’re the first person I’ve come across who’s mentioned simple civility – its loss, I’m convinced, lies very near to the heart of the darkness enveloping us. Everyone gets angry from time to time, but we have too many people living among us who are enraged, and rage takes dedication and effort. I see it among politicians, among followers of various causes, on internet forums and in what passes for entertainment – who can protect a child against that?

    Well, we must. It won’t happen with laws – civility can’t be legislated – but it can come from the actions of individuals. I held the door for a man at the post office today, and spoke to him. You would have thought I’d pulled a gun on him – but then he smiled. That’s how it starts.

    Do you know Gordon Bok? I have one of his songs up on my site. He seems to be singing what you’ve said above. You both have the ability to deal with difficult realities with compassion and grace.

  • Wild_Bill

    I love Gordon Bok, I’ll stop by your site and check out the song. I completely understand your connection to the water. I spend a lot of time on my boat fishing and I have to say that it is just as wonderful as the forest in all ways. We must, once again, become a civil society, It starts with friendliness, respect, and real effort to make others feel comfortable. I’m going to do a better job with this myself. I think many of us could improve our manners and patience with others. Thank you for stopping by!

  • Amber

    Wow, Bill. This is one of the most touching pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Like you, I have gone to the forest — or creek, or closest tree — whenever I have felt sorrow or confusion in my life. I was raised in a Christian home and went to church regularly as a child. But as an adult, I turn to nature as my place of truth and promise. Like you, the forest is my chapel. Thank you for your mindful words. Blessings, Amber

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Amber. I think we all have a special place that feels right when dealing with tough issues. I am in constant search of spirituality and look for it wherever nature is present. Even a quiet park with trees and a natural setting within a city can provide such spirituality. The more of nature we preserve and revere the more places we have to find sanity.

  • Annie

    Thank you for sharing your feelings, Bill. I’m sure that writing this helped you work through some of the same feelings of loss, helplessness and anger that I as a grandmother of younger children and one who works on a daily basis with younger children felt when I heard the news report and some that continue to this day. Your writing has also helped me to sort through some of my own feelings about life and it’s immediacy. I know I gave each of my grand children an extra long hug on Christmas day, cherishing that moment and every minute that we shared that day.

  • Wild_Bill

    A couple of weeks later this terrible act still makes me shudder. We all need a place to find ourselves in these crisis times. Mine is the forest, and occasionally the open water on a huge lake.

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