“Out of the Woods” is journalist Lynn Darling’s memoir about exploring her landscape and her life at a critical point in later middle age. When Darling, already many years a widow, sent her only child to college, she was faced with what is commonly called “empty nest syndrome.” She describes this condition more strikingly: “I fell out of my own map.”
Darling saw herself as a woman who badly needed a map; she often got lost, whether in her car on a highway or walking on a city street near her apartment building in Manhattan. Feeling lost in a new and painful way, the author decided to move to a place where she would be more likely to develop a sense of direction, or so she imagined. “I had no idea of what to do next, and the middle of the woods seemed the best place to get one.” She bought an unfinished, off-the-grid house in a forested landscape at the end of a road near Woodstock, Vt.
As so often happens, events overcame thoughts and ideas. Darling found herself navigating not only the idiosyncratic terrain of her new home and the surrounding woods, but also the unexpected, alien geography of serious illness (her own) and the shifting borders of fragile old age (her mother’s) while still in her directionless emotional state. Remarkably, she was able to make her way through this and to write about it all in this thought-provoking, poignant and often refreshingly funny book.
Living alone in the Vermont woods required coming to terms with the house itself, including its generator and solar power system. Both were complicated and in need of attention. Darling also had to contend with garden weeds and the threatening encroachment of brush and saplings on her septic field. Anyone who has tried to fashion a life in the country with too many dreams and too little training will understand the author’s efforts and appreciate her stamina. First she bought a small (ineffective) weed-whipper, then a machete and finally a scythe. She did not know how to use this traditional mowing tool, so she Googled a YouTube video called “How To Scythe,” featuring an enthusiastic German farmer.
People engaged in big projects tend to make lists, and Darling was no exception. Her “List Practical” detailed such modest intentions as buying tomato plants or learning the difference between weeds and flowers. Her “List Metaphysical,” on the other hand, issued grandiose commands: “Find Authentic Way To Live” and “Deal With Sex.” She reports her progress in all areas with candor and a welcome dose of irreverence.
One of the most appealing things about Darling’s memoir, aside from her sense of humor, is that the reader quickly understands how hard this woman tries. Aware that she must seem unusual to her Vermont neighbors, she once asked a friend why people who heard about her life alone in the woods always told her how brave she was. The friend replied, “Brave is polite for crazy.”
Was she crazy? She certainly thought so for at least some of her time in Vermont. There was a period of intense grief and loneliness, which Darling attributed to the ending of her active family life, her time as a wife and as the mother of a child living at home. Then she fell into a stultifying slump that made it impossible to write, despite all the time and space she had given herself for that very purpose. Darling records her darker moods with unsparing self-awareness, wryly observing that “self-pity, while a dreary threadbare flannel when worn by others, has a luxuriantly silky feel when we wrap it around ourselves.”
To go forward in her life and to practice finding her way in the woods, she bought a puppy, named it Henry and took it for a walk. Together they got completely lost and stayed lost for hours. When they finally arrived back at the house, the author, furious and frustrated, labeled herself the “Woman Who Got Lost in Her Own Backyard.”
With renewed determination, Darling studied maps and navigational handbooks. She researched the nature and history of direction, its importance to philosophers and poets as well as to explorers and cartographers. She writes, “Every direction is freighted by a shifting amalgam of history, culture, and religion, a tug of the senses at a subliminal level.” She studied people like herself who seem to get lost more often than others do, and she compiled a long list of famously “lost” individuals, from Judge Joseph Force Crater, who disappeared in 1930, to Michael Rockefeller, who vanished in 1961 while exploring in Netherlands New Guinea.
Having made herself miserable over getting lost, the author worked hard to master the art of “wayfinding, what you do when you must rely on yourself, your reading of the landscape and the decisions only you can make.” She attended a Wilderness Survival course, where she learned to use a compass and a topographical map and to trust logic and calculation rather than her misleading directional instincts. Ultimately she was able to make her way through the woods and found that she could discard old ideas about herself as she began to look forward to the future again.
Whatever the true nature of being lost, or being found, may be — and the author leaves this question open — it is a pleasure to spend time with Darling’s fine writing, thoughtful reflection and perhaps a more trustworthy sense of direction than she is willing to claim.
OUT OF THE WOODS
A Memoir of Wayfinding
By Lynn Darling
Harper. 270 pp. $25.99