The hearth killed more poets than alcohol, according to William B. Yeats. But like Jim Harrison, I prefer intense domesticity. Or maybe that’s just what I say because that’s what I have and I’m of no mind to change it.
I fully believe that any writer has to master the skill of capturing a sense of place in his or her work. I was earnest when I recently wrote that one way to develop this sense of place was to sit on a stump for four hours in the remote forest of your choice. That’s, of course, more easily done in rural Missouri or Oregon, the locales I’ve most recently called home.
Stumps are easy for me to come by, especially in Oregon where there’s a vista of stumps around just about any bend. This state has a reputation for being green and sustainable, but there are also a whole hell of a lot of clearcuts with nary a huggable tree in sight. So I’ve got plenty of stumps nearby. It’s the isolation and the four hours that are hard to find these days.
Like many people, I’ve got a kid. And despite being a big-time-famous writer (sic!) on nights and weekends, I’ve also got a full-time, mortgage-paying job. And a wife whom I hope stays sane. So, unlike that diminutive and celibate little bachelor Henry David Thoreau, I rarely have four hours to sit on a stump and develop my sense of place. I try to sneak away for a weekend backpack, or sometimes I send my wife and kid to the in-laws in Phoenix so I can wallow in solitude and hiking blisters, but still, I need little woody quick-fixes.
I had one such forest jaunt this morning. But I had to bring my daughter along because it my turn. We hiked 3 miles through an Oregon Coast Range forest. I found a nice stump and we sat there for twenty minutes drinking coffee (me) and eating animal crackers (kiddo). I think that writers as a type need to hike in wild (or mostly wild) places for a variety of reasons. It’s best if you can do it alone, but if you can’t, here are a few tips if you must bring a small child along. I’ve developed these tactics over the past few years with my own kid (currently 5-ish), but I assume they work with a range of ages and even multiple children.
- Bring a day pack with a smallish blanket, a nature guide, water, coffee, healthy and not-so-healthy snacks, a magnifying glass, layers of clothes for all parties concerned and a camera.
- Start your hike by going uphill. If you live in a mountainous area, look for a loop hike with a gradual uphill gradient, with the second half of the hike all downhill to your car. If you live in washboard topography (like Missouri), stick to the flats.
- When they start complaining, take a snack break. Even if you’re less than an hour into your hike, stop anyway. Spread out the blanket and have a picnic. It’s okay to have multiple picnics.
- Make your second picnic stop before they start complaining for the second time. This will surprise them and they will inexplicably begin to trust you and believe that you are not going to march them to death.
- Engage on several collection games during the hike. It can be wildflowers (to be pressed in the nature guide) in season, heart-shaped rocks, slugs, photos, animal tracks, leaves, whatever you can think of. You’ll wind up with a pocket full of stuff that you will have to bring home, but it’s far better than incessant whining.
- The magnifying glass makes collection games more interesting. Binoculars can also work. Allowing your kid to take photos can also get them engaged in the hike. Sometimes they can look for limbs or clouds of an interesting shape.
- Set ground rules for piggyback rides before you start. I give my daughter 1 free piggyback ride to use when she chooses. She usually blows this one early in the hike and then soon starts whining that she wished she would have saved it for a steeper stretch of the hike. I’ll usually give her another free shoulder ride later on in the hike. If you’re following the other steps, she’ll forget and probably won’t use it for the rest of the hike.
- Don’t read the warning signs about bears and mountain lions out loud to your kid. You’re the one who has to be wary, not her. No need to make her more scared of the woods than she needs to be. You, of course, should be vigilant.
If you follow these techniques, you’ll soon learn that your little anti-hiker who whines and cries when you tell her it’s time for a forest walk might even begin to ask you when you’re planning to go again.
Of course, these techniques aren’t limited to writer-types.