A night in the woods

published on Feb 03, 2020

CATEGORIZED AS: Nature | Spirituality

I spent the night in the mountains Saturday night. First time in too long. I need nights in the mountains like most people need air.

Audio version: The author reads this article aloud

I went with a relatively new friend. A serendipitous scenario, out with mutual friends the night before. I say, I'm camping tomorrow, and she says, I love camping, and I say, come with me, and she says, I was literally just posting last week how much I need to camp.

We took our campsite farther back than I've ever camped before. Took us three trips to get everything up. Clearly I need a camping backpack.

We make a fire. Everything's wet, so the fire struggles. But there's enough heat for turkey dogs and roasted marshmallows. We talk till we're out of firewood, and then I go into the woods and get more and we talk some more. We talk until the fire dies down two or three more times, two or three more trips into the woods for old downed wood.

It rains. I make a trip back to base camp for a tarp to put over my hammock. Bring back more seasoned firewood while I'm at it.

It stops raining.

Clouds come and go, but the stars are never gone for more than a few minutes. I say, when's the last time you saw a shooting star. She struggles to remember. A minute later, she sees one.

I'm in the middle of all this glorious perfection, and every few minutes I get a knot of anxiety in my stomach. I remember a thing that happened, a situation that's challenging. I think, why can't I just have fun?

This is not new for me. This is a known pattern. One of the ways I sabotage my joy. No matter what is going on in life, there's always something that could cause anxiety if I let it.

I often let it.

I don't want to, but it is what it is. A pattern I often feel powerless to change.

My brain is not too comfortable with comfort, so it goes looking for these possible sources of discomfort. It prioritizes them, identifies the top source for potential anxiety hormones, and then if I get to feeling nice and cozy or having too good a time, it reminds me.

It digs it out and places it in front of me and it says, oh, and by the way, this is an existential problem that goes to the core of who you are and defines your worthiness or, depending on the outcome, lack thereof.

But don't worry, it says. Worrying just makes it worse. Relax and enjoy. You owe it to yourself. Why are you still worrying? Don't you have any tools? Haven't you done your work? What is wrong with you? Why can't you focus on this glorious moment, you idiot? You're ruining your whole life and also why did you even do that thing that's now causing you anxiety? Don't you wish you hadn't? Oh, and while we're at it, let's analyze every detail of the situation to see if you could have handled it better because you must have done something wrong to feel this bad about it.


And the nasty trick of it is, while the anxiety is yelling at me for not using my tools, it's simultaneously blocking the neural pathways that give me access to them. I don't remember any of them, not even the simple breathing tools.

So this was happening, perhaps more intensely than usual, less intensely than sometimes.

Eventually, the fire dies down and I don't go for more wood. I scatter the ashes, wet them down.

My friend sleeps in her tent. I sleep in my hammock. I wake up every few minutes, jolt awake from unpleasant dreams, worried about the thing. Hot shame and anxiety mixed in my belly.

I ask the trees to help. I try to be patient. Gentle with myself. It's okay to be anxious, I tell myself. It's okay if the trees don't fix everything all at once. They haven't abandoned you. You're not alone.

I sleep and wake, sleep and wake. Partway through the night, I push back the tarp so I can look at the stars. Sleep and wake, watching the stars through the trees.

I get up to pee. Twice.

At some point, I think the clouds are moving back in, because the stars start to dim. Then I realize it's the sky growing bright. I watch it lighten, watch the stars fade, watch sunlight touch the tips of the trees at the top of the ridge. I sleep and wake with the sun on my face. I sleep again.

I wake and remind myself that it's okay that I'm still waking with hot twisted shame and fear in my belly, even after a night in the woods. It's not the trees' fault. It's not mine. I still get to have this, I get to have this life this connection even if I'm sabotaging my joy in it. I still get to talk to trees even if I can't hear their message right now.

I don't think they've abandoned me. I'm sure they haven't. It's just I can't hear through my anxiety.

My hammock is hung at the bottom of a ridge, below a large beech tree. I watched her, the beech tree, all night; rather, watched the stars through her. Watched the day grow bright upon her skin.

My phone died some time during the night. I don't know what time it is. It turns out it's much later than I thought.

But there I am, lying in my hammock with the sun on my face and my bladder suggesting I should rise soon, and I remember.

Anxiety and excitement are responses to exactly the same stew of chemicals. Which one we experience is determined by the stories our brains tell us.

And we get to rewrite the story any time we want. All we have to do is remember that we can.

I say, "I'm excited," and suddenly it's true. I'm excited to know the next page of the story that is unfolding that has been waking me off and on all night. I want to know what happens next for the characters in my story, among whom I am a primary.

Now when the twist in my gut interrupts my meditation upon the bark of my friend's trunk, I think, oh, yes, there's that excitement.

And then I remember that I also get to live the story of the moment I am currently in. To rise. To walk through the silent morning woods. To feel the soft woody pulp of a downed, rotted log under my fingers as I relieve myself into the dried leaves of the forest floor. To wonder where are the birds, when will they return to my trees. To descend to the stream bed, to feel the cold rush of spring water over my hands as I cleanse them with sand. To fill my drinking bottle with the spring's pure, healing waters. To hear the soft rustling of my friend, awaking in her tent. To rise again and go, cut our food bag down from where we'd stored it safe from bears, and carry it back to camp, proudly deposit it before my friend, and announce that I have returned from the hunt and brought back my kill for our breakfast.

To enjoy her laughter and riposte.

To enjoy it all alongside the excitement about that other unfolding story. To give that story to the future while I enjoy this one.

To relax.

To finally fucking relax.

Do you know what time it is? I ask.

Turns out, we slept later than we'd thought. I have somewhere to be. Well, so much for relax. We strike camp. Divide up the burdens. Still gonna need to take several trips.


On our second to last trip, as we're leaving a few items behind for the next load, she says, Can you ask your trees to take care of those things for us, so we don't have to come back?

I look back at the things. It's two chairs and a trash bag. She was joking, but I think the question at the trees anyway, laughter on the edge of my inquiry.

Sure, they say.

Leave the things here.

I remember I'll be back next week. The chairs can stay.

And the trash bag is light. I pick it up.

Yes, I say. They can take care of things for us.

I need nights in the mountains like some people need sports or coffee or fine art.

I need nights in the mountains like I need air.

Yes, the trees can take care of things for us. Whatever the things are. They can take care of them.

They often do.

TAGS: anxietymountainstrees
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Fen Druadìn

Fen Druadìn (they/them) is a storyteller, a visionary, and a book midwife.

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When they're not working with clients or writing their own books, Fen can usually be found wandering the woods alone, sitting around a campfire with friends, or swimming in the cold spring waters native to the Southern Appalachians.

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