Forty years ago, when my small world still gleamed with Wordsworth’s celestial light, my existence seemed interwoven with the landscapes of my home and books. The yarns of this tapestry were spun by my mother, a former teacher who substituted classic literature for television, and by my father, a school board superintendent who hand-built us a home on a canyon slope, and took us camping in creekside redwood groves.
Passionate about learning and nature, Dad had taught himself the taxonomy of trees, the nomenclature of flowers, the species and habits of every wild thing that he encountered. He also took an artistic delight in nature, though his poetic expressions were raw – “By golly, honey, get a look at the sunshine on the back side of these sequoias!” Immersed in his wholehearted appreciation, our rustic setting, and old books set most often in medieval forests, I felt inextricably connected to the land.
When I was ten we moved to a hillside farm near the coast, where I curled up in the barn and underneath apple trees to read. I was enthralled by those Romanticist authors whose settings and characters echoed or informed my own. Wild-set literature, read in my wild-set nooks, intensified the connection I felt between nature and my interior landscape. I deeply identified with the awareness of life that transformed Mary Lennox in her secret garden, the inherent connection to earth and sky that empowered Rob Roy on his native crags, the conscious appreciation of beauty that inspired Anne Shirley in her coastal meadows and woods.
In later years I traveled to the settings of my favorite books, which sometimes overlaid ancestral lands. During one memorable trip, my sisters and Dad, descendants of Norman knights and Scottish bailiffs, roamed through “our” castle ruins on the Yorkshire moors, skipped stones on the Esk, and traced our kin’s grave markers. Just two years later, Dad lay under one of his own. My most poignant memories weave through blended autobiographical and literary landscapes of forest creeks and orchard forts, of Scottish lochs and camping trips, of English moors and hikes.
For many of my adult years, though, this tapestry of memories and stories and places was rolled up and stored away. One day a long walk in winterstripped woods brought the tapestry out of storage. In the barren woods, I saw again the pattern of my soul. I realized that, like the leafless landscape around me, my life was already right and good and whole, no matter its season or form.
The mountain home of my childhood, the hillside orchards of my youth, and the wooded meadow where I now reside are interwoven into who I am today. Each setting, infused with familial memories and connected to the places in my books, has nurtured and challenged me into being.
Sometimes it is the serenity of a setting that has supported me, a glimpse of light through backlit leaves.Other times, I have been jolted into awareness by the juxtaposition of the jagged and the smooth — rivulets bubbling over sharp rocks, branches silhouetted against the moon, lightning forking within a cumulus cloud. Nature shows us balance, the yin and the yang of all life. I see this, too, in all my wild-set books.
“It was not without a certain wild pleasure I ran before the wind,” says Jane Eyre, “delivering my trouble of mind to the measureless air-torrent thundering through space.” I know this freedom; I have done the same.