Untethered: Into the Woods

The woods are Escape. They have always held my personal ideal of “freedom” cradled in their branches.

As soon as I was more or less conscious of being a being with some kind of relation to the world, four or five or so, I began to look off into the woods. This was easy to accomplish, because I grew up in the country. Our little house sat on a little bit of land that abutted a long stretch of field, full of high, natural grasses. It was also full of yellow jackets and so was impassable as far as I was concerned. The closest I could get was the short willow tree, really more of a bush, at the edge where the short green grass met its tall yellow counterpart, and where there was also a curious boulder, in which you could see the fossils left from marine life. Sometimes, rocks in our region were just placed there by ancient glaciers, torn up from somewhere else and long ago. And just beyond the young willow and the old rock was the field, and beyond the field was The Woods.

I would stare at them and feel my little heart beat, making plans for the day I would take off into them. There was always, always something unsatisfactory about the life I was presented with, and the woods in their lush greenery or their white icey webs or their fall glamor seemed like the best answer. All of my favorite characters went into the woods. Sure, the woods were ultimately, usually, dangerous. But the woods were also where it was at.

So, then, it was not surprising that when I was old enough and my best friend was old enough, we were allowed to go by ourselves into the woods behind her house, past the farm land that grew strawberries and corn in the summer and pumpkins in the fall, and play among the trees. We clambered past rusting farm trash and down a long ravine to where the 18-mile creek wound its way over smooth, flat rocks. For hours, we’d walk and talk and make believe, two avid readers obsessed with the same stories, the fantasy and the magic and the darkness of the woods. We made plans to run away into the woods. We tried to see how far we could make it, coming back just as the sun was setting, into the yellow glow of my friend’s mother’s kitchen where we would wash our hands under the faucet that pulled water up from a well so it was always so, so cold at first.

And as I write this to you, from a tiny cabin in the woods where I’m at a writing residency, I am sitting at the intersection of the personal symbol of a thing and the realization of that thing. I am in the woods and I am escaping and I am returning because I have escaped here before.

***
The woods are dark and unforgiving and sharp and never fail to remind me of what a soft, stumbling animal I am. When I walk through the woods, I am never at rest, not seated on a log, not on a rock, not in a tent. I am distinctly aware that I am just passing through.

Last night, the sun set while I drove through the mountains just past Roanoke, where white settlers famously disappeared (as in: were gonna die but instead joined local Native American tribes or, yeah, died), on my way down to Tennessee. All the while, I was admiring the fall foliage, grateful to see reds so bright they were practically fuschia lining the edges of gray cliffs, to see rolling leaves of gold and orange and burgundy and brown and evergreen that I would never have seen if I’d spent this whole month in the city. I knew the whole time how far I still had to go and how that would mean over three hours of driving in the dark. I’d wanted to start earlier, but my ADHD had other ideas. Once I got on the road, I knew I was relatively fucked, but there was nothing for it but to do it. More often than not, when trying to go anywhere involving a multi-hour drive, I wind up in the “now you’re completely fucked” category. It’s not not a disability! This really sucks, to be honest, and always has, and also it’s embarrassing on top of it all.

I could see the sky, but I could only see the absence where the trees and the mountains were. They stood on either side of the highway, obsidian. The thing about this escape is that it’s full of life, but you can’t see it.

After about two hours of exhausting twists in the dark with semi trucks barrelling up behind me, blinding me with their lights before passing me, I pulled into a combo Dunkin Donuts and gas station situation. After the only other car parked at the moment in the parking lot stopped and a dude got out, he stood for a moment by the pumps, inhaling the last of his cigarette, staring me down. I am good at keeping my face neutral, so I did. He stared. I pumped gas. He went inside to get whatever. After my tank filled, I pulled right in front of the Dunkin Donuts and went in to find a couple queers and maybe a token straight dude goofing off. I got some old donut holes and a hot coffee and told them I legit did not care that they were in back doing nothing while I looked at the donuts for a few minutes. I wanted to ask them where I was, but I didn’t. They were distracted, making the most of their shift.

Back in the car, I encountered the fact that I have good friends. Not one, but two people had checked up on me on my drive. Platonic buds. People who value our connection and who knew I had a long, solo drive south. Where once, where often, where always, I had a partner in these adult activities, I had other people showing me with their actions that it can in fact work other ways, that friends can be a bulwark against the dark. The stares from unfriendly straights were, as always or perhaps moreso, present on this drive, but so was my knife — and the queers in my phone.

And as I write this, the sun is setting again. There is an inevitability once you’re out there, in the woods, in the dark. The queers reading this who spend endless time in the woods are laughing at me and know. Like anything, it gets easier with experience. I only have a couple more hours of daylight, and then I’ll be asked whether I am so brave, whether I really want to be alone, whether I want this “escape” when All The Lights Are Out and there is scratching outside.

***
The woods are moonlit, and when you see something like that, you know other people looked at the same moon. If it was a few decades ago, maybe they saw it filtered through some of the same exact trees. And these trees are the children of the trees through which people looked at the moon thousands of years ago.

Not all nights are dark. Not all woods at night are pitch.

Just a couple weeks ago, I was camping with a lover on the side of a mountain in central Pennsylvania in anticipation of a long hike the next day. It was also a full moon. I left the tent to pee in the middle of the night and was pleasantly surprised, because I have spent too much time away from opportunities to see this happen recently, to not need a flashlight. Everything was gorgeous and visible, if without much color. My pale ass hands showed up perfectly fine in front of me, and I easily found a spot away from the tent to pop a squat and stare up at those milky leaves.

Whenever I’m reminded the moon can shine bright enough that most humans can see well enough to complete basic tasks in the middle of the night, I’m reminded of the reason a harvest moon is called such (because it allowed for late work on harvest nights), and, yes, I am reminded of the alienation we feel under Capitalism and in a Colonialist state, a part of a fascistic project that urges us toward abandoning the simple, free, impossibly ancient utility of the light of the full moon in the woods on the side of a mountain.

Everything is silver, and you can see.

Amazon has a camera you can affix to your front door to monitor yourself and your neighbors. It can also see at night.

Stay off of social media because the horrors will upset you. A social media blackout can be more obscure than a dark night.

Maybe the woods are not so scary.

The other residents and I talked, one of our first conversations, about how weird it was to arrive at our scheduled residency, in our part of the world, while a genocide was taking place.

The scratching outside right now is for sure just rodents. I just saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I was looking right at a mouse, and it looked at me. I’m going to have to move my oatmeal off the floor.

Or if the scratching is some man who wants to do me harm, it wouldn’t be the first time.

***
The woods are an ideal on social media for queer people, some fed-up straight women, various outsiders who want to go somewhere where they cannot be touched by society. I saw a woman on TikTok talking about her “retirement plan,” about how it’s to live in a commune on land, with other women, deep in the woods.

But the woods can burn. GPS location can pinpoint you. Drones can fly overhead. There is no real seclusion in 2023. It’s an illusion, and it’s afforded until it isn’t. The natural world, any semblance of freedom of movement, our lives, are here until they aren’t.

And then there’s the fact that it’s largely white people saying things like this, that they could run from a society and out of it into nature, as if that’s even possible while still existing within the same ever-more-fascistic state. Because it’s a colonialist idea that there is a “nature” separate from us and from human society, that there is a presumed access for white settlers to the land we’re on, the “nature,” the woods in North America and at the sites of other colonial projects that is not presumed for the land’s Indigenous peoples.

The woods are soaked in a bloody history of genocide, a word pulsing through my mind and body this week. The National Parks and State Forests and signs with Smokey the Bear that inform us what the fire risk is for the day are all reminders of wrongs yet to be righted. I feel like, in recent years, I’ve seen an uptick in knowledge and awareness around Land Back movements, and even some good news coming out of these movements. Part of learning and unlearning around Land Back, too, is trying to burn away the colonizer inside my own head, letting controlled brush fires destroy ideas that aren’t serving us, trusting that there have to be other, better things that can grow in their place.

The woods are not neutral, are not virginal, are not something that exist outside of the influence of human interaction and touch. Indigenous peoples in North America have cultivated food forests for thousands of years, contributing to the biodiversity of forests, and also, resulting in the sense from Europeans who entered these forests hundreds of years ago for the first time that they were somehow abundant of their own accord, Eden-like, as though the trees had just up and assembled themselves into orchards that grew alongside medicinal and culinary herbs and berry bushes. Now, the traces of these food forests could be used by Indigenous tribes as part of land back claims, demonstrating that these forest areas, that the woods surrounding villages were actively cultivated, tended, inhabited before colonizers forcibly removed or murdered native populations. The sense that the woods are “untouched” by humans is a relatively recent development; it feels like it’s part of the same colonial-capitalist project to keep us unmoored from our surroundings, to leave the management of these woods to corporations, to governments, not to the people who have known what they’re doing, to mentally, passively sign onto theft. When I pass brambleberries in the woods, which have no poisonous look alikes in North America by the way, I wonder if someone played a part in putting them there, if those are the descendents of berries that were intentionally cultivated in a patch for convenient picking, or if they’re here now because birds carried the seeds from a food forest that is still winding its roots into the ground even as the uncultivated woods around it bleed into its edges. In cities, our local governments have planted mostly male flowering trees, so that we can have the aesthetics of these trees, but none of the fruit, so that the trees can’t feed people. Because that’s not allowed.

When I was a kid and I wanted to run from what I could sense around me, from a town that hated queers and parents that imposed religion and schools that restricted thought, I longed for the woods. I didn’t see cities in my mind, didn’t imagine cities as a point of liberation, not when I was a kid. I imagined solitude or a few friends and leaves and roots and roaming. Now, on Google maps, I can see how the woods are sandwiched neatly between highways. When I walk into the forest, I can often still get a couple bars on my phone.

When I was on the side of that mountain and my lover and I were sitting by our fire, we heard something that, at first, sounded like human voices, talking in the distance. We sat, tense. We didn’t see any lights. This carried on for some time. Then, it coalesced into what could have been wolves, could have been coyotes, more likely, based on the fewer voices we were hearing. But then, it got closer and closer until it sounded like a single owl.

We opted to hike the remains of our food out of our camping spot and back to the car to the dark. On the way, I looked into the woods. I saw figures, tall and with faces unlike anything I’ve really ever seen before, just looking at me, standing in among the trees. While I felt pins and needles, I didn’t panic. They were just looking. I was just looking. I said nothing to them or about them until we were out of those woods, remembering what everyone says about the Appalachian mountains.

A particularly relevant part of my project here, my pursuit of myself after continued and mostly cohabiting partnership, has been to be okay with defining and holding my own beliefs. It can be hard to parse out what is yours and what is a partner’s when you live together, spend so many moments together. So, now, I just have to ask myself if what I saw in the woods was real. And regardless of what you think, I will tell you that mostly, when I think of them, I just feel a mourning.

***
Because the woods are not quiet in the way cottagecore posts make them out to be. The woods are loud and the leaves are a clatter and the rain is smacking on the tin roof, and while the rodents and the leaves are a cacophony this time of year, in the spring and summer the frogs and the rodents and the birds are noisier than the sounds that come off the city street outside my house. And I am also loud and currently located within them.

It’s not an escape, it’s just something different.

***
This particular set of woods are a bookend to my experience of myself as a person. It’s hard to explain, but whenever I’ve been monogamously partnered and left alone, there would be this deep, overwhelming sense of dread when the night came. Not without cause, either. But still, it’s hard to live like that. Bodily. It is hard to live like that.

When I first came up here, in April, I was monogamously partnered. The experience was, in the writing I was working on (a forthcoming project!) and in my personal life, hand-in-hand with facing some long standing fears. Staying in this little cabin then was terrifying. I was sleep-deprived. Every sound set me on edge. I powered through and played it off in the daylight, only to return to a place of panic when the sun set. Similarly, any time I was left home alone in the house we used to share, every stray sound elevated my anxiety to near-panic-attack levels.

And now, I think, because there is no alternative, suddenly, it’s easier. I wasn’t expecting that.

I wasn’t expecting it to be so easy to listen to the house creak at night. And now, it seems like such a silly thing to have worried about. It makes me wonder what else is keeping me constrained in ways I am not even seeing. What else is restricting my better self out of fear?

Sometimes a symbol is just a symbol. It’s helpful for understanding ourselves and our place and our capabilities. But once we know more, it’s time to figure out what to do past the purely symbolic. TikTok ideas of escapism are futile and honestly counterproductive. My childhood ideas were beautiful and important and also childish. I’m still unpacking why I always felt so anxious while partnered when I was alone at night but feel less so now. I am not sure I like the answers. And I know ‘little me’ wants something even better, something more right than just running away.


This is Untethered, a new column by me, a person who has basically never been single in their whole adult life. Herein, I’m publicly committing to, above all else, dating myself and building community around me not based on the relationship escalator — for the indefinite future. I’m curious about what that looks like, genuinely, and hope you’ll explore that with me!

This piece was written while I was in residence at Sundress Academy for the Arts. Thank you to Sundress Publications and their staff for their work and support of writers.

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Nico

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 227 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for this piece. I think it’s great that you are choosing a period of untetheredness. I needed that at one point in my early 20’s and it was very good for me. I hope you are able to get so much out of it as well!
    The piece is also very thought-provoking in terms of our fantasies about Nature on this continent. I’m a Nature Girl and super into hiking, camping, and back country camping. I hope to visit all of the National Parks except the historical ones which sound creepy to me (I do not want to see a Civil War site or any land controlled by enslavers, thanks!). But ALL of the land was controlled by enslavers and genocidal murderous colonizers, and the injustices are still here. So we have our dilemma. I still feel so good when I’m in Nature far from any road or man-made thing. But, yeah, I guess the natural world has been enhanced by humans for a long long time in ways I will never know about. Sigh. Nothing is pure or virgin or untouched. Maybe that is a patriarchal construct anyway: virginity was invented so males can feel powerful when they are the first ones to touch what is pure.
    I’ve been living in NYC since age 1988, because I would visit NYC growing up and wanted to be in the excitement, diversity, anonymity, creativity, and potential for queerness that humans had carved out here. And I crave the wilderness and Nature and try to visit it as much as I can. All I’ve ever really wanted is a bunch of like-minded ppl to live with near the wilderness, though. Maybe that’s my retirement plan too…

    • Thank you so much for your encouragement about the column and for your thoughts here. It’s true! There’s obviously still value in getting outdoors for all humans. It’s super beneficial to our minds and bodies, even as complicated as well, the everything that we inhabit and touch is.

      <3

  2. the mourning <3
    I wrote a whole thing that I’ve now deleted (lol); thank you for the food for reflection 🤎

    Also my therapist pointed out that only having ~male~ trees makes allergy season worse for folks because they pump out pollens(?) more frantically, looking for the fruit bearers.
    Untethered: cherry blossom edition 🌸 😛

    • <3 yes! And a lot of city planning involved just planting male trees so that there wouldn't be fruit-bearing trees in public spaces...which leads to a lack of free produce even if the reason was ostensibly to "prevent cleanup" and it totally makes our collective allergies worse!

      thank you so much for reading!

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