And I write while I’m there, among the pines, at a campfire or by the lake. If it rains or the wind howls, I retreat to a graceful lodge built of giant logs and furnished with a great stone fireplace, with history on the walls and, if I’m lucky, a place for me at an old oak roll top desk.
I have always hesitated to call myself a writer. I was for most of my adult life a newspaperman. I might call myself a reporter, maybe a staff writer when I wore a tie and talked with governors and such, and for a couple stretches a columnist. Now, at 72, I teach news writing part-time to university students, and I write a weekly newspaper column.
“Who is your audience?” I ask the students, telling them they should know that before they begin typing. “Who are you writing for? What do you want to say, and how should you say it?” As practice, I give them each a thank-you note, an envelope and a postage stamp, an exercise I found in a Nieman Storyboard years ago. (Each semester, I have to tell a couple students how to address their letter and where to put the stamp. It’s their first time.)
Turning the notebook inward
When I write in the woods, it’s different than my journalism — usually personal, reflective, a post or series of posts on Facebook. My audience is friends — longtime, beloved and often distant friends, and hundreds of digital “friends” whose paths crossed mine along the way. I fret about those musings coming off as overly self-indulgent, but my friends, including “friends,” tend to respond nicely.
When I turned 70 two years ago, I wrote monthly from camp in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park from May into November, calling the series of posts “Camping at 70” and saying I wanted to see if, at that age, I still could sleep on the ground and get up in the morning. (I confess it’s getting harder.) I wrote about 5 a.m. breakfasts with blue jays overhead and chipmunks at my feet, the contents of my book bag, sightings of bears and moonlight serenades by owls, struggles with lanterns and air mattresses — and the constant, conflicting pull of peaceful isolation against a sometimes overwhelming sense of aloneness.
“A campfire is best enjoyed with company,” I wrote one night that summer, pecking the words out on my smart phone as I sat, alone, by my fire, “so you and someone you like and trust can stare into it, feed it, talk or sit quietly and remember. Alone, I tend to miss certain people too much.”
In late September that year, I borrowed from E.B. White’s “Essays” to convey why I kept coming back to this campground with its lodge and lakes, its ferns and centuries-old pines — more than 50 years now — and asked readers far and near to indulge me. From White:
“The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.”
Or personal columns, perhaps. Or long Facebook posts from the woods.
Three months earlier, I had written this:
“Aloneness is different from lonesomeness. I thrive on aloneness, taking time to see and listen, remember and think. Up to a point. Aloneness can slide easily into the other, which can lead to boredom or depression.”
Also in my book bag that summer was Sylvain Tesson’s “The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Siberian Taiga.” Now there’s a fellow who appreciated solitude. At one point in his yearlong aloneness, Tesson describes snowshoeing through the forest in April, setting up his tent on a rocky overlook, laying down a mattress of dwarf pine branches and building a fire. The fire sends sparks “shooting into the sky,” glittering “with a last brilliance before melting into the stars.” Tesson:
“Nothing is as good as solitude. The only thing I need to make me perfectly happy is someone to whom I could explain this.“
Itasca’s campgrounds in high summer are more suburban neighborhood than Siberian taiga, of course, with kids running and dogs chasing and RVs nearly as long as a city block providing music and energy for campground block parties. I may retire to an infrequently visited trail. But sometimes the other campers give me something to think — and write — about.
Lily and “Santa”
Earlier this August, I wrote about meeting Lily, 4, who was camping with her family. Twice as I passed by, the little girl smiled and waved at me, said her name and asked me mine. She appeared to be alone — Mom must have been inside the camper — so I just smiled, told her she should check with Mommy or Daddy before talking to me, and walked on.
I love it when little kids smile at me, I wrote later, but it can be an ugly world. I hate it that sweet kids must be taught to be careful, but I accept that they do.
The third time I passed, Lily again smiled and waved to me, but this time she called to her mother, told her “the big man” was back, which made me a bit nervous. But Mom came out, looked me over and smiled.
“She wanted to know your name,” she said.
I explained why I had been standoffish, and Mom nodded. She understood.
Again, Lily asked me for my name.
I had a hunch, I wrote later — it has happened before — so I asked her if she could guess my name.
“That’s right!” I said, patting my belly and fluffing my white beard.
I finished the little story later and shared it on Facebook.
“With Mom watching and listening, we talked about reindeer and snow, I asked Lily if she’s been good and she said she has, and I told her to have Mommy help her write a letter to me at the North Pole in a couple months. I believe she will.
“We said goodbye. I went down to the lake and listened to loons and wished for a long, safe and happy life for Lily, for all the Lilys.”