By Shealyn Paulis
Contrary to the popular quote, author Douglas Wood says every man is an island.
“Islands are connected, when you get deep enough, under the surface,” said Wood, a lifelong naturalist. “That’s where we’re all connected, at the deepest levels. I think that’s a good metaphor for human beings as well.”
Wood’s newest memoir, A Wild Path, is an essay collection for adults that details the most vulnerable and difficult moments in his life. It is a follow up to his 2017 memoir Deep Woods, Wild Waters. Though hard to do, vulnerability and openness to things not typically talked about are necessary for connecting people and their experiences, Wood said.
The book is a significant change. Wood has written nearly two dozen children’s books, some of which are also focused on nature and the outdoors. But his upcoming book is for adults, touching on hard topics like growing up with ADHD, failure, trauma, understanding his place in the world and how the power of nature helped him overcome hard times.
At age 70, he has spent a lifetime outdoors, particularly the northern Minnesota woods.
Besides being an author for the past 30 years, Wood also spent decades working as a wilderness guide, leading others on expeditions throughout the northern woods and waters of Minnesota hiking, camping, canoeing. By sharing these experiences, he guides others to explore similar paths, using nature to heal, teach and guide as it has done for him.
He writes in “A Wild Path” that “it was in that process of sharing, of leading other people to a hidden waterfall or down a stair-step rapids… or simply pointing out the differences in a white or a red pine… that I began to see and understand the therapy of wilderness.”
This can be hard in a technology-driven world, he said. Modern children spend little time outdoors. But all children are born naturalists. Connecting with the wilderness is a natural part of everyone that has been lost over time, he said..
“Kids go through their childhood without a connection to nature, without green spaces to walk in (or) to listen to the songs of birds, without hearing sounds of the night and seeing stars,” he said. ”It’s a very unnatural way and unhealthy way to grow up.”
Instead, children are taught to focus from an early age on getting good grades and finding careers.
Wood argues that understanding and connecting with the natural world has lost its importance, as it won’t necessarily lead to riches or success. But connecting to nature is a part of who we are at our deepest levels, as we are parts of the natural world, just like the plants and animals we observe.
“Along the way, people need help, guidance, to remind them how important it is,” Wood said. “Adults showing interest in the outdoor world reminds kids that it is important, and that we’re a part of it all.”
Wood credits countless days spent in Minnesota’s woods for guiding him through his toughest times.
The collection of essays details how he grew to understand himself easier when in nature. He allowed nature to heal and teach all of his life, guiding him through personal difficulties, he said.
One essay is about a struggle in Wood’s life when he felt hopeless, lonely and low. Out for a long walk on a cold night, he looked up, hoping to see stars. Instead, he saw a tree.
“And in an instant -one single moment- I knew something,” he wrote. “Something I needed to know. Something important. Something trees know: when life is hard and you’re not sure what to do, reach. Reach up for the light. Reach down for where you’re rooted. Reach out into the world around you. Survive and endure. Extend yourself and grow, through whatever hardship comes your way. Stay rooted and strive.”
Studies link the natural world to improved health, both physical and mental.
In 2015, the National Library of Medicine reported that interaction with plants may help reduce stress. Another study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2012 suggests that spending time in nature and outdoors has beneficial effects on health. A 2023 study in the Royal Geographical Society showed that diversity in birdsongs may yield mental health benefits for humans.
Wood also writes, “Of course, I was far from the first person to make this discovery. Jesus and Buddha both found themselves by spending time in the wilderness or simply sitting under a tree… Indigenous cultures, prominently including the Native people of this continent, have no doubts about the essential ties between humanity and our first mentor, Nature.”
A Wild Path is available for pre-order on Amazon and will be available for purchase or order at bookstores and on the University of Minnesota Press website for $24.95 on December 5, 2023.