When I was 23 years old, I traveled to Sweden to visit a guy I met during his study abroad year. We spent a few days at his parents’ rural cottage and one afternoon they took me on a motorboat ride to a random island in the Baltic sea. After we docket, I asked, “Have you been here before?” No, they told me. They chose it because no one else appeared to be there, which according to them was the Swedish way of vacationing. Sounded great to me.
Other than the dock, there were no other structures or signs of human life on the island. As the parents arranged a picnic lunch, the boyfriend and I explored the nearby woods where we found a massive patch of moss. I’ve never seen a more beautiful sight than that carpet of dense, spongy, yellow-green. I felt almost guilty walking across it as it crackled beneath my feet. It was like stepping on cotton candy, the sugar crystals collapsing under the weight of my feet. I found a bare dirt spot and stopped to take it all in — the tall pines, the moss carpet, the sea on the horizon — and then my boyfriend snapped this photo of me.
I thought of this picture the other day when I was standing in my backyard with my nine-year-old daughter. We were making the most of her early afternoon break from online learning. It was fine outside, for a winter day. Temperature in the 50s. Overcast but not rainy. Not much to complain about, other than being in the heart of these fallow doldrums, ten months into a pandemic that makes indoor socializing dangerous. But that’s just January 2021 for you.
The most January 2021 thing about that moment was the lack of color. My eyes scanned the dead leaf laden lawn and the ashy sky, looking for any vivid hue. Eventually my eyes fell upon a small spread of moss behind the dogwood that sits in the center of the yard. Part of me wanted to lay on my belly with my nose to the ground, so I would see nothing but that soft, chartreuse rug. I would make it my whole world.
But the ground is mucky and riven by shallow roots, and my body is sore, so I stare at this photo instead. I now realize it strongly resembles the forest from my fantasy of personal success.
Shortly after the pandemic started, I decided to embark on The Artist’s Way journey, a 12-week program in which author Julia Cameron guides you through a series of activities designed to nurture and grow your creative self. The most consistent theme I noticed while taking the course is that the color green and leafy, growing things are my primary source of inspiration. I feel most alive and able to create when I’m footsteps away from lush growth.
In one activity, I was asked to envision a day in the life of my successful future self. I’ve never been good at setting personal goals or deciding what success entails. But this notion of what my everyday life would be (presumably after I become a widely published writer) came to me with shocking ease. I imagined myself waking up every morning in my A-frame log cabin home, brewing some coffee, writing in my journal, then taking a long walk in the adjacent woods. A rich soil path would lead me through it. Parts of that forest would be so thick with plant life it would be all I see in any direction. But then there would also be small clearings with pine needle carpets and blankets of moss. The sky high canopy would protect me from sun, drizzle, and wind. I’d be able to take my walk almost every morning, and then after my walk I’d go home and write some more.
My fantasy routine included some other stuff about meeting with friends and comrades, and buying cheese at the farmers’ market, but that top of the morning writing-and-woods-walk ritual is what really resonated. That vision haunts me. I feel an overwhelming sense of longing for my cabin-side forest, for all its fronds and tall grasses, and the way it smells after a heavy rain. I feel cheated every day I don’t get to take a walk there.
So instead I have that picture from Sweden. I used to visit greenhouses. There was one at the Downtown Home & Garden in Ann Arbor where I would drop by during a grim, wintry walk home from work in the early 2000s. That’s where I met a frizzy-haired middle-aged lady who advised me to take off my shoes. “Heated floors,” she said, pointing to the cement ground. “That’s what makes this place so great.” So on that kindly witch’s advice, I stood there shoeless, absorbing the heat and taking in the bevy of potted plants.
More recently I would frequent the greenhouse at Reynolda, the estate where RJ Reynolds once lived. My last visit was a year ago today. Of course I didn’t know that was going to be the last one for a very long time. In January 2020, COVID-19 was still just an idea to me, a thing that was happening in China. Anyway, here’s a picture of what it looked like that day.
I happened past the Reynolda greenhouse last week (during the course of my weekly woods walk), considered the state of our nation, and thought, “See you in a year!” I miss that building — its humidity, its palms, its small cactus section with the handmade signs that say, “Really, don’t touch!”
I miss green immersion. Without it I feel like a husk of a woman, just thoroughly uninspired. I don’t know how I keep writing these essays every two weeks. It all feels like such a slog. But at least I understand myself and why I cannot shake this low-key sadness I feel throughout winter. I also know why I become addicted to pesto this time of year. If you give me leafy green stems, I will turn them into pesto — parsley, arugula, beet greens, carrot tops, whatever you got. A little garlic, olive oil, salt, and toasted nuts, maybe some lemon juice and zest. Puree in a blender. It’s like an elixir. I’ll eat it on bread or crackers, toss it with couscous, or spread it on grilled fish. I guess if I can’t be inside the lush green forest, I will put the lush green forest inside of me. That’s how I’m surviving.