Last week, my daughter and I had the opportunity to fulfill one of my dreams. We had escaped the polar vortex and landed in a friend's loft space not far from the northern California landmark known as the Muir Woods National Monument, one of the last old growth forests in North America. I was beside myself with excitement, but my daughter rolled her eyes and slumped further into our friend's air mattress.
"I don't want to go," she said.
She's 6 and a city kid. We had taken a plane, a train, a cable car, a ferry and a taxi in the 48 hours since arriving in California. I understood that walking a half-mile to catch a bus to a forest for a hike did not sound fun to her. It required effort and legwork and uncertainty along the way.
"We can have a picnic," I said.
"Why can't we have a picnic in this playground?" She pointed to a collection of swings, slides and stone tables stained with raven droppings on the side of the road. There was a strip mall across the street. She was not only tired of travel. She felt safer among the suburban California sprawl than in the unknown of the woods.
I struggled to find the words to communicate what happens when you enter the woods. I knew the selling points would not shine in description. There was the color -- the multitude of greens. There was the quiet. There was the density and grandeur of giant Redwood trees, about which I only knew second-hand. We would be surrounded by beauty and stricken by awe, I wanted to say, but it would mean little to a 6-year-old who neurologically experienced awe doing science experiments with magnets and paperclips "You don't understand," I said, "we're going to the woods."
"It's dark and wet there."
"Maybe a little," I answered, "but it also feels magical. Part of the reason why people tell stories about fairies and unicorns is because of the woods."
"It doesn't say that in my books."
I knew we might not have this chance again for a while. The National Park Service protected these woods since 1908, and I had made it a life goal to visit back in 1998. This is the closest I had gotten. It wouldn't help to explain that President Theodore Roosevelt himself spent four days camping with John Muir and saved much of the American West because of him. It wouldn't help to share my anxiety about how our modern sense of development could make a case for wiping out 2000 year old trees and the ecosystems surrounding them in the blink of an eye.
"We're going," I said.
She obediently walked with me to the bus stop where we waited for a shuttle that never came. The sun passed into afternoon. We stopped at the crummy playground on the way home. On the tiny terrace, we found a patch of sun and played UNO. I wanted to believe both of us were disappointed, but I wasn't sure.
Fortunately, our hostess had left work early and, upon learning of our thwarted journey, piled us into her car. Within 30 minutes our day turned around, and we ascended Mount Tamalpais flanked by wildflowers and eucalyptus. We switch-backed down into the valley, and entered the shadowy parking lot. The air had turned chilly. I zipped my daughter's sweatshirt and pulled up her hood, and noticed on her face an excited smile. Everything had changed, now that we were here. I could see in her eyes that she understood: we had come to the woods.
Once we passed under the archway she was gone, bounding down the path, open-armed, a tiny, brightly striped figure among massive wooden bodies. I chased her over the bridges and clambered up the trails passing over moss and under fragrant afternoon blooms. Birds tittered above us, invisible. We stayed until dusk, surrounded by all those things I had wanted to name -- color, beauty, grandeur -- as well as other things I couldn't quite name that had to do with space, time and the living beings with whom we share this earth.
"I don't know why I didn't want to come," she shouted from the inside of the 2,000-year-old Cathedral tree. "The woods are awesome!"
I wondered, too. We had brought her camping in Wisconsin. We had read The Lorax. We gardened. Children love the woods intuitively, I had thought until that very moment. Here is what's true: children, like adults, love the woods only if they feel like they are a part of them.