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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

These Woods

Woods, Forest, River, Trees, Solitude
Deep in the Enchanted Woods - Mj Pettengill

I learned at a young age, that if you play in the woods with all senses awakened, good intentions, and an open heart, you will find the magic that awaits. The key to this is cultivating and protecting your imagination, keeping your creativity nurtured and fed.

I have returned to these woods. I know them, and they remember me. My feet are familiar to the earth beneath them. Although many have come and gone, our memories remain imprinted in the land and water that flows through rivers and streams. As did my ancestors, I, too, leave traces of myself along the hidden pathways. The imprint is not limited to spiritual or cellular; it is both. Until my return, I was unaware of how much of me lingered. When the time is right, I retrieve various pieces, reconnect broken parts—reuniting with what is necessary for wholeness. The most significant find is that of a lost heart.

I am home.

While out in one of these wild places, I comprehend my belonging. As I have mentioned before and will mention again, balance is a must. Our deep, generative wisdom lies in knowing when to immerse and when to stay on the outer-perimeter. As an observer, I honor and appreciate what is imperative for others to thrive. This knowing of boundaries—where one ends, and the other begins—is invaluable. It’s vital in keeping us all safe. It seems we have lost our innate ability to recognize boundaries.

Upon my first time back in these woods, my memory was jogged by a distinct scent, solely experienced in the woods of my childhood. As living, breathing entities, all woods, whether ancient and healthy or fragmented and compromised, possess their own uniqueness.

The scent here is both peppery and sweet, instantly transporting me back to the days of innocence, self-discovery, and that which is both inside and outside of me. Had I never returned, I may not have recalled its role in the making of me. It may have remained dormant.

As a child, the woods were more of a home than my house. This is strange to consider, I know. But here is the reason why. During the era, and in the small New Hampshire town where I grew up, Amber alerts did not exist. To us, the real threats were things like wood ticks, climbing too high in a tree and falling, getting your new sneakers wet and muddy in a stream that you happened upon.

Of course, other perils hid in the murkiness, the secrets that no one dare talk about, especially little girls who were taught to remain quiet and polite at any and all costs. It was the misinformed, the morally blind and deaf, who systematically diminished our power, leaving us almost as fragile as the eco-systems often at risk. While it was Our Mother who protected us. It was Her who kept us safe.

We were in it together. The kids in town knew it was lunchtime, or the end of the day, by listening to the church bell in the center of town. No matter where one was, every hour, all ears tuned it. It was customary to stop and count. Some kids dashed home, while others either had more time or were rebels, willing to face the consequences.

My friend, Betsy, and I frequently played deep in these woods, where the damp air was heavy and clung to your skin. To some, it may have seemed that danger lurked in the shadows, a place where dark things were buried, and frightening monsters hid from the sun and the moon. But they were mistaken. For, within the mystery of this density is where fairies reside— a world of childlike possibilities. If you were mindful, you witnessed the long lines of shimmering light, illuminating what you were mysteriously drawn to, only to know, not to question.

Woods, Roots, Moss
Find Your Roots and Follow Them Home - Mj Pettengill

As maidens, we encountered enchanted places carpeted with a thick layer of vibrant moss—the sphere of death and rebirth. Great white pines and hemlock trees sparkled with dew clinging to their needles.

Rotted stumps, mushrooms, ferns, wildflowers, slippery wet leaves, and thick knotted tree roots were layered harmoniously beneath our feet, inviting us to follow them to a place often feared and generally overlooked. It is here, where we unearthed our intuition, our life-giving power that over the decades, would wax and wane.

Towering granite rocks, old stone walls, and cellar holes were found in unexpected clearings in the woods. Within minutes, we had mapped out the characteristics of our own imaginary house. It was the fragments of the old homesteads being reclaimed by the woods that told stories. We could only imagine, and we did.

While many of our counterparts played in the safety of neat houses or well-planned playgrounds, we were in the woods. We were, in fact, ecstatic. I have few memories of playing indoors. Unless the weather was bad or I was sick, all of the fun was out there in the untamed landscape.

I am wired to the point where I knew that it was vital for my children to have the same opportunity. I didn’t set out to do this obsessively. Still, it was there, this idea that the enchantment of the woods and wild open fields would be a significant aspect of their growth and development.

I was a home educator, so this was an essential part of their daily lives. It was their normal. There was free play, of course, and there were carefully designed activities connected to their academics and the arts. For example, in addition to our farm, we maintained bird feeding stations, participated in bird counts, attended bird banding programs, and hawk watches.

One of my favorite memories was hand-feeding baby starlings that had been displaced and left motherless when a new sign was erected at a local store. We took care of them until they were ready to take flight.

I recall a fellow musician, upon hearing of our efforts, exclaim, “Starlings? Don’t people shoot them?”

Hence, where we are today.

Where did this lead?

My eldest son participated in programs related to outdoor wilderness guide training. He has traveled the world—cliff diving in Portugal, sand-boarding in Dubai, climbing some of the highest mountains, and sailing on the high seas.

My other son said that one of the greatest gifts that I gave to them was their access and opportunity to play in the woods. He saw value in sticks, pine cones, boulders, and trees. I taught them to honor natural bodies of water—streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, puddles, and the ocean.

Moving away to a large city was a considerable change. As a student, he thrived, but the separation from the land, the cycles and seasons, awakened his senses. It took time to adjust to the absence of our nature. When he expressed his delight in pumpkin ice cream, because they were in season, his friends were unaffected. A siren in the distance instinctively sounded like an owl. In time, he adapted to and thrived in the city.

My daughter traveled the country, living out of her backpack, relying on her intuition. She's courageous and brave. There is a difference. My children perceive wildness in their own way because that is who they are, who we are.

Teach your children well. May they know their roots and always return to them.


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