Exploring the Woods for Undiscovered Creatures: How Nature Influences the Imagination

Lake EmmaThe following essay first appeared in Whisper in the Woods Kimberli Bindschatel’s gorgeous nature magazine that ran from 2004-2008.

I began to notice the figure from about 100 feet away. It rose out of a snowdrift like an ancient statue—northern Michigan’s answer to Easter Island. I clomped forward, my snowshoes sinking into the snow, and saw that it was a crudely carved lumberjack, standing about 7 feet tall. He held a hatchet between his fingers, and his carved hair was gathered at the nape of his neck.

Snow fell in fluffy flakes and the sun hid behind a bank of gray clouds. Shadows hovered beneath towering pines. The day took on an eerie feeling, as if someone watched me from the woods, and I hesitated.

“I’m being silly,” I said. The sound of my voice gave me a burst of confidence, and I took another step. Why was I letting this strange carving scare me? Had I somehow regressed about 30 years, back to my fanciful youth?

Still, the carved giant was unnerving. His uneven eyes seemed to glare, warning me off the two-tracks I was exploring. And I hurried away, thinking about the times where my thoughts have gotten the best of me.

Over the years, my imagination has converted a cluster of turkey vultures leaning over a carcass into a coven of witches. Or once, while on a trail run, a crow seemed to follow me, flying ahead and then landing on nearby branches. I imagined that the bird was not what it seemed. Was something else trapped inside the crow’s body? Would it transform?

I’ve often been amazed at where nature takes my mind. It allows us to think beyond ourselves, to feel how small we are compared to a vast forest or lake. For some, like myself, our thoughts turn to the fantastical, probing the woods for undiscovered creatures. As a writer, I turn these mental ramblings into stories, like in my short-story collection, The Curse of Blackhawk Bay (Sam’s Dot Publishing, December 2008).

Yet, at times, I also find my imagination shifting to a more spiritual path. Although my father has been gone now for almost 20 years, my mind brings him back. I can almost see him at my side, hiking or mountain biking and remarking on the blue sky or a loon’s call. I close my eyes and hear his voice.

And this, I think, among all the gifts that nature gives us is perhaps the greatest. It grants us the space and quiet to allow our minds to wander, whether it be inventing an alternate world existing within the forest or remembering loved ones. I believe these mental gymnastics keep us young, pushing at our minds, allowing them to explore and invent

So on the day I encountered the hatchet man, I quickly left him behind, wondering how he might appear in my next short story. Soon, though, the spooky feeling subsided. A ray of sunshine split through the mass of gray clouds and I struggled to the top of a steep hill. My snowshoes slid backward with each step, and I thought about my father, how much he would have enjoyed the day—the sense of adventure and exploration. I felt his presence and allowed it to fill my mind.

The wind whispered through the pines as I trudged back down the hill toward home. A deer blind, hidden by a log, lurched on the left and animal tracks scampered across the snow. Somewhere a bird called, almost a wail, and immediately my imagination was off again, pushing at its boundaries, wondering what waited in the woods, what stories I could create.

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