As a protagonist and humble observer, Minnesota author Douglas Wood has written lyrically again and again about what he calls the "theater of the wild."
Now, he is back with a second act: his new memoir, "A Wild Path," published this month and a followup to "Deep Woods, Wild Waters."
He remains a devoted wilderness guide (also on his résumé), pointing out the wisdom in the trees and life lessons forged in the wild north. Still reminding of nature's power to heal. Still finding inspiration from titans like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Aldo Leopold — and this time during an encounter with their reenactors. Yet in this journey, Wood is more forthcoming about his early life as a shy boy, who carried the weight of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. True to his nature, he finds blessings there, too.
Wood, 71, shares an old cabin near the Mississippi River, north of St. Cloud, with his wife of 50 years, Kathy. He was reached there this week to dig into his new book (his 40th, which includes the award-winning children's book "Old Turtle"), finding enjoyment in his Facebook "sermons," transcending dark times, the power of laughter, and more. Here are edited excerpts from an interview:
Q: You say that no two journeys are identical. How is this book different from your earlier memoir? What new lessons and wisdom does it hold?
A: I am more open than I have ever been about my struggles. I remember when I was first discovering the books of Sigurd Olson, he was this perfect, god-like figure that had everything figured out. He was a wonderful mentor for me and my journey. It wasn't until I read my friend David Backes' biographies of Sig that I realized what struggles he had, and how long it took [Sig] to find success. Sometimes he was depressed or anxious. That was much more inspiring to me to know that a hero of mine wasn't just born fully formed being an incredibly mature and beautiful writer.
In this book, I delve more in-depth into my ADHD, dyslexia and other things through childhood. Luckily, I always had the world of nature as my safe and happy place. It took me a while to figure out any way to do something with that to one, make a living, and two, keep myself happy, sane and grounded.
I discovered the world of wilderness guiding. I went on trips with Mike Link, who was the founding director of the Audubon Center of the North Woods near Sandstone. He schooled me until I was ready to lead trips on my own. When I began in earnest, then the discoveries really accumulated — that, as you said, everyone takes their own journey. We may have a crew of eight people taking the same journey, but there are eight different journeys happening. That opened my eyes wide to the world of nature and all the mentors and teachers there. Even something as simple as a portage path or paddling across a wide lake that can become metaphors for life. My difficulties made me sensitive to the experiences of others.
This book also has a lot of levity and humor. As I say in the introduction, humor is a balm and laughter is a lesson on any trip. That goes for a wilderness trip, and that goes for the big trip of life. If I did the book right, I'll take people from maybe a few tears to laughing out loud, and hopefully lots of places in between.
Q: Are there current writers catching your attention?
A: I am a terribly old-fashioned guy. I have to struggle to loan a book out — even to a family member. I have them organized to the best I can. I don't need these thousands of books but I love them. My favorites are the old ones. I still love Sig (Olson), Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, Henry Beston and "The Outermost House." I love the short essays of Hal Borland. Another one that is important to me was Joseph Campbell and all of his work on the mythology of the world. That led me to a better understanding of the metaphorical quality of nature and the outdoors.
Q: What are you working on currently?
A: Usually, there is something on the agenda, and when there isn't, I have these wonderful Facebook followers. I was never expecting to be a Facebook person. I discovered it was fun to write something almost every day, a little short or essay, which strangely keeps my creative juices flowing. Almost every Sunday, I put up a post from what I call The Church of the Pines — our 125-year-old pine grove that we live under here near the Mississippi. We have a fine congregation: chickadees, nuthatches, pileated woodpeckers, otters, beavers, gray and red foxes. It is a wonderful congregation, and they all generally get along, a nice change from the human world. Occasionally one member will eat another, but it's done without malice, so, you know.
Q: What comes through in your writing, and in particular these memoirs, is having the capacity to find awe in the littlest things.
A: Every day of my life isn't like that, but I try to come back to it. If I can do that and write about it, that makes me happy. It's a human thing. All of us get lost in the daily rat race, the external confusions of life. Being a human being is a complicated thing. It's not like being a gray squirrel, which is probably complicated enough.
My favorites in the outdoors world are forests and waters, which I'm sure goes back to when I was 7 years old and my parents and grandparents took me to the North Woods [in Minnesota] for the first time. That was it. I've always found that is my refuge. That is where I go to recover myself, to remember who I am and what it is I am doing. And that sometimes you have to take time out and simply be.
Q. I think of the darkness we experience, like the human horrors in the Middle East, and how you've written about transcendence amid your experiences — how humans innately have this enduring capacity to enjoy life in simple ways despite all.
A: If you are an honest and sensitive person, you are going to realize that the world can be a terrible place and many things about this human life can make us feel sad, anxious, kind of powerless. We get a chance to cast a vote, and I get a chance to write some books, but we're rather limited in how we can change the world. So we understand that life is difficult, sometimes tragic, always short and not long enough.
These things can touch a rather dark place within us, but what I write about in ["The Wild Path"] is the surprising discovery that in the midst of all this, we can still enjoy life somehow. We can still smile at the sunrise. We can still smile at the song of the cardinal or chickadee. We can enjoy the feeling of a paddle in the water and the canoe moving over the water. We can enjoy the smell of wild whitewater. We can look at the trees and understand that every tree that we see is a sculpture of the act of life reaching for light — literally. In reaching toward the light, we fulfill ourselves. We become who we are meant to be. We are entitled to enjoy that journey.
Wood has a virtual book launch at the Listening Point Foundation at 7 p.m. Nov. 29 (details here). Another event is Dec. 10 at Pilgrim House Unitarian Universalist Church in Arden Hills (details here).