In a Dark Wood

A 19-year journey through Great Smoky Mountains National Park (4:44)

“In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.” ~ Dante, The Divine Comedy

After about five years into motherhood I was coming out of postpartum depression and struggling with overwhelm and burnout from over-functioning. Something was missing in my life, and my body knew before my mind.

The popular saying, “The mountains are calling, and I must go,” is too cheerful a sentiment for what I felt then. Even though I live in the foothills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and even though my husband and I would take our kid out on hikes from the time he was an infant, I was still mostly removed from the place that was partially responsible for healing the psychic stress of my childhood and adolescence, a place that had not only given me a new identity, but also a sense of home and place, and with that a deeper connection to the earth. The Smokies has given me a place to belong to, and the experience of being immersed in a place so full of biodiversity had managed to fully restore a sense of wonder and amazement of the immeasurable beauty of the earth.

When I found myself dissociated from a sense of place, I was also disconnected from my sense of self.

Before I spent hours staring at screens on devices that would connect me anywhere in the world, I spent hours gazing at the map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. By the time I decided I needed to return to hiking and backpacking for my mental health, I had already hiked two-thirds of the park’s trails. Thus, in the middle of my life, recognizing that amid many of the dry, shriveled dreams strewn about, I still had one that deserved an attempt, which was to finish something I’d started.

It is hard not to fall in love with the Smokies, but reclaiming wilderness adventuring after motherhood meant I was going to have to embark on solo journeys, which I’d only ever done one or two of, and in the past, I was always scared as soon as it got dark.

Although I have faced a lot of real and imagined fears and found some measure of resilience in healing my fragmented self, I was still afraid of the dark until these last few years. I knew that my desire to be in the woods had to be greater than my fear, though, and that helped push through to allow me to find the joy I seek and explore more of the history, landscape, and biodiversity of these mountains that have held me and helped me write a new story for my life.

I have found that so often, the journey is not around, but through. There’s much bursting forth seeking a longer form and that I’m holding close for now, but this video is a short representation of my journey. The music is a song called “Sylva Obscura,” which comes from the album of the same name by The Westsylvanians. The band members are Matt Calvetti, Joel Husenits, and my husband, Jeremy Lloyd, who’ve been making music together for over two decades, despite living in three different states. Sylva Obscura is their reference to Dante’s dark woods, and when I was on my last hike needed to finish the park map, the idea for opening came to mind, and a little later I started to hear the tune.

I took my first backpack trip 19 years ago when Jeremy and I were first dating, a few years before I moved to the Smokies. Rambling through the park is how we spent our free time. We would often talk about environmental issues, including climate change. Hiking often has the effect of plunging me into the dark woods of contemplation about the fragile ecosystems and warming polar ice caps. These days, the pressure of solving the climate crisis looms bigger than ever. It’s for that reason I wanted to dedicate this video to the youth climate movement.

Youth movements are one of the most significant forces for societal change, and the youth climate movement has some of the most inspiring, intelligent, and capable humans now alive. They are an intersectional group of digital natives who are adept at organizing and sharing power. I believe every voice counts in the global climate movement, and getting involved is one of the best antidotes to despair I’ve ever found.

These are just some of the organizations that are making an enormous impact by training the next generation to use their voices and lead the way to a fossil fuel free future in the face of government inaction:

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