NONFICTION: Essays celebrate the joy and connections to be found in the deep woods.
"Within These Woods" by Timothy Goodwin; Riverfeet Press (242 pages, $16)
Timothy Goodwin, an associate professor of education at Bemidji State University, might have kept the brief, gemlike essays that make up "Within These Woods" to himself. They might have become a private journal, or the contents of a ringed binder in his family cabin for others to discover and treasure during nights by the fireplace.
Thankfully for us, they became this book. You can read it all at once, following the arc of Goodwin's time spent at a family cabin on Barker Lake in northern Wisconsin's Sawyer County from age 12 to his now grizzled status. Or you may prefer to peruse one of the three- or four-page essays here and there based on what intrigues you after your own day in the woods — the whitetail deer? The Cooper's hawk? The spring beauty and the wood anemone? That snapping turtle? The club moss, or the beaver, or the chipping sparrow, or the black crappie, or wild rice?
Goodwin's essays celebrate 45 creatures or plants. Each brief chapter is a full read by itself. He uses the fauna or flora he's focusing on as a window into the northern woods he's teaching us about. Each plant or animal fits tightly into that world, and is inextricable to our lives, and he tells us why.
Each essay is accompanied by a Goodwin illustration, charming and skilled. He includes short, contemplative poems he has written and revelatory quotes by great naturalists. And each essay ends with a leap from the particular science of the life form he's examining to a lesson we might ponder in our own, messier, human lives.
At its best, that approach is arresting, like the wee lesson at the end of an Aesop's fable. But there are times when the segue from the woods into Goodwin's wisdom feels a bit cloying, as if he tried too hard.
One where it works well is his chapter on the whitetail deer, where he explains why deer hunting is urgently important in a landscape now largely devoid of predators. The story of humans and deer is one of the starkest examples of why we must "tread as lightly as possible, for we do not even know with which step we will change an ecosystem," he writes.
Goodwin is at his thoughtful best when he reminds us what the Ojibwe or Dakota cultures, as well as European settlers' worldviews, made of the creatures and plants he celebrates. Then, he gently warns us why those life forms may disappear — habitat destruction, pollution, climate change. It is to his credit that he can gracefully combine such forceful thoughts in the space of three or four pages, over and over again, in varying ways.
All who spend time in the woods of Minnesota or Wisconsin will deeply appreciate this book.
But it is not a given that city dwellers will be persuaded to go into the woods by it. What, indeed, would persuade them? Perhaps it is best that they do not, the woods therefore being less trodden, though how wonderful it would be if every city child had the opportunity to spend a lot of time there to see what he or she might discover. Perhaps reading this book will lead to more such priceless forays.