Into a dark wood, lightly


In the July 2014 edition of Earthlines magazine, Vivienne Palmer tells a story of being accosted by a naked man when walking alone in the woods above Winchester in England. The man knocks her to the ground. He is holding his penis in one hand. She manages to get to her feet and run like a wild animal for safety. At my convent boarding school in Surrey, the woods were frequented by a man who liked to do much the same, except for the knocking down bit. Because we traveled in groups, this never seemed quite as terrifying.

But as any woman who has felt threatened by a man in a wild place knows, an encounter like this sets off a primal reaction– of fear of being attacked and of resentment at being made to be afraid.

I have worked all my life to be unafraid of being alone in wild places: walking on the hills of Marin County, figures appearing like ghosts out of the swirling fog; the ecstatic joy of standing alone on a mountaintop in a thunderstorm; wandering at night in dark forests to the crackle of leaves and the snap of twigs. At these times, the fear I have felt has not been so much for the grizzly bear, or the mountain lion, or the wolves that howled in the Bechler Canyon in Yellowstone. This is the healthy wild, and I take my chances. What I fear is the crazy man.

As Palmer goes on to say in her Earthlines essay, the reactions a woman receives to being accosted on a remote trail only adds to the damage. If the assault doesn't result in tangible harm, it's laughed off or treated by law enforcement with indifference.

We are also told this--"What were you thinking of?" Women are deemed foolish for walking solo in the wilderness. It's as if we are asking for trouble. It's as if we are supposed to sacrifice this profound and sacred right to be alone in nature because it's somehow irresponsible to do otherwise.

Men, of course, have their own set of challenges in the wild places. And it's not that they can't also be set upon by some maniac or other. And yet, as women we know the courage it takes––that Cheryl Strayed kind of fearlessness––to step onto the trail by ourselves.

The predators we most fear as we enter a dark wood, lightly, are the two-legged ones.