Lessons of the Woods: A New York Writer Moves to Woodstock to Find Her Way

Friday, January 17, 2014
In 2008, the writer Lynn Darling fled New York for Vermont, buying a ramshackle, off-the-grid house in Woodstock. Holed up with an English Lab pup named Henry as her only companion, Darling intended to take stock of who she was, where she was and what she would do next. She would also, she writes, learn a sense of direction, find an authentic way to live, deal with sex, learn Latin and figure out how to be old. All of which, as she discovered, was easier said than done.

Darling’s account of spending four years in Vermont is called Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding (Harper). It’s a sequel of sorts to her memoir Necessary Sins, which was published in 2007 and explored, not necessarily in order of importance, literature, friendship, men, feminism, sex, desire, infidelity, guilt, love, children, writing, motherhood, death and grief — just for starters.

When the reader arrives in the Vermont woods with Darling, Darling has just dropped off her daughter Zoe for her first semester of college. The past 12 years had been tough. Darling had seen her husband Lee Lescaze, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, die from cancer in 1996 at age 57; they’d met working at the Washington Post, where she was a writer in their vaunted Style section, and he was her editor. He was married, they flirted, had an affair, fell in love and he eventually divorced his wife to marry Darling, who went on to write for such magazines as Esquire, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar.

Just 44 when Lescaze died, Darling was then thrown back on raising their daughter Zoe, only 6 when her father died, as a single parent. At 56, Darling experienced another departure, not as agonizing, but certainly bittersweet, when Zoe left home for college.

After saying goodbye, Darling drove west from Maine to Vermont, shunning the relatively efficient predictability of the interstates for the zigs and zags of the New England byways. It sounds like a comforting coda at the end of a memoir about life’s rich pageant, with Darling waving at Zoe as they both embark on different but rewarding lives. Throw in a few platitudes about the journey being the point, not the destination, and the loose ends are nicely tied up for the reader.

Except that on her way to Vermont Darling got hopelessly lost, probably in New Hampshire, although she wasn’t certain about that because she was, after all, lost. She ended up studying maps in her car near a cornfield guarded by a menacing scarecrow. Eventually she found the right road that led to the next right road that got her to Route 4, and arrived at the house in the woods which was, as they say in the real estate trade, a do-it-yourself-er, half-finished and in some disarray. In retrospect, “it was completely bizarre that I would pull up stakes and move like that,” Darling said in an interview from New York City, where she returned in 2012. But at the time, “it was more an instinct that I needed to do this. It seemed a perfectly normal thing to me to do.”

In fact, she was flailing in deep water without knowing where the bottom was or how far it was to shore. “I didn’t really have a sense of who I was or where I was going when the day-to-day caring for a child was done,” she said.

“I spent a lot of time mourning the past, mourning my daughter’s leaving,” she said. “The country is a very foreign place. I didn’t know how to chop wood, I didn’t know how to do anything. I was beginning with a kind of paralysis where I really felt poleaxed.”

What four years in rural solitude taught her was that moving ahead wasn’t always a question of “having a map, but the tools to find your way. And finding your way is paying attention to where you are, and paying attention to your surroundings.”

If this sounds like more metaphor than one book can handle, Darling pricks grandiloquence with a sharp pin of astute self-awareness and dry humor. In fact, she had set out to write not a memoir, but a book about maps, direction and explorers, and why north ended up at the top of the map, and what it means to be lost, and what it means to find and be found, and how to navigate the unknown.

“I was writing about ... the cultural perceptions of being lost,” she said. “Daniel Boone said, I’ve never been lost; I’ve been confused for a few days. Contrast that to Thoreau who said, Everyone should get lost,” because in the process they find out something essential about themselves.

Take the remarkable epic of the conquistador Alvar Nunez Cabeza da Vaca, which is recounted by Darling in the memoir, who sailed from Spain in 1527 intent on the things conquistadors are usually intent on. Da Vaca might have made his name as a pillager and plunderer, but for a storm at sea that blew the ship off course, wrecking it and leaving a small group of survivors.

What followed was a harrowing trek with a handful of men from Florida all the way to California, with detours to what are now the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, and Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. All in all, da Vaca was “lost” for nine years in an alien land, befriending the indigenous peoples until he eventually stumbled on to some Spanish soldiers in New Mexico, and sailed back to Spain in 1538.

“I identified with (such explorers) romantically,” Darling said. People who disappear like that achieve a kind of immortality, she said, and in the book she points to such examples as Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared in Papua New Guinea, and the legendary Ninth Spanish Legion that is thought to have vanished en masse in Roman Britain.

“But then when I was in Vermont and feeling very, very lost and very, very confused ... the stories became more like warnings than they were romances,” she said.

Not that Darling had any plans to turn into a misanthropic recluse. For one thing, she’d become good friends with her neighbors and made a comfortable life for herself. But the original plan for the book changed. Darling found she was just as compelled by her own explorations of the landscape, particularly since she had gone through life as someone who got lost fairly easily.

As she began to sort out the intricacies of the woods, she both learned and was taught how to read contour maps, and how to draw them herself. She became proficient with a compass, and started to note more carefully the natural markers in the woods that pointed the way back home.

But most significantly, on one of her occasional trips back to the city, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and that changed everything. The memoir interweaves her response to the chemotherapy and radiation, and the cascade of emotions they unleashed, with her experience of honing the skills she needed to have to go off-trail in the woods without losing her way. Exploring was a way to assert control, to be daring and to recognize that nature has a way of realigning one’s perspective.

“You shrink down to your correct size, which is minuscule, and you realize how big the world is and your place in it,” Darling said. “People have their mental maps of where they think they are versus where they really are. I found the whole experience of walking in the woods was that reality was more interesting than fantasy.”

Joseph Olshan, who lives in Barnard and has written 10 novels, is a friend of Darling’s. He met her when both lived in New York City, lost touch and then discovered, to his surprise, that she had moved to Vermont, not far from him. Now an editorial director at Delphinium Books, he’s seen his share of memoirs, many of which, in his judgment, are mediocre. Not so Out of the Woods.

Reading it “was both an instructive experience as well as an intimate experience,” he said. “The book shows a great deal of discipline and there’s certainly a lot of craft there.” In a genre in which all depends on the writer’s voice, it’s Darling’s voice that held him. And while it’s her own story, he said, “it does hit these universal chords.”

Now in remission, Darling looks back on her four years in Vermont with the canny assessment of a woman who has wrestled with the unalterable truths of aging and mortality, and is content to be where she is. “I’m not sure if I have a different perspective but I have a deeper perspective. When I moved back I don’t think I realized how much I’d changed, for the better,” she said.

“You find yourself not regretting so much. You’re just so happy to be alive and to have the chance to keep going. You don’t have a lot of time to waste in the past.”

In 1845 Henry David Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately and to front only the essential facts of life. In 2008, Darling also went to the woods, where she learned what they had to teach. She lived deliberately, grappled with life’s essential facts and did what she’d set out to do. “I’d done a reckoning with myself,” she said.

Lynn Darling will read from Out of the Woods on Feb. 12 at the Norwich Bookstore at 7 p.m. Call 802-649-1114 for information and reservations.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.co m.

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