Die as I should

Often when I walk these woods I get awe-struck by the enormity of all these trees cradling me, nursing me in mind and body, opening themselves to me, entreating me to surrender ever more fully to their care.

Autumnal view of a big American beech (with splashes of maple and balsam fir)

I have no idea how many trees are in Balsamea, so I say ten thousand.  It’s probably a drastically low estimate, especially if you count all the little ones just getting started.  I also say I’ve walked these trails ten thousand times, but I know it is many more.  I just stopped estimating when it reached ten thousand.  It’s all too much for me, and never enough.

I am immersed in the virtually miraculous nature of this unbelievable gift in which I swim.  I did nothing to deserve it or earn it.


The unbelievable gift of being The Balsamean, of living this life, arrived when I was deepest in misfortune.  I was deathly ill and wanting to die.  Beyond trying to die in any given instance, I learned I’d been doing it for all my adult life in a very long process of self-destruction from which there was no rescue, because nobody understood what was happening, least of all me.



I had lost almost everything over the final years, except for two pickup truck loads of personal items.  Consequences of mental illness took career, home, health, and all relationships — spouse, family, friends, employers, co-workers.  I was at the bottom of a bottomless pit, hopelessly falling into the forever dark.

Then, Balsamea.

Not immediately.  It took a couple of years, coming to fruition in 2005, but it was developing before I knew it was.  I found a new friend who had a lake house up this way.  I kept the lawn there mowed.  Every time I drove by this land, it reached for me somehow.  I’d look deep into its trees and feel it somehow right for me.  I had no belief in any possibility of ever owning land.  I was still helpless, on welfare, down to the last few months that I was able to keep a car on the road.  Then one day I was granted something I also never expected: an income.  Not a great fortune, but enough to start over.

I bought a car, and began looking for the forested place I would have as my private refuge, my healing haven, with a campsite I would develop, maybe gradually make a shelter better than a tent.

I knew the healing power of the woods, and wanted it to be my new life.  For decades I imagined it, but had not learned how to believe in it until I got this amazing second chance at life.

Incredibly, the real estate I landed was the one that had already landed me, drawing my attention every time I drove by on my way to the friend’s lake house.  It stayed on the market until I was ready for it.  It was far too big a parcel for me to afford, so I asked the owner to subdivide.  She said, “Funny you should ask, I had been thinking about doing that.”

Thus, Balsamea.

I found a 33-year-old badly maintained 16-ft camper trailer (100 sq. ft. interior space) for sale three miles away.  (It beats the hell out of a tent.)  After a few years of using it often, year-round, anywhere from a day to a week at a time, I moved into it full-time, from May 2008 to June 2010, absolutely off-grid, with a 70-pound dog, Buddy, the Prince of Balsamea, who adopted me in 2007.  No electricity, no phone, no water (I hauled it in from nearby springs).

Getting a house was out of the question.  I saw it as a miracle too far.  With the help of a government mortgage (I had to “sacrifice” all of my equity in the land to get it), the house showed up anyway, a luxurious increase from 100 to 800 square feet, with 6-inch walls instead of 2-inch, hot and cold running water, a bath tub, a flush toilet, electricity, a phone line, a clothes washer and dryer, refrigerator, two stoves (one range and one microwave), a satellite dish (there’s no cable here), all absolutely amazing things once you’ve lived without them for two years, and this big window in front of me to gaze out between sentences, continually nourished by the forest even when I am not out there in it.  But I am always in it.  It is in me.  I moved into the house on June 10, 2010.

All the while, since May 2005, I had worked on (and still work on) the trail network here.


Click into the gallery to get a little sense of how things developed at Camp Balsamea.

You know, of course, there had to be people looking at me at my worst, too sick to take care of myself, and saying, “But for the grace of God go I.”  They should wish they had it so good.  My income is far below median for the county, but I’m healthier, smarter, and “wealthier” than ever, in every way, and debt-free (except house and car payments).

This year in particular is especially good, since June.  It’s because of awareness of a way that I had allowed Balsamea to become partly diminished (in spirit) for a year and a half.  I’m back into full immersion in my natural sylvan home, blissfully alone with ten thousand trees and two miles of trails to tread ten thousand more times.  (Have I mentioned that I’m nicer to be with when I am alone?)

I call it home, and this time it really is home.  I’ve lived in many places throughout my life, of many kinds, alone and with others.  None of those places, not even the three childhood ones with family, were as truly home for me as here.  And I did nothing to earn or deserve it.

I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in Grace, something built into Nature, including the human part of Nature.

I can say, cautiously, “But for the grace of misfortune.”  That’s because there would be no Balsamea if health collapse, misfortune and poverty had not opened the door to it.

Balsamea also would not exist without the help of a few key people.  I would not be here at all without the precious care of one particularly special person, the only one who has ever been, or can ever be “a Balsamean” (yet was here only once for under an hour in a snowstorm on Thanksgiving eve 13 years ago).  No other person can be a Balsamean, because it means being a native resident here, whether human, animal, plant or mineral (all Balsameans in their own ways).

The path and process of my life were forced by helplessness to change.  Helplessness was (is) a place where a thought-to-be highly self-sufficient and resourceful person, a “self-made man,” thinks he finds no grace, only a kind of hell.  Yet helplessness was the door to grace, and the beginning of a new and better kind of resourcefulness and confidence.

Before helplessness, during “success,” I did not know what life I was making, though I was sure I did know.  It was a decades-slow death, and most people were patting me on the back for “making it.”  Ultimately, I suppose the craving for success created the helplessness.


Neil Young

There is a town in North Ontario
Dream comfort memory to spare
And in my mind I still need a place to go
All my changes were there

Blue, blue windows behind the stars
Yellow moon on the rise
Big birds flying across the sky
Throwing shadows on our eyes
Leave us
Helpless, helpless, helpless

Babe, can you hear me now?
The chains are locked and tied across my doors
Baby, Baby, sing with me somehow

Blue, blue windows behind the stars
Yellow moon on the rise
Big birds flying across the sky
Throwing shadows on our eyes
Leave us
Helpless, helpless, helpless
Helpless, helpless, helpless
Helpless, helpless, helpless


Looking deeply, I see that I am still helpless, and always was, and always will be.  It’s not a bad thing.  It’s not a bad idea to be aware that all you think you hold precious can be gone before you realize what’s happening; an awareness that can help keep things in perspective, and help forge from delusional rigidity a molten survivor for whom endings are beginnings.

I’m confused about all this.  I can’t fit all the pieces together.  Trick: don’t try to do that.  Go for a walk.  Have a campfire.  Everything fits there.

If you are now in a state of helplessness or feel it rising around you, beware people who say, “You just need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps.”

Try to not be surprised or hurt by them when they are dismissive of the fact that when you reach for your bootstraps they are not there, and you have no faith to even try to reach for them, or you’re too broken to care anymore.

You are not alone.  My heart opens to you, and embraces you.  Right now, wherever you are.

If you have no one else, there’s us, the fraternity of the helpless never beyond mercy, even when we’ve fallen so far as to be certain no mercy or grace exists for us.  You are not alone.  There are billions of trees.  Amidst them hope, mercy and grace have roots radiating faith into you, if you can keep sitting with them.  I sit with you.  Maybe you can even sit at your own campfire in Balsamea some day.  (Just don’t show up without notice!)

This is one of the songs that rolled around with me in the soul of despair in the darkest days.  Get a tissue.


Don’t Give Up
Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush

In this proud land we grew up strong
We were wanted all along
I was taught to fight, taught to win
I never thought I could fail

No fight left or so it seems
I am a man whose dreams have all deserted
I’ve changed my name, I’ve changed my face
But no one wants you when you lose

Don’t give up
‘Cause you have friends
Don’t give up
You’re not beaten yet
Don’t give up
I know you can make it good

Though I saw it all around
Never thought I could be affected
Thought that we’d be the last to go
It is so strange the way things turn

Drove the night toward my home
The place that I was born, on the lakeside
As daylight broke, I saw the earth
The trees had burned down to the ground

Don’t give up
You still have us
Don’t give up
We don’t need much of anything
Don’t give up
‘Cause somewhere there’s a place
Where we belong

Rest your head
You worry too much
It’s going to be alright
When times get rough
You can fall back on us
Don’t give up
Please don’t give up’

Got to walk out of here
I can’t take anymore
Going to stand on that bridge
Keep my eyes down below

Whatever may come
And whatever may go
That river’s flowing
That river’s flowing

Moved on to another town
Tried hard to settle down
For every job, so many men
So many men no-one needs

Don’t give up
‘Cause you have friends
Don’t give up
You’re not the only one
Don’t give up
No reason to be ashamed
Don’t give up
You still have us
Don’t give up now
We’re proud of who you are
Don’t give up
You know it’s never been easy
Don’t give up
‘Cause I believe there’s a place
There’s a place where we belong


Sometimes maybe the best friends you have are trees, flowers, pets, music, art, clouds.  Good.

I did not know then that there was I place where I belonged.  Yet there it was, and here I am in it, and I still don’t know why.

I wish you could walk the trails of Balsamea.  Much better: I want you to find your own kind of Balsamea.

When I walk these woods (or any others, anywhere), whether on a trail or on a rambling bushwhack half hoping to get lost, the pieces of the puzzle don’t need fitting.  Everything falls into place, even when Nature massively clobbers one of my trails by throwing trees into a pile across it, as if they were match sticks.  That’s not destruction.  That’s a kind of helplessness, another gateway, another giveaway waiting to be taken.  I’m learning to look at the “disaster” of it, and say, sometimes with laughter, “Okay, so you want to move this trail.  Let’s see what we can do …” helpless to fight Mother Nature, and blessed by that state.

I’m a student of helplessness and resourcefulness, loss and faith.  One side drives the other, or balances it, perhaps lending some needed humility.

In the end, between Nature’s efforts and mine, it’s a better trail, that one she clobbered, and a better place to be, and it’s a magical merger of the woods and me.  That’s why I say Balsamea is a relationship, formed by the union of the souls of a forest and a man.  But it’s a relationship given to me by Nature’s grace, not by my feeble human virtues.

I sometimes stand in the middle of the woods that have no center, or at the edge of a lake across from a mountain making the lake, or on a rock face overlooking an endless valley too far too see, or at the edge of a tiny brook going perfectly where it has always gone and never getting there, and, either with eyes closed listening or feeling, or gazing, or searching all that can be seen for what is really there and never finding it, I fall into that bottomless pit where I was at my most helpless, before Balsamea, right through the  bottom and into the openness of peace.  Then I see, hear and feel what is there, where I am, and it does not matter why.  It is an incomprehensible world, and that is okay.

Now part of me is fighting to shut up the part that wants to say more, because I’m mucking it up, trying to get pieces to fit and make sense to you.  Instead I’ll go out into the glorious howling wind-whipped snow and work on the latest fallen trees, or just wander in the bright night, often turning off my headlamp to see what is really there, or maybe start a campfire a little before sunset, and stand bathed in smoke from head to soul marveling at the view of the sky from within a dense forest’s unleafed autumn canopy, where the sunset comes in a million tiny orange pieces of infinitely varied shapes, carved into the sky by the trees.

“Trees are poems that the Earth writes upon the sky.” — Kahlil Gibran

I sometimes wonder in tears, why me?  When billions suffer unspeakably more trouble than I ever knew (though empathy is not wasted in me, sometimes like an inflamed gnarl on my esophagus), when my country has gone insane and is getting worse by the day, why am I so blessed with unimaginable grace?

What really is this grace, this amazing gift of the life I’ve been given?  What should I do for others with it?

I don’t expect answers.  When I think I have them, I’ve probably messed it up.  I think the path to a solution lies within the question, in the fact of its being asked, and why, and in the nature of the inquirer’s motivation for asking, and what the gift of the forest makes of him, so it’s a good idea to keep asking, letting the inquiry work on my innards, to shape me, make me observant, help me catch another wave of grace, if one comes and I’m ready for it, still gazing mindfully and walking in the forest, sometimes crying at the mind-bending mercy in which my soul swims.  If only I could be conscious of it all the time.  Then, maybe I could do something productive with it.

I live a life of forest immersion arts and health.  I want everyone to have it.  So I work on that in a few special ways, and I have some other creative ideas that keep pressing me to be awake to opportunities to launch the ideas outward.  Forest immersion is the genesis of the ideas, so they often get very aroused in the woods, then muddled and lost in the house, in these soul-seeking scribblements of Balsamea.

I don’t know anything about destiny, but something like it seems to want to know me, whispering relentless ideas that I like, that feel right, but my puzzle is a messed up pile of confused pieces.

The amateur poem lines below occurred to me while washing the dishes, looking out the kitchen window all the while, and wondering about nothing, just hanging out with the sky, the grass (before it became wonderfully blanketed with snow), the trees and those three mountains I can see when the leaves are down, but disappearing more each year as the pines grow in the way.

For decades, I’ve said that I want to die way, way out in the woods.  I picture it happening in many ways, by choice or by accident.  I joke to people, “Whatever happened to crazy old Uncle Balsamean?  Somebody said all they found was his hat and shoes.  Somebody else said they found just tattered, rotting, bloody clothes.  Probably got eaten by a bear and coyotes.  Somebody else said they never found anything at all [my preference].”  All of these sound good to me, because they are out there in the woods.  Why not?  To be “aptly trite” … I’d be a legend in my own mind, if merely mine and no other.

Maybe grace will grant the opportunity at the perfect time of the right kind of helplessness.

If I die as I should
Don’t look for a body
          in the neighborhood.
You won’t find it in my bed.
You won’t find it in the shed;
Not even out along the trail.
Your search will be to no avail.
Because if I die as I should
I’ll be alive and thriving in the woods.
Sit with a tree; you sit with me.

One of my all-time favorite songs below — sometimes I sing it with joy, sometimes with pain, but always with passion that never dies.  Passion can take you a long way when all else fails.

Heart of Gold
Neil Young

I want to live, I want to give
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold
It’s these expressions I never give
That keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old

I’ve been to Hollywood, I’ve been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold
I’ve been in my mind, it’s such a fine line
That keeps me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keeps me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old

Keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
You keep me searchin’
And I’m growing old
Keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold


By the way, speaking of unbelievable and miraculous stuff: I am baffled by the miracle of people making music and other art.  It’s not possible to me that such things are done — they are miracles — just as Nature’s gifts are impossible but I live in them, so I look, listen and feel, marvel and fall back to helpless where I belong.

Drop me a line privately if there’s something about helplessness you want to discuss with someone who lives with it, or if there’s something you want me to see or hear.

Dedicated with love to The Helpless, BLR,  DCF and trees.