To reach the pastures of the back forty, I must first travel a winding footpath through the woods. Most often, my passage signals the start or the completion of a day of work. Less frequently, the woods are themselves my destination.

Our small wood of twenty acres is crossed by a steep ravine. Three offshoots, broad church aisles of ridge land, converge on a private sanctuary in the heart of the forest, a natural presbytery for the unchurched. The time of day, the wind, the season, all influence where I stop and sit. I’ll light a cigar and lean back against a tree and drift. The light slants down, filtered, dropping in through high lancet windows of nature’s cathedral. It falls onto and illuminates my pew, where the smoke lifts up through the leaves in an offering to the peace found in quiet observance.

A South Wood Walk 018

The dogs, after a bit of chasing around, like kids at a Sunday service, pick up on the mood and settle near me. This is not a formal ceremony where members of the elite sit in designated and privileged seats. It is a come as you are, find a convenient rock, fallen tree or flat ledge of land, where the ritual begins when you are ready.

An hour of simply sitting brings to me a satisfying mental quiet in which thoughts eddy and drift with the smoke along unexpected paths — a reverie softly interrupted by the distinctive devotional of a woodpecker, heard in its search for a communion grub, or the alarmed bucksnort, a cough by the old man of the woods as he catches a whiff of the dogs, his whitetailed flag flown, signaling if not surrender, then at least a quiet retreat up the central nave and out the back door.

When my cigar is near its end, I stub it out on a nearby rock. The dogs are off chasing squirrels and the scattering scent of the vanished buck. A cloud obscures the light from the upper windows, and I, the remaining congregant, arise and start the journey home along a familiar and welcome path.