I’ll admit it. Fantasy is not my favorite genre. Oh, I love a little bit of magic realism, I love wondering where the line between real and imaginary just might lie, but the full step-out-of-reality-and-into-a-new-one is not my cup of tea.
(Actually it is just like a cup of tea, which I always think I want but then I take a few sips and realize what I am really craving is coffee…)
But I just finished reading Wildwood, a new fantasy middle grade novel by Colin Meloy (the lead singer for the Decemberists) and—well—let’s just say I drank my tea and liked it. Yes I did. The story takes place on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, in a fantasy woods its inhabitants call Wildwood, but it is based on the real Forest Park, which is a 5000 acre woods just outside of Portland. Here—in this real/not-real place—is a world where coyotes, owls, rats and many other animals talk, where humans and animals live side by side like equals and where plants and trees can communicate with them all.
Maybe it is because I have been away from fantasy for a while. Or maybe it is because Colin Meloy does it so well. But as I read Wildwood I found myself looking out my window—past the street, past the park, past the river—and into the wooded hills on the other side and wondering…wondering what other world might exist there within the thick pockets of pines.
A memory came flooding back to me. When I was a child, a huge tree sat outside my bedroom window. I could lie in my bed and stare right at it. There was also talk of tree snakes, fat as fence posts. And so—you guessed it—I would lie in my bed and stare at that tree and see, truly see, what I thought was a snake. What did it want? What did it want with me? Could it talk? Would it talk to me? That incredible blurring of real and imaginary.
And another memory. Our first rented house here in Vermont sat at the edge of the local university’s research forest. I loved exploring it. The quiet of the red pines, the mysterious hut in the clearing, the swimming hole at the bottom of the hill. In one section, the woods opened up onto a pathway lined, perfectly symmetrically, with a couple dozen birch trees. That pathway felt ceremonial to me. Did deer celebrate there when one of their fawns came into the world? Is that where bears declared their love for one another? Did mediations between the squirrels and the skunks unfold there? That pathway held magic for me.
Standing by my window, years later, after reading Wildwood, I remembered that I had always wanted to write a story that took place on that pathway in the research forest.
I stand humbly corrected about fantasy.
Maybe I should make myself a cup of tea and sit by my window and sip and imagine and sip and write—about the very day my tree snake arrived on that magical birch-lined pathway…