“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” – Henry David Thoreau
I have many patients like Maxine. Tall, with a shock of white hair. Old, but still in charge. When you try to make eye contact, she looks right through you. First with her left eye. Then her right. Her face is inscrutable. What’s she thinking? Unlike many of my patients, however, this Maxine was a llama. Every morning my daughter and I tried to coax her into moving as we leaned on the cold steel gate that kept her in her pasture. We were visiting family in October and chose to stay on a working New England farm. The kids will love the animals, we thought, and we’ll appreciate the extra bedrooms.
Airbnb helped us find this charming fiber-farm in Rhode Island where they raise Leicester Longwool sheep, a historic breed that once roamed George Washington’s pastures, along with a few goats, ducks, chickens, and Maxine. It’s situated deep in the woods, which were yellow, orange, and red that week. As it happens, we were just a short drive due south of Walden Pond where Henry David Thoreau spent 2 years, 2 months and 2 days escaping “overcivilization” nearly 175 years ago. Hoisting our overweight bags over the uneven granite stone steps when we arrived, I realized this was going to be more like the Thoreau experiment than I intended. The farmhouse dated to the 1790s. There were wide, creaky floorboards, low ceilings, one staircase to the bedrooms (which could have aptly been called a ladder) and loads of book-laden shelves. Instructions posted in the kitchen warned that the heat is tricky to regulate – a redundant admonition as we watched our 3-year-old putting on her socks and shoes as she got into bed.
Now, if you’ve ever been on vacation with little kids, you know that it’s basically just childcare in a novel location. After barricading the staircase with luggage and unplugging lamps from their dicey outlets we set out to feed the chickens and try to pet a sheep. Walking the perimeter of the farm we saw stone walls that needed mending and stumbled across two ancient cemeteries, one had been for family, the other for slaves. I wondered how many farmers and weavers and menders had walked this trail with their kids over the generations.
The next morning, we learned that roosters do not in fact crow at dawn, they crow before dawn (which could also aptly be called nighttime). There were no commutes or late patients here. But there was work to be done. Chickens don’t care that it’s Sunday. It downpoured. Watching the sheep from the kitchen as I sipped my coffee, they didn’t seem to mind. Nor did our farmer hosts who trudged past them in tall boots, just as they had every other day of their farmer lives.
By the fifth day, we had fallen into the rhythms of the homestead. We cracked the blue, green, and brown eggs that our hosts placed outside our door in the early hours and made omelets that were as orange as the foliage. We finally learned to adjust the heat so we neither got chilblains nor had to open the windows and strip naked to cool down. The sky was a brilliant blue that last morning and Sloan ran around trying to catch leaves as they blew off the trees. She had no objective. No counting. No contest. Just chasing leaves as they fell. It was the ultimate atelic activity, done just for doing it. I joined her and found I was no better at this than a 3-year-old.
We might all benefit from a little time in the woods.
Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.