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by Robert Royal


What Did You Go Out into the Wilderness to See?

On a hill near my home in Northern Virginia lie the remnants of the winter campgrounds of the Native American tribe known as the Doegs. It is easy to see why they chose the site. Large hills all around funnel water into a stream and floodplain there, making it a natural gathering place for wildlife. Deer still come quite often to drink; they are by now so used to the human beings who walk the paths through the woods that does and fawns are not particularly fearful until you get very near. Waterfowl and other game were also once plentiful. Unfortunately, they no longer exist there. Insects are a bother, as they must have been for the Indians. The campground is on top of one of the lower hills overlooking the water, probably for the fresher air as well as for an unhindered view of approaching enemies. Sometimes in the evening, when the sun is slipping through the trees and there are no sounds of civilization, it is not difficult to imagine—perhaps accurately, perhaps not—a kind of peacefulness and simplicity that once may have made up human life in these hills and valleys.

We once had a single-lane wooden bridge across the stream. But because of the traffic that chokes Washington, D.C., and its suburbs, it was replaced a few years ago by a modern multilane, multimillion-dollar road. The old wooden structure got us over the water slowly but surely. The new concrete road is much faster, but it floods over and has to be closed whenever there is heavy rain. Whether the engineers deliberately planned it that way for some purpose, practical or environmental, I cannot say. The only thing certain is that even in the small corner of the world that I know in the most immediate sense, man and nature are still torn between two modes of coexistence. One seems to unite us into something larger than ourselves; the other seems to set us in greater or lesser opposition.

When I walk in the woods, especially with my younger daughter, I sense a reconnection with an origin, a living ...

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