A Lovely Sort of Lower Purpose

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1998

A Lovely Sort of Lower Purpose

In praise of doing nothing. To wit: No racing, no exceeding, no catch-and-releasing. Just time-tested fooling around.
By Ian Frazier

As kids, my friends and I spent a lot of time out in the woods. "The woods" was our part-time address, destination, purpose, and excuse. If I went to a friend's house and found him not at home, his mother might say, "Oh, he's out in the woods," with a tone of airy acceptance. It's similar to the tone people sometimes use nowadays to tell me that someone I'm looking for is on the golf course or at the hairdresser's or at the gym, or even "away from his desk." The combination of vagueness and specificity in the answer gives a sense of somewhere romantically incommunicado. I once attended an awards dinner at which Frank Sinatra was supposed to appear, and when he didn't, the master of ceremonies explained that Frank had called to say he was "filming on location." Ten-year-olds suffer from a scarcity of fancy-sounding excuses to do whatever they feel like for a while. For us, saying we were "out in the woods" worked just fine.

We sometimes told ourselves that what we were doing in the woods was exploring. Exploring was a more prominent idea back then than it is today. History, for example, seemed to be mostly about explorers, and the semirural part of Ohio where we lived still had a faint recollection of being part of the frontier. At the town's two high schools, the sports teams were the Explorers and the Pioneers. Our explorations, though, seemed to have less system than the historic kind: Something usually came up along the way. Say we began to cross one of the little creeks plentiful in the second-growth forests we frequented and found that all the creek's moisture had somehow become a shell of milk-white ice about eight inches above the now-dry bed. No other kind of ice is as satisfying to break. The search for the true meridian would be postponed while we spent the afternoon breaking the ice, stomping it underfoot by the furlong, and throwing its bigger pieces like Frisbees to shatter in excellent, war-movie-type fragmentation among the higher branches of the trees.

Stuff like that — throwing rocks at a fresh mudflat to make craters, shooting frogs with slingshots, making forts, picking blackberries, digging in what we were briefly persuaded was an Indian burial mound — occupied much of our time in the woods. Our purpose there was a higher sort of un-purpose, a free-form aimlessness that would be beyond me now. Once as we tramped for miles along Tinker's Creek my friend Kent told me the entire plot of two Bob Hope movies, The Paleface and Son of Paleface, which he had just seen on a double bill. The joke-filled monotony of his synopsis went well with the soggy afternoon, the muddy water, the endless tangled brush. (Afterward, when I saw the movies themselves, I found a lot to prefer in Kent's version.) The woods were ideal for those trains of thought that involved tedium and brooding. Often when I went by myself I would climb a tree and just sit.

I could list a hundred pointless things we did in the woods. Climbing trees, though, was a common one. Often we got "lost" and had to climb a tree to get our bearings. If you read a story in which someone does that successfully, be skeptical; the topmost branches are usually too skinny to hold weight, and we could never climb high enough to see anything except other trees. There were four or five trees that we visited regularly — tall beeches, easy to climb and comfortable to sit in. We spent hours at a time in trees, afflicting the best perches with so many carved-in names, hearts, arrows, and funny sayings from the comic strips that we ran out of room for more.

It was in a tree, too, that our days of fooling around in the woods came to an end. By then some of us had reached seventh grade and had begun the bumpy ride of adolescence. In March, the month when we usually took to the woods again after winter, two friends and I set out to go exploring. Right away, we climbed a tree, and soon were indulging in the spurious nostalgia of kids who have only short pasts to look back upon. The "remember whens" faltered, finally, and I think it occurred to all three of us at the same time that we really were rather big to be up in a tree. Some of us had started wearing unwoodsy outfits like short-sleeved madras shirts and penny loafers, even after school. Soon there would be the spring dances on Friday evenings in the high school cafeteria. We looked at the bare branches around us receding into obscurity, and suddenly there was nothing up there for us. Like Adam and Eve, we saw our own nakedness, and that terrible grown-up question "What are you doing?" made us ashamed.

WE WENT BACK TO THE WOODS EVENTUALLY — AND WHEN I SAY "we," I'm speaking demographically, not just of my friends and me. Millions of us went back, once the sexual and social business of early adulthood had been more or less sorted out. But significantly, we brought that same question with us. Now we had to be seriously doing — racing, strengthening, slimming, traversing, collecting, achieving, catching-and-releasing. A few parts per million of our concentrated purpose changed the chemistry of the whole outdoors. Even those rare interludes of actually doing nothing in the woods took on a certain fierceness as we reinforced them with personal dramas, usually of a social or sexual kind: The only way we could justify sitting motionless in an A-frame cabin in the north woods of Michigan, for example, was if we had just survived a really messy divorce.

"What are you doing?" The question pursues me still. When I go fishing and catch no fish, the idea that it's fun simply to be out on the river consoles me for not one second. I must catch fish; and if I do, I must then catch more and bigger fish. On a Sunday afternoon last summer I took my two young children fishing with me on a famous trout stream near my house. My son was four and my daughter was eight, and I kidded myself that in their company I would be able to fish with my usual single-minded mania. I suited up in my waders and tackle-shopful of gear and led my kids from the parking area down toward the water. On the way, however, we had to cross a narrow, shallow irrigation ditch dating from when this part of the valley had farms. Well, the kids saw that little ditch and immediately took off their shoes and waded in and splashed and floated pine cones. My son got an inexplicable joy from casting his little spinning rod far over the ditch into the woods and reeling the rubber casting weight back through the trees. My daughter observed many tent caterpillars — a curse of yard-owners that year — falling from bushes into the ditch and floating helplessly along, and she decided to rescue them. She kept watching the water carefully, and whenever she spotted a caterpillar she swooped down and plucked it out and put it carefully on the bank. I didn't have the heart to drag the kids away, and as I was sitting in all my fishing gear beside that unlikely trickle, a fly fisherman about my age and just as geared-up came along. He took me in at a glance, noticed my equipment and my idleness, and gave a small but unmistakable snort of derision. I was offended, but I understood how he felt as he and his purpose hurried on by.

HERE, I'D LIKE TO CONSIDER A WORD WHOSE MEANING HAS begun to drift like a caterpillar on a stream. That word is margin. Originally its meaning — the blank space around a body of type or the border of a piece of ground — had neutral connotations. But its adjective form, marginal, now has a negative tinge. Marginal people or places or activities are ones that don't quite work out, don't sufficiently account for themselves in the economic world. From the adjective sprouted a far-fetched verb, marginalize, whose meaning is only bad. To be marginalized is to be a victim, and to marginalize someone else is an act of exclusion that can cost you tenure. Today's so-called marginal people are the exact equivalents, etymologically, of the old-time heathens. A heathen was a savage, wild, un-Christian person who lived out on a heath. The heath was the margin of Christendom. No one today would ever use the word heathen except ironically, but we call certain people and activities marginal without a hint of irony all the time.

I've never been on a heath, but to judge from accounts of coal-smogged London in the days when heathen was in vogue, a windswept place full of heather and salmon streams sounds like the better place to be. And if the modern version of the margin is somewhere in western Nebraska, and the un-margin, the coveted red-hot center, is a site like Rodeo Drive, I wouldn't know which to choose. We need both, but especially as the world gets more jammed up, we need margins. A book without margins is impossible to read. And marginal behavior can be the most important kind. Every purpose-filled activity we pursue in the woods began as just fooling around. The first person to ride his bicycle down a mountain trail was doing a decidedly marginal thing. The margin is where you can try out odd ideas that you might be afraid to admit to with people looking on. Scientists have a term for research carried on with no immediate prospects of economic gain: "blue-sky research." Marginal places are the blue-sky research zones of the outdoors.

Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of them every day. Now a common fate of a place on the margin is to have a convenience store or a windowless brick building belonging to a telephone company built on it. Across the country, endless miles of exurbia now overlap and spill into one another with hardly a margin at all. There's still a lot of open space out there, of course, but usually it's far enough from home that just getting to it requires purpose and premeditation. As the easy-to-wander-into hometown margins disappear, a certain kind of wandering becomes endangered too.

On the far west side of the small western city where I live, past the town-killer discount stores, is an open expanse of undeveloped ground. Its many acres border the Bitterroot River, and its far end abuts a fence surrounding a commercial gravel pit. It is a classic marginal, anything-goes sort of place, and at the moment I prefer it to just about anywhere I know.

Army reservists sometimes drive tanks there on weekends. The camouflaged behemoths slithering across the ground would make my skin crawl if I didn't suspect that the kids driving them were having such a good time. The dirt-bike guys certainly are, as they zip all over, often dawn to dusk, exuberantly making a racket. Dads bring their kids to this place to fly kites and model airplanes, people in a converted school bus camp there for weeks on end, coin-shooters cruise around with metal detectors, hunters just in off the river clean game, college kids party and leave heaps of cigarette butts and beer cans and occasionally pieces of underwear. I fish there, of course, but remarkably I don't always feel I have to. Sometimes I also pick up the trash, and I pull my kids around on a sled in the winter, and I bring friends just off the plane to sit on the riverbank and drink wine and watch the sunset.

Soon, I'm sure, Development will set its surveyor's tripod on this ground and make it get with one program or another. Rumblings of this have already begun to sound in the local newspaper. I foresee rows of condominiums, or an expansion of the gravel pit, or a public park featuring hiking trails and grim pieces of exercise equipment every 20 yards. That last choice, in all its worthy banality, somehow is the most disheartening of all. A plan will claim the empty acres and erase the spotted knapweed and the tank tracks and the beer-can heaps. The place's possibilities, which at the moment are approximately infinite, will be reduced to merely a few. And those of uncertain purpose will have to go elsewhere when they feel like doing nothing in particular, just fooling around.

Ian Frazier's essay about getting annoying songs and phrases stuck in your head appeared in the February issue.

Illustration by Ross MacDonald

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