Half an hour ago I got back from a weekend trip to Mackinac Island and Tahquamenon Falls. I hadn’t made it up north yet this year, and I was definitely feeling the itch. I was born in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and my family spent some time up north most summers when I was growing up.
The highlight for me was walking between the Lower and Upper Falls at Tahquamenon, a four-mile hike (each way) along the river. The trail occasionally touches right up against the river, at other points swerving back into the forest. You go up tall ridges overlooking the river and then come back down into the valley. Stands of cedars and hemlocks, their roots cut into the hills like stair steps, give way to leafy canopies of maples, beeches, and birches. I was a little early for the fall color, but a few trees were already turning red and yellow, and I had to remind myself that I didn’t have to stop to photograph every beautiful scene or thing that I saw. Fortunately the nights have been cold enough in the UP that I didn’t see a single mosquito.
Hiking through the forest by myself for hours, without cell service or my computer, it’s probably not surprising that I started thinking about my fantasy stories—not least of all because I’ve literally set a scene in one of my books along the Tahquamenon River. But besides that, hiking outside in the middle of nowhere is something well beyond my everyday life: it was, very consciously, an escape for a weekend. And thanks to Papa Tolkien—as well as the writers of chivalric romance and pastorals and Norse mythology before him—walking through pretty landscapes is something characters are constantly doing in fantasy stories, probably in part as a way to take readers and listeners outside of themselves.
Unfortunately for me, endlessly describing the way that sunlight filters green through beech leaves, or the smell of dead cedar needles as you trample them on the forest floor, or the sound of a waterfall thundering in the distance, or the speckled lemon-yellow color of a mushroom blooming on a mossy log doesn’t meet the needs of contemporary fantasy readers, who want a little travelogue with their plots but don’t require hundreds of pages a la Tolkien. Clearly I missed my calling as a Romantic poet, or a Thoreau-esque hermit, or even a nature writer. (Although, let’s admit it, I’m too lazy to actually learn All of the Things that real nature writers know about the world around them.)
But I still think fantasy is about taking readers outside of themselves and offering a different perspective on what they thought they knew already. And in our cultural moment of global technological expansion and 24/7 advertising and social media consumption—with its accompanying backlash of back-to-nature hipsterism and climate outrage—I think many of us are looking to get a little more unplugged and offline.
And I will always take any opportunity I get to describe sunlight falling through trees.