Anxiety is a Ghost in the Woods

Arriving at camp was awkward hugs and terrible anxiety, caused by the long car ride and the sudden change in my surroundings. There was also some in the raw intensity of revisiting a place that has always been so important to me after so long. It had been two years during which time my perspective had changed completely. I felt very acutely uncomfortable among these happy and carefree people. My headspace, the entire vantage point from which I now saw the world did not compute to them.

I walked up the path to the ceremony fire, my feet already bare and muddy, my shirt dangling from my hand as I balanced on roots and logs. Between the trees in front of me lean tan figures, young exceedingly dirty and fit, moved amongst the trees. A log somewhere was being cleaved by axes. I called out “Alex!” as I approached, but no one heard and so I walked up silently. It took a moment for them to notice me.

“He made it! We thought you might just not show up. How was the drive?”

“As good as five hours sitting can be.”

We hugged and joked.

An adolescent had looked at me as I approached, and begun to approach shyly himself. I searched his face for familiar features; I had seen him before I was sure but did not think I knew him. We did not greet until an hour later, walking back from the fire. “How are you doing Aaron?” he asked. He had been my camper two years before. At thirteen he had been round-faced, slightly fat, and incredibly outgoing and witty. He had been the enjoyment of all the counselors. Now he was a lean and muscular, very shy CIT. I felt him a lot; I knew that phase well, the shyness that can set on so rapidly in puberty.

I quickly realized how far I’d come from this place. I felt disconnected from the woods. Over the weeks in the woods, my friends’ bodies had become manifestations of functionality and purpose; they carried in their muscles the woods around them. I felt very white, as though I carried only money and the narcissism required to lift weights.

That night those who had greeted me as I walked up slipped away from the campfire as it burned down. The campers didn’t notice. The fire receded from the faces of those around it, bright enough to leave only a faint orange reflection on the skin. One man who stayed gathered the boys who remained and they followed him, without lights, up the hill and into night. It was not cold but felt that way when leaving the fire.

Those who left earlier hustled in the darkness, having undergone a sudden change in mood. Life after leaving the campfire became enchanted.

The adolescents and boys from the fire followed the man into the darkness. Many were confused and some frustrated. A few knew what was going to happen and they are excited at the possibility that this time it would be them. They didn’t share their excitement with the others. They were also scared.

Those who left arrived in ones and twos at a wooden shed, lit by one incandescent light around which insects buzz and tap. They removed their clothes and slathered themselves with mud. Handprints were placed on their chests and ashes placed their hair, even the young ones. Here the shift in mood is reflected in their physicality. The self is abandoned just a little bit in pursuit of something else. When finished, they jogged into the woods and lay in wait.

The man arrived at a slight clearing where he instructed the boys to sit and listen. They were silent.

When the ceremony fire was lit, the scent in the air was of diesel, woods, and awe. The sounds were of faint cicadas, yipping and yelling, and the snapping of the fire lapping and crunching it’s way upward and upward, reaching for the top of the thirty foot spire of logs.

Mudded men with torches rose from the woods with torches, big balls of fire wooshing around and past the boys, carried by savage faces, some of which were familiar but seemed in the moment transformed; in the light of the fire their muddy faces became embodiments of an experience, that being savagery and brotherhood.

They moved quickly towards the central fire which crept ambitiously above the highest logs, touching the bottom leaves of the canopy fifty feet above the forest floor. Its sparks flew above the tallest trees and the heat was visible in the sweat on the skin of those who danced around it.

Three were chosen, pulled from the hill and placed in front of the fire, feeling only the immense heat and rough hands on their shoulders and backs, welcoming.

The rest are left to gossip, to adulate, and to wonder what might happen in two weeks or two years at the next fire.

Such ceremonies cannot be fake or insensitive; that bonfire is fueled by the awe of the young and the love of the old and the smoke of it burning has scarred all the trees in those woods. The men who carry the torches each night are fueled by the awe they felt watching from the hill years before.

I suppose I took away two central messages from my visit, the first being a respect for and appreciation of the culture of the men and boys at camp. It is the truest and most positive form of masculinity I’ve experienced, for there all men are kin, united by the desire to support those younger than themselves. All at camp are a role model to some and a supporting elder to others. It is there that the old respect the young the most, and the young are given the space the venerate those older. It is male friendship based in love. That is hard to find these days.

The second message is that, at camp, anxiety is meaningless. Anxiety is a purely mental construction that is rooted in thoughts and fears. It can only occur where a person is isolated from nature and exists among others are share in his or her anxiety and fear. When the young without egos are spilling their thoughts without hesitation all around you, and all day you live and moving through the forest like some sylvan creature, an extension of the dirt beneath you and the trees around you, there is no room for mental aberrations. You are no longer isolated inside your head; your thoughts and fears become an abstraction that cannot influence the waking reality of the trees and laughter of children.

Originally published at

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