by Dennis Dalman
When he was a shy, awkward boy in grade school, Douglas Wood was considered the worst reader in his class. He not only struggled with dyslexia but also battled with what was diagnosed 50 years later as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Wood had a terrible time trying to focus, to follow directions, to stay organized, to manage time.
But in the decades since those troubled awkward days, Wood certainly made up for lost time. The Sartell resident is known by many as Minnesota’s “Renaissance Man.” He is a musician, artist, wilderness tour guide, naturalist, educator, public speaker and author of 38 books for adults and children. Some of those award-winning books made the New York Times’ bestseller list. One of his children’s books, “Old Turtle,” became an instant beloved classic. Wood was invited to read from his works at the White House and at Lincoln Center in New York City, his birthplace. Not bad for a shy kid who was once upon a time the “worst reader in his class.”
Wood’s latest book, a memoir entitled “A Wild Path,” has been receiving rave reviews, and it’s no wonder. The book is a masterpiece. Comprised of 31 essays, “A Wild Path” is a vividly written, riveting, delightfully readable exploration of Wood’s life – his loved ones, friends and fellow travelers along the path of his life. The book is a rhapsodic take on how the grand and glorious world of Nature became Wood’s healing force, his teacher, his inspiration and a source of constant wonder.
“A Wild Path” reads like a rhapsodic prose poem because Wood’s beautifully crafted sentences are infused with poetic images and move with a lyrical musical lilt and cadence.
“A Wild Path” weaves together philosophical ruminations and insights both psychological and aesthetic, but never in a didactic, preachy way – not in the least. Those stunning insights flow gently like a river, naturally from the narrative, informed by and expressed through Nature’s rapturous wonders.
The following paragraph, from the Introduction, sets the tone and theme of the book:
“They (the essays) do begin, and end, with a boy who had troubles in school and in life, and who took a while to find his way. He had help. Teachers with two legs and four legs, and roots and branches and blossoms, and often just the beautiful land and the living Earth; all assisted and guided the boy on the path, as it always is for those who travel with open eyes and ears and heart.”
And, not to forget, humor pops up frequently throughout the book – an often sly, gentle self-deprecatory humor and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny Here is an example:
“I have a great friend and golfing buddy named Carroll. He is a good golfer but not quite as good as he thinks he is, which is still better than I am, which is annoying. But Carroll is a wonderful guy and fun to be around, so I put up with it. And once or twice a summer I may beat him four or six or nine holes – a cause for much celebration and a beer and enough false hope to keep me golfing.”
Years ago, Wood and his wife, Kathy, a piano teacher, fell in love with a cabin home on the Pine Point area of north Sartell. Later, they were thrilled to be able to buy it from its owner.
In the essay “A Cabin in the Woods” Wood wrote this:
“. . . I loved to take Eric and Bryan (his sons) there for forest walks, identifying and admiring wild ginger, trout lily, hepatica, trillium, blood-root, bottle gentian, and countless other wildflowers. While in the winter months we looked for the tracks of deer, otter, mink, gray and red fox.”
That is just one of many passages in the book that vividly evokes all the endless wonders of Nature, in its age-old profusion of flora and fauna. The following excerpt evokes the mind-boggling vastness of the universe and how the Aurora Borealis creates a whispering sense of awe that bonds the Wood family one magical night.
One evening, Wood heard the Mississippi river “calling him” next to his home in north Sartell. So he and young son Bryan took to the river in a canoe, the “Pistachio Princess.” As sunset faded “to indigo,” an unexpected light shimmered in the night sky.
“Look, Bryan, the Northern Lights,” I whispered, as if to speak aloud might cause them to flee from sight.”
Father and son, in a spellbound hush, watched for a long time as the “curtains” of light shimmered down in every direction.
“We were surrounded, enfolded, afloat beneath a great pyramid of light. Again it was Bryan, with the poetic sensibility of a child, who saw the obvious, the true nature of the scene. “It’s a teepee, Dad, and we’re right in the middle!”
Later, Wood and son rushed back to the cabin home to tell wife Kathy and Bryan’s brother, Eric, all about the “dancing lights.” The family, awestruck and lying on their backs in the front yard, watched the ghostly spectacle.
Wood wrote the following exquisite paragraph (note its musical cadences):
“It is the sort of memory many families share, if they are fortunate to spend times out of doors together. Times that bind us together in wonder and remind us that a family is a small but vital thing, the first and still essential human community, beneath and within the vastness of an inexplicable universe.”
Many of the most exhilarating essays in “A Wild Path” are about Wood’s nearly 100 tour-guide canoe trips with others into the Canadian wilderness. Listen to the “music” of this virtual “love song” for the canoe and for “riding the rapids.”
“I have long loved the romance of the canoe. Have thrilled to the feel of the paddle, the lift of a hissing comber racing up from behind, or the bow slicing through on-rushing whitecaps, climbing the slope of a big wave, pausing at the crest for a moment as if poised at the lip of disaster, then sliding down the smooth back side and into the trough, then rising and beginning the process all over again . . .
“And I have gazed with feelings of appreciation – no, deep affection – at a canoe, or two or three, tipped over and resting as if in sleep on some glaciated ledge, smooth bellies ghostly in the moon-and-starlight, awaiting the rise of the sun and another day’s journey.”
“A Wild Path” can be purchased via Amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble book stores or autographed copies directly from Douglas Wood at https:/douglaswood.com/store/.
Wood’s other books and recordings of his music are also available on that site. His award-winning three-member band’s name is the WildSpirit Band. Wood plays guitar, banjo and mandolin.
In an interview with the Newsleaders, Wood noted he does not do tour-guide canoe trips to the Canadian wilderness anymore as he had done for nearly four decades. He does, however, lead groups of people as part of the “Road Scholar” (previously “Elderhostel”) organization. There are two walking-hiking trip programs for people 50 and older. One series of trips is to Duluth, Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Area in northern Minnesota. The other trip series are to the migratory “Flyway” area of the Mississippi River Valley in southeast Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin. In that scenic area, every spring there are spectacular sights and sounds of migratory birds and vast meadows of wildflowers.
Unfortunately, those trips are already booked up for this year. But to reserve a future spot, go to roadscholar.org/find-and-adventure. Then, under Itineraries, look for “Mississippi Birds and Blooms” and “Off the Map: Voyageurs Park and the Canoe Country.” Look for the name of Douglas Wood.
Wood’s two sons also love nature. Eric is a neuropathic doctor who lives in Florida but who plans to move back to Minnesota soon. He has written several books on the subject of alternative medicine. Bryan, also a musician, lives in Lindstrom and is the director of the Osprey Wilds and Environmental Learning Center in Sandstone.