Through the Woods: On the Magic Of the Outdoors by Ashley Benham Yazdani
As a child growing up in the suburbs north of Manhattan, I had the best of both worlds: a bustling metropolis was a short train ride away, but back home my own tree-filled backyard stretched out into relatively undisturbed forest. The city was an accessible electric dreamscape, but the forests that I was raised among were what really spoke to me. As I began reading, the books that I immersed myself in further connected me with nature, and in both literature and reality those outdoor spaces were where magic dwelled.
My own life as a reader began with fantasy, and my earliest literary memory was my mother regaling me with The Chronicles of Narnia in kindergarten. Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure was the first book that I recall sinking my teeth into on my own, and after devouring her The Immortals series I was off and running into a world of fantasy. It helped that I grew up in the generation of Harry Potter, which I read with the grave certainty that my owl from Hogwarts was on its way, just running a little late on its journey across the Atlantic. Nonfiction works were pressed into my hands at school, but at home I was a perpetual escapist. My literary life was saturated with shimmering magic and fantastical adventure, but where it crossed over into my real life was in the enchanted woods.
The woods were full of wonder, and to me, the green spaces by my home were essential. They were where I went to feel magic, and I saw it in the turning autumn leaves, the mysterious puffball mushrooms on old rotten logs, and the shy creatures hidden in the undergrowth. My parents kept a garden, but they allowed it to feel wild, and I was convinced that fairies lived alongside the chipmunks in our backyard’s centuries-old stone wall. I built tiny homes for both, from sticks and stones and the materials around me. If I ran far enough into the woods I would surely encounter talking animals, or a witch tending her garden, or a hidden castle. Even manicured gardens held the bloom of magic. These places were alive, and I couldn’t envision a life without this glorious growing wonderland. It was the realm of fairy tales, and imagination thrived there.
Fast forward several years to 2013, when I found myself living in a place very unlike the wooded sanctuary of my childhood: Brooklyn. My husband and I were each pursuing our own creative dreams there, but soon (ok, just minutes after arriving with our moving truck) we felt stifled by the concrete cage of our new urban home. The subway rattled our building every few minutes, and there was endless traffic noise. Our apartment didn’t even get enough light to grow plants. To me, this place was thoroughly devoid of nature, and therefore magic and the hope and wonder that came with it. We only spent one year living in Brooklyn, and what saved us was Prospect Park.
On days off from work we would step outside our door, scurry over a highway pedestrian overpass faster than subway rats, and three blocks later our grateful feet would land on a patch of grass at the bottom of Prospect Park. We discovered quiet places in the park and made them our own: a steep and solitary hill, a row of towering ginkgo trees, secret paths that led to hidden waterfalls. Twice a week I would run the perimeter of the park, soaking up the presence of trees, birdsong, and rabbits that hadn’t yet learned to fear humans. My runs took me past huge families celebrating birthday picnics in the park, and lone city dwellers lounging on soft grass. People of all kinds plainly loved this place, and I felt a deep gratitude for its existence. The park was completely manmade, but the artistry of its creators, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, had captured the magic of nature.
I was already familiar with Olmsted and Vaux’s first creation: Central Park. Growing up, my parents would spirit me away to “The City” for a day of exploration on each of my birthdays, and I would always visit The Met, eat an enormous black and white cookie, and play in Central Park. Back then I never understood how vital parks were to an urbanite. Living in Brooklyn, I got it.
It would still be two years before I began the research for my debut book on the creation of Central Park, A Green Place to Be, but the lead-up to this work was heavily informed by my own need for green spaces in an urban landscape. Who had made this park, I wondered, and why? How had it survived this long in its urban cocoon? For someone raised on a steady diet of fantasy, as a new writer I found myself magnetically drawn to non-fiction. I loved uncovering the secrets of the park, and wanted to learn everything about the people behind it. They were landscape architects, or perhaps landscape magicians to have made such a wonder.
Works of fantasy often have enchanted woods in them, but if we never see this enchantment reflected in the reality around us then we live in a poor world indeed. Richard Louv writes of the need for humans, especially children, to get a regular dose of “Vitamin N” (nature)—as essential to the mind and body as any of our other daily vitamins and minerals. From its earliest days urbanites went to Central Park to fill this need. The park provided wild pathways, a thrilling secret cave, and yes, there is even a castle. Spaces like these are important not just to lovers of fantasy, but to all people, and the park’s creators knew this.
Together Olmsted and Vaux helped generations of city-dwellers to cultivate a sense of wonder. The world develops fast, but their work has proven the enduring importance of nature. Now it is our turn to care for the natural spaces that remain, to protect our world’s magic, and to ensure that it never becomes something that exists purely in fantasy.
Ashley Benham Yazdani holds an MFA from the Illustration Practice Program at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BFA in illustration from California College of the Arts. A Green Place to Be is her debut picture book.
GREEN PLACE TO BE. Copyright © 2016, 2019 by Ashley Benham Yazdani. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.