The image of the moonlight on the trees still haunts me.
It was 1982, I was 13, and I was having a miserable time winter camping in the Boy Scouts. I’d been Scouting since I was six, and our troop would frequently head out for a weekend at a wooded piece of land owned by a friendly farmer near Lake Scugog, Ont. But winter camping was a dodgy affair, because our troop had wretched gear: a ragtag collection of mouldy canvas tents, a tent heater that looked like it predated the First World War. I had a foam Snoopy-branded sleeping bag that probably wasn’t rated for a cool summer evening, let alone sub-zero, knee-deep snow. “It’ll toughen you up!” my dad would say cheerily.
That was debatable. But we tried! We pitched the tent, and at bedtime huddled in the dark, shivering and trying to ignore our chattering teeth. After a couple of hours we realized it was delusional to believe sleep would come. “Man, we’re gonna be awake until dawn,” said one of my friends with a sigh. To kill time, we put our snowsuits back on and went for a midnight hike.
The moon was full, so bright we didn’t need flashlights. We plunged into a thick stand of fir trees, crunching quietly along in the bed of dry needles for 10 minutes, until we reached the edge of the firs and stumbled, suddenly, into the open. We’d reached a huge field, blanketed with snow, and across from us stood a stand of hundreds of white birch trees.
That sight was supernatural, so eerie it sticks with me even today. The slender, bare birch shone in the night like dry bones. The moon loomed low over the forest, the bed of snow a pale piece of paper, criss-crossed by the ink-black moonshadows of the birch. It was as if we’d stepped into one of Lawren Harris’ luminous and unsettling paintings—the landscape aglow with a weird and radiant spirit, like the idea of cold itself, white on white on white. It is not easy to strike dumb a group of jaded teens, but we stood there, staring for so long our feet went numb, utterly silent.
These days I live in Brooklyn, N.Y., which isn’t a very wild place. I spend most of my time amidst screens and steel and subways. I like it that way; I’m an urban creature, and big cities are just collections of small neighbourhood villages, a riot of society.
But whenever I get a chance to dive back into the forests of Ontario I take it, greedily, instantly. I go for long hikes, plunging into the woods, even in the freezing depths of winter. I think that, almost 40 years later, I’m still chasing the spooky, almost alien beauty of that midnight scene. I want to be dragged out of myself in the way wilderness drags you. That’s why it’s so important to have these encounters with the woods when you’re young, even when—perhaps especially when—you’re physically miserable and just trying to endure it. The forest enters you like a ghost and never leaves.
Clive Thompson writes for Wired, the New York Times Magazine, and Smithsonian. His new book, Coders, is just out.