I recently switched day jobs, and I managed to snag a week off in between them. So I took a personal writing retreat, spending 3 nights in Hocking Hills state park.
This was my first trip to Hocking Hills, but I’ve heard nothing but people gushing about how wonderful it is since I moved to Ohio about 6 ½ years ago. One thing my comic friends like to mention is that Jeff Smith set most of Bone in Hocking Hills, and the iconic cover image is inspired by Old Man’s Cave.
I stayed in the cottages run by the state park, which were clean and mostly bug-free, but without WiFi or even cell service. I checked in all directions, and it was a 30-minute drive to find cell coverage. Since I was alone, that was a little alarming at first, but it of course turned out to be a blessing. I was forced to live within my own head without constantly checking in to see what everyone else was up to. When was the last time I focused inwardly for that long?
The first thing I really noticed was all the sounds. Although I live in the city, I’ve never considered it particularly noisy. But out there in the woods, the nature sounds were amplified. I decided not to listen to music/podcasts/anything electronic the whole time I was there.
And I heard the trees. Sometimes, they sounded like old creaky doors groaning on their hinges. Other times like chickens clucking.
The birds were active too, singing, chirping, tweeting, cawing, screeching, all different noises by different birds at different times, but all much more when it was sunny.
I saw some deer one evening—one adult and two young ones. I stood and watched them crash through the underbrush. Then a hawk screeched, repeatedly, and they sprinted off. The next evening, I saw deer in the same place (probably the same ones). The adult stood and stared at me, and I stared back at her. I waved. She opened her mouth, stretched her neck and her tail out, and SCREECHED! It was the same noise I’d heard the night before and attributed to a hawk. But it was a deer screeching! And as soon as she did, her and her babies scampered off into the woods again.
And the clouds too. When was the last time I slowed down enough to watch the clouds pass overhead and to pick out shapes?
I visited several sites around Hocking Hills, including Old Man’s Cave. I was struck by how the attractions themselves were less impressive than I expected, but everything around them was much more amazing. Part of this was a language barrier. I grew up in the south, and I remember visiting caves in Georgia that were the underground kind that are pitch black and have stalactites and stalagmites (I’ve been told since that these are “caverns”). In Ohio, a cave is more of an overhang or open shelter made into a rock formation. I walked straight through Old Man’s Cave without realizing until I noticed the sign posts started pointing back the way I came.
I got lost on one of the trails around Old Man’s Cave too. I had the map upside down. Or really, I switched trails without realizing it at some point and ended up on the wrong side of the map. I wandered without seeing anyone through the woods on what seemed like an established trail, but I wasn’t sure. It had been rainy all week, and when the wind blew, the raindrops pattered down from the leaves onto the forest floor. At least, that’s what I thought. When one landed on my map, I realized that it was the pattering of gypsy moth caterpillars falling from the trees that I was enjoying. Another moment I was glad to have short hair.
I didn’t talk to too many people during my stay in the woods. There was a family in the cabin next door, but they weren’t the Southern Mama and Southern Daddy I’m used to. They’d just as soon leave me alone. Some younger kids stayed for one night at a nearby cabin. Why do kids feel it necessary to communicate entirely by yelling? The cottages had TVs, but I didn’t plug mine in. I was amazed at how many glowing screens I could see when walking down the cottage street in the evening. Why would you come all the way out here just to watch network television? There are books to read! Games to play! Thoughts to think!
I did quite a bit of work on my novel while on this retreat, which was the point after all. I was able to connect much more strongly with one of my characters who I’d been a bit out of touch with lately, and rewrote several of her scenes (I’m in the repair stage now). Probably because of the isolation and internal focus, and also because of what I was reading while there. I feel pretty good about what I was able to get done, and it certainly felt great to do it.
And now I have a new day job. It’s going well, but it’s a long commute and I’m there 5 days a week, so I have a lot less free time than I used to. That is, I have a lot less writing time. I’ll have to review my previous posts on finding time to write, I suppose!
But I’m very glad I took that quiet time in the woods to listen and watch what was around me.
Spook explores not only the afterlife, but the history of the soul, ghost hunting, haunting phenomena, and mediumship. Although the scope of the book is broad, and Mary Roach touches lightly on each topic (or dives extremely deep into one aspect of the topic), I think most anyone could learn something new, no matter his or her spiritual beliefs.
The author provides a good review of obscure (and not so obscure) research into a variety of “paranormal” topics. It wasn’t so long ago that paranormal studies was a perfectly legitimate branch of science that many scientists from a variety of disciplines studied. I’ve done some reading on the Society of Psychical Research, and their early studies especially strove to remain as scientific as possible. At times, the author’s description of this older science–and even some of the modern experiments–struck me as a little too sarcastic, verging on outright laughing at people’s beliefs. If you are going to learn something new, you have to be open to bizarre-sounding ideas before you judge them. However, that eye-rolling may have been over-emphasized by the narrator on the audio edition I listened to. The narrator also came up with some amazingly annoying accents for various people, several bordering on the offensive, and mispronounced some basic, non-science words throughout the text, so I wouldn’t recommend the audio version.
The most fascinating new piece of information I learned was the intense reaction that some people have to psychoacoustics, which can make eyeballs vibrate and cause hallucinations. For all the ghost hunter shows I’ve watched, I’d never heard that explanation before. I was also fascinated by the ectoplasm chapter.
However, I would have liked a little more depth about the variety of things people believe happen to them after death. The opening chapter on a scientist studying reincarnation was brilliant (except for the Abu accent my narrator assumed). The author sort of addresses the Christian version of Heaven and Hell throughout the rest of the text, especially through the near-death experience stories. But what about other beliefs, like the post-mortem (and pre-mortem) baptisms that Mormons conduct for non-Mormons without their consent so they can come to the same spiritual paradise? What about the Buddhist idea of breaking free of reincarnation and achieving nirvana? Is no one studying these other beliefs?
Overall, Spook is a fascinating walk through the science of the soul (more so than the science of the afterlife, I’d say). I’d recommend it to anyone curious about ghosts and attempts to prove that spirits are distinct from physical bodies.
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