On Ceding Control

Motherhood in a pathless landscape

Editor’s note: For several years now, Appalachia has joined the Waterman Fund in sponsoring an essay contest for emerging writers. Laura Waterman of East Corinth, Vermont, and her late husband, Guy, spent their lives reflecting and writing on the Northeast’s mountains. The Watermans devoted untold hours to restoring the trails of the Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We are delighted to present this year’s top essay by a young woman who traces the connections between motherhood and exploring wild places. Thanks to the fund’s generosity, our winning writer receives a $1,500 prize. For more essays, see the anthology of previous winners and notable essays, New Wilderness Voices (University Press of New England, 2017).

Emily Mitchell HeidenreichChanging rhythms: the author’s first baby, on a Vermont path.

There is pleasure in the pathless woods.
—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

At home, alone with this writhing pink bundle of skin and bones and new life and need, I step outside and wander. I wander to keep the silence at bay, for the company of the squirrels, the birds, the wind in the trees.

I wander to remain on this side of sanity.

The baby fusses. I loosen the baby carrier, unzip my hoodie, and guide her to my chest.

My body is no longer my own.

I’ve cut holes in my old T-shirts, the ones with the fading Appalachian
Mountain Club logos, the ones I used to wear when welcoming students
to the base of Mount Washington, before leading them to some preselected point on the mountain, sometimes all the way to its crowded alpine summit. The ones I used to wear when I was in full control of my body and what it could do in the wilderness. Now, the holes accommodate nursing on-the-go. The hooded sweatshirt is for modesty, for easy access.

I am a new mother. This is my uniform.

I have learned to wander and offer sustenance in tandem. The alternative? Rocking in a chair, with this tiny mouth and these hungry eyes, nursing as many as 18 hours a day. I wander these pathless woods, my baby strapped to my chest, as an attempt to reassert control over my body after the violence of pregnancy, of motherhood. This wandering is body work. It is a rebellion, a refusal to succumb to the recent assaults on my body: chafed and bleeding nipples, slackened belly, the torn and ravaged nether regions of childbirth, the stupid exhaustion. And my right thumb, which has painfully swelled and weakened from the repetitive motion of scooping up a newborn. And the need, the need, the need. Her body, needing mine.

My body is no longer my own.

She latches. Silence. She’s content, for now, but I know this walk—this stolen escape—could fall apart at any moment. I recklessly extend my wandering, and instead of turning east on an old logging road, I continue north, farther from home. I pass abandoned sap lines in a wide-open sugar bush, I climb over blowdowns on a path lined with young hemlock and fir, finally emerging into an overgrown field. An old barn foundation is sunk into the hillside, hidden in the tall grass. Mouth agape, my babe’s fallen asleep. I linger at the field’s highest point, where I take in the view of the brown fields and barren forests of the Tabor Valley, a no-man’s land nestled between eastern Vermont’s Upper Valley and its Northeast Kingdom.

At my new home with my husband’s family in Vermont, I’m an exile, on house arrest with a newborn, less than 100 miles from my former home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The helpless nursling attached to my once mountain-hardened body has reshaped and softened it. I used to measure my life by bodily rhythms: of boots on steep and hard-packed treadways, of the belabored breath of ascent. Now the rhythms have changed: bouncing, rocking, the ditties I sing in soothing rhyme, the hushed and staccatoed exhales I now offer my newborn, as she stirs:
Shh shh shh.
   Shh shh shh.

We keep walking. Then more fussing, urgent now. My time has expired; I won’t make it to my planned destination, the maintained dirt road on the other side of Currier Hill. So I turn east through the field, to the forest’s edge, and I begin bushwhacking uphill, slowly picking the path of least resistance through the young beeches and maples, gently moving branches away from my baby’s face. The fussing escalates; soon it’s all-out crying. We are completely and totally alone, two bodies in the middle of the forest, moving toward home.
Shh shh shh.
  Shh shh shh.

Here in eastern Vermont, no one calls this scrappy patch of fields and forests wilderness. It’s flanked by farms, carefully maintained sugar bushes, old stone walls, freshly cut logging roads. Yet, in the woods and fields, there are no trailheads, no maintained paths, no signs that signal which way to turn. Where if you want to remove a fallen tree from a road or a path, you do it yourself. Where if you find yourself disoriented in an unknown patch of woods, you’ve nothing to do but backtrack or follow your nose. Yet I find myself keeping an arm’s length from this unruly piece of family land and the hills that surround it. I long for adventure, for the White Mountains’ rugged but carefully maintained spaces. My body is here, certainly.

But some essential and unreachable part of me is back in the Whites, a ghost on a mountain, carrying her rations for a week in the wild.

Fall turns to winter, and my nursling grows, unstoppably, inexorably. As winter turns to spring, she learns to feed herself and self-soothe.

By summer, she’s wiggling and slithering across our hardwood floor, intent on reaching some shiny toy that has lodged itself under our stove. She doesn’t know it, but in so doing, she concedes territory; my body begins to re-stake a small claim on itself. With these small freedoms, I decide it’s time to return to my former home, the White Mountains, this time a visitor—alone.

I instinctively point my car straight for an accessible mountain range: the Franconia Ridge, only an hour drive from my home. I feel like a caged animal unexpectedly sprung from her trap, and I am hungry for these mountains, these mountains where I experienced a wilderness of full control, where I used to reign over my own body, protecting it from an onslaught of savage aggressors: wind, rain, sun, ice, uneven terrain, hunger, thirst, fatigue.

This is an excerpt. To read the rest of the story, see Appalachia Winter/Spring 2019, pages 60-69.

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Emily Mitchell Heidenreich

Published continuously since 1876, Appalachia is America’s longest-running journal of mountaineering and conservation.