In this episode of Woods & Wilds: The Podcast, writer Ali McGhee shares the story of her forest. Join us for this tale of imagination, creativity, loss, and whimsy all woven together.
Ali McGhee is an editor with AVL today, a host on Asheville FM Slumber Party and the former editorial director of Asheville Grit. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Rochester and is also a member of Asheville Public Arts and Cultural Commission. She is a core faculty member at the Enneagram School of Awakening. Her work has been published in Dark Mountain, Slippery Elm, Holler, Scallywag, WNC Magazine, and others. A native of Asheville, she grew up in the forest and the creeks, and they have been singing to her ever since.
This week’s podcast touches on the theme of the forest as a healing space where imagination can run free.
Big thanks to Ali McGhee for sharing this beautiful tale with us!
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You can read the full transcript below.
Elizabeth Garland: All right, we are here. And this is another episode of Woods and Wilds. I’m Elizabeth Lashay. And not only do I have a podcast, but also a radio show, Slay the Mic.
Elizabeth Garland: And again, I’m just excited to be here and joined with an amazing co-host.
Kimala Luna: Hi, I’m Kimala Luna. I’m with Dogwood Alliance. I’m really excited to be back for another episode. And we are here today with Ali McGhee.
Ali McGhee is an editor with AVL today, a host on Asheville FM Slumber Party and the former editorial director of Asheville Grit. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Rochester and is also a member of Asheville Public Arts and Cultural Commission.
She is a core faculty member at the Enneagram School of Awakening. Her work has been published in Dark Mountain, Slippery Elm, Holler, Scallywag, WNC Magazine, and others. A native of Asheville, she grew up in the forest and the creeks, and they have been singing to her ever since. She is currently working on a novel about people turning into trees, as well as a multimedia project, Oso and Otter with her partner, artist Justin Noah Wells.
Ali McGhee, welcome to the show.
Ali McGhee: I am so glad to be here with y’all. Thanks so much for having me on.
Kimala Luna: Yes. We’re really excited to hear your story.
Ali McGhee: I will say that I wrote this story for last year’s Woods and Wilds storytelling event. And I was so excited. That was my first year as a participant, after a few years of hosting. And it was so exciting to be up on the stage telling a story and I was really honored and so I’m really excited to just share the piece. It’s been a little while since I revisited it, but I hope that you will enjoy it.
Kimala Luna: Yay!
Ali McGhee: All right. I’m here to tell you about the forest. I don’t mean to sound presumptuous. The forest doesn’t need me to tell you about it. We’ve spent too long believing we hold the power in this relationship and we all know what that’s done. No, I’m here because I need to tell you about my forest. The one whose branches grow out of my center and whose roots dig deep into this world and how my forest and the Forest, like the capital F forest, how we are the same. I read that tree’s brains, though of course that’s not the right word, look at me, forcing a tree into my narrow human understanding. But anyway, that their brains are their roots spreading out, dropping in, meeting the mycelium and flicking out messages and nutrients through it to the other trees.
Essentially, if we were trees, we’d all be doing a permanent headstand. Picture that, imagine how different yoga would look. Here’s what else I know about trees. That the Chanterelles grow under the White Oaks each summer at the house where I grew up and that the earth there is a carpet of moss, joyful and full. A tapestry of green. One year I tried to convince my mother not to pave it and turn it into extra parking spaces, and finally she understood why. That a wand carved from Black Walnut means that you have walked the poison path and found comfort in it.
And a wand carved from Oak means you have the strength of the Green Lady with you, always. That the Weeping Willow, who grows by and holds the water, cures deep, old sorrows. And that one reason for her name comes from the way rain looks like tears when it falls from her leaves. That she has held me when it seems there is no way out of my darkness and helped me to take my next steps. That each year of wood thrush nests in the woods behind my house and every morning and evening, while it’s here, I am the lucky recipient of its gifts. That it’s hidden song is disappearing from our world, that it, and all things are worth saving. That it is not even our right to say what’s worth saving.
This summer, several birds built nests in our yard. We’d peek into the hanging ferns to see baby house finches, screaming, and hungry. A month later, they fledged. We saw them perched and focused on a nearby power line as mama taught them to fly. One night after our House Finches had flown, after one of many torrential rains that month, I heard cries in the semi-dark, saw soft small movement against the wet grass. A sparrow’s nest with four hatchlings had been obliterated by the storm, sending the inhabitants toppling from their precarious position in the bush by our kitchen window. They were mewling things. And their parents swooped by horrified as I contemplated what to do. Several internet searches later, I placed the babies carefully in a homemade nest tucked into a small cardboard box filled with dried yarrow and a soft hand towel.
I had to leave it on the ground. It was too unwieldy for the bush and I didn’t want to take them too far away. I just didn’t want them to die. For the next few days, the parents flew by the window and one or two of the chicks would raise their tiny heads. Then one morning, after a night of hearing the coyote sing up in the dark hills, they were gone. They were still too young to fly. How much of the forest is still nature, red of tooth and claw, and how much is now our fault? I felt the loss and my own responsibility in it. A few days later, I watched a mama bear with two broken hind legs try to cross the interstate. Her cubs peering expectantly from the side of the road. People had stopped their cars, pulling off onto the shoulder to do what? I wasn’t that brave, had no idea how I would do anything but fall apart if I pulled over.
The next week, I was in the hospital hemorrhaging because my pregnancy was in the wrong place. Dust colored pigeons sat outside my window, which looked out over the building, endless. Itself, a kind of terrible forest filled with its own strange creatures. Death links us to death and to the turning world. Even when we hide behind our doors, our curtains pulled tight against the inevitable, but still it’s there. I felt it as I lay in that bed, inhaled and exhaled it between sobs until it could be quiet and still. Like those birds and that bear, life was lost before it even really had a chance. We all would have been good parents. Here’s another thing I know about the forest. White Pines are for peace and Hemlocks, wisdom. Oak protects and Birch helps forgive. I know this because the trees told me. I don’t know why they still bother to talk to us, but they do.
There’s a way of walking in the woods that keeps time with the slowness of the earth. I try to do it as often as I can, but I usually only find my way into that still easy way of being, paradoxically, when I’m on the hunt. For new spring violets, for stinging nettle to take home and wilt so that it releases its gentle medicine, for the morels that pop up where the old lumber mill used to be.
I have visions of creating a feast worthy of the fairy folk, where we’ll all drink honeysuckle tea out of acorn cups in a blue-green forest grove. And the world won’t be the same when I step back into it. It feels easier to leave sometimes, to throw my hands up and go deeper into the woods or maybe to take a boat and travel down the river, stopping at an island, just big enough for me and setting up there for the rest of my days like Pippi Longstocking, waiting on the fairies to come for tea. But fairies are tricksy things, and their spells would take me so far away, I’d never be able to return. Even a broken home is still a home. Isn’t it?
A few years ago, I went camping with a friend in Acadia National Park on the wild, rocky, Maine coast. We hiked all day, up what seemed to me to be a sheer cliff face as I hauled myself up, dragged myself across the iron rings and ropes that some far braver souls had placed there for people like us, drilling iron into a mountain for no other reason than to help us see the startling view from its pinnacle. It was terrifying. I feigned bravery as I skirted along the scree, feeling my own smallness articulated with every step. My frailness as my ankles twisted this way and that, as my arms shook from the effort to sidle across giant boulders and heave atop ledges. At the top was the burnt orange and gold of the forest. And at its edge, the gray sea stretching onward to the end of the world.
That night we set by a fire we built with Birch strip starters, gently pulling the paper outer bark and being careful not to take too much. And we drank cheap red wine and hot chocolate and swapped stories into the chill of the autumn evening slipped into our bones in spite of the flames. And we crawled away to sleep, drawing blankets tight and keeping wool caps on, sturdy against the cold. Things shuffled around our tent to remind us that they had been there all along. In the morning, we made bacon and eggs and they tasted that glorious way that only a camp stove and a cold night can make things taste, like gas and fire and grit. Then we packed up, folding tents and rolling sleeping bags, already stepping out of rhythm with that sacred place. Another friend calls it forest time. That slipping into the slower cadence of growing and dying things and remembering your place there. The way that being becomes so easy.
As we shed our onion skin, a replanting takes place and we recognize ourselves in the darting shape of the buck, the buzz of flies, the black eye of the woodpecker as he glides by. Days in the forest stretch on. Each new discovery, a salamander, brilliant orange and half hidden under a rock, a little village of inky cap mushrooms, glistening black and silver in the morning dew. A spider’s web the size of a face, usually spied after walking straight into it, the white bones of a deer washed clean by bugs and time. A caddis fly, submerged and sparkling in a clear rivulet of water spilling down from the mountain. Each one, giving way to the next, creating the net of a world that holds us, too.
And if the days are spacious, the nights are even longer, filled with the whisperings of things to each other and to the velvet dark, a love song, perpetually unfolding. There are no answers in this story. No paths forward. Grief takes us to strange places. And beauty does too. Once you step off the trail, you’re lost, but perhaps that’s what we all need, to be lost. To find our way back to ourselves and to discover there has never been a trail at all, but the one we’ve made before this moment, and this moment, and this one. What song do you sing to the forest? And what does it sing back?
Kimala Luna: Oh my gosh. That part always makes me cry.
Elizabeth Garland: Me too.
Kimala Luna: I just love the way you capture grief and awe in the same breath so often throughout the story.
Ali McGhee: Thank you. Yeah, and I think you can’t have one without the other. They’re are two sides to the same coin. Yeah. And maybe they’re parts of each other.
Elizabeth Garland: I’m still having chills over here. And I think it’s extremely powerful and your imagery is beautiful. And I just have to thank you for being vulnerable with others to share your story.
Ali McGhee: Thank you. Thank you so much. Yeah, it just all came out.
Kimala Luna: This thread of connection, and the connection you feel to the forest and then the connection that we end up finding in each other, through those vulnerable moments, I think are the most powerful things we’ve got really.
Ali McGhee: Yeah. I agree.
Kimala Luna: I also love that it’s got a lot of dark themes, but you keep also this thread of whimsy and innocence with the imagery of the wands and the tea parties, and being Pippi Longstockings on the river. And I just… I guess I want to know a little bit about your childhood and the kind of imaginative kid you were.
Ali McGhee: And it’s interesting, because I look back and I’m like, “Maybe I haven’t really changed that much since…” Because as a kid, I grew up in Asheville and in the woods really, like you said in my bio, we lived in a… You couldn’t even call it a neighborhood. It wasn’t that far from anything, but it was deep in the woods and there weren’t really any other houses around. And we didn’t really talk to our neighbors, but it wasn’t in the country. It was an interesting place. And for the first five and a half years of my life, I was an only child. And I was always terribly introverted.
Ali McGhee: I was really close with my parents, I didn’t want any kids to come over really. And I just wanted to be on my own. And I actually had tons of imaginary friends. So some of that is from my experiences as a kid, when I would actually have tea parties with my imaginary friends in my house and outside. And I just grew up with this feeling, and I think my parents cultivated this in me, that the forests really were a magical place. Not only were they filled with all these fairy creatures and things like that, but they were just magical in and of themselves, just because of what they were. So I’ve always felt that in the woods since then, and in the forest, when I go out. And I like to still experience the woods on my own, I’m realizing now. Like I love to go outside and walk on my own.
Ali McGhee: I love hiking with other people, but sometimes I just want to be like, “Just to be quiet, we just need to hear the magic of the forest now, stop sharing everything.” So it’s really a place where I’ve always recharged, but I also have always seen that darker side as well. So there’s always been this whimsy and there’s also always been that darkness. Once the sun goes down, if you’re camping, what are those noises outside? You have no idea. There’s this whole other world that opens up in the dark and it’s not good or bad. It just is. And it does take on a darker tone I think sometimes. That’s long winded, but kind of it. But my parents loved that I was outside all the time. So they really nurtured that in me.
Elizabeth Garland: I absolutely love that. And I think you definitely show that throughout your story. When we talk about chaos and the forest and how healing it is, what is one thing that you would tell others to do when going through a difficult time?
Ali McGhee: Hmm. I think specifically to nature, I think for me it was so helpful when I was going through my own loss of my pregnancy to just get outside and cry on trees almost? Just like actually hug a tree, get barefoot, stand on the earth. There’s something that’s so ungrounding about realizing that this control you thought you had over your body or this knowledge of your own body you thought was there, just isn’t there all of a sudden.
Ali McGhee: So I think anything that is potentially a way to reground, just like sticking your feet onto the earth or just like taking time. I think we do so much that fills up all of our time, so we don’t feel grief, but it’s important to feel it and it does give this richness to life. And it does remind us that there’s so much beauty out there. So I think opening up some silence and space for that, and the forest is the place to do that. And then while you’re in the forest, you have these magical encounters with bugs and birds and mushrooms and so it becomes a different way of connecting.
Kimala Luna: I’m feeling like also just the heaviness of the current time we’re in, and I’m wondering about your personal journey right now through that. Because you are a writer and an artist and you do use these emotional experiences that you have for creativity. You channel it. And so I was just wondering.
Ali McGhee: Yeah, that’s a great question. And the answer is complicated because… So I’m writing a novel and I’ve been writing it for years. I’m finishing a novel, I’m trying to say it that way. It’s about people turning into trees, but actually the whole premise of it is that there is an apocalyptic virus that comes and wipes people out. So as far as the pandemic goes, I found that I’ve stepped away from that novel for a while because I’m like, “Nope, no one is going to want to read this if I were to publish it in the next couple of months, like no one wants to read a novel about a virus while we’re in a virus.”
Ali McGhee: So there’s that. But then I think that the other answer is that I am finding more time to write and I’m finding more inspiration and that’s happening through a lot of the connections that I’m seeing people make to one another and the movement that I’m seeing happening. So that’s both within the pandemic, but then also with Black Lives Matter and the protests that have been going on and all those shifts, I’m starting to see… It’s really simple things, like more characters of color are starting to show up in my works, like something really simple. Things are more on my mind in this really present way.
Ali McGhee: So I just started a story with a Black main character. It’s a science fiction story and it’s weird, but she just popped into my head fully there. And I’m like, “Oh cool, it’s nice to meet you. This is great, this is so exciting.” So I think just taking inspiration and looking at how these characters and these weird science fiction universes are dealing with issues that we’re going through in their time is one thing.
Ali McGhee: And then I think part of it is just letting myself off the hook for not writing creatively as much right now. And just being there to listen. I think that is so vital right now. And I’m not going to get any stories if I don’t ever listen. And I think right now, particularly is a time to shut up and listen. So I’m doing that. And I think I’ll see what comes of that.
Elizabeth Garland: Through your story, I kept thinking about present and current events that are happening, and especially things that are really heavy on my heart, just being a black woman. And when you were talking about poison path and you felt comfort in it and the hidden song and multiple different things, whereas like this is how I feel navigating through a world where there are hidden truths or how are we talking about the things that we’re dealing with as a nation, as a world.
Ali McGhee: I love that. And I think that there’s a couple things I wanted to say about that. And one is that, this is more general, but I think anger, especially… Oh my gosh, my cat is just driving me crazy. Sorry guys. Anger in our society especially has been tamped down, especially women’s anger, I think. And the anger of black people and people of color. And I think it’s all been like, “Oh, that’s not okay. You can’t have that reaction. You’re scary,” or, “You’re not who we thought you were,” or something. And in fact, anger is actually an emotion that I’ve always felt very present to. I’ve had to work on it, but it actually has a really productive place in my life.
Ali McGhee: And I think right now we are seeing just how productive and powerful and change-making anger can be. Because anger is like this fire force that transforms things. And I think that’s always been really personally resonant for me and it is also dark. And I think some of that comes out in… So I’m really interested in Appalachian witchcraft and folklore traditions. And so some of that hidden stuff I’m speaking to is specifically regarding that, but it’s totally applicable to other traditions as well. And in fact there’s a really rich history of black Appalachian folklore and traditions here. A lot of which is still hidden.
Kimala Luna: I love that about anger. I think that is an emotion, we’re all about claiming our emotions to a certain extent until it becomes in any way problematic to the greater whole. And right now that’s what we need, is a big shake up of the greater whole, and I think that emotions like anger are really good catalyzers for that sort of thing.
Ali McGhee: I would put grief in there too. I was speaking specifically to anger, but I think grief is one of those too, where we’ve as a society, we’ve shoved off grief. You don’t really talk about it, right? But actually, it’s another one of those transforming forces, though it’s a different kind of element to it or something.
Kimala Luna: Yes. I think grief is one of the most transformative emotions you could possibly go through or experience, but yeah, you talk about that in the forest with this red tooth and claw.
Ali McGhee: Yeah. And I think that we’ve definitely experienced that with the loss of our wild spaces, to bring it really back to the forest. But that has such resonance across every aspect of life, including social justice and things like that. But this way that we’ve lost… I know that there’s a guy named Gordon Hempton, and he actually goes around the world and records wild spaces where you can’t hear any sounds that are human made. And he’s finding that they’re just decreasing more and more over time and that it’s harder and harder to find them. And that just makes me terrified. And I feel so much grief because of that. When I go out to hike in the woods, it’s so rare that I don’t meet other people or I don’t hear a plane go over, or something like that. And I’m just wondering what the cost is. I know the cost is incredibly high, but when I am out there hearing it, it’s really, really devastating.
Kimala Luna: Yeah, absolutely. I think the way that we treat our public lands is really reflective of the way that we treat people. We have a complete disregard for how it impacts everything else. And a complete disregard for the surrounding habitat and the life lost.
Ali McGhee: Yeah. And sometimes it’s very hard to feel optimistic. Especially when I’m thinking about it and talking about it, but it’s amazing how every time I’m actually outside in the woods, I always feel optimistic. It’s an interesting thing. So it’s this balance, how do I work to help this and change this? And also that, I don’t know, just recognition, I guess, of the power of the forest, and also just wanting others to be on the same page as I am. I don’t know. I’m not sure how I’m saying that, but something like that.
Kimala Luna: To even be able to have access to that, because I think a lot of things that happen is that the surrounding access to nature, or even any access to nature is limited or destroyed, for Black and Indigenous People of Color.
Ali McGhee: Absolutely. That’s so true. Yeah.
Elizabeth Garland: Well, when we were talking about laying down roots, what are some roots for you… And I keep using this word, but I’m going to say it one more time, that you are rooted in through your passion, through your love of what makes you, you? What makes you Ali?
Ali McGhee: That’s such a good question. I think one is, I guess, my imagination, which is a weird route, because it doesn’t seem very rooted, but I think that ever since I was a kid, my first best friend was my imagination. My first sibling before my sister was born, was my imagination. So that’s always been a place where I’ve turned to come back to myself, right? And I think there were years when I falsely lived as an extrovert and I’ve just recently remembered that I’m not, and it really has been this reclaiming of my imagination and the person I am when things are quiet. And I think that’s where I feel most at home. So I think that’s a really big one. I guess this is similar, but just being at home, being grounded, not being out and about and everything. I love my community. So I would say paradoxically, that’s also a route. Asheville itself is a home that I’ve returned to several times now throughout my life.
Ali McGhee: But then also just being in a home space where I feel safe and I have my loved ones around me. I’m trying to grow a garden this year and it’s sort of working. Stuff like that where I actually can see roots in the ground that I planted in there. So having a good home spaces is really important to me as well. And then yeah, community, friends and family, I have really strong relationships with my immediate family and that’s absolutely one as well. And then I think art. I love reading and watching films and listening to music and experiencing all of that. And that’s always been really important to me too. So those are a few things.
Elizabeth Garland: Wonderful. Well, in terms of being still and being grounded, and there is such a beauty in that, but there’s so much noise that is constantly happening. And I’m trying to use that as both reality and a comparison for life. When your life gets really noisy, is there a certain place that you like to go around the Asheville area?
Ali McGhee: I love that question. There are few, but the one that popped into my mind first, so I’ll talk about it, was just driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and maybe stopping at an overlook. There are a couple I really like and always tend to stop at, and just sitting there for a while. And I’ve done that ever since I had a car, because I grew up in this area and ever since I was in high school, I guess, I had access to a car. I would do that a few times a week, I feel like. I did it a lot. And I had so many formative experiences up on the Parkway. From hiking to just watching the meteor shower, to going up with friends.
Ali McGhee: And I think that’s one where I really tend to go when things are getting a little bit too crazy. And I’ve got a fun story. A few years ago, I had the worst day, and I needed to do something and get away. So immediately I just got in my car and I didn’t even know where I was going. And I ended up on the Parkway at an overlook and I was like, “Oh, okay, this is where I’m supposed to be.” And I got out of the car and actually wrote for a while. Because I really wanted to just write and get my creative juices flowing and dump my day. And it was really interesting because as the cars come up to the overlook and then they drive away, it’s like these little micro-communities get created. And I was just astonished by how cool it was.
Ali McGhee: Like five to eight people came together, were really lovely to one another. It was like this beautiful outpouring of human compassion and connection, and then they’d leave and another set would come and then they’d leave. And eventually this camper pulls up at the other end of the overlook and this older gentleman gets out and sets up a telescope. So I just kept sitting there and he was doing stuff with his telescope and then another couple came up, talked to him, came over and talked to me and they were like, “Oh, you should go look at that guy’s telescope. He’s got something pulled up that’s pretty cool. And he says you should come over.” So I went over there and we actually, after that, became fast friends. So he showed me the stars and a planet or something, and then gave me his card and pre-COVID we had lunch every day or every week.
Ali McGhee: And we still talk every day and we’ve got a picnic hopefully set up sometime in the next couple of weeks where we’ll get together again. But it was just this beautiful experience and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had a bad day and ended up at the Parkway. So I think that’s one of my favorite examples. Now I actually live out of town a little bit and I have immediate access to a land conservancy or a conservation easement with trails, that is across from my house. So I typically will just go over there, but I rarely meet anyone. So there are not quite as many opportunities for that sort of connection. I love that story.
Kimala Luna: That’s a very sweet story.
Elizabeth Garland: It is. It’s amazing.
Ali McGhee: Yeah. You never know who you’ll meet when you’re in the forest, or forest adjacent, I guess.
Elizabeth Garland: Yeah. All my stories about the Parkway never ended like that. I think it was more to make out with someone.
Ali McGhee: Oh, I had those too. I glossed over those, yeah, definitely. Don’t want to leave those out, also important.
Kimala Luna: Thank you so much for joining us, Ali.
Ali McGhee: Thank you guys for having me. And thanks for letting me share my story and my weird memories and stuff with you all.