Read an essay from author April Stevens

Frances Pauley, Forest Bather

A few years ago I was sitting here, in my little office overlooking the diner. At the time I was working on my third novel (my second one was sleeping in a nearby drawer) and frankly it was going badly. I was stuck and I’d been stuck for weeks.

That day, in an attempt to take the pressure off, I decided to write something, anything, ‘on the side’. I closed my lap-top, took out a nice clean piece of paper and I found myself writing “Unlike her sister, Figgrotten went right outside after school and climbed the rocks behind their house and looked for things. Mostly birds, but bugs and different stones too.” And as soon as I wrote it something loosened inside and suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, this eleven year old girl was talking to me and I was writing down what she had to say. Her name was Figgrotten. And she, like myself, loved the outdoors.

Writing is weird that way. Too much pressure and it can really go badly. It’s like trying to grab a hold of a wild cat. It’s better to come at the thing gently and a little off to the side, all while whistling under your breath as if it’s no big deal. And for me, it works better if I write from someplace inside myself that isn’t quite my brain but more towards the heart. Figgrotten felt closer to my heart than the other novel I was working on. A girl who needed to be out of in the air. I knew her. Back when I was twenty nine, the agent who wanted to take on my first novel asked me, “So where did you come from, anyway?” My hands were shaking and I’d broken into a sweat that was prickling my back. I was sitting in her mid-town Manhattan office and all I knew was that I was out of my element. I remember looking up and telling her I went to Bennington College. But what had flashed through my head when she asked was a particular stand of pine trees. The real answer, had I had the courage to be myself, should have been, ‘I came from the woods’.

My childhood had been untethered and wild. Which was interesting in some ways. And not perfect in others. My house with three older siblings was not a refuge. It wasn’t peaceful. But the woods around the house were. I knew the old walls, the two different streams, the gentle dips and rises in the land, the little hidden pond where it seemed all the birds gathered and made a chattering racket in the mornings. As a kid I’d sprint through it all. As a teenager I mostly sat brooding under a stand of pines where it was dry and soft and especially peaceful. I’d never heard of Forest Bathing until I saw an article about it this past winter. If you don’t know, Forest Bathing is the English translation of the Japanese practice call shinrin-yoku, which means being out in the woods and observing through all our senses. It’s a soaking in of the natural world. Which, not surprisingly, the studies prove is good for your health and your mind. Your blood pressure drops, your anxiety disappears, and your depression lifts, to name a few benefits.

Yes, well, that is what I did when I was young. I used the woods to soothe myself. And then, years later, I wrote about a girl named Figgrotten who, as it turned out, is a forest bather as well. She sits out on the rocks behind her house and like her hero, Margaret Mead, she becomes a deep observer. She observes the weather, the insects around her, and of course the crows above her. She even learns to hone her watching skills by closing her eyes and listening deeply. When I wrote the book my own kids were teenagers and like every other teenager they were being barraged by their pinging cell phones and by the news that was everywhere they turned. Like most other parents, I had been struggling to allow them the peace that I knew they needed. This felt at times nearly impossible. However, there was one sure way to make it happen. All I had to do was get them outside. Once they were out for a while, I could see it in their eyes. They were in a better place. They were calmer and their minds had wandered the way minds should wander and they were more themselves.

Writing fiction is weird but it’s not magical. What comes out doesn’t come from the air. With any luck it comes from somewhere near the heart. It comes from what we’re made of and from what we’ve gathered along the way. Figgrotten appeared that day in my office, talking into my ear so clearly that in some ways she wrote the book for and now that I have a little distance, I see that she was a concoction that had formed ‘on the side’ while I was struggling to write the other book. She was partly me out under the pines, but she was also a kind of conviction I hardly knew I had. A belief that what we all need is to just sit under a tree more often, look around and do nothing more.

The Heart and Mind of Frances Pauley

The Heart and Mind of Frances Pauley By April Stevens

Eleven-year-old Frances is an observer of both nature and people, just like her idol, the anthropologist Margaret Mead. She spends most of her time up on the rocks behind her house in her “rock world,” as Alvin, her kindhearted and well-read school bus driver, calls it. It’s the one place where Frances can truly be herself, and where she doesn’t have to think about her older sister, Christinia, who is growing up and changing in ways that Frances can’t understand.

But when the unimaginable happens, Frances slowly discovers that perhaps the world outside her rugged, hidden paradise isn’t so bad after all, and that maybe–just maybe–she can find connection and camaraderie with the people who have surrounded her all along.

Original, accessible, and deeply affecting, April Stevens’s middle-grade debut about an unforgettable girl and an unlikely friendship will steal your heart.