In these modern times, I fear that we may be losing touch with our essential nature. Life has become so fast-paced, yet we are disconnected in our ostensible technological connections and cannot find firm grounding on the very earth beneath our feet. Run by emotion and speed, video-gamed and overtired, the nurturing aspects of nature escape our view. We become lost in a world completely apart from ourselves.
Absent of walking in nature, of marveling at the greens, oranges and browns of the woods, the piercing scents of seasonal change and the feel of bark on curious fingertips -- short of coming to know the world in its original form and rawest sense -- how can we ever hope to know ourselves? Connecting to one's humanity is found not in fame and glory, but in an inner stillness that is best cultivated in the natural world. In nature, the calm external environment encourages inner peace.
I credit the woods behind my childhood home for being a lifeline to the magical brilliance in its leafy reality. Everything in the woods made sense: silk-spun cocoons broke open to release caterpillars clad in muted fatigue, weeks later becoming butterflies with neon-splashed wings; giant rocks were cast here and there as furniture, climbable for higher vantage points, or places on which to recline for leisurely afternoon thought sessions; tree limbs and over brush provided a protective roof above my head. A brook trickled over pebbles nearby. It was quiet there, save for the healing sounds, sights, scents, textures and tastes of pure, unadulterated nature. The woods became a secret sanctuary.
In Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau describes his retreat to nature:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived ... When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime.
Without such exposure to the natural order of things, children are deprived of one of the richest ingredients in their emotional lives. In Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv describes the value of such primitive connections:
Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it ... Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion ... In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.
One place people experience this sense of communing is at summer camp. Whether it be for a month or a week or a single day in the great outdoors, one moment is enough to learn what camper Lynn Cohodus Stahl describes in Laurie Susan Kahn's book, Sleepaway: The Girls of Summer and Camps They Love: "Looking out over the lake, I felt enveloped in the most peaceful, loving utopia."
Experiencing ourselves in relationship to the natural world cultivates something unexpected yet so clear in the woods: the capacity to generate genuine love, for self, for others, and for the world.
How can we find ways in which to recharge our existential batteries and nourish our souls? In the days of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, who has time for such walks in the woods? Can we afford the luxury of being away from the hubbub for longer than it takes to send and receive an email? The real question may be can we afford not to? "Ethically, one of the greatest dangers of the new technology is jadedness," says Rediscovery of Awe: Splendor, Mystery, and the Fluid Center of Life author Kirk J. Schneider, Ph.D. "The more we become jaded, the less we acknowledge Mystery. The less we acknowledge Mystery, the more we lose touch with its current, [which is] amazement."
Being in nature seems to serve an interesting function in human development -- it turns the mind inward upon itself, absorbed in self-reflection. Meanwhile, we are experiencing a universal awareness of our role in nature and the greater world. By connecting to the mystery, walking in the woods becomes an organic form of prayer. Honing the mind, softening the heart, we grow wiser.
The woods remind us of the wide expanse of universe in which we actually live, and appreciation and gratitude naturally ripen; being in nature provides a much-needed perspective, a greater vista. Rather than the multitasking, constricted space of everyday life, we see the larger corral in which we can tame the wild horse that life sometimes becomes. A calmer, more centered self returns to tackle the challenges and celebrate the joys that are embedded, though often missed, in life's more ordinary moments. As architect Frank Lloyd Wright advised, "Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you."
Start by planning weekly walks to clear the mind and rediscover essential nature. Hike a hillside, bike to a park, canoe down a stream, or simply breathe in the air that waits outside your door. Watch a sunset. See wildflowers bloom. Find a place far from the city where the multiplicity of starlight boggles the mind. Feel the wind blow. Be amazed.
This column was originally published in Ambassador Magazine.
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