I saw my therapist today. My son and I went to a local nature trail, and as we walked I mentally conversed with the crisp air and bare trees, the occasional birds, and the creeks running alongside. This is my proverbial couch, and today (as well as last week at Westmoreland State Park on the Potomac River) was my weekly session. I have always found perspective in nature, an understanding of the need to focus on now, on today, on the moment at hand, as well as a deep appreciation for the pace and tempo of time when we are in nature. With so much going on in my life, today, and every time we go for hikes or when I just wander to the river and sit on the stones to watch cars pass on the distant bridge, I manage to slip those bonds of stress and anxiety.
I have walked in nature since I’m nine years old, and I always innately managed to allow “nature’s peace to flow into me as sunshine flows into the trees,” as John Muir suggested, and I’m certain everyone out there understands this as well.
E.O. Wilson wrote that, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” I think better in nature. I mentally write and revise, I connect dots between seemingly unrelated themes. I can sit and contemplate the way geese land on the pond and suddenly recognize the relationship between them and a discussion I had about some folk song or compelling art. I don’t do this on purpose; I just walk, then I recall that piece I’m working on about the Torture Museum in Prague, and after awhile I note the patience and focus a Great Blue Heron uses in seeking out small fish in the duck pond, and, ouila, clear as a bell. I’m off and running.
I have been to churches all over the world and remain close friends with priests I’ve known since I’m nineteen, but I don’t really contemplate faith until I’m on some trail somewhere in the snow and turn around to see the valleys cut by ice millions of years ago. Even those faithless among us know that Muir was right when he wrote “the clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”
I have been going to these therapy sessions since I’m a child along the Great South Bay, and like John Burroughs, I have always gone to nature to be “soothed, healed, and have my senses put in order.” It isn’t far, this nature I’m talking about. I’ve walked down Fifth Avenue in summer at five a.m. and have known nature. The walk from my building to the parking garage at the college passes several groves of trees and a well-hidden pond where birds spend their time between their classes.
When I’m confused, anxiety-ridden, stressed, worried about meeting my goals, worried about so much I thought I’d never have to concern myself with at my age, when “the world is too much with” me, I just know what Einstein meant when he wrote, “If you look deep into nature, you will understand everything better.”
Frank Lloyd Wright said he walked in nature every day for inspiration for his day’s work. Me too, and sometimes it actually happens that way, particularly if I come home, put some appropriate music on, and brain dump my thoughts.
Just as often, however, I’m so inspired and awakened by nature that I just stay out there. The long trails become my compound sentences and the rocks at the river from which I can see both west up the Rappahannock and east across the Chesapeake become my exclamation points. In writing I avoid such sensational punctuation marks, but in nature they are virtually everywhere! The herons and the kingfishers are sensational. The snapper turtles and the stingrays, the pink clouds at dusk, the orange glow before dawn, the osprey call, the geese landing all at once with hundreds of slides into the otherwise-still water; these are nature’s equivalent of dramatic emphasis. There are simply no parentheses in nature, nothing to set off or turn into some subordinate clause. It is all subject and verb; it is always active voice.
Life—my life—has seemed heavy at times, a ton of bricks difficult to carry but more difficult to put down. I have climbed so far already this year, and I continue one foot in front of the other, but the summit is still quite aways away, and when I’m inside—both physically and mentally—it can keep reflecting back at me, can absorb too much attention simply by virtue of perspective, like a boulder in a bathtub. But when I’m outside and the simplicity of life greets me at the door and reminds me of my priorities, and I step out into the infinite presence of earth, Rachel Carson is there too to remind me that “those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”
Bizarre statistic: Those who contemplate suicide and decide to see it through at home are three times more likely to do so than those who go into nature to end their misery. Of course there are exceptions; I’ve known or have known of a few troubled souls who found their eternal peace in nature much too soon. But the vast majority of lost souls find their way home by leaving it and seeking out something larger than themselves.
We seem so damned important and certain in the confines of our offices and living rooms and our problems can appear so significant, but out along the river, out where we can stare across the reach to the distant waves, up along the ridge of some mountain where water formed caves millions of years ago and we stand in perfect silence completely in the moment, we are aware that life is nothing but now and love. Life at its core is comprised of nothing more than now and love.