Back to Nature: The Healing Power of the Natural World

Back in May, as the COVID-19 pandemic was sweeping the planet and lock-downs and quarantines had those of us in the Pacific Northwest isolated, apprehensive and discouraged, I began to think about the healing power of nature. In reading about the Japanese concept of ‘forest bathing’, I found that an accumulation of data about the benefits – physiological, psychological, even (dare I say it?), spiritual – of immersing oneself in the natural world confirmed what had always seemed self-evident to me. Being out in the woods is a great way to deal with stress and anxiety, to find a “home base”.

Fortunately, there is a tract of wooded mountainside just a few miles from my home and I found myself there  walking among the trees (and sitting quietly against one particular tree) every day as the pandemic unfolded.

It occurred to me that the healing power of nature could perhaps be what gets us through a time like this.  I sent emails to 13 distinguished writers – some of whom had contributed to Adventures Northwest previously and some of whom had not, asking for a short essay on this healing power. I expected five or six of them to say ‘yes’ but, to my amazement, all 13 readily accepted the assignment. Obviously, a chord struck. Here are their thoughts…

Photo by John D’Onofrio

Acts of Connection

By Abby Sussman

I have spent most of my adult life living and working in places defined by the human interface with nature—the rise of the North Cascades from the Salish Sea, the sculptures of wind on the West Antarctic Icesheet, the stark realities of predator and prey on the Alaskan tundra. The lens of wilderness travel reveals that the connections (and disconnections) between human and non-human communities are grand in scale and consequence. It is not difficult to feel joy at the top of a mountain, seek solace from an overwhelming emptiness, or sense interconnectedness while watching a bear uproot ground squirrels.

Photo by John D’Onofrio

The offering of the current complex landscape is the focus on daily acts of connection—walks through the same local woods observing fiddlehead turn to fern, flower to salmonberry, new buds to shady trails. For me, this unplanned, uncharted attention on home is wonderfully synchronous with newfound parenthood. Seeing the surprise in my son’s eyes as he listens to bird song in our backyard, or watching him become transfixed by the movement of leaves in the wind is a reminder that we discover what we need where we seek it.

I have spent decades finding relief in mountain ranges, comfort in wide vistas, consolation in hefting a heavy backpack at a trailhead. The gift of this time, in all its uneasiness, is unearthing relationships I may have taken for granted for far too long: A wave from a neighbor; a towhee at the feeder; another walk in familiar woods; seeking, and by some great miracle finding, calm, joy, and connectedness, not from the viewpoint, but from the point of view.

A longtime contributor to Adventures Northwest, Abby Sussman has written about far-flung journeys, seasons as a wilderness ranger, and the ways in which the external terrain influences the internal landscape.

 

 

Aqua Therapy

By Susan Conrad

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”

         –       Isak Dinesen

The inlet was long and narrow. In the early morning light, my kayak glided into a dream-like mirror image of saltwater, rainforest, and mountains. A pair of loons floated nearby, low in the water, like I did, their quintessential tremolo piercing the silence. Simultaneously knifing their bills underwater, their broad bodies following, they disappeared out of my sight. I was alone again in the potent tranquility; breathing in deep lungfuls of air, feeling inextricably connected to the ocean, the earth, the Divine, and myself.

Photo by Ben Wells

 

In the simple joy of floating on that glassy surface, in the company of the loons, it occurred to me that nature, even in the midst of chaos, is always seeking equilibrium—as was I. The tides ebb and flow. The seasons come and go. Rains pour from the sky; then the sun appears and dries the earth. I push and I pull on my paddle. My kayak glides forward as my muscles contract and elongate, and balance a narrow boat beneath me. I paddle through the yang and yin of mystery and magic. Water is poetry and I am in the flow.

Like many of my pelagic journeys, this feeling of euphoria and connection to everything around me, of time taking on a new dimension, has repeated itself countless times. From my very first experience in a kayak on a large lake in Montana, I felt blessed to experience nature’s beauty from this perspective. I radiated a child-like sense of joy and wonder with my first sea kayak experience. I’ve floated in a magical world among whales and icebergs in Southeast Alaska. I have felt a veil of protection surround me after out-paddling a storm in southern British Columbia. After my father’s death, I turned to the ocean for solace, its aqua therapy enveloping me, transporting me into a restorative world, a healing world. In Mexico, while exuberantly traveling with following seas on the Sea of Cortez, I felt not only one with my kayak, ensconced in a vessel that I literally wear, but one with nature.

Fluid by nature, water takes the path of least resistance, gracefully moving around obstacles rather than directly opposing them. Water is always changing, ebbing and flowing—like our lives and our bodies. Water is a beautiful teacher so long as we are open to its lessons. When life places obstacles in our path, be the water.

Susan Conrad is an author, adventurer, and kayak evangelist. You can learn more about her pelagic wanderings at  susanmarieconrad.com

 

 

 

We Are All Connected

By Darrell Hillaire

COVID-19 has disconnected the Coast Salish people from the seasonal ceremonies giving thanks to all living things—especially the salmon. The Coast Salish lifeway includes winter ceremonies and spring/summer activities such as fishing, crabbing, war canoe racing and canoe journey. Each season feeds our spirit and keeps our culture aligned with the natural world. Each person in the numerous Salish communities has a responsibility towards this alignment. The responsibilities are often expressed via song, dance, and ceremony, and keep us connected and respectful to Mother Earth.

Photo courtesy of Darrell Hillaire

Our communities face a huge dilemma right now. We must change values to save our grandchildren from a warming planet. Natures’ warnings are upon us right now. The warning instructs us to seek unity, seek equity, and want peace with all living things.

This, my friend, is a journey of the spirit.

Will you join me?

Darrell Hillaire is a former Lummi Indian Business Council member and Chairman of the Lummi Nation, founder of the Lummi Youth Academy, and currently the Executive Director of Children of the Setting Sun Productions.

 

 

The Importance of Feeling Small

By Leif Whittaker

Have you ever felt small and insignificant?

Perhaps when gazing across a vast wilderness from a mountaintop or peering through a clear night sky at the infinite universe. Maybe you’ve felt it kneeling beneath the cross or bowing in prostration toward Mecca. It’s the same emotion in every case, an awareness of something much larger than yourself.

For a growing number of people, that larger thing is Mother Nature, yet we do not always treat her with the sacred regard she deserves.

Photo by John D’Onofrio

Far too often in the outdoor community, the value of nature is tied to our interactions with it. Whether they be stories of survival, accomplishment, or self-discovery, outdoor narratives are usually told from an anthropocentric perspective. That is, we speak of nature only in terms of how it serves humanity. We fight to protect land with the caveat that we will still be allowed to access our favorite locales and we promote outdoor adventure without considering the impacts increased visitation will cause.

Without a doubt, experiences in nature are good for our physical, psychological and spiritual well-being. Studies of the brain are demonstrating that nature has positive effects on mental health. Contact with greenspace has been shown to have far-reaching physiological benefits. And as more is learned about the human microbiome, some scientists suggest interactions with wild plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms contribute to our overall health in previously unimagined ways. In an increasingly data-driven and materialistic world, studies like these elevate our collective understanding of the value of nature.

But we would be wise to keep in mind that nature has deeper and more important functions, some of which may be beyond our current capabilities to observe, quantify, or explain. As science advances, we may someday comprehend the profound interconnectedness of every particle and organism, but for now we might have to rely on a little faith.

Where do you sense a stronger connection to the divine? Standing beneath the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, built and painted by human hands? Or standing on the summit of Mount Baker, formed by the astounding complexities of natural creation? Both experiences make one feel, as my father put it, “like a frail human being.” Our relationship with nature could use an infusion of this humble and awestruck sentiment.

So, rather than only viewing nature as our playground, doctor, therapist, resource, or dominion, I challenge us to harken back to the perspective of our ancestors; let us think of nature as a sacred thing.

Leif Whittaker began writing at age eleven while trapped on a sailboat in the Pacific. His first book, My Old Man and the Mountain, was published by Mountaineers Books in 2016.

 

 

 

Familiar Terrain

By Saul Weisberg

In this time of protest and pandemic, I am struck by the loneliness of being a social animal in a world that tells us not to touch. A friend told me that this is a lonely time to have a baby. I hear of weddings postponed and funerals officiated over Zoom. My uncle’s ashes wait in a New York mortuary for a future time when my cousin, brother and I can spread them on my grandparents’ graves.

Photo by Saul Weisberg

Where do we go to grieve, alone or together, all that has been lost? Where do we go to heal?

Two weeks ago, I paddled my solo canoe around the familiar shore of Lake Padden and heard the first spring song of Swainson’s thrush—a  liquid gurgle spiraling up like a ribbon from the dark woods. I paddle these waters nearly every week of the year. My companions vary, sometimes I share conversations with a good friend. Other times, I let kingfisher lead me around the lake, past solitary herons and sunbathing turtles. I watch the buds of big leaf maple swell, burst and flower, turning into samaras even as the leaves unfold to shade the edges of the lake.

Photo by Saul Weisberg

Close to home, familiar terrain. Ten minutes after leaving my home I feel the feather-weight of the paddle in my hand. Wind, waves, sun and rain transport me to a world that makes sense again, an accessible landscape of seasons and species that don’t read the news, listen to the radio, watch TV or scan the net. Some days I stay away from the news altogether. Other days I skim quickly, looking for stories that are indeed, news to me, stories that don’t reinforce the downward spiral, that are credible, helpful and hopeful.

When the circle of work closes around me like a cocoon, here’s the news I share with friends: a Cooper’s hawk feeding on a spotted towhee in our garden; the heron rookery I walk past in the evening after work; a flock of 500+ Bonaparte’s gulls feeding on tiny fish a short stone’s throw from Post Point; and the hundreds of warblers—Yellow-rumped, Black-throated gray, Townsend’s, Orange-crowned, Yellow, Wilson’s—darting across the broad canopy of maples and cedars along the Samish Crest Preserve trail.

I am grateful and find solace in the small benefits of nature close to home.

Saul Weisberg is a poet, naturalist and executive director of North Cascades Institute. His current passions include birds, bugs, canoeing and walking in the mountains in the rain.

 

 

 

The Learning Part

By Dave Mauro

I coached the Chess Club at Larrabee Elementary for the years 2001 -2006, and one of the valuable things I learned was how players learned so much more from the games they lost. Losing is uncomfortable and it is precisely that discomfort which fuels improvement. Properly coached, losing can yield substantial learning.  I think about that sometimes when reflecting on the experience we are having during this Corona Virus quarantine.

I’ll speak for all of us in saying “we are uncomfortable.” The separation from people and places we love can hardly be soothed through the occasional Zoom call, especially when one of those places is nature. Trails and parks have been closed, campgrounds gated and locked. Just walking Taylor street dock feels risky. For true nature lovers this has been akin to losing a limb. So for all this discomfort, what learning might come from it?

Photo by Dave Mauro

 

Certainly a greater appreciation for the remarkable beauty of Whatcom County will visit each of us. That much seems clear. We will drink in the verdant hues of spring ferns cascading down forested swales, and pause to admire a massive trailside cedar. A sweeping vista from the Chanterelle Trail will remind us of a hunger to look out across open spaces. The peace. The freshness. The abundant wildlife. We will be so, so thankful.

Nature was not taken away from us. Rather we were taken away from nature. But it is my hope that the real learning which comes from all of this is how easily things can go the other way. Reckless government actions, poor stewardship, and a perennial lack of funding for the care of our wild places are all things we control, just like the pieces on child’s chess board. I hope we have learned to think more deeply about these things and choose our moves carefully.

David Mauro is the award winning author of The Altitude Journals and the 65th American to climb the seven summits. He lives in Bellingham, WA.

 

 

 

Tonight’s Headline News

By Peter Frazier

Governors Point, WA

Two otters slid through the water noiselessly. They appeared to be at home and satisfied in their environment. They could not be reached for comment and did not return voice calls by deadline.

A great blue heron squawked and awkwardly landed on a branch too small to hold her. This reporter found the interaction embarrassing and looked the other way to be polite.

Starfish are clinging in significant numbers to the barnacled sandstone of Governors Point. This after a significant die-off 5 years ago. They seemed in good spirits, consumer confidence appeared high.

Photo by Peter Frazier

 

It was a robust low tide, but not a “major sell-off”. Clams spouted occasionally. One reporter momentarily considered digging for them but then thought better of it, preferring to drink Aslan Batch 15 instead.

Not a single engine could be heard for two hours, nor boat seen. Waves lapped the beach gently.

Two bald eagles carefully surveyed from high in fir trees. With extreme social distancing in effect, an interview was not conducted to discover their opinions on the marked decline in traffic around them.

The moon came out and shone down on the scene below.

This reporter observed that the denizens of Salish Sea appeared to be holding up remarkably well under the circumstances. There seemed to be no hew and cry for a return to “normal”.

Peter Frazier feels fortunate to have lived on the shores of Chuckanut Bay his whole life, and to have watched a forest grow there for half a century. He prefers to be in a boat when possible.

 

 

 

What has been Lost and What has been Found

By David Inscho

 

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives

as water and good bread.” – Ed Abbey

It has been strange to awaken each morning and look at a closet full of clothes that have nowhere to go anymore. There is no dinner date, no brewpub meet-up with the crew, or perhaps not even work. The disorientation becomes even more pronounced when juxtaposed with the dissipating dreams of the night, where there were daring encounters with others, audacious mingling in crowds, or simply walking arm-in-arm with a friend.

Photo by David Inscho

At a time when we are faced with a starvation diet of social contact, it becomes vital to refine our awareness of our surroundings. To attend to the banquet of “otherness” brought by all these changes.

There is a certain irony to the virus-imposed changes we have seen in our communities. As the streets and highways drained of that habitual tyranny of our cars and the associated sonic tempest, we edged a little closer to the forgotten original values of our wild lands. We noticed in the fresh air, and the quiet that allowed birdsong to wander our streets like prodigal children. Instead of lock-down it was a small portal that opened to wildness right where we live.

Many of us in the Pacific Northwest know that freedom. We deliberately and vigorously pursue those original values whenever we can. We know the clarifying nature of movement, and the ability of nature to move the soul. We know the nourishing and inspirational value of silence, of air that tingles with freshness and life, of an autumn breeze laden with the scent of ripe mountain blueberry, or the mineral taste of water scooped from a meltwater stream above tree line. We know what it feels like to sleep just beyond high tide next to the wild Pacific under the roaring influence of the moon. Some lucky ones even know the electric encounter of a cougar, loon calls on a dusky lake, or the prickly joy of howling wolves.

The hunger for approximating those sustaining experiences is evident in our local parks and trails. Never before have I seen so many of my fellow citizens shrug off a non-fatal dose of boredom and savor the wealth of natural spaces. It is a personal civic joy to see how the value of this priority is being affirmed in foot-power.

Now that we know what we have lost, and what we have found, let’s try to remember the value of each other, and the nature that ties us together. Let’s stay steady and deliberate in our long-term commitment to a healthy community…and a healthy planet.

David Inscho is a believer in coffee, beer, and the profound power of wilderness. When not at his day job, he can be found  backpacking with his camera in the silence of our public lands.

 

 

 

Our Place of Refuge

By Jimmy Watts

Our evening migration commences around sundown this time of year. The movement is initiated by our dog, an impatient but polite retriever by the name of Wilson. He waits at the porch door, which opens to a small, railed and covered deck off the kitchen. He mumbles under his breath to anyone who’ll listen, that he’s ready to lie down and call it a day if someone would kindly open the door.

Shortly after his exit the rest of us will follow.

On the porch are two big futons and layers of blankets, goose down and pillows.  Beyond the railing are endless acres of wild woods, the trickle of a small creek, and a chorus of bird song and frogs. Sometimes the incense of hemlock drifts by, carrying prayers from a smoldering fire pit out back.

Photo by Jimmy Watts

Before dark all five of us will be out here, and with the exception of a driving wind, the weather makes no difference.  We’ll laugh and tell stories, answer questions and ask them. Someone may read. Someone may just lie quietly. And once the lingering light is gone from the sky, leaving us to contemplate the stars, and our voices have trailed off and no more satellites are called out, we’ll fall asleep breathing clean night air.

For the past few years this has been our year-round, and near nightly, routine. It’s our area of refuge and retreat, solace and comfort, it’s the place at the end of the day we retire as a family.

Our kids started this when Wilson was a puppy, and my wife and I soon followed. They were on to something. They ventured out one summer, and we never really went back in.

It’s our normal. It isn’t every night, but it’s a lot of them…maybe most.

And right now, it’s everything. The world as we knew it has crumbled. We’re in lockdown…in quarantine…under stay-at-home orders. But out here we’re free.

Out here is all we need.

And as good as it is to fall asleep like this, it’s even better waking up.

For the past twenty years Jimmy Watts has been a firefighter in downtown Seattle, the craftsman behind Shuksan Rod Company split-cane fly rods, and a writer.  He lives with his family outside Bellingham, WA

 

 

 

Belonging

By Craig Romano

When asked why they climb, the classic mountaineers’ retort is “because it’s there.” The reason that I venture into the wilds is a little more complicated. I head to the wilderness for comfort, solace, validation, enlightenment and redemption. Through periods of personal challenges and during times of a global pandemic, social unrest, economic turmoil, and so much suffering, inequality, and anxiety—I retreat to the natural world.

Photo by John D’Onofrio

 

And while nature, like humankind, can be beautiful and inspiring—it can also be cruel and unforgiving. But in nature, I see the purpose, design, and order. It’s perfect—exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Not so in the human world. And while often I question my place, purpose, and direction in the “real world;” in nature I can readily accept the world as it is.

I don’t go to the woods to escape—I go there to live. I go there to feel alive—to feel whole. To feel a sense of belonging. To feel that there are things much bigger and more important than me. In nature I am a part of a beautiful world where Man doesn’t make the rules. I go to the woods not because they are there—but to do so as Henry David Thoreau described in Walden. “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.”

In this time of Covid-19, social unrest, societal reckoning, and failed leadership, the allure of the backcountry has become even stronger to me. Upon entering the natural world I immediately feel at ease, feel purpose, see beauty and meaning. While I was raised with religion and continue to seek truth and purpose through my faith, I never fully felt it in a pew. I feel it in the natural cathedrals of the world. John Muir put it thus: “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”

Amen.

Award winning author Craig Romano grew up in rural New Hampshire surrounded by woods and wetlands. He has written more than 20 books and hiked more than 25,000 miles in Washington. Visit him at CraigRomano.com

 

 

Casting to a Brighter Future

By Henry Hughes

When our department meeting at Western Oregon University was canceled on March 12 over concerns of COVID-19, I figured it was a good excuse to go fishing.

There were few known cases of the virus in Oregon at that point. We thought the cancellation was just a precaution.

I emailed my colleague, Jackson Stalley:

“Fishing?” I asked.

“Yes, indeed!” he replied.

We met that afternoon with a hug before heading to a Willamette Valley pond to catch stocked rainbow trout waking up after a winter slumber. Jackson caught a 25-inch, 8-pound rainbow, and we shared a flask of bourbon to celebrate.

It was the last time fishing would feel normal.

Photo by Mark Van Steeter

 

I began Oregon’s spring fishing season when COVID-19 was just a whisper. A few weeks later, fishing had become a completely different experience, one in which social distancing was required for a pastime that could be outlawed at any moment—as it was in Washington State.

As most of Oregon’s parks and public lands closed down to recreation, fishing remained open and viable except on parts of the Columbia River. But it has required getting used to — the rules changing by the day. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has stressed fishing in small groups, or solo, keeping at least six feet from each other and staying close to home.

Two weeks after our department meeting was cancelled, Jackson emailed and suggested we return to the same trout pond. This time we took separate cars and boats. We didn’t hug, and any toasting over big fish would be done remotely. With Jackson paddling on the other side of the pond, I drifted quietly, casting a streamer. Although I enjoy fishing with others, there’s also something meditative and soothing about angling alone. A muskrat swam within inches of my boat, and I paid closer attention to the redwing blackbirds singing in the cattails, and the osprey diving to seize a hapless trout.

Back in the real world, things got worse. There were several cases of COVID-19 in Polk County by March 25. People we knew had symptoms, a student at WOU tested positive. Almost 20,000 had died worldwide.

My friend, Mark Van Steeter, texted me: “Steelhead tomorrow? Water looks right.”

Mark, a geography professor, knows a lot about world health issues. He’s also a great steelhead angler, and when he says the conditions are right, I pay attention. This winter run was also a short distance from our homes.

We drove separately and met on a pullout above a Coast Range river. There was no greeting hug or exchange of gear. Mark’s daughter baked a cupcake for me, and he set it down in a plastic cup on the gravel between us. “Please thank her,” I said, picking up my treat.

The river was low, but recent showers had imparted a slight green cloudiness that makes these fish less wary and more aggressive. I flipped a copper spoon into a deep cut and instantly got a strike. “They’re in here,” I smiled.  A few casts later, I was hooked to a bright steelhead that blasted downriver. After some astonishing leaps and runs, it was ready to land.

Even with an extended net, Mark was about to violate the six-foot rule. ODFW created a helpful chart reminding anglers to stay “one mature white sturgeon length apart.” We’d been good about “sturgeon distancing” all day, but before netting this fish, we pulled bandanas up over our faces.

Mark and I caught several steelhead that afternoon, including three fin-clipped fish we harvested. Fishing has always helped me connect with the life and death realities of nature. In some ways, so has this pandemic. Nature humbles us, reminding humans that we are also fragile creatures.

With deep sadness for the loss of human life, and with high hopes in the science and social practices that will halt this disease, I keep fishing—alone, now, wading, walking the bank, or drifting in my float tube, watching for rises and casting to a brighter future.

Henry Hughes is the author of Back Seat with Fish: A Man’s Adventures in Angling and Romance, and the deputy editor of The Flyfishing & Tying Journal. He teaches literature and writing at Western Oregon University.

 

 

An Invitation from the Birds

By Shannon Finch

The word “riot” is on my mind.

Riots in the streets. A riot of emotions as I witness suffering and pain. But also, there is the riot of nature, an unwavering march of life that steadies me. Plants bloom, insects pollinate, and animals make a living, as they always have. The birds are especially busy.

Photo by Shannon Finch

A Red-breasted Sapsucker tends his sap wells on the birch tree. Tiny, fierce Rufous Hummingbirds duel with bees at the feeder. That sound like coins jingling in a pocket? An Anna’s Hummingbird. A pair of Barn Swallows collect mud for not one, but two nests. Screech Owls call to each other, a bouncing song that revs up and tumbles over itself.

Four Canada goose goslings have survived. Six male goldfinches are spaced out on a utility line, socially distancing I guess. White-crowned sparrows ahead of us swoop between fence posts, like they are hanging garlands, or maybe inviting us to follow. Swainson’s Thrushes sing their twirling, burbling melody at dusk. Fledgling tree swallows take their first flight, launching into a brilliant blue sky. One turns her head and looks me directly in the eye with an intensity that stops me in my tracks.

Shannon Finch is a writer and aspiring photographer. She lives on a small farm in Stanwood, WA with her husband and many rescue animals and enjoys photographing wildlife and landscapes.

 

 

The Waiting Tree

By Christine Smith

The old tree had died long ago, and although there were hundreds of other trees on my grandparents’ property, it was the only one my grandfather ever took us to. He drove an aging purple farm tractor with an equally ancient wooden trailer. My sister, cousins, and I would sit with our legs dangling off the back but holding on tightly with our fingers curled around the edge. The tree was silver, barkless, and riddled with woodpecker holes. He called it the Woody Woodpecker High Rise Apartment.

As a child I often played near that old dead tree. It’s where I learned to explore nature. I caught garter snakes and frogs, peered under rotting logs, got spooked by spiders, searched for bird’s nests, and learned what bear and coyote scat looked like. I discovered stinging nettles and grew to love the smell of skunk cabbage. I learned the desire to be in nature.

A year ago, I stood under another tree, an ancient Sitka spruce on an island in Alaska. Sitka spruce are known for growing straight and tall, but this one enormous tree is unique with big sprawling lower branches that dominate the forest. These two huge branches, as large as the main trunk, run horizontally before turning upwards to the sky, and those upward branch-trunks have somewhat smaller identical off-shoots of their own that give the tree the look of a candelabra. A trail runs through the underbrush next to the tree. As I ran my fingers across the rough bark, a small moth flew by and down the trail. It’s a trail not made by humans, but by centuries of brown bears, each step of the path imprinted with the memory of carefully placed paws. As I stood there, I wondered what lessons I was learning in this tree’s forest.

Photo by Christine Smith

 

Now, as I learn the new ways of a new world, I often stare out at a tree in my front yard. I call it The Waiting Tree. It’s where Steller’s jays and crows wait while coaxing me outside for peanuts. It’s where squirrels give chase to one another, and racoons sometimes sleep. In this new world where my explorations are temporarily limited, I’m learning that although I still desire the nature of distant wild places, the Waiting Tree is teaching me that wild nature exists even in my own front yard.

Christine Smith grew up with the Pacific Northwest. Her favorite things include the earthy smells of a seaweed-encrusted beach on a hot day and the excitement of discovering something new in nature.

 

 

 

The Healing Power of Nature

By John D’Onofrio

Photo by John D’Onofrio

 

Sitting beside a small campfire on a Nooksack River gravel bar, the conversation turned to the big question raised by the worldwide pandemic that had changed nearly everything about the way we live our lives. What next?

It’s a big question indeed.

In many ways, our planet has been hurtling towards catastrophe for a long time. We humans have proven ourselves to be as ingenious as we are pathologically shortsighted. In the last 50 years, while our population has doubled, we’ve feverishly increased our consumption, stepped up our wholesale attack on the environment that sustains us, expanded the brute force with which we enforce the cancer of racial injustice, relentlessly institutionalized economic inequality, and surrendered our very souls to a never-ending stream of manipulation and agenda-driven amplification that we term, ‘the digital age’.  In the growing clamor, we have very nearly lost our ability to respond to each other in meaningful human ways, to connect with our fellow travelers (human and otherwise) on this spinning planet, to evidence compassion, to be together in any real sense. That is to say, we have very nearly lost our moorings as human beings. It has been, my companion on the other side of the fire agreed, a runaway train with no clear way to slow it down, let alone stop it.

Until the pandemic.

As spring unfolded the machines began to grind to a halt and the veils began to fall away, revealing much that had gone conveniently unseen. The cruelties and greed (and ever-growing divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’) were more readily apparent, devoid of their protective façade of dancing pixels. Compassion has enjoyed a renaissance, as our own vulnerability has connected us directly to the plight of the vulnerable—our fellow human beings, the other creatures with whom we share the planet, the Earth itself.

The big, obvious opportunity now before us is to embrace a re-connection with the natural world, to rediscover our rightful and natural place in the big scheme of things so we can turn away from our ego-driven, self-serving proclivities and embrace a more humble (and satisfying) role as part of something bigger than ourselves. And the sense of being part of something bigger than oneself emphatically puts the lie to the every-man-for-himself-ism that has come to define our society. In many ways, this is the healing power of nature: a chance to transcend the short-sighted demands of ego and re-discover our place in the world.

We find ourselves facing no less than a reckoning.

Meaningful change often comes from undesired stimuli, uninvited disruptions that make our usual comfort zones uninhabitable. Perhaps now we have an opportunity to stop the train, to reframe our priorities and to be more fully present. To be kind. To be still.

To be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

 

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