Although normally an optimistic person by nature, there are days when the relentless little disappointments of life wear me down and leave me feeling discouraged. When this happens, my instinct is to do what has always brought me comfort: retreat to nature. Whenever I am feeling lost, I can always find myself again in the woods.
Throughout my childhood, my family used to spend the summer on a small little island in the middle of a fairly large lake in Massachusetts. There were about a dozen families that owned cottages on this little rock in the pond, but the island isolation helped to create our own little paradise. It was very rustic; there was no electricity, running water, or flush toilets. We floated tanks of propane over to the island to run our refrigerator and stove, but otherwise, there were no modern amenities. Water was pumped by hand from the well and hauled up a hill where our cottage stood overlooking the lake, and our outhouse was, well, it was just something you got used to. When it rained, we entertained ourselves with endless card games. When the weather was nice, I was out in the woods.
I could hardly help it. The island was heavily wooded from shore to shore. Just being there meant being among the company of trees. I learned to climb them, and run among them in the dark without breaking my toes on the roots. (That lesson took a few years and many broken toes.) I learned to listen to their whisperings and tell when the weather would change by the sound they made. I watched trees grow up, and sadly, I watched trees fade, fail, and die. Summer after summer after summer, it was me amongst the trees. I watched birds build their nests, and squirrels raise their families. I watched bats roost among the branches, and a legion of insects make their way in and around the leafy canopy. Trees were ever-present, and although it may sound unusual for a child, I counted the trees among my friends. I was a woodland creature as much as any squirrel.
I still am. Now, as an adult, I find myself returning to the woods again and again whenever I need to find comfort and peace. Our family no longer has the cottage on the island, but I still live in the extensive woodlands of upstate New York. I do not lack for woods or trails to hike through them. So when the going gets tough, I grab my walking stick and instinctively head into the shelter of trees.
I was feeling discouraged and depleted this week. I needed to find my internal reset switch. So I took up my walking stick, filled my knapsack with what I would need to sustain me, and made my way to the nearest trail head. I started my hike with a bit of yoga stretching. Sun Salutations became a moving meditation as I used them to get grounded and open myself to being present. Then I sat at a picnic table and took out my journal, where I wrote for a bit to clarify my intention to cultivate peace. It’s hard to drop baggage that you don’t know you’re carrying, and I find journaling to be a good process to identify the things that are weighing down my journey. This wasn’t just a random hike, but a journey to find myself again. Thus prepared physically and mentally, I entered the woods.
I chose a path through the mountains above my home on a trail that crossed over many streams that carved their way through the landscape seeking sea level far below. The trail began at a waterfall splashing down merrily among the fossil-laden limestone, evidence of an ancient inland sea from a time so long ago my mind boggles. Meditating upon the presence of a clamshell fossil up in the mountains is a great way to find perspective. It’s hard to stay trapped in the fleeting fears of the moment when confronted with time on such a vast scale. Humbled, I rambled on, more peaceful and reflective than before.
I walked steadily, but as silently as possible, pausing frequently to peer through the trees to see what wildlife might be sharing this trail with me. I’d walk, and pause, and listen, then continue on. I paused at another waterfall, and sat for awhile letting the sound wash over me. I went further along the trail and found a fallen log in a sunny spot off the beaten path, and sat there for awhile and listened to the trees and birds exchanging news of the day. I watched a spider reinforce her spiral web against the wind. I saw a millipede hunt along the log where I sat. Farther along, I found a large flat boulder and used it for another seated meditation where, anchored by the stone, I allowed my thoughts to become untethered and roam freely on the breeze. I was hardly aware of myself as I rose and continued my journey. As I continued my solitary drift through the woods, I allowed thoughts to form and pass. I noted them, followed them, and let them go. I spoke to the trees about what was in my heart, and let the breeze carry those words away. I opened all my senses, and received the grace of the woods.
I thought I’d hike for an hour or so, but when I finally emerged from the woods, four hours had passed. I felt a bit like I had slid down Alice’s rabbit hole. I couldn’t possibly have been gone that long? But it was time well spent. I emerged from the woods feeling more settled, peaceful, and hopeful again. I was pulled from my own petty worries back into a place of timeless beauty. I dipped the ladle of my soul into a deep well of peace, and was refreshed.
Where do you go to restore yourself and find peace?