A breath of fresh air can be all we need to center ourselves again, and Patrice Vecchione highlights the importance of reconnecting with nature to engage the healing power of the outdoors in Step into Nature (Beyond Words, 2015). Vecchione's friendly, accessible writing, interspersed with suggestions, activities and resources designed to assist you in your return to nature, shows you how just stepping outside your front doorstep can shed light on creativity and imagination. The following excerpt is from chapter 1, "The Allure of the Earth."
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Landscape was here long, long before we were even dreamed. It was here without us. It watched us arrive. —John O’Donohue
We come from the earth. The desert, forests, and plains are our ancestral home. Once upon a time, our floors were dirt and our stoves were open fires; water was sipped from a stream. There was nothing to separate us from the land. People believed that their power came from the earth. Though we’ve drifted away from that ancient awareness, our cells have not forgotten, nor have our spirits. It’s the modern mind that has gone astray. But it hasn’t traveled so far that reclamation isn’t possible. Now is a good time to rediscover our roots. Our imaginations and our bodies, to say nothing of the earth herself, will benefit from our return.
Beyond any single thing, nature’s appeal comes from her aliveness and from the fact that we’re a part of her. It’s alluring to return to the place we once knew as well as our own names. How could it be otherwise? As much as we love a bed at day’s end, or a kitchen with hot running water, the natural world is still our home. If we seek liberty from walls, a plaster firmament, and swept floors, we might find that freedom from one thing can provide freedom into another. The difference between inside and out isn’t just a variation of containment, though that’s part of it. The power and presence of the earth is significant.
Brandon Stanton’s book of photographs, Humans of New York, captures a wide array of personalities. Some pictures are accompanied by a subject’s comments. One caught a gray-haired elderly woman smiling beatifically at the camera; she said, “Every time I force myself to go outside, something wonderful happens!” I know just the feeling. It can be a matter of forcing myself sometimes because of inertia or a frightfully long list of things to do, but getting out the door is always worth it. On a similar note, Charles Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, documents that people in cities are happier when they pass by small parks. Montgomery writes, “Green space in cities shouldn’t be considered an optional luxury. It is a critical part of a healthy human habitat.”
If an attraction to the natural world is something you’ve been asleep to, as I was for most of my life, it can be startling once it awakens in you! I have to wonder: Didn’t I live just fine before I was enthralled by sunlight breaking through fog, the humping crawl of caterpillars, the redness of wild raspberries? The conversations between unseen birds have become as interesting to me as my conversations with friends. Wasn’t life just as good before I began walking in the open air alone?
Shortly after college, my sister signed up for a several-month-long backpacking expedition. The leader took the group into California’s High Sierra for study and exploration, where they would be incommunicado for weeks at a time. I thought she was crazy. That was the furthest thing from this city girl’s idea of fun. Why don hiking boots if I could slip on a pair of heels? How could walking in the mountains lead to poetry or anything except for blistered feet and a profound longing for the comforts of home? My sister has always had an affinity for nature and for the animal kingdom, in particular. She knew the call of the earth when I was entirely taken by Manhattan’s art museums and used bookstores. So didn’t I live just as finely before discovering the great outdoors? No, actually, I didn’t. Not as finely as I live now, connected to, communing with, and infatuated by the earth. My younger sister knew something important a long time before I caught on.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in her book The Hidden Life of Deer, remembers her father telling her that the chemistry formulas for hemoglobin (a component of our blood) and for chlorophyll (which allows plants to take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen) were almost identical. Thomas writes, “Both had the same amounts of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, and only one difference: right in the middle where hemoglobin has iron, chlorophyll has magnesium. That a plant and a person shared something so basic seemed awesome. It gave a sense of the oneness of things.” We truly are part of this planet, as certainly as any other creature. We are nature. There’s liberation in that thought, and comfort; our restored connection with the earth makes sense—it’s our birthright.
Roaming the plains, running after waves, wading in the river, and standing at the edge of cliffs, we’re interacting with aspects of the essence of who we are. These are our spiritual and alchemical, nascent, elementary selves. In the forest, every growing thing contributes to the environment’s well being—from the freshness of the air to the physical space that surrounds our bodies. There, no bank teller insists I’m overdrawn. The traffic light doesn’t take forever to change. I’m never running late to get to the next hilltop. The trees don’t point their branches at me and tsk, tsk because I’ve been away too long. The rocks never try to sell me a single thing.
Over the decades, necessity has pulled us farther and farther from our source. Most of us now make our livelihoods unconnected to nature and live removed from her. Our separation from nature has developed a need that earlier generations didn’t have. When people lived close to nature and worked there, too, a relationship with the earth was a part of life, even if it wasn’t easy. The longer a person is away from the earth, the greater the call may be to return. Even if, like me, you’re numb to the craving—until you’re not.
Nature’s not far away, really. No rabbit holes to squeeze through, no boulders to heave out of the way. You don’t need to hightail it to Alaska’s Kenai Fjords or the Mojave Desert to set your feet upon concrete-free earth. A taste of nature may be no farther than right outside your door or at the neighborhood park. Even on a day when a short walk in the open air is impossible, you can open the window and lean your head out, inhale the breeze and take in the sky, the absolute expanse of it.
Every Tuesday, some of Monterey’s homeless women gather for a lunch prepared by local volunteers. Once a month I come and offer a writing workshop. In her poem, one woman wrote, “I’m not homeless; my roof is enormous; it’s the sky!” There you are, too, a part of it. The earth isn’t far away; it’s just under your feet. The sky surrounds your skin.
Mostly I walk at a park ten minutes from my home. I’m extremely lucky it’s there. It wasn’t till years after moving here that I was aware the park existed. There are closer natural enclaves—the frog pond a few blocks away, where a symphony can be heard at the wettest times of year; a swath of field where neighbor kids play; a beach in front of the big hotel. However, the kind of nature that puts trucks, school buses, billboards, crowds, and shopping malls at a distance is the place for me. I am comforted when surrounded by green and brown, with a sky roof overhead, far from a car-studded street. To be in a place that’s shadowed, deep, and wide revives my spirit and stimulates my mind. If I can’t get to my woods, I’m damn happy with that frog pond!
Sometimes I go a bit farther afield, wanting to see something new. I remember one day when my husband, Michael, and I went south from our home along the coast road to a hiking area called Sobranes Canyon, in the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. From our front door to the trailhead, the effort was minimal, a mere half-hour drive. We walked inland from the coast. Large prickly pear cactus, tall grasses, wildflowers, and scrub brush bordered the open path. Quickly the landscape transformed into a dark redwood forest canyon with ferns, nearly as tall and far wider than I am, and a rushing creek. We climbed up and up. We could have walked the full four-hour loop but hunger for the lunch we didn’t bring got the best of us.
Chances are, where you live there are similar opportunities—ways to reach a hunk of nature without having to go too far. Truly, a city park or and body of unfettered land will do just fine. Someone I know frequents the dump on the outskirts of town because that’s the closest place he can go for some wide open space to feel dirt under his feet. There are spots in New York’s Central Park that feel very far away from the city.
Nature isn’t only in sublime, untouched-by-human-hand places. In fact, cultivated spaces that resemble unblemished ones can be enormously satisfying. In the heart of San Francisco, in the Tenderloin neighborhood, a change is taking place. In the midst of the former red-light district, there’s a sanctuary of green called “The Tenderloin National Forest.” Surrounded by residential buildings, instead of the drug paraphernalia that previously littered the sidewalks, is an oasis where cherry, cypress, and even a couple of redwood trees grow. Two ponds make homes for goldfish. There’s a garden with aloe cactus too. Residents reclaimed the land; they took it back from concrete and stucco.
Artist Topher Delaney’s medium is the land itself; she designs gardens. In a garden created for the Marin Cancer Center, Delaney included plants from which certain chemotherapy drugs are developed. She said, “Nature heals the heart and soul, and those are things the doctors can’t help. That’s what the garden is all about—healing the parts of yourself that the doctors can’t.” There are fewer dividing lines between the human-made world and the non-human-made one than we sometimes think. The earth is what everything else stands on—below the street and sidewalk, holding up house, school, and office. Where the corner store now stands, there were once trees, a field, or even a river. When invited, nature rushes in.
Most of us don’t live lives that offer easy access to unfettered, abundant wilderness. My friend Robin is the exception. Having moved from a coastal city, she can now touch the High Sierra because it’s right outside her door. When asked what she misses about urban life, she replied, “Well, truthfully, I don’t miss much. Sometimes, certain people. When I go back, I enjoy the food, going to restaurants, hearing live music.” She traded those things to be up close and personal with the earth. We don’t have to, though. Where are the places in your area that the ground makes a carpet of green or brown and you can kick off your shoes and feel earth between your toes?
Nature is never boring. It’s not ho-hum or redundant. Nothing vague or general about it. Though some people may say “if you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all,” don’t believe it for a minute. No one tree is the same as another any more than one person duplicates another. This tree is as wide as it is tall and its leaves are red, and that one’s over one hundred feet tall, unwavering in its upright posture.
The earth is dynamic, resplendent, and ever changing. There is only this tide pool, this dry canyon, this dark-eyed junco. A leaf shimmers in the sunlight; a lion opens her mouth; the rain squall comes as if from nowhere, and all of a sudden you’re drenched. Near my home, people line up every evening to catch the sunset with its banners of pink, yellow, and orange. Of course, the earth’s magnificence can also be terrifying and destructive—such as when an earthquake threatens the ground you’re standing on, when a tornado wrecks your town. But boring? Never.
One experience in the natural world doesn’t duplicate another. I’ve never walked the same trail twice, no matter how often I place my feet on the same path. The day is different, and the light is too. Last night’s wind knocked that tree down. There’s more pink and purple vetch vine in bloom. Today you need a sweater, yesterday you didn’t. In her memoir, The Turquoise Ledge, Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko writes about how she takes a familiar walk each day and is occasionally surprised to find bits of turquoise beside the trail that weren’t there the day before. Lots of walks I take are circular. If I begin my walk in the opposite direction from the way I usually go, it’s as if I’m in a different place; such a small change too.
Nature is transformative. Lots about us—our outlook and our behavior—can change as a result of just being on the earth. Breath comes more easily. In nature, it’s difficult to rush. When I go out for a fast walk, it’s never fast the whole way. The earth forces me to slow down, because I’m captivated by what I see, and both my body and mind benefit from that adjusted pace. My curiosity is awakened; there’s more that I don’t know or understand about the woods—the behavior of its creatures, how the wind moves, why that tree’s fallen but not the one beside it. As never before, I’m interested in the details of the natural world. Although I avoided science courses in school, now biology, botany, geology, and physics intrigue. The art I make these days often includes bits of lichen, moss, dead bees, and some kind of seed pod I don’t know the name of. Even when my work doesn’t include nature’s detritus, its subjects are determined by my experience observing and engaging with the earth.
My understanding of what it means to pay attention has changed. The idea of paying attention used to feel like a duty. Now, I experience it as a privilege—I get to pay attention, to notice where I am and what surrounds me. The “how” of paying attention is also new. I don’t hurry. I practice observing slowly, using most all of my senses. This isn’t always possible—not because I’ve got somewhere else to be, but because I feel distracted. When I can absorb the world around me, I don’t only notice the essence of where I am; I experience all life more intensely, often in alliance with spirit.
My compassion has grown. Since the earth’s come close, I care about the natural world in a less abstract way. Even when people thwart her, nature does her damnedest to revive and survive—the river finds a new path, the birds adapts to its polluted environment. Being out in the air motivates me to be adaptive, too, less rigid. I want to do all I can to support the earth—form picking up litter to campaigning for the earth’s welfare. Wanting others to have access to the park I love, I volunteered to open the gates a few mornings a week, since the park system is underfunded.
After spending time in the forest, I began to do things that were definitely out of character. Mud is no longer my enemy. Never had I liked to get dirty without a sink and towel close at hand, but there I was one day, crawling across a meadow for a close-up view of an autumn-colored moth, unbothered by the burrs that stuck to my socks and unaware my hair was flecked with dried grass. I once stuck my hand inside an almost deserted beehive. Rainstorms only mean I reach for a slicker; no longer a reason to stay inside. Have I discovered my inner Pippi Longstocking? You may find your own such alter ego awaiting birth or rebirth. I bet you’ll be pleased with how nature influences and changes you. You might see yourself and the world differently, and such a transformation may serve your life.
• Consider the parts and places of nature you feel connected to. Is it the deep darkness of many-roomed caves or the lushness of a rainforest? Perhaps butterflies’ ability to flit resembles your own? You might jot down a list of those aspects of nature that feel like “family.”
• Begin to research natural areas near you. These are places that may be hidden in plain sight. Look for locales where you can get your feet on some earth and be close to trees, rocks, and bushes.
• Take a hike. You may walk farther than you thought you could, stay out longer than you thought you would. Your gait will influence your thinking, and vice versa. As your behavior changes, the way in which you see yourself may change too.
Reprinted with permission from Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life by Patrice Vecchione and published by Beyond Words, 2015.