Tuesday, February 2, 2010

In Our Nature

Who do we become
Without knowing where
We started from

From "Silent House" by the Dixie Chicks

Fractures and splinters in the bones of the earth

A hollow sound reverberated and a slight shudder ran up my leg as my boot struck the frost riddled ground. This was my third hike at Westwoodsin Guilford, Connecticut and I had just started down the Orange Trail. The feeling in my leg and the hollow thud both filled me with a feeling of belonging and connectedness. This feeling is an old friend of mine, I have had it as long as I can remember. As I walked through the forest and breathed in the cool January air, I reflected on what it means to me to immerse myself in nature. I am not a religious person, yet every hike, every time I kayak, every mountain I climb, every wildlife encounter, is spiritual for me. This essay is about our own nature, and how we embrace it to our great joy, or spurn it to the diminishing of our being.

  Me climbing Mt. Washington in 1982

As long as can remember I have sought the out-of-doors. It was, and still is, my refuge from life's slings and arrows, as well as simply being the best place to be. I vividly remember lying on a grassy hillside, when I was 12 or 13 years old, on a cool March day and nestling down where the chilling breeze couldn't reach me but the sun's warm rays could gently bake me. The feeling of well being this wonderful experience created in me is still fresh in my memory these many years later. It is that feeling of well being that I still seek in the woods today. Nowadays I tend to spend a little less time lying in the sun and more time hiking vigorously along trails. Time is bit more precious to me now and I love the feeling of blood coursing through me and the thump-th-thump of my heart pumping hard. As I walk along I love to run my hands across the bark of trees or the lichen painted surface of stone. It is as sensual to me as the feel of a lover's face, and indeed it has been a lifelong love affair for me. The aromas of the forests also fill me with a feeling of being at home and at peace. The smell of damp earth never fails to awaken a very primitive feeling of serenity in me. Sometimes I just have to stop and breathe in the rich smells that hang in the sylvan air.  

Spicebush Swallowtail on Turks-cap Lilly

All things of natural beauty are captivating and exciting for me. I do appreciate those works of man that have a certain inherent beauty, such as a beautifully designed bridge. But the bridge will never be as beautiful to me as the gorge it spans. Last summer I was hunting dragonflies to photograph in Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown, Connecticut when I came across a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly taking nectar from a Turk's-cap Lilly. The perfect beauty of the image stopped me in my tracks. It is little discoveries such as this that fill me with wonder and awe at what has come to be on this planet or ours. 

Chimney Pond with the famous "Knife Edge" behind. Baxter State Park, Maine.

As I grew to an adult, I started to travel to see the wonders that lay out there beyond my home state of Connecticut. I discovered the lure of hiking in the mountains when I was in my twenties. What I did not expect to find was the friendliness of those kindred souls on the montane trails. It seemed to me that nearly every person you encountered broke out a hearty smile when they passed you. There was something about hiking in the mountains that made these people happy to encounter other hikers and more than willing to take time to meet other hikers. You will very rarely find people smiling at you as they pass you in a supermarket as I'm sure you are aware, and try and stop to introduce yourself to someone in the produce aisle. Odds are you will be met with a a wary eye! Yet this shared experience of being on a mountain side made people more friendly, more optimistic, happier somehow. This despite the obvious physical demands that such hiking requires and the fatigue it creates. This is simply because hiking is healthy for body and mind. The benefit we reap from spending time in the natural world can not be denied.

The "Knife Edge" Trail

So what is it that makes people feel better when they are outdoors? I believe it is being true to our nature. When we are outdoors we are where we came from, where we started from. We are all creatures of this planet, just as are the birds, the insects, and all the fascinating creatures that share this world with us. However it seems to me that somehow we are losing our way. We as a species seem to think we are above nature, that we have mastered it and are somehow disconnected from it. This is surely dangerous folly if you ask me. Without our natural world, we are little more than passengers on a vessel that can only support us for a very finite time. We seem to have forgotten where we started from. This is a failing with dire consequences for us. But all hope is not yet lost. I have always said that you never fail until you stop trying. I have tried to set an example of respect for our world for my children to see. Our children become us, so we should live our lives as we hope our children will live theirs. It does not matter what you say to children, it matters what they see you do. Remember they are always watching and see far more than we like to think they see.

My son Ian, daughter Karly, and me on Mt. Willard, New Hampshire. 1990
In spending much of my life outside, I eventually fell under the spell of birds. Birds have long intrigued human beings. Their ability to fly was pure magic to us and filled us with wonder. Surely these were creatures in some way favored by the gods. To have such a freedom bestowed upon them! For me, birds are the perfect embodiment of natural beauty. Their songs fill our world with the sweetest and sometimes unearthly music. The exquisite sound of a Wood Thrush singing can not be described. I am arrested in my tracks by the first Wood Thrush song each spring as surely as if a mythological siren had enchanted me. Yet the color of the Wood Thrush is a subtle reddish brown, to blend with the forest it haunts. I have never been greatly impressed with "enhanced" beauty and I am much more attracted to a women who uses very little make-up than to one that treats her face as an art project! Some of the most beautiful things, or women, that I have ever seen are subtle in their "plumage."

The subtle beauty of a Wilson's Snipe...

and the subtle beauty of a Hackberry Emperor...

Yet this does not mean I am immune to the allure of fancy dress! It can not be denied that species like Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Roseate Spoonbills, and Atlantic Puffins are truly impressive beauties in all their gaudy splendor. Of course they were hatched with it, it wasn't applied with a brush or a pad.

Atlantic Puffin with food for its chicks

 We enrich and recharge our spirits when we immerse ourselves in the beauty of our world. There are wonders to be seen every day and on every scale. From the delicate beauty of a butterfly to the massive form of a bull moose. All of these things can fill us with a joy and contentment that can not be had from staying inside and watching television or playing video games. John Muir called Yosemite Valley a cathedral. He was right. We humans can not improve on what has been wrought in the crucible of time. Still, more and more people are failing to go outdoors these days. As the song says, "Who do we become, Without knowing where, We started from?"

The delicate beauty of a Luna Moth...

and the powerful beauty of a Bull Moose.

Where our society goes as it strays further and further form its origins is of concern to me. I do believe that respecting nature, experiencing nature, sharing the natural world, makes us better and more civil individuals. I do not understand why there is so much negativity in our culture these days. I do not watch reality television, or at least very little. I can not stand to watch people screaming at one another and viciously denigrating each other. How is that healthy? How is that good for kids to see? Why our we abrogating the responsibility of role modeling to television? Years ago I was paddling my canoe across Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park in Maine. The pond was crystal clear and you could see stones on the bottom 40 feet down like they were two feet away. As I marveled at the purity of the water, a Common Loon swam by underneath me. The bird was at least twenty feet down and the sight was fabulous. I truly felt a thrill and I can not tell you how marvelous that experience was for me, a life gift indeed. I have never felt that way watching television or sitting at my desk at work, I can tell you.

 Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine

Rainbow on the coast of Maine

Life has had many up and downs for me. Through all the triumphs and defeats, my love of nature has remained constant. My feeling of connectedness and belonging has only grown stronger. That feeling of my hiking boot striking frost heaved ground on that Westwoods trail said "welcome home Dave" to me. It made me smile, it eased some pain. We never know where our lives will take us, but we must never let life allow us to forget where we started from. And we must never allow ourselves to disrespect the world we depend upon and that holds such indescribable and irreplaceable marvels. I'm not as young as I used to be, my mind often tells me to do things that my body can't deliver on any more, despite being a pretty darn fit guy for a 51 year old. Happily my love of the natural world, and my connectedness to it, remains hale and healthy. As I have said before, life should be a shared experience. And it should be spent outdoors.

On Wordens Pond in southern Rhode Island, 2009. Thank you Mary.

Sunset on my 51st birthday, January 2010. Norwich, Connecticut. A nice present shared with my daughter.