Prescription: A Walk in the Woods
"In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous." ~ Aristotle
"Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished." ~Lao Tzu
"Nature always wears the colors of the spirit." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." ~John Muir
"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." ~ Albert Einstein
"Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts." ~ Rachel Carson
“Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself.” ~L. Wolfe Gilbert
"Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you." ~Frank Lloyd Wright
"The mountains are calling and I must go." ~John Muir
The author and Andy at Wapama Falls, Yosemite National Park
Nature is a harsh teacher and a gentle companion.
When we're fighting against the elements to subsist, nature can be dreadful and unforgiving, leading us to sobriety and maturity, ingenuity and an appreciation for competence and efficiency.
When we're recreating, nature is refreshing, rejuvenating, awe-inspiring and magical. Being in the wild for days at a time, just our pack (and perhaps family and friends) places us in intimate contact with the raw elements, raw beauty, raw power, and sheer magnitude - with material that has a lifespan of centuries, millennia, and even millions or billions of years, and challenges our perspective and priorities - even our values. I suspect there are messages in nature, from nature's God, that are meant to do just that.
A few years ago I went backpacking in Yosemite National Park with a group of friends and friends of friends. Our destination was the lakes above Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, formerly Hetch Hetchy Valley.
In December 1913 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act, permitting San Francisco to build a dam there, in what has been called "one of the Earth's most beautiful places" and what pioneer conservationist John Muir called a "remarkably exact counterpart" to the now world-famous Yosemite Valley - 15 miles to the south.
The decision followed five or six years of rigorous campaign and protest against the proposed dam, led by Muir. The naturalists were unsuccessful and distraught, but their efforts led to the creation of an international environmental conservation movement. Muir wrote to a friend, "The long drawn out battle work for Nature’s gardens has not been thrown away. The conscience of the whole country has been aroused from sleep; and from outrageous evil compensating good in some form must surely come.”
Three years later, public outrage over the seizure of Hetch Hetchy Valley led to the passing of the National Park Service Act. In the century since, no such intrusion on our national parks has been allowed.
Our first day took us to Laurel Lake, with an elevation gain of 2,645 feet. Next we traveled to Lake Vernon, then Rancheria Falls. It was a week filled with conversation, reflection, a rattlesnake, and two bear sightings, including a mother and her cub.
We stayed a couple of days at Lake Vernon, exploring, journaling, and doing yoga on the granite made smooth by glaciers that passed through sometime in the past two to three million years. One of my most impactful, breath-taking, awe-inspiring encounters with nature was the day we climbed an 850-foot cascade, unnamed as far as I can tell, where Falls Creek leaves Jack Main Canyon, northeast of Lake Vernon (38° 2'13.50"N 119°42'37.46"W). There was no trail. We scrambled and climbed and marveled at the sheer power of falling water, churning, crashing, raging, and yet beautiful and mesmerizing. This cascade feeds what eventually becomes Wapama Falls, the 1,000 to 1,500-foot waterfall, depending on who you ask and how you measure, that overlooks Hetch Hetchy.
Those of us who made that climb couldn't stop smiling, even giggling. It was difficult but exhilarating. At one point we discovered a vortex where a small dam had created a pool to one side of the river. Like little children we dropped small objects into it and watched entranced as they span rapidly, but moved slowly up and down the funnel under the surface until they disappeared at the bottom.
Those of us who spent those days together and shared those experiences became close. Long walks make for long conversations and we shared our stories, our hopes, our hurts, and our outlook on many subjects. I learned that most of my companions held different views than I do on religion and politics. There were secular Buddhists, atheists, conservatives, and others.
In the years that have passed, I have sometimes engaged with these friends on social media on some of the contentious topics of our day. In not so distant years my participation in such topics was, to my present regret, often snarky, sarcastic, and self-righteous. But not with them. When we engage, I can't help but remember the time we spent together, the closeness, the shared humanity, the respect, the affection, and the similarities that outweighed the differences. I am loathe to betray it.
The Bard said, "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." Perhaps the prescription to treat the enmity, division, and hurt in our world is, at least in part, a walk in the woods.
What is your favorite way to spend time in the outdoors?
How often do you get to get away both physically and mentally for two or more days?
What does being in the outdoors do for you?
Where do you find yourself able to engage in deep, meaningful conversations?
How do you feel towards someone you've had a deep conversation with?
How do you think we can solve the division and bitterness the characterizes much of today's public discourse?
What mechanisms does our/your society have for deep, respectful, in-person dialog and debate? Are serious conversation and sharing of ideas necessary to a healthy society? Has this been accomplished in the past? If so, how? Is it happening now? Could or should it be happening more? If so, what's standing in the way?