“In the country it seems as if every tree said to me ‘Holy! Holy!’ Who can ever express the ecstasy of the woods!”
-Ludwig van Beethoven, Beethoven Library of Piano Works: Bagatelles, Sonatinas, Piano Pieces, and Variations.
Hiking along the Gunpowder River, May 2023
I was wild until I was age 30. I don’t mean wild as in untamed, unruly, unrestrained. I mean the wild that comes from being in and of the natural world.
I use to spend a crazy amount of time on the water. Whether in boats, canoes, kayaks, or rafts, the act of being on water with no one else around relaxed me and made me feel connected to something larger than myself. I remember the first time I went white water rafting on Class III-IV rapids on the Youghiogheny River when I was 15. I was hooked. The names and identifiers along the river were enough to light up my imagination. Rapids called Double Hydraulics and Eddy Turn. Wall rocks. Snaggletooth rocks. What I wasn’t expecting was just how much I would learn from my relationship with nature and the river during these journeys.
Each rapid and each still water was its own learning experience. There were moments when I would hear a rapid before I would see it. My heart beat a little bit faster. The air felt different. And, there was a stillness even with the approaching rumble. I learned firsthand how rapids change depending on weather. During a rain storm the rapid is stronger and more dangerous than on a warm, clear, sunny day. When paddling in the rain everything was as gorgeous as on a sunny day. These variations struck me as significant. I was seeing different sides of nature, different personalities, different moods. I realized that I was seeing the river environment in moods that most people do not see, and I was honored to be doing so. It was exhilarating to watch the rain drip through the trees onto the water, and be able to think that nobody else saw this phenomenon in the exact same way as I was seeing it. There was also excitement when I looked at a rapid and wondered if I would make it through safely or if I would fall out and be injured, but knowing all along that if I did not try I would look back and wonder what would have happened. Inevitably, I would hit the rapid and no matter what the result, I was satisfied. This was when I realized how much I could learn by having a reciprocal relationship with nature. I made a conscious decision to learn as much as I could, however nature wanted to teach me.
As a child I loved to watch fireflies. Their light always fascinated me. They were always willing to show off their light. Their light, the thing that made them special, also made them vulnerable, easily identifiable, and different. But for their light, I would not have tried to catch them. I would not have wanted to know their secrets. But I did want to know. And, I would run around the neighborhood, barefoot and tanned (as it was summer), chasing them. I wanted to know where they were going. Of course, I never did figure it out, but that wasn’t what was important, it was the interaction. The understanding that they knew things I did not but may be I could learn and experience too. I was reminded of my childhood love of fireflies and their magic when I discovered in the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay the same phenomenon that make the firefly glow . (If you are curious about fireflies check out: https://youtu.be/jneuOra3NvI. The first 14 minutes is information about fireflies. At 14:24 The Firefly Experience begins. It’s worth the click.)
It was a dark, calm, quiet night. In total darkness, I canoed up one of the little guts (water ways) surrounding my marshy, island town, in a canoe with a friend. It was so beautiful. More stars than usual. Beautiful moon. We stop paddling, lay back in the canoe, drifted, and looked up. The stillness was energizing. I felt connected and alive – to my friend, to my community, to the Bay, to the world. I dipped my hand into the water as I had so many times before. But on this night the bioluminescence was intense. Covering my hand. Dancing up the side of the canoe as the water splashed. It was everywhere. It was like the water and the plankton were dancing together. Intellectually I knew that when a molecule of oxygen + an enzyme called luciferase combine with the protein luciferin the resulting new molecule gets excited and gives off light. On land that gives fireflies their light. The aquatic world has the highest number of bioluminescent creatures on the planet. Dinoflagellates, moon jellies, and comb jellies all bring this magical light to the Chesapeake Bay. Some scientists think bioluminescence may be a defense mechanism against predators, others posit that it is a means of communication, especially as a way to attract a mate or to warn the community of danger. All I saw that night was the dance and nature’s reminder that there is more to the world than intellectual explanations.
Something happened when I turned 30. I remember my last wild adventure. It was a winter backpacking and climbing trip that we took as Outward Bound instructors. Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail in March in Maryland should be fairly safe from snow but it wasn’t. It snowed from the morning of the second day until we returned home. The eight of us were the only people out and about on the trail. No competition for the shelters. No foot steps ahead of us in the snow. It was cold, it was peaceful, and it was beautiful.
The reason my wild adventures ended wasn’t due to what you’d expect – marriage, kids, growing up, and all of that. After all, marriage and kids is a wild adventure of its own but that’s a discussion for a different day. The reason was far more mundane – work. It was the nature of my job. I became an administrator in a public magnet high school. I lost my summers. I extended my work days. And, my wild adventures in the natural world very swiftly came to an end. My adventures into forests, mountains, and waters stopped abruptly. Although, at the time it didn’t feel abrupt.
They say distance makes the heart grow fonder, but I have always felt that distance makes the heart grow forgetful. And, that is what happened. For years I held on to the little pieces, the little threads that tied me back to this wild life. I held on through my own created rituals and practices and dips into the natural world. I rooted into this sacred Earth to find ways to nourish my flow, vitality, contentment, resilience, creativity, and to honor and steward the Earth and all she is. (See Lotus #1: Earth/Nature for specifics on my practice).
I suppose I thought those little threads would be enough, would keep that connection alive, would continue my way of seeing that which is there, that which is greater than what is readily visible. May be those practices did keep it alive, alive just enough to be able to tap me on the shoulder now to say “Hey, we’re here…..” I’ve come to understand that the wildness has been tapping me on the shoulder, and trying to get my attention for a long while now. Wildness is saying, “Come back out.” Wildness has been inviting me back into a reciprocal relationship.
As I was talking to my dear friend recently and I was thinking about why the wild adventures ceased and what I wanted, it occurred to me it was similar to when I started walking at 4am with our beloved bullmastiff Winston (See Get Up, Wake Up – Things my dog has taught me). I started walking with Winston at 4am because Winston really didn’t need to be out in the world amongst people at other times. And, partially because it was the only time of day I could fit any movement into my schedule. When I started doing that years ago, my teacher had a phrase that she shared, “Get up, wake up later.” She’d say, “Just get up, just get up and do it. You can wake up later.” And, that really helped.
Right now, the phrase in my head is “Get Out.” Just get out. Just get out into the wild areas. Get out into the places where your heart is open and soars free. Get out into the places where you feel connected to everything that’s pulsing in the world around you. Just get out. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m integrating myself back into relationship with the natural world, reconnecting to the life force, specifically the forests, mountains, and waters, and all of the non human persons living in those places.
Remembering and reconnecting and integrating. May be that’s what it is all about, may be it is all just about remembering. After all, the people who are my blood and my bones all lived along the coast. They all lived in lands of different climates, on different continents, but all near the water. Always on a coastline. May be that is why the call is so strong when I think about it, or when I feel it, or when I am out and about in it, its awakening all of that ancestral knowledge as well. That feels right to me, as water was here before humans were.
Here is my approach:
Hand – Granola Bars. I am making lots of snacks to have with me as I get out. Granola bars are my favorite – easy to make, varieties are endless, and they can be stored in the freezer until I grab one or two for my backpack as I head out. I wrap them in little parchment paper sleeping bags so they do not stick to each other and so they are easy to locate in my backpack.
Granola Bars with sultanas and cacao, May 2023
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Head – I am tapping back into the classics that inspired me and searching out new ones as well. Old “friends” such as Sigurd Olson, Anne LaBastille, Pam Houston, Barry Lopez remind me how I found myself in their stories and books. Currently, I am reading The Flow by Amy-Jane Beer. I believe that books find us when we need them the most and this one is all about water and wildness. Amy-Jane Beer is a biologist, naturalist, and a writer. From the inside cover of her book:
“On New Year’s Day 2012, Amy-Jane Beer’s beloved friend Kate set out with a group of others to kayak the River Rawthey in Cumbria. Kate never came home, and her death left her devoted family and friends bereft and unmoored. Returning to visit the Rawthey years later, Amy realises how much she misses the connection to the natural world she always felt when on or close to rivers, and so begins a new phase of exploration. The Flow is a book about water, and, like water, it meanders, cascades and percolates through many lives, landscapes and stories. From West Country torrents to Levels and Fens, rocky Welsh canyons, the salmon highways of Scotland and the chalk rivers of the Yorkshire Wolds, Amy-Jane follows springs, streams and rivers to explore tributary themes of wildness and wonder, loss and healing, mythology and history, cyclicity and transformation. Threading together places and voices from across Britain, The Flow is a profound, immersive exploration of our personal and ecological place in nature.”
This book is so beautiful. I have been reading it for awhile now, slowly, taking it in and mulling it over. I love her writing and don’t want to rush to the end.
Heart – I’m getting outside. Just the act of being out in the wild is my heart practice. I’m exploring new trails, discovering new places to swim off-shore, and looking forward to doing some paddling.
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