When hiking in the woods, sometimes I just stop and stand, watching and listening, just "being," I suppose you could say. Silence can be something tangible, something that can be perceived. When we're busy or preoccupied, though, often we lose our connection to the natural world, and that's a shame. Slipping into silence and stillness, just being in the moment, is like noticing the silence between the notes in a song. The silence is just as important as the music but unobtrusive. During that pause when walking, first I notice the silence, the stillness, and then, of course, since nature is dynamic, sounds arise: the flutter of wings of a flock on juncos, the scrabble of a squirrel's claws on the bark of a tree, the wind soughing through the pines as the gray limbs gently sway in the breeze, and usually also the squawking of a jay or crow. These sounds are deeply reassuring for me because they are sounds in nature, the sounds of integrated harmony. They connect me to those ancient and eternal cycles of the world; they define me in ways that my credit cards, bank accounts, and licenses and certifications never can.
The sounds in the silence of nature could be called "random," but that designation is egocentric. Just because I might consider some sound and activity random doesn't exclude that activity from the integrated wholeness of nature. It would be my awareness that is separate and isolated, not the activity, and part of my desire and purpose in being in nature is always to reintegrate myself with the greater rhythms and orderliness of nature, to remind my essential self that I belong. I would call this a spiritual activity, but just calling hiking a "morning constitutional" in no way diminishes its capacity to activate more than just muscle sets.
While discussing the nature of walking over a hundred and fifty years ago, Henry David Thoreau addressed its spiritual nature: "If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man — then you are ready for a walk." His intent was to remind folks that we are a part of nature, rather than just members of society, that "there are enough champions of civilization" and too few champions for the "crusaders" who hike their way to enlightenment and oneness with existence. From my perspective, Thoreau was likening our time hiking in nature to the sanyasi of India, who give up their possessions and station in life to devote themselves to the spirit. This is what we can do while walking--even if only for a time. We can remind ourselves that we are not solely individuals, that we are also cosmic.
We should not be surprised that integrating ourselves into nature occurs naturally. To experience our unity in nature is . . . a natural process, whether we are in town or country. Immersing ourselves physically into natural settings just aids and eases the process of discovering our greater selves. Owners of little trailers or car-camping tenters are somewhat like the sanyasi; they choose to integrate themselves more in the natural world. They are more like backpackers, feeling that getting out there is instrumental to getting in there and contacting their essential nature.
|Hiking the bluffs of Rathbun Lake|
One of my most enjoyable and nurturing camping hikes this last season was at Rathbun Lake while camping at Honey Creek State Park in Iowa ("While Camping, Finding a Silence as Sweet as Honey"). At Honey Creek, the lake is edged by bluffs, so walking the shore provides the sparkling expanse of the water, eroded bluffs with their carved and multi-colored faces, and the forested shoulders of the land that are especially rewarding to walk in the fall, filled with earthy smells and dried, crackling leaves. Since I stayed at the campground for two weeks, I also discovered another trail that curled away, following a separate inlet of the lake. With the cool fall weather, bugs, sunburn, and sweaty chafing were left behind. What joy!
I realize "harmony" in nature is not necessarily peaceful. An owl takes a mouse; a coyote takes a rabbit. A crow finds a robin's nest. Violence exists in nature, but its purpose is immediately clear, much simpler and direct than the complications of humanity. That's why I enjoy hiking in the woods. The world seems to function in a much more straightforward manner. It's ironic that because the big predators because of habitat loss and over-hunting are gone or rare, I can hike the woods and not have to attend to "the survival of the fittest."
|The crunch of tires on snow, then silence|
The laws of nature that Darwin perceived certainly exist and are active in the woods--the fastest rabbit escapes and the slower doesn't--but the question of "fittest" for me and all people comes down to what we eat, our stress level, and whether or not we exercise. If I think about it, though, that's not so different than the animals in nature, or the plants, for that matter. Even plants need to feed and to avoid extreme weather (such as drought) in order to thrive. As for exercise, I can stretch the metaphor a bit and say that plants need room for their root structure and space in the sky to find the sun. For people, though, we have greater choice, and let's face it--there's a bit of confusion about what decisions are best. For people in the modern world, maybe Darwin's message should be phrased "the lack of survival of the least fit."
|Happily hiking, kerchief face mask and all|
That's why I like to hike in the woods. The exercise and the surroundings clear my head. All the choices that we individually have to make simplify. Nature isn't regulating our behavior through instinct, yet we can find assistance in nature to prioritize our choices by being reminded that we, just like every other part and particle of existence, are composed--every part and particle of us--of existence. We are nature as much as every rock, stream, tree, and fox and chipmunk. We don't need to dote on these philosophies, though. I think when we hike, nature is enlivened in us simply by the body moving--and that affects our perspective.
"This is how our body moves," we can think. "And, yes, the silence between our thoughts is also a part of who we are." I am reassured that the rhythms of nature that surround me are also the rhythms of nature that are within me. Those cycles of rest and activity, of action and reaction, of how silence and stillness define and structure action--it's easy to forget the larger organizing rhythms of life when confronted with all those pesky details. It's easy to lose the forest for the trees. Walking in nature can remind us that nature is not just all around us, from the breeze that caresses our skin to the farthest light in the farthest galaxy. Nature is also the essence of our bodies and also each and every thought, memory, and desire. We are nature, and the scripture and literature of the ages testifies to our ability to live consciously in harmony with the laws of nature.
|Hidden winter beauty|
I've traveled quite a ways from the prosaic (or shall I say "pedestrian") thought: "Feet, start walkin'!" Walking in nature, though, stirs something deep within us, and that something can be stirred even without our being aware of it. We can be enlivened without having to consciously pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Fresh air and the smell of pine, snow crystals sparkling in the cold morning light--we don't have to note all the details and have our intellects check the correct boxes in order to find a early winter's walk invigorating. Would it be a massive understatement or a profound observation to say that it's natural to find nature nurturing?
|Morning fog sets the scene for a walk with one's spirit|
|Hiking a local county park|
Owning a little travel trailer has provided my wife and me with opportunities for hiking more trails than just those around our town and county. Most state parks have developed trails, and although the hikes aren't along the crests of majestic mountains or along the briny seashore, they are nonetheless good for both the legs and the soul. Hiking around Iowa's lakes and reservoirs has the twin pleasures of both wood and water. My wife and I hike often and have learned to appreciate the small pleasures our local woods, lakes, and streams provide. Beauty surrounds us, sometimes as huge as the sky and distant mountains, but also sometimes in miniature, a tucked away pocket of perfection, just waiting to be discovered and appreciate