Walking down a moonlit path in the forest, the trees on either side were dark sentinels, dimly seen but keenly felt. They held this place together with an underground network of roots, weaving the soil and rocks of the bottomland into one tapestry of living things. The last season’s leaves gave that fabric its pattern and colors, visible tonight only as shades of dark and light. On the path, in the moonlight, the leaves were edged in a faint silver-blue.
But above the trees, there was light. The moon looked on, her face a pale disc. In the surrounding blue-black sky, an uncounted field of stars shone in frozen pinpoints of light. At the edges of the sky, the trees reached up with bare branches, like river deltas dividing into ever-smaller paths, like the blood vessels of the earth reaching toward the stars.
That field of stars reminded me of a summer night in this very spot when fireflies blinked into existence in the dark forest, three and then twenty, and then more, swirling among the tree branches. It was as if the stars had come down from heaven to dance for a time here on earth, before returning to their cold stillness.
A low, hooting call brought me back to this night. Somewhere in the distance, a barred owl was signaling his presence. The deep quiet resumed for a time, but then, toward the river, there was a sound like the cracking of a big branch. Was it the weight of time, finally bringing part of a dead tree to the ground? A powerful animal, passing through a tangle of brittle branches? It stirred some unquiet thing within me.
Still, the luminous moon sailed in the sky. No sound disturbed her. No calamity could change her serene expression. Paradoxically, in her stillness it was as if she was speaking to me.
“Peace! Do not be troubled. Nothing happens here that is not part of life’s story. Tomorrow the forest will be here, strong and beautiful. Let your troubles go, and see the sunrise!”
On June 19 of 2018, I hiked most of the way up the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains within Big Bend National Park, and lost myself for a while in the silence and beauty and peace of the place. I wrote the following:
In one of Beethoven’s final string quartets (Op. 132), he wrote a slow, hymn-like movement titled, “Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity,” expressing his gratitude as he recovered from a serious illness. (An absolutely mind-blowing deconstruction and analysis of what Beethoven does in this incredible movement can be seen and heard here.) It is a profound, beautiful hymn, not sweet or sentimental, but exactly as I imagine how his soul would express what it means to be alive, in the full realization of how easily life could be gone.
I am hearing the opening notes of that quartet movement now, sitting on a bench in the Chisos Mountains. I have not had a close brush with death such as Beethoven had, but I do have deep gratitude for experiences like today’s walk up the Lost Mine Trail. Here, there is a sense of connection and healing of things that are broken, in a sanctuary where troubles cannot reach. No gift could be more appreciated than this.
It is completely quiet except for occasional distant thunder, birdsong here and there, and the beginning sounds of insects here at the end of the day. I keep returning to this theme, how genuine quiet brings such tranquility. That is especially true here in the calm mountain woodland just before sunset. The hikers have gone. Even the knowledge that black bears live on these slopes does not cause concern, perhaps because it is one more indication of how raw and unspoiled this place is.
Here I am, after sixty-seven years still able to climb this trail – not that it is an especially difficult feat – and sit in the silence, watching the shadows lengthen and listening to the song of this earth, uninterrupted by noise. It is a rare privilege in a world that spins and spins, this opportunity to sit still.
A thunderhead builds, and I watch it expand and drift this way. The thunder is still distant, one of those sounds that can be so relaxing from afar. The long, slanting rays of the sun highlight the tops of piñon pine and Emory oak. A nearby solitary bird trills and occasionally chirps, as the clouds turn rose-colored and the last light glows on the mountaintops. Soon it will be dark, and I will have to go, but I will remember these moments of solitude in the Chisos Mountains.
In late January of 2018 I visited Caddo National Grasslands for the first time. I walked through the quiet winter forest alone, enjoying the solitude but also wanting to see the open patches of grassland that I knew had to be there. I finally found it at the end of the day, and later I wrote about those moments:
“The sparrows might call with their high-pitched ‘stip,’ and dormant grasses might crunch as I walked, but such sounds did not have to compete with highway noise or other mechanized sounds. It was quiet, in a way that perfectly framed the occasional bird call. Here was a refuge, a sanctuary in that original sense of a sacred place. Like so many other natural places that have barely been touched by human activity, it was a place where the ‘noise’ of everyday life could be stripped away, down to the experience of the garden in which we originally lived. That garden feels like home, even if most of us would not know how to live there now. It can be a brutal world of predator and prey, unforgiving of accidents or sickness, but in our sprint through the modern world we might be forgiven if we romanticize that world just a little, and want to step away and stand in the late afternoon sunlight and listen to the birds.”
Moments like those are important to me, and worth sharing with others. I didn’t see anything of great biological importance, but I experienced something of psychological, maybe spiritual importance. It might be some individual quirk of mine, that the solitude and golden light in the savannah grassland worked such magic, but I don’t think so. Many other people have similar experiences in nature, perceptions and feelings that transcend the simple reality of grasses and leaves. They may experience a sense of peace and joy, wrapped in that moment and that place. Past and future concerns drop away and for a while do not exist – only the present, only right here and right now.
This is an example of what is referred to as “mindfulness,” a practice that is now widely used in therapy and mental health. It is not new; it has much in common with meditation techniques that have been used for centuries. A focus on the present moment, letting go of thoughts about the past or future, quieting the inner discussion in which we evaluate what is happening, simply accepting our current experience – these things happen in meditation. You do not have to be out in some quiet, isolated spot in nature to practice mindfulness, but for many of us, nature makes it easy to let everything go and be at peace.
Our connection with nature has been explored by lots of people, in many ways. Famed biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote about the “biophilia hypothesis,” the idea that our species is wired to be attracted to other life as a result of evolution. Researchers are testing how humans respond to experiences in nature, compared with experiences in urban settings. They are finding numerous benefits, in terms of stress hormones, ruminative or depressive thinking, and so on, when we spend time in nature.
In this blog, I want to explore some of these ideas. What does it mean to say that a particular time spent in nature was “spiritual” or gave rise to states of mind that seem spiritual? Are the health benefits of time in nature (such as in the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”) real and significant, or just the opinions and testimonials of people who simply want to believe?
I also want to simply share experiences in the field. I have written a lot about the natural history of reptiles and amphibians and I often wear the “natural scientist” hat while writing about nature facts. As important as the objective findings of science are, the subjective experience might be just as important. Words are usually inadequate to communicate the beauty and meaning of these experiences, but I have to try to do so because such things cannot be kept quiet.
I hope you will join me in this exploration, and I hope that you post a comment if something resonates with you or if you have another way of looking at something that can expand the discussion.