Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Woods | Earth Day 2020

Photo by Adam Gonnerman, (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 
Growing up on a farm in northeast Missouri, I spent a lot of times outdoors. Some of the best of that time was in the woods of the neighbors' acreage. They had two grandsons, one my age and another 2 or 3 years younger, who came up to visit every other month or so. Living right next door, they always called me over to play. The very first time I was in first grade, and a sandbar had formed in the creek near their house. We spend a golden afternoon playing in the water and trying to build sandcastles. The next several years left a deep impression on me, as we witnessed first-hand the changing of the seasons and explored that little ecological microcosm. In the scalding heat of summer we made a maze out of dense, tall weeds in a clearing, and got ourselves absolutely covered in chigger bites. We learned how to build bonfires, getting it down to a routine we could carry out automatically when it was winter and we wanted to settle into our 'basecamp.' We built a sturdy shelter using no nails, gathered the biggest tadpoles I ever saw from the creek and deposited them in the pond near the house, and tramped through every bit of that property and then beyond. 
“In the woods, is perpetual youth.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Selected Essays
Even when my friends weren't visiting next door, I spent a lot of time in the woods near where I lived, and the experience was essentially spiritual. There I could disconnect from the life I lived and reflect. Years ago, after I had moved to Brazil and married, I discovered that when I was stressed, I could close my eyes and imagine a forest in the middle winter. In my minds eye I was looking up through leafless branches at a grey sky, feeling the cold wind blow across me, and hearing the click of the treetops as that same wind rattled them together. 

While it's not quite the same for me now on the rare occasion that I get away to the woods, it isn't that far different. The woods in New Jersey, where I now live, are virtually identical to those in Missouri. Looking closer I see the difference in certain trees and plants, but the scent, the sound, and the general sense of peace I feel there is the same. I envy Henry David Thoreau's experience in at Walden Pond, to an extent. While I love a hot shower and a clean, comfortable bed, I could happily go for days not hearing a human voice, surrounded instead by the living, breathing world around me. 
"Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." 
 7th Principle of Unitarian Universalism
Wherever I work, I almost always have plants on the desk. The standard pothos grows there, but also a bean vine or two, maybe a small tangerine tree, and a few flowering plants. I'm the eccentric one at the office who has a small grow light clipped to his desk, with a timer on the outlet to make sure the light and dark stays even. Whenever I have the opportunity, wherever I live, I plant a garden. This year I'll be calling it a 'victory garden,' and intend to soon plant red, white, and blue sweetcorn, sunflowers, tomatoes (plants I've started in the house), beans, lettuce, carrots, and melons. This is comes to me naturally, reflecting my farmer father's green thumb, and my mother's aptitude for keeping a wide variety of flowers in the yard. I grew up in the woods, the fields, and among flowers. I know now how fortunate I was. 
When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.Travels in Alaska by John Muir, 1915, chapter 1, page 5.
Aside from hiking, something that I get to do even less often living in the greater NYC area is stargaze. When I was growing up I would look up at the sky full of stars and feel very small and very big. Looking at Venus was like looking at another island in space, a sister to our world. When I saw the north star and the big dipper, I had a sense of place. And when I stared at the Milky Way, understanding it was the rest of our galaxy, I knew that my world wasn't lost in vast nothingness, and so neither was I.

Evolution is, admittedly, a violent and blind way to trim out any form of life that can't survive, and it's one that is also largely based on luck. I have no illusions about the natural world being like a Disney movie with happy animals who are friends, where what we would think is fair wins the day. That also reminds me that human society can be like that, life can be like that, but also that we have the power to work for our lives to be different. We can shape our destiny as a species, if we can just find ways to respect one another and work together. At times this seems hopeless. When it does, I take a walk in the woods and find the peace to continue on.