I woke up last Sunday morning and felt the woods shining deep inside me. Nature is not somewhere only outside for me; it lives within, for we are a part of it and it, us. We are called to one another, creation to creation. So I knew I had to go to the place of the trillium, a favorite wildflower. I was alone and intended to find a few spots where no one else would intrude. To smell, hear, taste, touch, see, and sense mysteries, trod upon earthen trails. It had been a winter of pummeling rain, now sunshine had arrived. I could take myself right into the thick of forests again and feel once more at home.
I am not a city person out of a deep love for its cacophony of hustle and bustle. Yes, I enjoy the myriad arts events, festivals, architecture, markets and stores, the varieties of people. The ever-present source of stories found by just watching out a window or from a balcony. I was raised in a very small city but it was similar if on a quite limited scale. Yet both here and in my old hometown, I have had escapes. A saving grace in a life I didn’t and often do not well understand or even wholly appreciate as I’d prefer.
As a youngster there were times (often in warmer weather) when even the best things–the beauty of music; aromas of roast beef, potatoes and carrots or cinnamon rolls or Dutch apple pie; allure of a new novel beneath a pile of schoolwork; anticipation of dance class the next morning; a long phone conversation with my best friend, twirling the stretchy cord around my bare feet as I lay on the carpet–were not what I wanted and needed. I’d fight with school assignments, drag my mind back to its required goal. I’d race through cello and vocal compositions. If I had a chore, it’d be a slapdash job.
Those times I felt that yearning for peace and quietude inching its way into my consciousness at a velocity not to be ignored. Soon its urgency was greater than all else. I’d leave the busy common rooms of the house, go sit on my bed, close my eyes, summon the focus of my desire.
The hush of my water-blue bedroom enveloped me. Crows cawed back and forth, robins trilled monotonous calls. A rotary lawn mower whirled around a yard. Across the hallway, my mother’s sewing machine whirred and paused and whirred. My imagination’s magnetic pull took me out of my room, down winding stairs, out the front door, down Ashman Street, two blocks north, one block west and then the birches came into view, and poised maples and oaks and sketchy elms, stalwart evergreens. The poplars’ silvery leaves were tiny cymbals creating a bright, dry song in breezes. A rush of delight, a calm swept over me. Swift gusts rustled my hair, redolent of musky earth, freshest greenery. Everything in me wanted woods close about me, filling me with enchantments.
It was those decades when a youth could mostly still go alone into the world or natural places. (I’d known danger as a child abuse victim; it was within the familiar but failed security of a house and car belonging to a known person. I was not overall afraid of people or venturing out, or if I was, I ventured nonetheless.) Perhaps a somewhat wilder landscape offered a reprieve from moments of boredom or frustration but such a place had long been identified as a pocket of comfort. Happiness. I’d abandon house, work or play and head for the woods.
Soon I saw the grey and white birches thronged like valiant sentries. Sinuous pathways greeted my careful feet. Shadowy designs were thrown over skin like a delicate wrap. Above, the crowns of trees conversed with sky, while below the variety of trees were familiar friends, hearty bodies of pungent wood, bark, leaves. I could examine everything along the way without needing to master it. The multi-faceted insects, each plant unfurling itself was scrutinized. Small mammals scurried, reptiles slithered or they watched, accepting of my presence if not indifferent. I melded with gradations of light and dark, with green and brown and yellow. Stealth directed my movements; I felt compelled to slip between trees and plants, to not disturb. I felt given permission due to my deep admiration. Everything breathed with me and I, it.
The woods were barely swaying, certainly humming. Birds were aloft with chatter and song. I whispered thanks, felt joy rise up from my center then spread, a wash of warmth. There were high-spanning, glimmering bridges of webs. Nurse logs harbored colonies of bugs, were laboratories for mosses, lichen, fungi. There were sudden flower beings peeking from undergrowth. The serpentine creek with its tinkling, gurgling dance pulled me to it. I followed along, around and through the canopy of trees. Sat at its banks, the dampness of the ground seeping into my pants. I closed my eyes to better know just where I was. I was exactly…there. And happy to be one more creature amid the others.
My love of nature may have begun with early lessons from a mother who adored geography, geology and etymology, and a father whose passions included science and mathematics as well as music and education. Family trips were as much running commentary on land formations, vegetation and creatures as anything else. My parents taught me about weather patterns, rock and soil types, the habits of bugs in different places, the important diversity of plants and how all worked together for the good of all. My father pointed out constellations from our back yard or elsewhere; I was mesmerized by God’s heavens. But no one had to persuade me to love the natural world or embrace its wisdom. I’d early experienced those in Barstow Woods as noted above and the plant and tree nursery thriving behind our house (which had a lovely, tree-lined back yard). The many Michigan forests, lakes and rivers afforded me good amounts of time and activity each summer.
From a young age, I enjoyed a somewhat unusual experience. I attended summer sessions at various music camps, one being the Interlochen Center for the Arts in northwest lower Michigan. Founded in 1928 and situated on 1,200 acres, it was named simply National Music Camp for decades, a place where capable student musicians gathered to study and perform. It quickly gained a fine reputation and before long all performing and fine arts were studied by students arriving from around the world. It has grown immensely since then. It offers, among other programs, a premiere private high school arts education. But back in the fifties and sixties my father taught strings and orchestra during summer camps, and my siblings and I were music and other arts students.
I have not had a repeat of such extraordinary experiences, where creative expression and the natural world fit together into one perfect design. We lived in cabins with other like-minded youth in the woods, eating at a mess hall, studying in tandem. We attended music or other classes daily, rehearsed and performed on covered outdoor stages, other sunny, wind-swept spaces, and under star-pearled skies. The dance building was set on a lake shore, and as I danced and rested I could smell fragrant water and earth, see the undulating expanse of green-blue with white sailed boats bobbing or flying along. The campus buildings were mostly stone and wood structures, lodge-like, cozy even when large. Recreation included table tennis, sailing and swimming, volleyball and more. Tiny practice rooms were also of field stone and timber with small rectangular windows. Once one was opened, I practiced my cello or vocal pieces, with warm air wafting in and it carried a delicious fragrance of dried or greener pine needles. Everywhere could be heard musicians, other students laboring over the thing they loved doing, honing whatever talent had brought them. The natural symphonies and unfolding stories of earth’s bounties accompanied my thoughts and endeavors.
All my life the wedding of creative energy with the natural realm has seemed a most sacred thing. A vibrant chorus of voices or resonance of a string quartet, rich notes of a French horn or the mellow beauty of an English oboe–these experienced within the lustrous beauty of a summered landscape are potent magic. Making visual art, dancing, writing, acting–all this replete with the constant inspiration of rhythms and cycles of natural events is an unparalleled way to explore and live. Nature’s formations and complications, the vagaries and wholeness so well shake loose ideas and influence impulses. There were mystery and sweat, dreaming and victories and failures–a mammoth arc of learning as I opened to more teaching. The context of such activity can give rise to a lot of human industriousness. Tranquility.
Oh, but the woods I have known and loved as a child, a youth, an adult. If I am patient and willing to search, I may more fully discover an immutable sense of the organic, microcosmic and macrocosmic worlds. The great synergistic cohesion works. It teaches me there is a purpose to each small piece, part of a span of connections started eons ago and still operating miraculously well if we respect it. I am shown frailty and obdurate strength. Order and ultimate symmetry. Upheaval and rejuvenation. Transformative powers reveal that saving changes do exist. It boosts my most human hope. For we are part of this process, the mighty cause and effect. If I recognize the common thread in the schemata, I will be at peace, at one with it.
Not so many years ago I squatted in the middle of a stream in another forested place and looked about me and listened. The birds and water sang. Rocks glistened. Plant life rippled and rested. The sky was blue as sapphire and trees were arced above me, leaning toward the rippling stream. Golden afternoon shafts of light struck lively water and it sparked with brilliant energy. It came to me in a sweep of awe, the clarity of the primordial and the divine so strong amid wounded fragmentations of our world. Overwhelmed by an ecstasy and bone-aching grief all at once, tears flowed. I looked up and trees were weeping, too, and the sky was all radiance from which love flowed everywhere. And I held my self open to that eternal Presence of God.
It was not the first time, nor the last. But in nature this power is very accessible, it seems to me. So, the woods do call me but I, too, call the woods. Solace, balance and wisdom I often need and find, and such refilling of the well of my soul I always am given. Step gently but boldly into the beauty. Let your soul call and be called, too.