[Note: this is the second part in a series; for Part 1 click here]
Amid the trees, the dry, herbaceous aromas of the lower canyon trail transform. Here the air is not only cooler by several degrees but suddenly tinged with mossy notes and a scent of green-tea, catapulting me to other places and other wanderings.
I slip off my daypack and settle on a wide, cut stump of an ancient redwood. The stream glistens eight feet below me, gliding through the lacy ferns and grey stones like a glistening snake, finding its way beneath a tangle of fallen logs and canyon detritus. Emerging, it forms a pool, the sort that would be deliciously tempting to wade into if the day was hot, but here within the shelter of the ravine and the tall, watchful trees, it’s always cool.
Across the creek, the trail winds up the hillside above me. Occasionally the morning quietude is broken by the noise of people ascending the slope, conversing with each other, some of them huffing and puffing.
Big Sur, especially the more easily accessible regions like this preserve, at this time of year is not really a place for solitude—especially on the weekend. Still, I am glad to be here. Like water in a dry land, nature feeds the soul.
Indeed, nature is the soul … the Soul of the World.
Settling in, I am listening to the melody and distinct voices of the water—high notes, low notes—along with a scattering of birdsong in the green canopy overhead. Flying insects catch the filtered light, transformed into floating specks of gold that hover and dart. My eye is drawn to the shifting reflection of dappled sunlight on the water—patterns dancing, impermanent, timeless. A pesky fly seems infatuated with my left earlobe, and repeatedly I shoo his noisy presence away.
Withdrawing a little black Moleskine journal from my rucksack, along with the trusty old fountain pen from France—newly repaired, its barrel no longer held with clear tape—I open to a blank, unlined page. Legs crossed, sitting upright, jotting down thoughts and observations, the familiar soft voice of the gold nib speaks as it scratches and glides across the thick drawing paper.
A good moment to savor, this.
It is the cusp of a new season and already the light is changing, diluted from summer’s bold intensity; the temperature, while still warm, is also subtly decreasing. The autumn equinox is upon us and something unnameable flavors the air, almost like a whisper that causes me to shiver and smile with anticipation. A soft enchantment, it seems.
In the sky above the trees, the repeated shrill cry of a hawk pierces the canyon’s quiet song, touching my soul.
Here is life, unhurried. Elemental. I inhale a deep breath, allowing myself to drop into my hip bones and slightly reposition my perch on the stump, senses dilating even wider and drinking deeply from what surrounds.
With a twinge of regret, I realize that it is far too long since I spent a full day or night on the land, and like the yearning for a beloved, I feel the longing rise up in my chest like a strong, dark wave.
Come home, come home to the wild, barefoot stranger of yourself…
Though I have left town (and cell phone coverage) behind and crossed into Big Sur, and despite the gradual ascent along the canyon trail with my senses ajar, sloughing off my burdens and troubles, it takes a while to settle in to “nature” time. Almost like entering into a sitting meditation, there is a process of letting the mental noise drop away while encouraging the mind to become quiet. Some time is needed for modern-day filters to dissipate.
Similarly, it takes some time to begin to see. Textures. Relationships. Details and subtle variations. The infinite complexity in even a square inch here at my fingertips or toes is staggering. I could spend an hour looking at this fallen log littered with dried brown needles and never see it all—not even a fraction of it.
In our exquisite design, once the senses notice something and our brain registers it, when we next encounter that stimulus, we recognize it more quickly. It happens even faster the next time, and faster the time after that. Eventually, we hardly need to look at (or touch, smell, taste, etc.) a thing again in any curious sort of way; our brain fills in the picture largely from memory and pattern. Oh, I’m in a shady coastal canyon with some ferns and redwoods and it’s pretty.
No longer novel or new, our experience and surroundings disappear into familiarity. In terms of seeing things, it’s generally the newcomers, visitors, children, and artists who catch what others no longer register. The mystics, too, few as they are.
Georgia O’Keeffe, the American early Modernist painter, used to say that people don’t know how to see, to really see. She claimed it was part of the reason she painted flowers so large, so that people would finally notice them. “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time — like to have a friend takes time.”
It takes even longer to feel, to shift from mental cognition and observation into an empathic, connected mode of being. A cellular response to our environment has guided mankind for millennia, a knowing in the heart through the direct perception of nature/environment. It is a wholistic mode of cognition—often wordless—that is distinctly different from the rational, linear, analytic mode that now dominates our world.
This empathic, feeling mode is instantaneous and utterly natural; it’s simply a matter of making the shift from our heads down into our hearts that, like letting go of manmade time, can require a bit of effort for people.
Usually, just when I’m really dropping into the depths of what surrounds me, when I am wide open (or at least much closer to that state than when I arrived), hovering at the point where I’ve relinquished clock time for nature time, it’s time to depart.
If there’s a gift in this irony, it is perhaps that when I am able to spend an extended period in “nature”—even a mere weekend—I open so widely that returning to our human, modern world is a painful assault: a rapid closing down again, drawing the shutters closed. Everything seems unnatural (because mostly it is). The return is generally a process that I find difficult, and the more expansive I have become, the more agonizing and sorrowful is the closing down.
Most people are so closed, so overstimulated and numbed from noise, television, radio, internet, sirens, and loud voices, they don’t realize it. Filters are locked firmly in place, sensory gating channels just barely open; we grow so habituated to this state that we don’t even know what it means to be open. Unplugged from phone and laptop computer, and sitting beside a stream for a while, one might catch a little glimpse or taste of sensory dilation; or if able to walk through a park, one might feel a sense of openness spread through their core. Yet that’s only the merest beginning.
I long to live where I can remain open, where my breath is full and unrestricted, where I hear the songs of trees, wind, water—a place where I find my inspiration, solace, and well-being.
Nature always brings me home to myself—my most authentic, expansive, best self—the one who is soft, flexible, receptive and aware. The one who is engaged in communion with the Larger Story, the one who beautifully embodies the Sacred Masculine. The one who flows.
Perched above the little creek, time drifts downstream with the gracefully-moving water. Gazing upward into the mesh of green and brown conifer branches, an interwoven grille against a blue sky, as I allow my perspective and sense of depth to shift, I’m ever more at ease. With each breath, I am increasingly a part of the place I sit, less apart.
What a gift to be in this body savoring this exquisite moment. Yes, there’s the usual ache in my knee as a minor distraction, but I am utterly content to be quietly observing and feeling—drawn into the deeper energies, observing that each thing is in relationship with everything else… me, included.
The longer I sit, the more I will open, and in that subtle drawing outwards, ever more I will see and feel.
Here, now, embraced by the shady arms of the canyon, I know one thing: we are never separate. Even in a state of expanded, heightened awareness, there is far more going on than we can imagine. Our job is simply to say “yes” to it and be open.
[This is the second of a three-part series, which concludes next week with “Return: Leaving My Shoes Along The Trail”]