Phillip sent me a link to an article from The Utne Reader with a note saying, “…but you knew this already.” The article, titled “Mother’s Care,” speaks to research and therapeutic success in using time spent outdoors to heal the mind-body-spirit, and is excerpted from a new book, The Nature Principle by Richard Louv. (You can read the article here: Mother’s Care.)
The bike trail we live beside is about 50 miles long, and over the last 15 years, it has become my church, my sanctuary, and the place where my greatest healing has taken place. I have biked through hundreds of miles of grief and joy along this path; I have photographed and walked the same ten miles through every season; I have served as sacristan and cleaned the trail’s littered desecration; I have harvested raspberries and mulberries, and saved wildflowers from reckless mowing and destructive snowmobiles.
This bike trail was once a railroad track; her old mile markers and bridges have become hugely metaphorical for me in the years I’ve walked her. I know the trees; I note the dates that species of birds and wildflowers return each spring. I witness evolution: one year the wild roses are plentiful; the next year Queen Ann’s Lace overwhelms all the other plants (though the past several years, it’s been the invasive garlic mustard). I count the blue herons and mourn their diminishing numbers. I stop to watch turkeys, deer, squirrels, hedgehogs, foxes, raccoons (and skunks!) dance their own lives along, or across, the trail. I hear the mournful cries of coyotes at dusk. And all the while, as I observe, and photograph, and walk, and walk, I have been healed and I am healing.
I call my journal “On the Path” after my heart’s home. It holds many reflections from healing lessons offered to me while walking the trail. My cat, Sally, died just as I was feeling balanced again following my father’s death. I had lived with her longer than I’d lived with another sentient being and was staggered by the weight of her loss.
June 5, 2004
Sally died Tuesday…it is now Saturday, a glorious June morning with all the light, sparkle and promise one would wish of the 5th day of June. Happy brides are anticipating their weddings and gardeners are eagerly tackling their many chores in fragrant and beckoning gardens…I miss Sally every minute; I see her everywhere…or rather, look for her and sometimes find myself calling or singing one of our many songs. So many rituals—21 years’ worth come September—have been abruptly halted.
But grief so easily slips into self-indulgence, the country of sadness and inertia, an excuse for disengaging from responsibilities and the daily round of details that keep one connected to life, a moody rejection of the joys life offers by the armful every moment. It becomes a selfish feast for the ego rather than a tribute to the life of the freshly departed. “Look at me: I’m sad and bereaved and separate from all humanity and special for the pain I’m feeling. Unique in my loss.”
The night after she left, Phillip took the puppies for their walk and I chanced upon a quote I’d posted where I’d always see it and therefore am blind to it and never see it at all… St. Francis de Sales: “Make yourself familiar with the angels, and behold them frequently in spirit; for without being seen, they are present with you”…and right after I sat with those ideas for a moment, P. came in with two lovely and rarely discovered cardinal feathers he’d been gifted right in the middle of the trail—where they hadn’t been a few minutes earlier, on the way out—we both felt they were from Idgi and Sally, a message in feathers—our family code for spirit and communication from places far away and unreachable—“See ya soon! We’ll be waiting. All’s well.”
And on we go to Love, not yet, but soon, our home.
Less than a year later, I was mourning the loss of my mother. My journal and the trail again offered healing.
March 11, 2005
Journeying with the loss of Mama: (one month)
I agree that life is strange and new and I’m making it up day by day. Some days are easier. Yesterday was gray and cold, and a 12-hour snowfall was gorgeous, but the silence and darkness yanked me down into depression after a while. The birds are singing their spring songs, which is heartening. Tomorrow is Mama’s birthday. I miss her very, very much.
I wish I could FEEL her essence is somewhere, still, recognizable, and as happy as I want so much to believe she is…Other days, I’m more able to see that blessings accompany even one’s grief. My capacity for joy is strangely enhanced, perhaps by my psyche’s attempts to keep me emotionally balanced so that neither the depths nor heights are tipping the scale—or perhaps because of the relief that accompanies a loved one’s death. I no longer have to fear it or dread it, and Mama’s suffering is over. Or maybe because my own mortality is finally irrefutable and so why NOT take extraordinary pleasure in a cardinal’s mating song?
For the past 10 years, our 4-legged companions Riley and Clancy have walked the trail with me. Their happy spirits and canine approach to life have blessed me with deeper healing and an ability to live utterly in the moment. We celebrate our time together on these walks.
Long walks also take me deep within my spirit, allowing my imagination to parade its gifts and magic across the stage of my mind. There are days we head out for our five-mile walk and the next thing I know, we’re home again. This means I have to bound upstairs and take notes, because I’ve been “living within” some story plot and solved a problem or two, or written a poem, or outlined a new development/character/idea that needs to be tethered before I leave the deep meditative consciousness yielded by time on the trail. As John Muir noted, “…going out, I found, is really going in.”
Other days we wander and spend time staring at the river, or, as we did this morning, observing great horned owls and hawks dueling along the river, and another immense flock of sandhill cranes bleating their way southward.
Nature is our home; she is the great Mother who welcomes, heals, nourishes, teaches, and celebrates our spirits. Her gifts are threatened when we are not regularly engaged with her, and able to feel and benefit from her touch, smell, sounds, and mysteries. “Outside” becomes foreign rather than part of us, and nature quickly devalues to another source of profit, regardless of the permanent destruction and loss this causes. This is happening right now, in Wisconsin, where mining laws may quickly be changed to allow the devastation of precious geological formations and habitats, all in the name of income fueled by its usual sources, power and greed. (http://host.madison.com/ct/news/opinion/column/spencer-black/spencer-black-wisconsin-needs-strong-mining-laws/article_cde66022-301b-5ce9-85bc-df74546f0f84.html)
What we don’t value, we surrender, and so we forever lose connections vital to our well-being. If a part of creation meant to heal us has been destroyed, we’ll never be healed as we might have been, but rather, continue to accrue losses and brokenness, which will ultimately be reflected in our people and the institutions we perpetuate. What’s fed, thrives; what’s neglected, dies and disappears.
Physical healing can happen through drugs and machines; spiritual directors may help us guide our spirits to greater wholeness; skilled therapists may help us restore our emotional balance, but nothing replaces the deep mind-body-spirit mending and healing offered by nature.
Give yourself the gift of time outside.
Tell those who would destroy the earth to take a hike.