Wellness in the Woods

by Amber Jensen

The burning of hamstrings and calf muscles as I hike the incline through a visual wasteland seems a bit extreme. The way my ankles threaten to give out and roll as I side hill the sloughing decomposed granite feels a bit over the top. Snorting one more freshly hatched flying insect up my nostril could easily be a last straw moment. And it’s not.

It’s not extreme to be moving my body up and over burnt windfalls or cut banks. It’s not over the top to be pushing myself to my limits (though I believe those limits could be a bit more well conditioned) and it’s not a sign to quit when I’m in closer contact with creepy crawlers than I’d really like to be. I’m realizing these extremes are my version of self-care.

In recent work with observing and experiencing grief, and considering all the information that is and isn’t available about tending to and moving through the grief experience, I’ve found only a few consistent methods of coming back to my own personal center. A space of full wellness and spiritual health. One method is breath work—the intentional effort to be mindful of breath patterns and to use the breath in a specific way that creates a feeling of well-being. Another consistently transformative practice I have experienced is to simply take my body outside. Be outside.

The act of leaving shelter and the expected environmental cues of electrical hum and man-made surfaces brings a bit of discomfort. We may not consider this during our daily comings and goings but the simple idea of safety that is our homes and places of work, can in some ways, contribute to dulled wellbeing.

When we take ourselves outside and we act upon the environment in a more partnered way it takes us back to a more primal state of being. When we work in the garden, picnic in the park, go searching for wildflowers, this taps into a space of being and action that we don’t generally participate in on a daily basis.

As a mother, one of my go-to parenting hacks is to observe my children and know the signs to look for when they’ve been cooped up indoors too long. They get anxious, agitated and a bit squirrelly. When I see these behaviors in my own children I can’t help but notice them in myself. And that tiny voice inside that expresses itself as snapping at someone or being defensive in conversation. That’s the cue. Time to go outside.

It’s time to put my feet in the grass or on the dirt. It’s time to look closely at flowers and the critters that make homes under rocks. It’s time to crouch and squat and then lose track of time.

As I hike through seemingly dead forests, ravaged by wildfires last summer and fall, my mind is attuned in a way I haven’t observed in a while. I look more closely at the scorched bark of a tree I pass. I dig my nails into the eager morel mushroom that has pushed itself up through the char, snipping it off as if this is what fingernails were meant for. I notice the woodpecker, come to scout for the wood borers and larvae resting within the corpses of a once dense forest of trees.

The terrain is tricky. I have to focus. And all of that focus on new and strange and beautiful things has me leave behind any thoughts of stress or struggle. It’s not impossible to take your troubles with you into the woods but it is quite likely you will lose your grip on them. I know I do.

The sound of my children’s voices, calling through the blackened sentinels, ‘There’s one! There’s another one!’ echoes through the open desolation. And yet, the life bursting forth, vibrant greens slicing through the charred earth, there is hope. The children laugh and scream at one another to stop, wait, look. I can’t help but think they’re speaking to each other’s souls. Reminding us all to end the hurries and take on a system of simplicity and beautiful mindfulness. To be one with the woods. But they’re just talking about foraging for mushrooms.

The hike back seems to always be the time when everything we left behind in our home or the car or school or work comes rushing back. I can hear it in the whining voices complaining about tired limbs. I can feel it in my own aching back or my impatience with mosquitoes and gnats. Once we are no longer moving toward the unknown and the adventure of simply being and looking we are called back to the knowledge of having left behind some hidden truth. The truth that we are using this time as an escape rather than a way of life.

This is when I know we need to get out more. Watch an insect walk more. Listen to the song of a tree more. This is when I realize the full impact of being in and with nature. This is when I appreciate wellness in the woods.

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