Nature and I have been out of sorts for quite some time. It wasn’t always this way. When I was a young girl I spent most of my time outdoors. We grew up in a community tucked away in a serene valley surrounded by foothills to the Rocky Mountains. There were manicured and less manicured trails, creeks, rock formations perfect for playing masters of the rock and a nearby equestrian center that our neighborhood crew would claim as our playground after dark. I collected craw fish and rain frogs and rode my bike (on accident) over a few rattlesnakes. Nature and wildlife wasn’t something to shy away from, though I think I always had a healthy respect for the power and beauty of non-human creatures. In my late teens I was fond of camping and backpacking, catching, gutting, cooking and eating fish during such excursions. I was an avid skier well into my late adolescence relishing in the intoxicating rush of those Colorado peaks. But as I resigned myself to the many indoor demands of adulting, my relationship with nature began to take a turn.
It is possible that mildly traumatic experiences played a role in the demise of our once thrilling relationship. When I was 18 I was bit by a brown recluse spider which later made way for contracting a nasty case of impetigo, an unrelenting staff infection, that required six months of antibiotics and a whole lot of pain and embarrassment as the primary spider bite puncture rested just below my right butt cheek. It was only a few years later that I was attacked by an angry gang of squirrels that dominated an outdoor eating area in the midst of my college campus. Few people understand how ferocious those little beasts can become when they no longer maintain any respect for the human species.
So perhaps those incidences left my relationship with nature feeling slightly strained, but they’re not significant enough to explain why now as a 36 year old woman, I rarely make the time or have the desire to be outdoors. I’m not exactly sure when or how or why or where my desire went. Every now and then something awakens it and so I attempt to re-engage with the vast world I now feel so disconnected from only to discover I am extremely skittish and easily discouraged. I jump out of my own shoes when I unexpectedly stumble upon a gathering of deer eating their evening meal where I take my dog out to remember he’s still an animal. I freak out when a bug flies in my direction. Once while living in Uganda, I was working from our cottage patio when a praying Mantis flew straight for my unexpecting face. I instinctively screamed loud enough to startle the entire compound and ran for safety just inside the patio doors. I then spent the next 30 minutes tossing shoes at the bold mantis in an effort to annoy it enough that it might abandon my outdoor office so that I might return to my work. Suffice it to say that my efforts were entirely unsuccessful and clearly ridiculous.
I recently heard these words come out of my 14 year old’s mouth: “I HATE being outdoors.” This was the same daughter who would pick up worms and snakes with her bare hands. The daughter who loved rollie pollies and playing in the dirt. And now, a decade later, she screams at the sight of a bug flying toward her face as well. Admittedly, her response could very well be an indication of the influence of my own poor example. But it certainly has me wondering what else could be to blame for our mutual sense of disconnection from and fear of the world beyond the safety we find within those boxes we call homes.
“Enough is enough,” I declared about a month ago as I decided I would find a way to repair the rupture in my relationship with the great outdoors. Each Wednesday since then I have embarked upon an outdoor excursion with the three year old and the most lovable yet annoying chocolate lab in tow. Rain or shine, the three of us are learning how to explore and venture beyond our neighborhood parks every week. Only a month into these Wednesday excursions and I am just beginning to understand why my relationship with nature took a dive over a decade ago.
Today’s adventure led us to a lake only a few miles from where we currently reside. I knew it was going to eventually rain, so we needed to get a jump on our adventure. After parking our stereotypically middle class suburban family minivan, I grabbed our day pack, put the leash on the dog and walked in the direction of the lake with tiny one’s hand held safely in mine. There was a man fishing near the lake so I led the two little noise-makers in an entirely different direction. After nearly 30 minutes of walking I realized that the trail we were treading upon was leading us into areas less tamed by man-made landscaping measures.
My heart began to race a bit more as I saw signs indicating this was a protected wildlife habitat. I felt less in control of my surroundings and that’s when a new understanding was unearthed…or maybe it was actually re-earthed. When I was a child and especially a teen, my life was filled with chaos and traumas of varying degrees. I sought refuge in the natural world all around me not as an escape from the chaos, because there is a kind of chaos in the natural world as well. Somehow the natural chaos was expected, predictable in it’s wildness, held by something grander and larger than each individual component. It felt grounding to be in the midst of the world outdoors. It made me feel alive, like anything was possible. It revealed that beauty could be birthed from the chaos, that learning how to play in the dirt was essential to feeling grounded, and that being human was about being a part of this chaotic beautiful world.
As I moved further into adulthood, I think I began to imagine I could somehow escape the chaos and trauma of life, or at the very least, I believed I could minimize it all. Nature knew I was kidding myself and so I had to retreat from the ways it would whisper my folly. Or so I thought. But life has continued to feel chaotic, wild, and even traumatic in this chapter of adulthood as well. While venturing into the woods surrounding that lake today, I felt my heart race at the unpredictability and I heard the whispers. I remembered that a racing heart isn’t always an indication of harm to come. Sometime it’s the precursor to something breathtaking just beyond the horizon. The natural world is where we belong, despite all the ways we try to pretend like it’s not. All those structures we build and roads we pave – we think they keep us “safer” but perhaps they make us forget that we are not meant to be safe. I’m only now beginning to remember that we are really meant to simply belong to a wild and unpredictable natural world.