Ten years ago, my husband and I were visiting the popular archeological ruins of San Agustin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Colombia. One part of the ruin was a grassy slope of about 100 yards. As Barry and I stood at the top, I suddenly imagined rolling down it. Without hesitating, I lay face down, stretched my arms above me, and took off. Over and over I rolled, squealing and shrieking like a six-year-old. At the bottom, as I sat up grinning, a bit dizzy, I suddenly noticed several other people had followed me and were rolling down the hill, too. I felt like a star!
This is just one example of how I’ve been trying to be less inhibited when outside, getting “down and dirty” — meaning earthier and more playful, like kids in a sandbox. While I’ve had more success with some of the following ideas than others, I hope that my efforts to be childlike will encourage you, too.
1. I Remind Myself That I Too Am Nature
Barry and I once had a friend who announced that he “hated nature.” We laughed at the jarring dissonance of his attitude, but on reflection, I find it deeply sad, because to hate nature is to hate yourself. The word “nature” comes from the Latin natura and nasci — to be born.
That I am nature is a little hard for me to get, because I grew up thinking that nature was “out there” — around me, but not me. Yet my cells, my blood, my saliva, my tears, my sweat, my burps, my farts — we’re all nature. What else could we be?
As Henry David Thoreau said, “Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mold myself?”
2. I Force Myself To Get Wet
I have a mild case of what’s called hygrophobia, the irrational fear of liquids, dampness, or moisture. The other day, for example, when Barry and I were at a beach in Northern California near the enchanting Yurok Loop, I was walking on the sand, barefoot (another good idea), but, as usual, carefully avoiding the shoreline. Not that the waves were powerful enough to drench my pants, but I was still staying well away on the dry sand. “Oh, go on, Rogers!” I said to myself. “Get wet!” So I did.
3. I Inspect Objects Using A Magnifying Glass
Staring close-up at leaves, plants, bark, sand, fabric, and especially skin is fascinating and visceral, as the verse I wrote attests:
4. I Use Binocs Or Glasses
I use these to view such things as wildlife, trees, and balconies close up. I’ll never forget during our 20-month sabbatical back in 1999, while Barry and I were visiting the Turkish city of Trabzon, one afternoon we lay under a tree in a forest out of town. Using my new glasses, I looked up, transfixed by the fractal beauty of the branches, how they replicated themselves in ever-smaller degrees of scale. I gazed at the trees for half an hour or so, almost in a trance.
5. I Make Myself Slow Down
I know that sounds odd, especially when traveling, but I’m a restless type. When I do slow down, though, it’s immensely pleasurable, like when I watch clouds as they reconfigure into different shapes. What’s wrong with having your head in the clouds, anyway?
6. I Create A Sit Spot
As a child, I used to gaze dreamily at the spring dogwood blossoms outside my upstairs bedroom window. This was my “sit spot” — a place to observe nature. It could be under a tree, on a bench, or even in your car looking out the window.
Wherever I am, I aim to return to my sit spot, observing the same tree, flower, river, or other type of nature. Last year, for instance, Barry and I visited Ruth Lake, a recreational spot near our Eureka, California, home. One afternoon I sat in a chair under a tree reading, every so often looking up and admiring the tangle of branches above me. The next day, I placed the chair in the same spot, admiring the branches again. Near our home, I love visiting and revisiting the Samoa Dunes, where I observe the seasonal changing colors of the ice plants and gaze at the surf while leaning against what I call “my” log.
7. I Focus On One Or More Of My Senses
Years ago, when Barry and I were bicycling in Oregon, I played a game with myself, paying attention to anything I could find that was blue. Other times I might listen for the furthest sound, or notice whatever happens to be touching my body — the breeze against my skin, the fabric of the seat, the warmth of my breath. Or I take note of what I observe — the movement of a swaying branch, the curving shape of a shell, the fading light.
8. I View The Earth As A Spiritual Portal
Technically, I’m an atheist, though I don’t feel like one. And I dislike the word because of its harshness. Though I grew up Protestant, I identify strongly with a passage from the book The Reinvention of Eve by the Jewish author and psychotherapist Kim Chernin. The daughter of secular Marxists, her upbringing was highly secular. Yet one misty afternoon in Ireland, wandering through a green valley, she stopped and gazed at an immense tree, “a natural altar,” she writes. “I, the rationalist, was in the grip of extreme emotion. I could fight it off, run away,” but instead she found herself on the ground in front of it, tears streaming down her face. “Was I really down on my knees, worshiping a tree?”
Like Chernin, I’ve had transcendent, life-changing moments in nature. Thirty years ago, I was struggling with a deep, ancient hurt, one that no matter how hard I tried, I hadn’t been able to release. One cloudy afternoon I visited a duck pond in Palo Alto, California. While watching the ducks, I noticed a group of disabled children scampering along a nearby path, laughing and being silly, with a leader who seemed very affectionate. Somehow, surrounded by the water, the ducks, and the kids, my heart softened, and just like that, I let go of the wound, and not once have I felt it since. Nature is my medicine; it keeps me healthy, physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
9. I Get Down And Dirty
This passage in Leath Tonino’s article “Racoonboy’s Guide to Urban Wilds” in the magazine High Country News makes me shudder and squeal at the same time. An outdoorsy person, Tonino chose Colorado Springs for college but disliked having to drive three hours to explore the Rockies. Then he realized that he didn’t have to drive; nature was right where he lived. “Snaking beneath the city grid were…sickly yet wondrous waterways…corralled by concrete culverts, dirt embankments, and razor-wire fences. You know these creeks. We all do. They gather shopping carts, empty vodka bottles, thick brush, and raccoons. They are both repulsive and intriguing. They are part of the landscape of 21st-century America, like it or not.” He aimlessly, filthily explored “the underloved ghost spaces…sloshing and slinking.”
Gross! I’m both repulsed and strangely attracted to the feral urban wilderness he describes. But despite my aversion to dirt and mud, I know it’s time to buy some yucky clothes, beat-up shoes, and gloves, and go muck about crawling around in the brambles and creeks.
One place where I’d love to get down and dirty with the plants is in our beloved jardinera, or planter box, at our home in Guanajuato, Mexico, where we live part of the year. If I were sure it wouldn’t hurt them, I’d lie face down on the dirt, dig my nose in, and breathe in the earthy, loamy aroma.
10. I Slip Into Water Naked
Oh, the silkiness of water against skin! Wherever we are, Barry and I always have our bathing suits, but we rarely use them, because we’re experts at getting in and out of our clothes and into the water in 30 seconds. Plus, we strategically choose the early morning to dip in, before many people are up.
11. I Stop Talking
Sometimes Barry and I remain near each other, but intentionally in silence. Once we spent a morning in Yosemite, hiking on hilly wildflower-strewn slopes. Without the intrusion of chatter, the natural beauty shimmered even more.
12. I Follow The Example Of Latinos
If I’m too serious, I remind myself of my Mexican side. Whenever Barry and I are near a water body in California, we often find Latinos. They’re usually making tortillas on a stove in the back of a pick-up, with a passel of kids around and music blaring. These folks know how to have fun! Once, when we climbed La Bufa, the rock structure above Guanajuato, we met a Mexican family who had hauled their camp stove up there. The family even invited us to join them for breakfast.
When I see Latinos making merry, I think of a line attributed to the Talmud: “We will be called to account for all permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy.”
I’m a romantic about nature, but not so dreamy that I fail to know its dangers; in fact, I’ve had a serious encounter in the outdoors, when I got lost swimming in a lagoon on a foggy day.
Still, the risks in nature will never rob me of my lyricism. Nature is the splatter of rain against the window, it’s my fingers typing, my nose itching, my toes curling. Within and without, nature is right here, right now.