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Using the Intellect to Open Doors to Our Wildness

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Picture of a large rock lifted up, exposing many marine creatures
Craig Foster explaining the ecosystem of marine life existing under a single rock

In the midst of coping with the COVID-19 crisis, I reached out to my South African friend Jubee Morton, founder of Origins Wellness to see how he and his community were faring in these chaotic times. Jubee is an incredibly creative innovator of wellness practices, who has a keen sense of what connects our bodies and hearts from our evolutionary journey.

It didn’t take long for our conversation to move towards the topic of connecting with nature, one of the many topics that fuels our friendship. Several years ago, Jubee introduced me to a mentor of his, the documentary film maker and marine biologist, Craig Foster, who lives on the Cape Town coastline. Twice now, I’ve had the privilege of going snorkeling with Jubee and Craig and was absolutely blown away by Craig’s knowledge of marine life in terms of species, habitats, mating behaviors and symbiotic relationships, coupled with his deeply personal at-homeness with life underwater. You can check out some of his amazing work, and impending film on octopus at Sea Change Project.

Millions of us are experiencing a profound slow-down in the pace of life*. I’m really delighted to see so many more people out enjoying the wilderness here in Vermont, I hope it is the same elsewhere. A lot of the time, I think of opportunities to be in the wilderness as opportunities to free myself of intellectual ways of knowing and relating. Walking through wooded paths I can immerse myself in observation of a world of being, and I can literally feel the impact on my body as I quiet my mind and attune to the present moment, a moment so incredibly different from how I spend the majority of my time doing. Spending time in the forest in this mode has been feeding my heart for a long time.

Still, as a human, my intellectual curiosity is not squelched while in the woods, rather it is highly stimulated. I always come away wondering about something I have seen, heard, felt, or smelled. Recently, I attended a workshop on tree identification during the winter months. Those with experience in the northern-north know how profoundly the landscape changes throughout the seasons. We’re lucky in some ways that the changes are so drastic, it can capture our attention more easily than those in the southern landscape where the changes occur just as profoundly, but with much more subtlety to the human senses.

The workshop was hosted at Distant Hill Gardens, and led by Lynn Levine who has published a number of nature related guides particularly relevant for New England. It was only a couple of hours long and yet incredibly exciting as it unlocked a small mystery with a big impact. Here in New England, as with many places, there are really only a small number of tree-types in our wilderness areas. While most of them can be identified by their leaves (at least down to the level of being a birch or a maple), during the winter we don’t have that option for identification, rather we have to use other clues, of which there are many.

In the days following the workshop I found myself filled with the energy of innocent discovery as I walked through my favorite wooded trails with a new ability to see the very same trees I had been walking past for several years on an almost daily basis. The ability to identify them allowed me to see similarities and differences that previously I was completely oblivious to. Of course, nothing had changed in my eyesight or my tactile facilities, but suddenly the patterns of branches, the contour of bark, the transition of shapes near the ground to those up in the sky opened up another level of relationship that I had been curious of, but had vastly under-appreciated.

The unappreciated aspect was that adding intellectual knowledge to how I looked at the trees actually deepened my connection with them. Now, if I were living a mere couple hundred years ago, I would not have needed this kind of intellectual learning to open up my connection, it would just naturally be there from my deeply interactive existence in the forest, just as I don’t need formal education to be able to relate to the myriad nuances of the human shape, voice texture, or agility.

As I walk through the forest, receptive to the invitation to be a part of the wilderness rather than apart from it, I am seeing things at a new, deeper level of subtlety. Knowing which trees are of the same lineage, I can see subtle variations, I notice their unique qualities that come from their unique histories despite being only a couple of feet away from their siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. From learning about the trees, I am able to better learn from the trees. As I sit here writing this, I am looking out over the forest that enshrines Brattleboro. The exhalation of the forest canopy enables me to breathe in life sustaining oxygen – how could I not want to deepen my awareness of our interdependence?

What a great opportunity to spend a little time on youtube-university campus and then head out into the wildness that surrounds you to take your connection to the next level.

* I want to acknowledge the many people for whom this crisis has meant both an increase in work and stress, as their services are what allow so many of us to shelter in place and to receive needed care, when this is over may you have much rest and peace.

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