Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do is to pay attention. Perhaps the second is to be patient. And perhaps a third is to be attentive to what the body knows.
Barry Lopez, The Invitation, Granata Magazine
Something just off the trail caught my attention, and I squatted down to get a closer look. Partly covered by grass and debris was a small skull, about the size of a quarter. Likely shrew or mole or mouse. A couple of people ran down the cross trail about fifty feet away without seeing me.
In the old days, I was much more focused on getting there; the journey was just the thing I had to do to reach the goal. Nowadays, I take things slower — I’m not the same physically as I was at twenty — and I’ve learned that the journey is as much a part of the experience as the end.
On the trail lately, I’ve encountered other hikers, many faster than me, mountain bikers and trail runners. All seem to be driven by the beat in their own heads, often with the help of earphones.
It seems a shame to me to be out in nature and not be able to hear the natural sounds and rhythms of a place. Gregory Hines and Savion Glover have celebrated the rhythms we hear in our urban lives through tap dancing. But as Richard Sherman said:
“It’s not so hard, when you try, to match your heartbeat with that of the land.”
When I walk, I can hear the bird sounds, the wind and the sound of my own feet against the earth. The grasses and leaves rustling in the breeze and the burbling of a nearby stream add to the symphony. Grass, sand, dirt, gravel or rock; each has its own distinct feel and sound. Wet earth sounds different from just damp or dry. Mud feels completely different than anything else. And each has a sound, or maybe vibration, that syncs with your pace or walking speed.
The condition of the trail helps to set your pace. The material, the roughness and the slope all conspire to get you into a rhythm that matches the conditions. Finding that pace means you don’t have to think about your feet, but can focus on the world you are moving through. Or if you are particularly philosophical, say a Thoreau, you might know that:
“The easiest way to develop Olympian insights was to turn the mind into an aeolian harp and attune it to the winds and sounds and rhythms of nature.”
Emerson, quoted by Stuart Udall, The Quiet Crisis
Finding my pace helps me to see and experience the world I’m moving through. Each season changes the vegetation, creating different patterns and I can enjoy the transient colors and textures. The weather affects the insects and birds, as well as my pace. In the hot sun, I tend to seek the shady spots to rest and cool off; in a cold breeze or harsh wind, I look for the lee of a rock or tree for shelter.
Clouds and the sky pull my gaze upwards, and the forest or mountains frame my view. I can stare off into the infinite horizon, or examine the creatures that inhabit the litter at my feet. But mostly, I let my gaze wander around, taking in the sights the same way my ears take in the sounds. I let them pour over me, tasting the shapes and colors that I move through.
There, something catches my senses, and I focus. Was it the movement of a fox across a field — each of us aware of the other, but unperturbed by our mutual distance? A bird song, an unusual rustling in the grass, or the chitter of an Abert’s squirrel telling me to stay away? Each one can pull me out of my sensual blur, and bring me back to the present. They get me to focus my senses and determine if it is something of interest, something I need to see, to flee or to ignore.
The process that Emerson noted and the focus expressed by Lopez, are not exclusive. Together they make for a strengthening experience where observation and insight share time in your psyche. That, to me, is what nature gives me. It gives me a space where my mind can sense all that the universe contains. From the tiniest bit to the vast expanse, nature lets my mind wander and taste it all.
It allows me to be more than I am anywhere else. I can just be me.