Huntley Meadows is a nature park a short walk from my daughters townhouse in Alexandria. Everyone was excited to take me there knowing how much I love being in nature. I am grateful that they, too, love nature. Not long after my arrival, off we went into the woods.
As we began our walk I became very aware of the specialness of place within the city limits — an opportunity for people to step away from their fast paced lives and connect with nature. Living in the epicenter of our government’s hot spot, nature is a welcome respite. Though I noticed few other visitors. I was grateful for the quiet moments when we walked in silence. I also noticed the majority of others walking along slowly or standing by their cameras on tripods were Asian, which is where Shinrin Yoku or Forest bathing as a healthcare practice began.
With each step into the woods we all relaxed and opened our senses to what surrounded us and what surprises we might witness. We shared in one another’s excitement when we noticed something new and awesome — a Kingfisher which invited us to linger at the end of the boardwalk, a tree whittled down by a beaver, the wet footprints of some forest animal on the boardwalk, the variety of ducks enjoying the water, the deer enjoying the woods and the blue herons which seemed to be everywhere.
We relaxed. We enjoyed being together in quiet (or as quiet as children can be). We paused every few steps to witness our surroundings in awe. Though we were cold, we continued because being outdoors together was more important. So we made light and comical banter about being cold and, in places, numb. We were, indeed, bathing ourselves in nature.
Noticing what happened to each of us, I was reminded of living daily with the woods at my doorstep and why I spend so much time outdoors to walk, to meditate, to garden, and simply be in the presence of birds, wildlife, and the changing weather through the seasons. I noticed that, not only did we relax, our attitudes shifted toward more joy, we laughed more, and enjoyed being part of something greater than ourselves. For me, it was a deeply spiritual experience throughout the walk. I love being in nature where I can feel the presence of spirit in every living thing. Each breath and each step I am bathed in love and expansion.
Having recently moved away from the woods and into a neighborhood in the town where I work, I needed the refreshing rejuvenation of the woods. My daughter and family also recently moved from one city to another for a new job opportunity. We all needed to let go of the boxes both unpacked and still packed, finding new routines, and away from the stresses inherent in a major move. For them, Huntley Meadows is only 1/2 mile away. For me in my new home, I must drive several miles to go into the woods. Fortunately, we all have dogs who love the outdoors. I know that the responsibility of animals makes it easier to get outside.
My dog, Willow, loves the outdoors and the exercise of a good hike in the woods. She is my companion to explore and bathe in nature. Daily (weather permitting) we get in the car to leave people, cars and activity behind. Willow excitedly jumps into the car — she knows when we are going to the woods. As I drive the five minutes to a local state forest, I feel my shoulders relax.
Our first few minutes we walk at a brisk pace as if shaking off the cares and stresses of the day. Then we slow our pace to a meditative exploration — my breath deepens, my senses open to the view over the lake, I notice the scents of pine, wet earth, the breeze on my face, and the occasional campfire smell in the air. Willow puts her nose to the earth to explore who’s been here before us. My mind calms as I notice the song I am humming and I settle into the stories I imagine of this land before me. My imagination wanders into narratives such as my curiosity of the volcano that formed this lake, focus on the giant car-sized rocks left over from the glaciers, or who lived here and left their mark with the stone walls that wind through the woods of New England. I find my center, my connection, and my creative inspiration in nature.
I return home with gratitude and joy every time. Once home I more easily begin again the work that awaits my focused attention. For my daughter and family, our walk after Thanksgiving dinner allowed us to reminisce our gratitude for one another. We returned refreshed from the cold air and our exploration of nature.