Upstream

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Photo credit: Amazon

I love walking in the woods.

Especially now that we’ve reached that glorious season of lengthening days, ubiquitous birdsong, and mellifluous blossoms.

In other words, SPRING.

I’ll happily hike anytime of year, but as the earth awakens, there’s something joyous to behold in the sights, sounds, and smells of a springtime forest.

And while I need not be convinced by anything more than my senses, there’s also research to prove the benefits of spending time in the woods.

The Japanese call it “Shinrin-Yoku,” which translates as “forest bathing.” It’s described as “the medicine of simply being in the forest.”

I learned of this term just last week, while catching up with a colleague. He and I had participated on a committee that made recommendations to improve community wellness. In particular, we had identified and suggested ways to incorporate outdoor activities into daily routines.

Ironically, our campus was then breaking ground for a multi-million dollar recreation facility, which, while fostering space for wellness activities, clearly equips those of the indoor variety.

It’s not wrong or bad to have a nice new gym, though incentives for using it haven’t curbed my appetite for being outside, rain or shine. Cold, wet weather is not my favorite, but I’ll take it over the stench of locker rooms.

Fortunately, with two back-to-back days of sunshine this weekend, I had opportunity to bathe not just in forests, but in the thoughtful prose of Mary Oliver’s Upstream.

I’m a big fan of reading and the outdoors, but I usually don’t combine the two. Countless times have I settled upon some idyllic spot, book in hand, only to find myself distracted by birds and bees (not the birds and bees, mind you).

Nevertheless, I tucked Oliver’s slim volume into my pack, determined to defy my track record. From previous hikes, I knew I’d be ready for a break about halfway into the five-mile loop, where a little pine bench would be waiting for me.

It wasn’t long before I was ensconced in a poetical world that nearly matched the one I inhabited. I hadn’t encountered Oliver’s work before, but it was clear we held some things in common. A shared affinity for the outdoors was obvious, but we also both belong to that dreaded class of “morning people” who actually like getting up early – not for its own sake, but to experience, in her words, the gift of dawn. I couldn’t agree more, especially on the mornings I’ve dashed out of the house in time to watch the sun peek over the lakeside horizon.

Yet, Oliver’s reflections in Upstream weren’t solely about nature; her thoughts were interspersed with tributes to her “forbears,” writers whose own sojourns inspired and shaped her responsibility to “live thoughtfully and intelligently.” The great ones, as she calls them, who taught her to “observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly.”

The influences of Emerson and Whitman – to name just two – are evident in her writing, and though their names merely summon fuzzy memories of tenth grade English class, I understood and appreciated the creativity and conviction she found through their works, inspired in part by time spent outdoors.

A few days later I realized – a bit sheepishly – that Whitman’s work has been staring me in the face the past four years. It’s been long enough since I’d framed and hung a verse from Leaves of Grass on my bedroom wall it had faded into the background.

Taking my cue from Oliver, I paused and reread Warble for Lilac Time. I remembered the day it had come home with me, a relic of our library poetry month celebration. How many times since had my eyes glanced over the words without seeing their meaning?

And yet, it’s exactly this kind of attention to thought that Oliver calls “the liquor of life.” Her version, perhaps, of the proverbial wisdom for taking time to smell the roses. Making room for creative endeavors – and appreciating those that appear around us – is exactly what she admonishes: “the most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

I do not write for a living, but I took heart knowing that someone who did understood the agony of pursuing a creative endeavor fraught with interruptions. Even a Pulitzer Prize winner faces the frustration of answering a call, returning to work, and finding that “the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”

Gathering thoughts is not always easy, but I’ve discovered one method that helps: taking a break and going for a walk.

Preferably in the woods.