“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” -John O’Donohue
We were four days into a week-long backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire when Aurelio busted his ankle descending Tuckerman’s Ravine, a craggy glacier cirque just south of the summit of Mt. Washington. Before us was a mile of talus deposits, like staircases for giants, that we would have to negotiate before Lion’s Head trail merged into the more pedestrian section of Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail. It’d be another two miles before we reached Hermit Lake Shelter, where we would stay for the evening.
There was no way for help to reach us, so Aurelio ground out the last few miles by leaning heavily into his hiking poles. He didn’t utter a word of complaint so that Cameron and I were surprised when we reached camp and he removed his boot, revealing an ankle twice the size it should have been and a dark purple bruise spreading across the bottom edge of his foot.
With Aurelio unable to hike, we decided to set up a more permanent camp for the remainder of our trip. The next morning, we abandoned the established trail and headed deeper into the forest, until we found a secluded spot along Peabody River. There we slung our hammocks and fell into an unspoken rhythm of camp chores: scrubbing pots, filtering water, washing clothes, and building fire.
We spent the afternoon relaxing on boulders in the middle of the river, listening to the immense volume of water rushing by, ever so slowly bending those enormous stones to its will. Aurelio submerged his bum ankle in the cool water. We each kept a journal at our side and would stare into the eddies of water like soothsayers for hours before finally jotting down a line, an insight, a revelation.
That evening, as we sat together in the chiaroscuro of firelight, it occurred to me that we had hardly spoken a word to each other all day, yet I had never felt closer to my friends. I suggested that we read a few poems, as is the tradition for us on the trail. As I read my poem, the words seemed foreign. All form and no content. Usually, we relied on the poetry to draw us deeper into the moment, deeper into connection with one another, and to remind us of the holiness at work in all of this dirt and sweat, but now the words only seemed to efface the profound silence that had already settled over us. As the words faded away, becoming but felt memories in the tiny bones of our ears, we settled back into the fertile silence of nature like deer, having awakened to the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.
“The ancient rhythms of the earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the human heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows.” – John O’Donohue
In the West, we have the tendency to prioritize our minds over our emotions and physical bodies. We tend to see the brain as the primary organ, and the thoughts that the brain secretes become the dubious foundation for our sense of self. But what about the ancient rhythms of the human heart; the way joy and sorrow precipitate one another? What about our forgetfulness, which allows for the beauty of the world to be continuously rediscovered? What about the landscape of the human body: its pleasure and pain, the secrets held in its musculature, the way it always tells the truth? The body is a universe of sensations that precedes any labeling done by the mind.
There is a practice in Tibetan Buddhism called Dzogchen, in which the practitioner breaks through or sees through to their natural, primordial state of awareness. In Dzogchen the symbolic and imaginary layers of human perception drop away and there is direct knowledge of the ground of Being. Dzogchen is the clarity and wakefulness of the senses left to their natural state. It is faith in the flow, ease, and spontaneity that naturally arises when we surrender our hypervigilance and obsessive mental reflection. In Dzogchen the individual’s way of being-in-the-world is as simple as a tree producing fruit.
I believe the concept of the soul, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, can bring us into a way of being that is similar to Dzogchen. If we become silent enough to listen from the soul, the delusions of ego fall away and we can become directly connected to that deepest part of ourselves, to our true and authentic core. Whatever actions arise out of this mode of listening-from-one’s-soul will necessarily be of the spirit of love, will be of God. This is not the surface level mentation about morality and ethics, but the spontaneous compassion and wisdom that arises from the soul’s natural goodness.
In the west, we tend to fear this spontaneous action. We distrust our instinct and view the unconscious as a realm full of shadows that must be contained, tamped down, and repressed by our ever-vigilant mental activity. Nature, therefore, is important because it teaches us to accept the epistemic limitations of the mind. Nature insists that we stop identifying with our capricious mental arisings and enter into a deep engagement with the truth of our heart and body. Nature insists we fall in love with the mystery of Being.
When we nurture a consistent connection to nature, we are reminded that we too possess the same simplicity of being that is present in the birds and the trees, the same uncomplicated is-ness of the natural world. We begin to feel intimately woven into the emerging pattern of all existence, connected to all things in this present moment as if by an umbilical cord stretching back to the singularity.
We all have access to the fertile silence and stillness that nature inspires. Don’t worry, it doesn’t require that you spend weeks in the wilderness, I just happen to be a tough case when it comes to awakening. An occasional overnighter in your nearest state park or evening strolls in your local nature preserve might be all that you need. Perhaps tending to a small garden is enough for you. As the Buddha taught in his Flower Sermon, when we enter nature, listening attentively at this soul level, a single flower is enough to awaken us to our natural great perfection.
Jason Kaufman is a poet and visual artist living in Bellville, Ohio. The major influences on his work are fatherhood, backpacking, post-structuralism, Buddhism, theopoetics, and mental health advocacy.
Jason has won various awards for his sculptural work. His poetry has been published in Awakened Voices and Wordpeace Literary Journal. His poetry chapbook “A Song Greater than I Am” is forthcoming from Full/Crescent Press.
Jason is the theatrical set designer at the Renaissance Theatre in Mansfield, Ohio and is a contributing editor for Voices from the Borderlands. He is also a member of the Living Lotus Zen Sangha, which meets regularly at Mind Body Align to practice meditation. You can follow his work on Instagram @jasonkaufman_artist.
I found myself chasing butterflies at the Cole Road Prairie one afternoon. While my goal was to capture images for a new website, the result was actually much more. I truly felt transformed by my experience in nature.
When first arriving at the prairie, my mind and body were tight with stress from a morning full of deadlines, issues, and screen time. At first, my head was still back at the office. But little by little, as I paused for a photo here and there, I became more mindful of my surroundings and my senses took the lead.
The sights of dancing butterflies and bees softened my stressed face into smiles. The sounds of birds and insects brought a song of joy to my heart. The fresh air and scented flowers filled me with new energy. The breeze and sunshine on my cheeks felt invigorating. I was like a new woman, at least for that day!
That particular day helped me personally and profoundly experience some of nature’s health benefits that I had been reading about. This field of study has grown from Dr. Qing Li’s research on shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, in Japan. Since then researchers in the U.S. and beyond have studied the benefits of forests, parks and green spaces. Essentially, through science, they are trying to understand nature’s wisdom.
A growing body of research suggests that time spent in nature can provide numerous health benefits. Research compiled by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html) states: “Exposure to forests and trees: boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves mood, increases ability to focus even in children with ADHD, accelerates recovery from surgery or illness, increases energy level, improves sleep.” Wow, that’s quite an impressive list of benefits, check out their extensive bibliography too.
Recent research looks beyond “if” being in nature is beneficial and asks “how” it might work. One theory suggests having all the sensory stimuli might reduce brooding. Essential oils such as pine and cedar, have also been studied for their positive effects. Even elements in the soil may produce mood-enhancing effects. This is a young field of study based on ancient ideas, and the results are looking promising!
So next time you want to feel restored and rejuvenated, visit a natural area. And when you get to your favorite place in nature, let your senses take the lead.
Jean Taddie loves chasing butterflies with camera in hand. She has frequently spoken about the health benefits of nature on behalf of the North Central Ohio Land Conservancy, where she served as Director for 2 years. Jean currently is the 6thWard Councilwoman, representing residents who live on the east side of Mansfield. Her previous experience includes 9 years in community development with NECIC and 10 years teaching communications and public speaking.
Jean has lived in Mansfield for 22 years. She and her partner John Precup enjoy getting out in nature whenever possible.
An eager, young and wide-eyed interior design student, I sat through class after class digesting hours of design principles, color theory, space planning, human factors, the history of textiles and psychology of design; learning to delineate good vs. bad design (yes, there is a difference!); and identifying best practices in an effort to create environments for future clients that would speak to the core of their personalities and enhance the aesthetic quality of their day-to-day lives. The Frank Lloyd Wright lover in me was completely engaged. I worshipped Architectural Digest and Interior Design magazine and dreamed of being a featured designer. I loved a good DIY, thrift-shopping, and accepted any repurposing challenge. I was one of those college students who actually liked to go to class. A 20-minute walk in Downtown Pittsburgh at 7am? Sign me up. Gothic architecture against the modernity of a well-planned city with a design-centric vibe spoke to me; was—and still is—balm to my soul. As my parents sent me off to college, I can only assume their greatest relief was no longer coming home from a weekend trip to a dismantled family room, half-removed wallpaper in the bathroom, or constantly rearranged furniture.
It wasn’t glamorous, but I loved it
As the not-so-glamorous days of hand-drafting and model building (read: chipped manicures and lots of band-aids) drew to a close, I had developed such a love for human-centered design and the initial phases of that sort of work—development, schematics, specification—which lends itself well to commercial interior design. I knew, however, in my heart of hearts that my passion was working with residential clients. I spent my childhood drafting floor plans and redecorating my bedroom way too often. For me, there’s something deeply gratifying about creating an intimate space for clients that is both lived in and loved.
I’ve been fortunate to work on projects with some truly dynamic homeowners and, admittedly, am still equally as fulfilled spending my days immersed in the same principles and theories as in my earlier days. Equally left- and right-brained, I find solstice with everything in its beautiful little place. After all, the end goal for every project of my professional career is to make spaces and environments look and function in beautiful tandem. In fact, until a few years ago, I’d tell you it was that very work—my design of a space, my professional contribution—that left my clients with a beautiful, inviting home.
But then I became a mom.
Overnight it seemed, all those beautiful spaces—living rooms, kitchens, baths and bedrooms—the ones I designed for my clients and the ones I designed for my own home, they were all suddenly filled with baby gear clutter, and became the antithesis of a well-designed space. I quickly learned that laundry multiplied so fast it became a semi-permanent design staple, covering all the beautiful hardwood floors and woven rugs I loved so much. Somehow everything was eternally sticky, and all my thoughtful organization was undone after each and every 10-minute shower. (After 8 years of motherhood, this is still a phenomenon I’m trying to wrap my head around.) Our once beautifully-curated home was all-at-once an absolute mess.
With each passing year, that mess evolved into sweet memories I wouldn’t trade for the world: our flour-covered kitchen where I, with my sweet little toddler and her bouncing blonde curls baked our first cut-out cookies; the oil pastel stain on my favorite upholstered chair where my daughter so graciously demonstrated her newly-acquired art skills; the worn out spot on my favorite throw pillow that held both of our heads as we napped together… these were the beautiful design elements I have never been able to replicate or deliver for my clients; the elements that truly define beauty within a home.
I learned there is beauty in the mess
Looking back, I have such an appreciation for my parents as they navigated parenthood and saw beauty in the mess of my childhood. I’m grateful for the opportunity to see the same in my home with my two children, and that I am able to connect with my clients in a way that is far more mindful, aware, and humble than before I was a mom. I can design and deliver a well-curated space within any four walls, but the true beauty comes from the life, mess, and memories made within, and that’s something you can’t sketch on paper.
Mom and Dad, if you’re reading: the education I received during my first few years of motherhood is by far and away more valuable and meaningful than the post-secondary education we’re still paying for. Above all, I’m grateful you appreciate that, too. All in the name of a beautiful home, right?