“Going to the woods is going home.”
John Muir- (or at least attributed to Muir on the card my sister just sent me).
I could try to confirm, but I don’t care so much about who said it, as I do about what the words mean and the interesting timing by which they showed up in front of me.
I went for a long walk yesterday afternoon when the rain finally let up and was no longer pouring down. I put rubber boats on, my mom’s old rain coat and with my exuberant pal Sam, headed across the road and into a bit of wild land. It was as always, a satisfying experience and I wanted to write about the importance of connecting with nature and wild places. After I struggled to put down in this blog, what I was feeling while walking through rain drenched long grasses, finding a couple of ripe raspberries and picking a great bouquet of wild flowers, I opened a card that showed up in the afternoon from Linda, my big sister who lives in the state where we were born, Wisconsin. It was incredible to see a peaceful shot of canoes on still water with Muir’s spot-on quote along the shoreline. Seven words that perfectly described what I noodled around with for more than 1500. Below is an edited version of what I first put down as I tried to rely what Muir said in under 10.
One of the beautiful things about Anchorage, and believe me there are plenty of un-beautiful things about Anchorage, especially for women, but I’ll save that discussion for a day in early December when the light is at it’s stingiest and my thoughts are also a bit dark.
It’s July, which is a glorious thing in Alaska, even in the city. Everything is lush and growing, fish are being caught and berries are starting to ripen. What’s not to like? So, I’m not here to foul up the summer groove.
Fireweed and raindrops
Quite the opposite. I’m thinking about wild places right now and how important I believe they are for everyone. And that’s one of the beautiful things about Anchorage. You can drive to complete wilderness within 20 minutes, but even if you don’t have a car or gas money, you can walk to little patches of it from nearly anywhere in the city.
Living in the middle of the urban tidal wash for 15 years now, has not diminished my love of roaming through areas that never see a mower or winding through mossy trees, listening to the melody in a stream bed or the feeling that comes with the clear, beautiful composition of a bird’s song. Those notes, like turning a key in your solar plexus, opening a lock that releases you on some primal level. I suppose that’s what ‘opening a chakra’ means. I have experienced that gentle and stress relieving feeling many times and I know those of you who also have, know exactly what I’m talking about. Those of you, who have not, need to.
We’re not that far removed from our relatives who made their living completely from the land, and many people in Alaska still do. But in the city, it’s easy to get disconnected from that which I would argue, we really need. We need wilderness, even in small bits and so do our kids. I used to run around the woods with my boys a lot when they were little. We’d camp, fish, pick berries, hunt and just spend time hiking around, musing over cool looking bugs or rocks. Anyone who knows me very well, knows I’m a rock fanatic.
There is something that is fed within us when we spend time plugged in to that, which really matters and unplugged from that which does not. Even with the backdrop of the near constant swoosh of traffic in Anchorage, (I tell myself it’s just the surf, not streaming traffic, just ocean waves); there are places you can dip into for a quick recharge of your chakra batteries. My mom used to say it was good to stretch out on the ground, because your own electrical current connects with the magnetic force of the earth and that she said, is really good for us.
I was a know-it-all punk when I was younger, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I understand how smart my mom was. If she said it, you can believe it. She wasn’t selling anything, just extolling the virtue that as creatures of the planet we sprang from, we need to connect back to it whenever we can.
Many years before I moved to Anchorage, when I was still a very rural person, I visited a friend who lived in the East Village of New York city. What struck me was the constant noise; it would never be quiet there, even at 4 am. You would never hear a cricket at night or a bumblebee’s drone in the afternoon. At night there was a reddish glow, you could never see the stars. The corker was the day I walked around the neighborhood alone and passed a school. The outside area where those schoolyard instruments of mayhem and many a bonked head; the swing sets and monkey bars were situated, was an asphalt horror. There was not a single inch of this so-called playground where a child could feel grass or even the ground. It struck me that entire generations could grow up here and never feel the actual soil with their toes or hear a songbird. It was a shocking and sad thought for me. How can a kid know the importance of taking care of where we live, if he or she can’t really ever connect with it? I thought about taking my boys to the local swimming hole back home or the fun I’d had as a kid running around at night with a flashlight and a bunch of other kids, snatching up slippery, fat night crawlers so we could ride our bikes to the Willow river the next day and catch a mess of fish.
Central Park is a beautiful place and I’m really glad that people realized in the early days of the city, how important a wild place would be to future generations, but I didn’t see any kids with fishing poles balanced across their bike handle bars and I know a lot of children growing up there, likely never get to spend time squishing mud between their toes in that highly regulated space.
Anchorage offers these opportunities even in the heart of the city. I live in Airport Heights, what I call the western edge of east Anchorage and I can easily walk to creeks, streams and trees. There are wild berries to discover, I found tundra tea the other day and wild rose hips, fireweed and currents for jelly are in these places. I can take one of my numerous medicine plant books out and find a lot of good things growing in these wonderful spots.
Try taking a little kid (your own please or with the permission of a parent, don’t think I’m advocating that you should just grab a random kid and head off into the trees. No, I’m not!), so they can roam and get tangled in long grass after a rain, let them fall and roll around, pick some weedy wild blooms to put in a jar at home, pick a handful of sweet and sour berries to delight in. Here is a free and valuable lesson about the wonders and bounty of the earth we live on.
As Sam and I hiked around, I met a young girl and her little brother. They were riding their bikes on the muddy trails after an afternoon of heavy rain. They both liked Sam and said he sure looked big compared to their little dog at home. A Chihuahua. We laughed about the difference. Big sister said her mom grew up in Barrow and her family had dogs for mushing so she grew up with big dogs, but now they live in the city, so they have a little one. Not an unwise decision since having a 100-pound lab is kind of a challenge at times. The little brother said he got lots of exercise riding his bike and his legs were a little tired. I told him bike riding was a good thing to do, out here in this spot where there are winding trails through trees and up and down small hills. A great place to play for a kid, especially I told them, since they were together so they could watch out for each other out here away from their back yard. They both nodded quietly, as if maybe they’d been preached to about that very thing, staying together. A smart mom knows it’s good for a kid to play, explore and use their imagination, but in the city, you have to be careful. In the country, you look out for bears, in the city, you look out for other predators. I still think kids should play in these wild spots, but they just shouldn’t do it alone.
As I walked toward home with a muddy, happy dog, I saw an old lady, stooped shouldered and walking carefully through the long grass. She had a small grocery bag and was slowly moving through the same little wild place I’d just emerged from. She was scanning the ground, looking for treasures, maybe she knew which wild mushrooms could be taken home and eaten, maybe she was after some of the Labrador tea, whatever she was hunting, it struck me as fitting, that she was carrying a grocery sack. Her confidence told me that she would not go home empty handed.
Get out there and find a bit of wild if you’re an urban dweller like I am. Otherwise the city wears you down. When my internal batteries get so low that even the little woods across the highway from me doesn’t do it, then I need to get out of the city and into the real wilderness, where the quiet is so intense after the weary, constant barrage of traffic, sirens and construction noise, that your ears ring in the silence.
I need it. You do too.
Take a little kid with you; let them wander on a path made by a moose instead of a bulldozer and paver, show them spider webs with dew clinging to the delicate strands. Pick a bouquet of wild grass and flowers.
Take a bag and pick up a little trash, without dwelling on the insensitivity of those who dropped it. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do. The little kid will learn that we all have to help out, even beyond our own impact, because we always hope that those who carelessly toss, will someday come to understand why you don’t want to pollute the place where your food and your spiritual sustenance comes from. We have to believe others will come to see the wisdom in that and decide to do better themselves. Maybe when they’re out walking, feeling that gentle stirring in their chest at the beauty of a bird’s song. Maybe when they see you and the kid picking up someone else’s sad signs of connection lost.