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August 1, 2017

How the Forest Changed Me: Nature Bathing Exposed.

My very first solo hike happened on hill in Corvallis, Oregon.

I had just moved there from a mid-sized city on the East Coast. I moved there to be close to the forest. Woods surrounded our town—but a simple walk or bike-ride away, and you could find a hiking trail.

The woods drew me to Oregon—but I hadn’t really set foot in them, solo, just yet.

Today was the day: I remember locking my bike up and taking my first steps up the gravelly, sparsely tree-lined, unknown path, just off of a busy road. It looked so pleasant—the looming pines at the top of the hill beckoning me forth with their evergreen song from the road below.

Suddenly, after about 10 steps on the trail, a fear rose up inside of me. It was a child-like fear—the fear that I’d gone too far down the block, and my mother would be worried about me. The fear that wild animals I didn’t know existed might be lurking deeper in the brush, yellow eyes ablaze, nostrils flaring at the sweet smell of sweat trailing behind me. The fear that those wild animals might be the coyotes I heard howling at night from my neighborhood, not so far away.

It suddenly felt—so quiet. As I walked on farther—on a path I had no map for (my housemate had told me it was a straight loop, as long as I stayed on the trail)—the zooms of the cars began to disappear. There was a silence that somehow haunted me; the empty sound of no man-made noise.

It was just me and the looming forest ahead. Just the sound of my hiking shoes on the dirt-lined trail. Just my breath expanding and contracting into the dry heat-filled air. Suddenly, the sun rays disappeared, and the green of the forest enveloped my shivering soul.

What was I scared of?

I remember how the barely there sound of the wind in the trees made me quiver. I began to sing Beatles songs aloud to myself, which felt rather ludicrous at the time. But singing aloud was something my siblings and I had done on family camping trips when we went on hiking adventures together. Through “Yellow Submarine,” I tried to summon that familiar family energy, because a girl alone in the woods—well, a woman, really—felt heavy and foreign to my nervous, uncomfortable-in-her-skin self in this unknown place.

Why did the woods bring out my inner child? And why did I stop her from letting go and playing?

I remember that as I walked on, the sound of my voice lost its power. Something overtook me. The trees got bigger—the forest ground softer, and the air otherworldly. A magic seemed to massage my spirit, and I stopped and sat on a tree log and looked around.

What I saw, surprised me. I engaged with the surroundings in a way I had never done before. I smelled the glorious earthy smells of the leaves in the breeze—the fungi at my feet and the wildflowers sprouting up in patches where the sun peeked in. I gazed with an artist’s eye, appreciating the colors, the textures, the asymmetry of the trees, fallen and standing tall, all around me like a kingdom.  

There—on that fallen trunk, half rotting, filled with ants and moss—I fell into the mystery of the forest. There, on that fallen trunk, I was presented with magic—the magic of nature bathing in all its simple, splendidand oxygenating glory. I was rejuvenated. My mind suddenly blank. My heart expanding beyond the little walls of my chest. My body, loosening up.

When I stood up, time seemed to disappear. I walked at a slow and mindful pace, soaking in the rest of the trail. I noticed so much wildlife—frogs, turtles, and a variety of birds as I approached a swampy area. I noticed the quietness of my presence did not affect them. I noticed the wildlife noticed me and accepted me, as I accepted them. Together, we shared space, as I walked slowly on.

When I arrived back to my bike, which was locked to a small tree at the start of the path, I felt a sense of wholeness I didn’t know existed. I looked up at the path I started from, and I smiled. That little girl—I remembered her. I felt compassion for her timidness and forgave her for her distrust. That start of the trail self was necessary. “Without my singing-the-Beatles self, I would not have known the blessings soaking in the forest with all that my senses could bestow.”

I share this story, because since that day, over 10 years ago, I have gone on many hikes with many lovely humans. Most of my shared hikes are not remembered for their scenery as much as they are for the company. And now, I must go solo, always. If I go with another, I want to be silent—not for myself, as much as for the forest.

Why? The forest—it literally bows to us and opens up its magic when we surrender our egos to it. Walking down a trail talking loudly with a friend—talking about something other than the surroundings themselves—well, that’s almost a sacrilege.

Something opens up, when you let the forest open to you. Like a yoga pose—you surrender to it. And in the surrender, you just might lose the self you had been clinging to so tightly. Losing that self might just be the biggest blessing you’ve experienced since you set foot on the head of the trail.

The woods, and nature itself, holds a magic—a magic that conjures up the stillness of the soul. Any soul can experience it. It takes no practice—only a willingness to set foot on the earth. The earth—it’s got us from there.

 

~

Author: Sarah Lamb
Image: Flickr/lion heart vintage

Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy editor: Leah Sugerman
Social editor: Danielle Beutell

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