Awe in Nature

Going through life, minding your own business, you don’t always know why something pulls you, calls to you, why you feel compelled to keep pursuing it. You find it impossible to articulate the whyfor. You just know, deep in your bones, that you feel better, healed even, when you do it, heeding the call.

For me, moving through nature is the “it,” the forest is that “something” pulling.

I’ve loved playing in the woods since earliest memory.

My body has always preferred movement. Childhood games of hide and seek and kick the can morphed into adult athletic activities, especially those I can do outside, in forests, on my own with little fuss: running, hiking, cycling, xc skiing.

True happiness – awe – arrives when I combine nature and movement. Even better if my dogs can share in, and contribute to, the activity and my sense of awe.

dogs on snowy trail
Enjoying nature’s surprise of fresh snow in June.

I’ve been privileged to move through some jaw-dropping awe-inspiring places: running in the Grand Canyon, around Mt. Rainier, along the Inca Trail; kayaking the Middle Fork of the Salmon River; backcountry skiing in the Cascades and Rockies; rock climbing in Yosemite; hiking in Banff and Yoho; xc skiing in Yellowstone and Glacier; cycling in Jasper.

While being in those magical places, and for a long time after, I felt…good. Happy. Content. Whole.

That sense of contentedness eventually fades, though. So I keep seeking, scratching an ever-present itch. I discovered that a sense of awe is present even when I’m doing what is, for me, routine: running with my dogs along a trail in the forest near my house.

dogs running down trail
Chasing the dogs down a mountain trail.

Yes, finding awe in nature heals. I can’t tell you how, but I know it’s true.

Researchers are working to hone in on the why and how awe in nature heals us, but they know there is a definite link. People find awe in many things – a beautiful painting or piece of music, a newborn, the stars on a clear night – but researchers are finding that it’s the special awe inspired by nature that provides healing.

As this year and decade come to a close, reflecting back, I see that those times when I seemed almost obsessed with getting out into the forest every day were times I needed self-care and healing. I would chastise myself for blowing off obligations, procrastinating on projects, avoiding social connections. But my mind and body knew I needed to be awed by nature to regain my equilibrium.

mountain cairn

I just didn’t know exactly what caused my wounds, what exactly needed healing.

Now I do. This past year – 2019 – has been especially difficult and emotionally trying. I’ve been grappling with some exceedingly challenging family dynamics, with feelings stuffed down deep for decades that erupted to the surface when my narcissistic mother passed away in May. Suddenly, in the drama she purposefully created surrounding that event, so much made sense. I’ve been an unwilling passenger on an emotional rollercoaster for the past six months – for all of my life, actually – and now, finally sick of it, I’m getting off. I need to stop going in circles, a queasy feeling of guilt and anger in my gut.

With that goal in mind, I began reading, researching, learning and ultimately adjusting my understanding of past events.

I’m not alone, I’m not broken, and most importantly, I am good enough.

Throughout those darkest months I kept going into the forest with my dogs, or for a simple walk down a country lane, daily if possible. I let the dogs love me unconditionally and I let nature wrap me in her healing sense of awe.

Yet I continued trying to stuff my feelings because they’re so uncomfortable. It’s also how I was raised, to never express my feelings. I slept poorly, had haunted dreams. Give it time, I told myself. Time heals all wounds.

Maybe. The universe was sending me other ideas, however.

A dear friend, the one person I’ve shared some of these struggles with, someone who has had her own challenges with loss this year, mentioned a concept called expressive writing that she has found helpful. As a writer I can see the sense and benefit of it.

Early in November – NaNoWriMo month, when I had the less-than-brilliant idea of wrestling with my “mommy issues” in fiction – I watched a video of various authors giving writing advice. I believe it was Anne Rice who said, “Go where the pain is.”

Like a stab in the heart, that got my attention. I instantly knew that was the key to my ability to move on. A fictional account wouldn’t work. I had to be real.

I then dusted off Anne Lamott’s bird by bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, probably the best book on writing I’ve read and reread. Parts that resonated with me when I first read the book in 2003 practically shout at me now.

In a late chapter titled Finding Your Voice, Lamott ponders writing about difficult things. When people let their monsters out for a little onstage interview, it turns out that we’ve all done or thought the same things, that this is our lot, our condition. We don’t end up with a brand on our forehead. Instead, we compare notes. We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues. You can’t do this without discovering your own true voice, and you can’t find your true voice and peer behind the door and report honestly and clearly to us if your parents are reading over your shoulder. They are probably the ones who told you not to open that door in the first place. You can tell if they’re there because a small voice will say, “Oh, whoops, don’t say that, that’s a secret,…”

…Write as if your parents are dead. …Truth seems to want expression. Unacknowledged truth saps your energy and keeps you and your characters wired and delusional. But when you open the closet door and let what was inside out, you can get a rush of liberation and even joy.

The final paragraph of that chapter – I underlined all of these bits years ago – drives the point home: But you can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in—then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.

Easier said than done, of course. Every day, though, I find a little more courage and strength to write about the “anger and damage and grief” as I’m moving through the forest, awestruck. This post is a baby step.

My new year’s resolution: that 2020 is the year I finally find home.

spider web with snow
There’s resilience and strength even in a delicate spider web.

Feature photo: A fiery September sunset.

20 thoughts on “Awe in Nature”

  1. Your daily jaunts through the snow with your pups would rank as a once in a lifetime experience that most people would remember for years (like the Inca Trail is for you).

    When I “looked behind the mask” (that’s my metaphor instead of behind the door), it took a while for productive writing to start coming out. Because it was all something I avoided thinking about, I didn’t even have the vocabulary to ‘voice’ what was hidden there. But given time, it all *wants* to come out. It just needs a channel to pass through. My experience anyway.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for this insight, Jeff. There’s such tension between wanting to write about her narcissism, using the written word to work through it all, yet feeling…shame in doing so? Guilt? That it’s taboo, a daughter writing about a broken mother-daughter relationship in a culture that puts that on the highest pedestal? But I’m finding comfort reading the accounts of others, so it’s more than simply airing dirty laundry.
      I hadn’t thought of it this way until reading your comment, but I supposed I’ve been wearing a mask most of my life, pretending to be the culturally approved daughter, part of the “perfect” family my mother always insisted we must be. And even after cutting ties with her ten years ago, I was still hiding behind a “I’m fine, I’m happy” mask when nothing was further from the truth.
      I don’t like wearing masks. Time to wash it off, however long that takes.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Best wishes on your journey. ❤

    " feelings stuffed down deep for decades that erupted to the surface when my narcissistic mother passed away in May. Suddenly, in the drama she purposefully created surrounding that event, so much made sense." What you have written here reminds me of my experience after my mom died in 1996.

    My Aunt Jo (my mom's sister) sat me down one night and talked to me. As she talked, I heard the truth of my own experience. Things I KNEW had happened but which my mom in her staggering ability to gaslight, convinced me hadn't happened. I can't think of it now without a pretty big emotional reaction. I needed therapy (I had an involuntary urge to crash into bridge abutments on the freeway), and I still had an alcoholic brother (an extension of the witch who was our mother) to deal with.

    It took a long time and I made a lot of mistakes on the way. I'd say I finally got it in 2012, two years after my bro died. It was a long journey of learning to validate my impressions and recognize my emotions and use them as the source of knowledge they actually are.

    One of the funny parts was in 2000 or so when I was in Billings visiting Aunt Jo and we drove past the cemetery where my mom was interred. "You want to go see your mom?" she asked then kind of giggled and said, "No, I guess not."

    "God no," I said.

    Like you (it seems) my refuge from the time I was small was outside, nature, woods, trees, wind, weather. Things would go south in the house, and I was out the door, running, preferably. I still hate that woman, but I'm not invested in that hatred.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Martha.
      You were lucky indeed to have Aunt Jo.
      I’m learning that one of the tricks of narcissistic mothers is to convince the rest of the family that their daughter is the “bad” one, the unloving one, for setting boundaries. My mother was mostly successful at this; I have one sister-in-law who gets it and supports me. You end questioning yourself (oh god, the gaslighting!), everything about your past, and feel crazy because no one else seems to see what happened, why you feel as you do or why you cut ties. I finally just accepted that my brothers had a different mother than I did and it’s not my job to convince them of my experience if they don’t want to hear it.
      When I look back, my first clue should have been that my mother couldn’t connect with our pets. Never interacted with them. Ever. We had dogs – and I, eventually, a cat – because my father insisted. One dog tried so, so hard to get love from my mother; it was heartbreaking to watch. I now know to not trust anyone who has no empathy for animals because they likely won’t have any for people, either.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hiking is a unique experience. On one hand, nothing makes you feel so insignificant as the vastness of nature. The mountains and the bears don’t care about you nor do the winter snow or the summer sun. You are no more than a buzzing gnat. There is no malice in the wild but if you screw up badly or just get a bad die roll, you are dead. That sense of insignificance heals me.

    Squirrels and deer don’t care about my lack of fine motor skills (or sometimes clothing. 😉 )
    At the same time, the slow but steady pace reliably crosses large distances thru that uncaring nature. One starts out with a sense of purpose and finishes with a sense of accomplishment. The key is to set personally appropriate goals and not compare yourself to others. There will always be faster and slower people than you so comparison leads to vanity or a sense of inadequacy.

    Along the way, one is surrounded by beauty. I think this beauty is primordial in nature. It is the same sense of beauty that we share with the Paleolithic humans who wandered out of Africa 100,000 years ago. If you develop your sense of beauty, every step in nature is full of it. Sadly, people can be surrounded by beauty and never see it.

    I’ve found that once I could look at past difficulties as just rocks on the road most of the sting was gone. I had to depersonalize it. The pain lay in my ascribing moral culpability for things that were out of my control. Words like fault and guilt colored my perception of events. Words like broken and failure and inadequate were my self descriptors.

    Today I just see them as rocks in my path. Encountering a landslide on my trail doesn’t make me feel guilty or ashamed or inadequate. I had no more control over who my mother was or how my Asperger’s was expressed or when/where I grew up than I do on a landslide on the trail up ahead or a rainy day. At the time, that level of awareness wasn’t available to me.

    I try to view current and future crises in the same way. I don’t always succeed. As I age, anxiety is sneaking back into my life.

    It was what it was. I am what I am. Accept the past leave it behind. Fixating on wanting it all to be different is a losing proposition. Let the past be water under the bridge because damming it up only creates a swamp.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fred, your rocks on the road and landslide metaphors are lovely, and perfect; thank you. I’ve always found that after the first mile or so on any trail, lingering negative thoughts and emotions simply leave; they can’t complete with the natural beauty around me and the rhythm of my breathing and footfalls bringing a sort of meditative state. In the past couple of years I’ve become a big fan of the philosophy of Stoicism with its emphasis on living each day as if it were your last, and focusing only on what you can control (mostly, your reactions to events), letting the rest go. It takes practice, but that’s one of the benefits aging grants us – lots of practice.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good baby step. It is amazing how long we hold on to “stuff”. I made certain decisions to please my father, mother or whomever. It didn’t make a lick of sense nor made a difference. You have the gift of writing. Let it all out.
    BTW I have your emails flagged so they go into a special folder so I can read them when I make the time. They aren’t going into a black hole never to be read. You are appreciated and I really like the photos too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great progress! I too had to take baby steps to begin to approach healing in my self. I ended up 2200 mile away with only a backpack and a new sense of purpose and self value. 20 years later I had to go through the whole process you described when it was time to write my story. Actually through me into a deep depression, but am working through it still with great life partners. Cheers.


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