- Lisa McMichael
Stepping Into Nature
It was perfect synergy when my friend asked if my daughter and I would like to accompany him on a trip to the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. I had just been reading about the health promoting impact of nature on physical and mental health. While I have always loved being in nature, it was stunning to learn the science behind the beneficial impact of nature on one’s physical and emotional health.
Barely a month before our trip, I had experienced strange physical symptoms and unmanageable fatigue. Remnants of the symptoms along with months of inactivity left me questioning my physical capacity to hike. So we cancelled a possible overnight backpacking trip and decided to do daily hikes instead. My body ached for healing.
We drove across endless acres of corn and soybean fields, watching the terrain change into semi-arid, rolling land dotted by sage brush and pines reaching into a deep blue sky. Hills morphed into mountain ranges in the distance with fields of rock, pine, and sagebrush bordering the road. We continued to gain elevation, coming into scoured red and tan sandstone next to deep gorges and rivers formed by the run off of the Tetons. At 8,000 feet we began to descend from a long bed of glacial till, the strewn rocks stranded by the recession of the glacier. We mounted a hill blocking horizon visibility. As we reached the summit and began descending, we saw the Tetons. They appeared suddenly as if nature had performed a magic trick, majestically rising on the horizon and reaching to the clouds with wisps of snow clinging to the peaks. I involuntarily sucked in my breath as my eyes soaked in the sheer grandeur of the mountains. I felt awestruck and excited with a tremor of intimidation.
My daughter and I rented kayaks and glided through the crystal clear waters of String Lake which was cradled by the bold beauty of the mountains on one side and surrounded on the other sides by pungent pines. As our paddles sliced into the water, the visible bottom revealed rounded stones whose erosion recorded eons of unseen natural history. Merganser ducks, with a spray of brown feathers behind their heads, reconciled our intrusion by swimming alongside our kayaks as if to partner on our excursion. Shiny scaled trout effortlessly glided through the water in groups of three or four. At the end of the lake, we came upon the efforts of the engineering beaver -- a small pile of logs that formed a rounded mound. We had hoped to see the beaver in action, but she was not to be discovered. As I drank in the beauty of my surroundings, I felt as though all my senses were being fed an elixir of healing.
Our first hike began by clamoring into a tram, nicknamed Big Red, with a capacity of 100 people and a cable length of over four miles with a panoramic view of the Teton valley, including the circuitous Snake River. Reaching the summit of Mount Rendezvous at 10,450 feet, the wind whipped and roared relentlessly. Next to the tram was a small rectangular metal building called Corbet’s Cabin that housed the Waffle House, a place to retreat from the wind, imbibe hot drinks, and fill up on waffles.
Wanting to escape the wind, we quickly began our hike down a rocky path which soon lead to pine-protected trails and wildflowers of bright yellow, deep red, purple, and white. The air was thin, clean, and scented with a mixture of pine and freshness. Snow clad mountains were closer at our elevation, and my appreciation increased in proportion to the size of the mountainous rocks and the tenacity of the inhabitants and flora.
The second hike was in Cascade Canyon and followed a rushing stream hurling down the mountainside. The stream was continually fed from the melted snow that we could see collecting and falling from the mountain top. Abundant game were drawn to the water; in the distance across the stream, a moose stripped willow trees, snakes slithered among the rocks, fuzzy pikas scampered across the path, and a marmot sat on a rock sounding a warning alarm that we were in her territory. Nearing the end of the trail, we saw a mother black bear and her cub perched above the trail scraping a log with sharp, long claws to draw out crawling bugs for dinner.
How did the immersion in the Tetons benefit me? It met an inner craving buried so far deep beneath schedule demands and stress that I scarcely knew it existed. It was a wonderland of serenity and unadulterated beauty. I felt my rightful place in the space where humans meet nature; I was dwarfed by the magnitude of the mountains and enveloped in the beauty of the space. I felt renewed, centered, and awakened to the full nourishment that nature offers and my dependence on mother earth for my very existence.
Since returning home, I have savored and craved the experience -- an awakened hunger that beckons to be fulfilled again and again. I am more troubled by certain aspects of my life that are not what I desire. It is as if the total “rightness” of nature fed that desire in me – to change my life to match my goals, hopes, and dreams -- to be as “right” in my world as I can be. I grieve the loss of the natural beauty I experienced upon return to my everyday life. I vow to be less complacent and to breathe life into my dreams by gathering all the resources I can for the changes I want but have never allowed to happen.
My body wanted to linger in the healing presence of nature. I feel that absence deeply because I am now beginning to understand how significantly nature promotes renewal and change. The ebb and flow of life in nature mirrors the ebb and flow of my own life. Along with the water within every cell of my body, I am literally made of the same elemental materials as our earth. I cannot separate myself.
To explore and be nourished by nature in its many forms offers a profound path to healing and is an integral part of living a vibrant life. Go outside everyday -- even in bad weather. Let your first action be to breathe deeply of the fresh air and to say a silent "thank you!" for the opportunity. Actually look at the trees and birds when you have a chance. No need to name them. Just look with the purpose of really seeing them -- of connecting to the essence of the life within them. And notice how it feels. Hint: it will feel GREAT!