“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks” - John Muir
If you called me a tree hugger, you would be correct. I literally hugged a giant tree in California’s Redwood Forest last week. Not just a quick hug for a photo op, I mean a long, genuine hug as I tried to express my love and respect for the ancient and wise giant.
This may sound like silly hippie talk to you, but it is basic science to me. Spending time in a natural environment has a profound effect on me and my mental state. Despite our technology and concrete jungles, humans inseparably ARE nature. We need oxygen and sunlight for survival, and we have the same basic desires for food and a mate. Like every living thing in the natural world, we are born, we live, and then we die. From a little field mouse to a millennia-old redwood, we are bound by the laws of nature.
I even consider the concrete and steel world we humans live in today as part of this natural process. One clever monkey used a rock to crack open a nut, then an even more clever and developed monkey realised metal cracked nuts open far more easily. Eventually, some very clever and developed monkeys created hydraulic hoists and high powered heavy machinery. Now we have towns and cities where finding food and a mate is so convenient we have the freedom to pursue hobbies and interests, which continues the evolutionary process. Slowly though, we are learning that even all this “progress” will be pointless if it comes at the cost of our clean air and drinking water.
If this conflicts with your beliefs in terms of human history, then you may still agree with me that this whole natural world I speak of is connected through one underlying energy. You can call it “Life”, “Te Atua”, “God”, “Allah” or “Krishna”, but I think we are all describing the same thing. There is ‘something’ that keeps my heart beating and the trees growing toward the sun without ever having to think about it, and the strongest evidence of this can be found by immersing yourself in a natural environment - the more undisturbed and wild the better.
The redwood grandmama I was hugging is part of an old-growth forest, which means so much more than just the fact that nobody went cutting down trees to build boats and houses. It means the roots of all of the trees are literally connected underground. The forest grows from ‘humus’, which is not a delicious chickpea-based dip, but the organic matter found in soil as a result of unobstructed decomposition. Tiny microorganisms feed on the dead and decaying leaves and plant matter, and turn it into nutrient-rich soil that is light and uncompacted, which allows tree roots and fungus to spread freely beneath the surface of the forest floor. The trees are therefore connected underground, and share information and communicate about things like the changing seasons or incoming bug attacks.
Some scientists have even observed that in these undisturbed old-growth forests, all of the trees are producing the same amount of glucose. The production of glucose relies on photosynthesis in the leaves, and therefore you would think the more leaves the tree has or more sunlight it gets, the more glucose it would produce, right? Wrong. The trees understand that what is good for their neighbours is good for them, and vice versa, so they share their energy to ensure the whole forest is equally resilient to the harsh wild environment.
While I cannot physically attach to the roots of the trees, just walking in the woods and breathing the fresh air is enough to remind I am a part of something more. The trees tell me to relax, and reassure me that not only do I not need to control everything, there is only so much we can control. I have no idea where I go when I sleep, but I do it every day. I do not recall consciously choosing to enter the sperm race, but that worked out alright too. I do not need to see the wind to know it’s there, nor do I need to fully understand where my thoughts come from in order to turn them into words and actions. I instead take solace in the simple fact that I am nature and nature is me. When my head is full of doubt and negativity, I try to remind myself that it is a natural reaction to my experiences. I may not enjoy it, but it is as real as the wind, and soon will blow through.
In the meantime, I need to hunker down and wait out the storm. Some times are worse than others, so it helps if I have friends and family I can reach out to to keep me rooted. It is equally important I reach out to others in their time of need, not just because it is the good and decent thing to do, but because it strengthens our bonds and makes us resilient to the pressures and struggles of the sometimes harsh world we live in today. Trying to understand other people’s situations helps me to understand mine, and the more I understand my own situation, the more I can help others. I did not come up with this, the trees taught me this:
“I laid my hand on a thick ridge of bark on one of the grandmamas. She told me how the dry, rough bark, though it is what you see, is not her. That is her coat to protect her from the world. Nor is she her branches, they simply provide sustenance from the sun. She is defined by her cambium and roots. The cambium is her heart and highway that sends nutrients and energy around her body. Her roots are her nervous system, and she thinks and feels by extending them deep and wide to connect and talk with the rest of her family. They direct each other to water and warn against bug attacks. The forest is not just alive, but dynamic, and you can see and feel it” - excerpt from my personal journal, 30/9/17.
So whether you are facing a storm or a sunny clear day, I urge you to reach out and connect. Go for a walk in the forest or by a body of water. Somewhere there is a natural environment with life in it. It does not have to be a long walk, nor does it need to be an old growth forest (though if you live in New Zealand, you are probably not far from one. The Waitakere Ranges is one of the most unique and rare forests in the whole world, and that’s 45min from downtown Auckland). Whether it is alone or with a friend, put your phone in airplane mode, and go and reconnect. You might just find something you did not know you were looking for, and sharing it with a friend might just raise them up higher than either of you thought possible.