Of forests and feet

In September I left for the US for three and a half weeks. I had a number of things planned, including a visit with family & friends in PA & NY and a retreat in Vermont – all places where I spent a lot of time back when I lived in the states. For about 6 months I had been feeling rather undernourished and chalked this up to vague disappointment with the nature I was finding in the Netherlands. Or rather that I missed, more deeply with each year away, the landscape of my birth and life prior to my late 40’s.  I felt in my body a dearth, disconnection, almost like an incapacity, as if I missed a limb or eye. I came to the Netherlands three years ago for a Masters degree in fine art. When I first arrived in Utrecht I was impressed with how green it was, and how much water was a part of the landscape even in the city. I made work that used or interacted with the local landscape and its history. But over time I came to the realization that something was keeping me from feeling at home, and it was the outdoors. Everything that is green in the Netherlands–that is to say ”nature”– is planned, planted, curated. So when I first came and would comment about how much more green this city was than most cities in the US, often the Dutch person would respond kind of laughing, saying yes but we made all of it. It’s all designed, not real nature.  After a while, I began to feel what they were talking about. 

On the plane, I resolved to fill up on as much outdoor time and hiking in ‘the woods’ as possible on this trip. I wanted to remember how it feels to be in a landscape that isn’t crafted down to the last tree, shaped for an aesthetic and social vision I am only beginning to understand.

I was outdoors on trails for two hours nearly every day in Vermont while in a group retreat with a Daoist qi gong teacher I have followed for many years.  I was in upstate New York for a few days, and went hiking in the Taconics. In Pennsylvania, where I grew up, I was among the valleys of the Brandywine, Schuykill, and Delaware rivers. I visited parks I have not seen since I was a child on scouting trips–French Creek, Marsh Creek, and old family land near Chadds Ford, where our first Quaker ancestors settled. One thing that has always been clear to me is that the foundation of who I am today was influenced by the hours and hours I spent alone on imaginary adventures in the woods near my house. Living in the densest country in Europe by population, finding solitude in nature is relatively impossible.

The moment I first stepped into Hubbard Park in Montpelier Vermont, I felt it. I was barely 20 steps off the parking lot but had to sit down, the feeling was so palpable. In the distance, I could hear the voices of children with their parents somewhere else in the park, a chainsaw a mile away, but there were birds chirping–birds I have not heard for a while, and the sound of the breeze as it moved the tops of the trees, and that soft dry tinkling as the yellow leaves, nudged free, fell slowly through the branches and touched their companions on the forest floor. And other ambient sounds too subtle to identify, yet so essential. The contrast, at least as I perceived it at that moment, was that a forest here was the live symphony to the phone-speaker quality of a nature walk in the Netherlands. The vividness of a live symphony I felt not just in the ears but the whole body – an experience of not just the senses but of a vital energy that connects all things.

While I was with my Qi Gong teacher, I lamented that this qi energy which was so easy to connect with in Vermont was something I could not feel in the Netherlands. Her reaction was sharp (as was typical) when she said to me–“it’s the same sky, the same earth.” It’s true, I thought. So the obstacle is probably in my mind. I resolved to make an effort when I returned to the Netherlands to spend more time exploring the energy of nature preserves, woods, and places where one can walk in the landscape, and perhaps if not find solitude, at least find a connection.

This is the beginning of an evolving journal of field notes from these excursions.

Wandel 1: Driebergen to Austerlitz (6km) through the Bornia and Heidesteinreserves. October 16 2019.

idea/purpose: seeking wooded trails and hilly (ish) terrain

route found via: NS Wandelroutes

discoveries:

This is in the middle of the Utrechtse Heuvelrug (literally “hilly back,” the word heuvelrug translates to ridge in English). These hills to the east of the city are remains of the last ice age – glacial moraine covered in forest, heath and and sand dunes like what you would find in Cape Cod or eastern Long Island. Except that the ocean is no longer close by.  Beyond the wide straight routes picked by NS, there are narrow trails and some climbing and descending around the dunes. I chose to take these instead of the plan route. Sometimes I came across places where narrow paths criss-cross a needle-covered hill under a large pine or thick moss with etched lines that meander here and there – animal trails engraving a web in the terrain. Deep in the walk was a nice secluded part with high pine and cypress curtaining off more open areas, though one never leaves the sound of the highway behind (A12) – it’s never more than 1km away on this route.

Was there just past the blooming of the heath, which must have been spectacular a week ago.  It’s Wednesday so only occasional others encountered; a pair of serious bird watchers (and somewhere above us, a bird call I didn’t recognize), and a couple of mountain bikers in that part of the hike.

The mountain bike trail (Zeist) is single-track through thick woods, and my favorite part of the route, near Austerlitz.

 I ended the walk in Austerlitz but it continues to Maarn (another 8km) – another day.

moments:

1. was taking an unmarked trail around a forested hill thick with pine, cypress, beech and oak, the floor covered in brilliant mosses. Came into an area that felt very secluded, a bit fairy-tale like. One could for a moment imagine being very far from structured living.  2. twice, sheep came into the trail. Or I came into theirs. Once it was just a small flock grazing (alone it seemed) in the heath, wandering across the path through overgrown sand dunes from heath to pine. This was inside the fenced Bornia preserve. The second time, I turned left to walk along the edge of another heath with forest to my left, after experiencing that deep green place. Coming out of the woods ahead of me was what turned into a large flock of sheep with two black and white dogs herding them onto the path. The white wool hindquarters marked with yellow, green, or blue; together a kind of moving abstract spot painting. They emerged from the forest as a stream forming a thick shapeshifting mass, the only sound the gentle pitter-patter of 400 small hooves. I was heading the same direction and started to film as I walked slowly into the midst of them. It occurred to me that the dogs would not be working alone and just then felt myself watched – I turned to the left and saw a man standing at the back of the herd with a herder’s cane, in simple brown clothes, an outdoors face, an apparition of another time. I smiled and said nothing. He said nothing but smiled gently. His face open and luminous as one who spends all their time outdoors with soft creatures must look.  Behind him came a woman, another hiker, and we met glances also smiling, saying nothing. Slowly we walked side by side through the throng of soft bodies. I slowed and she moved ahead. Ordinary magic bloomed before me.

What was that feeling? Is it of something being proven true, regarded privately? A confirmation of something forgotten? A reminder of possibility perhaps—to let go of judgment, and find there is an opening to the invisible that is always accessible. A response to listening without framing and ultimately, it’s the feeling of gratitude.

Comments? Please share!

Originally published in “Field Notes” October 20 2019