How many times can you visit a place without getting bored?
I used to be a checklist kind of gal. If I visited an area once, I wanted to move onto the next. When I was an avid hiker, I didn’t want to repeat trails or summits when there were others I hadn’t climbed. Nor did I want to return to the same restaurant or cafe, again and again, or at least not until a long period of time had elapsed. Novelty was (and still is) an addiction of mine. As addictions go, it’s probably less harmful than others. Still, to constantly be in search of the new can, paradoxically, create more of the same unless we’re bringing awareness to it. If we plan trips according to a formula, even if they’re to different places, are we learning anything about ourselves? Does longing for the new prevent us from seeing what is in front of us, or within us, with fresh eyes?
Lately I’ve been going for walks in the Hapgood Wright Town Forest in Concord, MA. Even though I grew up just a few miles away, and have visited nearby Walden Pond dozens of times, I only discovered this small patch of woods in the last few weeks. With a two hour parking limit, one is not expected to linger, even though the forest has a Reflection Circle, with cut granite blocks engraved with quotations from famous thinkers and leaders, that invites contemplation. Smaller pieces of granite inscribed with Henry David Thoreau’s writings rest alongside some of the trails. During my peak bagging days, I would have pooh-poohed going for a relatively short, and mostly flat, walk in the quote-sprinkled woods (too kitschy!). Yet, I keep coming back. It’s close enough that I don’t feel the need to ration visits. And as I navigate my current life transition, I’m becoming aware that spending ample time in nature is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity. The woods are where I’m able to meet myself and process challenging emotions that, around other people or in urban environments, tend to go underground. As a Feldenkrais exercise, I’m attempting to walk the woods differently each time.
The first few visits I deliberately tried new trails, since I couldn’t cover the entire area in one go. Maybe I needed to do that to familiarize myself with the landscape and to satisfy my novelty seeker, who hates repeating herself. Since those initial forays, I’ve dismissed picking particular routes in advance in favor of showing up and, each time, allowing what grabs my attention to guide my meanderings, rather than thinking too hard about it. One day I wandered and photographed the trail blazes, plastic circles of red, yellow and blue that pointed every which way. Another time, when the sun shone brightly, I walked through the forest, out onto a road and over to a farm stand. The stretch of asphalt abutted wetlands, whose marshy surface glowed chartreuse from algae, a marvelous and unexpected sight I would have missed had I stuck to dirt trails. Recently I visited the woods on a drizzly day. The diffuse light made the fall colors come alive. Clusters of orange fungus on a tree near the entrance caught my eye. On the spot, I decided to keep a look out for mushrooms on the rest of my walk. My focus demanded that I slow down, rather than walk quickly through familiar territory, and use my eyes differently, more like search lights than headlights. Even though it was my fifth or sixth visit, it was the first time I noticed just how many varieties of fungi grew underfoot, on trees or rotting logs. Each distinct one I spotted delighted me, as if I were a child on a treasure hunt. I stooped to the damp ground and snapped photos of my discoveries, not as scientific documentation or to look up later, but to express appreciation for their colors, shapes and textures. As I happily snapped away, I heard the voice of conditioning that wanted to turn this playful exercise into something bigger or official (I “should” study and collect mushrooms! Become a forager! Blahblahblah!). It’s an old voice, one that often kills joy or tries to harness it for some recognized task or achievement because it can’t savor fun for its own sake. The photos also served to remind me of the exercise in awareness: what comes into view when we consciously direct our attention, even if the territory is supposedly familiar?
When the drizzle turned to rain, I put on my jacket and kept walking slowly, eyes sweeping the ground for mushrooms. In doing so, I came across more of Thoreau’s sayings scattered alongside the trail, some obscured by pine needles and fallen leaves, which I hadn’t noticed on previous visits. One read:
“Die and be buried who will, I mean to live here still; my nature grows ever more young, the primitive pines among.”
Perhaps that is why I keep returning to this small patch of forest, to rejuvenate my spirit, one step at a time.