I set out today on my hike with the specific intent to be slow. Sure I’ve hiked to the Butte and back in two hours countless times. But today I set out with the intention to saunter, in the spirit of Thoreau who, in his famous essay, “Walking,” traces the etymology of saunter from the Middle Ages as “idle people who roved about the country…” I wanted to be “idle” out in nature and to abandon the quest for speed and linear transit from Point A to Point B and back again in a set period of time. I wanted to open myself to wonder. And so I left home with my binoculars, thermos of tea, note pad and pen and prepared to slow down.
The day was warm and bright with dappled sunlight streaming translucent green through the new spring leaves. Soft petaled pink and white trilliums blanketed wide pockets of earth amidst giant clumps of sword ferns. As I meandered, the melodies of the Pacific Wren fluted through the air. I stopped occasionally to look for the singer, but as always, he eluded me, flitting invisibly amidst the towering evergreens.
People passed me, as those who don’t saunter do, on a schedule, on a mission to the Butte, one and a half or so miles up from here, at 2058 feet, the highest point in Eugene, Oregon. Meanwhile I continued my wander. After walking a ways on the trail, I followed a small deer path up a hill to a downed tree bathed in light to sit for a spell. There, hidden from the trail, I enjoyed a few small cups of tea while gazing out into the woods. I let my mind wander and watched the birds and tree branches riffling in the slight breeze. I witnessed the light breaking through the towering fir trees and spilling like liquid upon the leaves. There is so much to see when we slow down that we miss when going too fast or when gazing into our screens.
I’ve never felt I belong in this era. My nervous system isn’t up to the job of fending off the relentless barrage of noise from the modern urban world; the decibels of machines and power tools, cars and planes, endless traffic. I’m jangled by the flashing neon lights, the unrelenting stimuli and never ceasing motion. Unwillingly I’m swept into its interminable pace. My real rhythm is that of turtle. If I lived in a society oriented around totems or spirit animals, mine would be turtle.
I must go, from time to time, to a listening chamber, a temple or oracle shrouded in stillness. Visit the waves or a shore, a river or mountain. I have to go listen, hear voices, have visions. Shed what I no longer need, burn what I no longer want to carry, revisit my dreams and visions, listen for instructions.
The ancient Greeks perceived two sorts of time: kronos time which is linear or sequential in nature; a task-oriented time which governs our mechanically-oriented modern world, and kairos time, a boundless holy time thought to be between the lines; a time in which one savors, lingers, dreams, and meanders.
I’m greedy for kairos time. Greedy to disappear from the junk of our everyday world—the screens, bills, lists, noise, and relentless tide of news and social media. I long to purge all the clutter of everyday life, what’s mundane, used up, washed out; the tasks to be done with technology, the dry, empty details of mind. I long to clear myself of all this and anything without the imprint of the divine and to slip wordlessly into the otherworldly realm of kairos time, dreamtime, vision time. There an inner tabernacle opens to spirit and spirit’s messages come seeping, flowing, flooding in. I’m fed with earth medicine and insights wash through me. I swim far from shore.
What is the holy? Is it not to have time stand still and be broken open by the ineffable? To come in to the moment and leave our electronics (and elections) behind? To understand suddenly, see, become aware of our connections with all life, with the universe, with the Spirit that runs through all things? The great Oglala Sioux warrior and Holy Man, Black Elk, said: “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of men when they realize their relationship, their one-ness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace and the others are but reflections of this.”
Black Elk describes the place I consistently need to get to from my busy, modern life. The place I can only reach in nature. Nature is my tabernacle, my temple, my church. Time in nature nourishes me like milk, like starlight, like dance. It shakes me up and scatters out all the dust that has settled. What’s dead gets flung away. I descend to deeper layers of the psyche and know my connections with all life.
Some spiritual adepts can sit in mediation in a drab, soulless room with cars pounding pavement on the other side of the wall, voices screeching, horns blaring, and reach the divine there. My mind just isn’t that trained. I need natural spaces. They are my salvation; what allows my thirst for the ineffable to be sated. Without them I’d drown in a meaningless empty abyss where my soul would simply die.
Doesn’t everyone need a Listening Spot? A place for stillness or a chamber set apart to hear the speech of the Divine? Where we stop our bustle and commune with the divinity of creation; where we watch the light streaming through the forest and witness sunshine-soaked leaves draping trees. A pause. Caesura. Uti Seta, the ancient Norwegians called it, or sitting with the land. Terry Tempest Williams says: “I am learning to pray in all the ways the desert has taught me to listen.” I need, as a habit, to strip myself of world and open to the voices of the land, descend into service of awe and become a transcriber of the divine.
But our world isn’t set up for communion time with nature. Or maybe it’s that we as a species have built our world in such a way that our doors are shut to it, as in our physical doors to the natural world are shut. As a species we’re lost behind our electronic screens, inside our buildings, homes, and cars, largely oblivious to the natural world on the other side of that door and the havoc we’ve unleashed there. Because our physical doors are shut, our inner psychological or spiritual doors are also shut to the spirit in the natural realm.
In the same way that we’ve shut our doors to the natural world, we’ve shut our inner doors to wonder. The world holds no place for daydreamers, awe or wonder. Schools don’t allow children to daydream. Our schedules don’t allow us to dream or wonder. We are slaves to our waking minds and to kronos time. Rabbi Heschel said: “Forfeit your sense of awe and the universe becomes a marketplace for you.” Clearly our world is a global marketplace, while the vast destruction of the natural world is symptomatic of humanity’s collective loss of awe for it.
In our hectic urban lives, we modern humans rarely get to commune with nature. Or when we finally get out there, we’re surrounded on all sides by hoards of other people. I think of John Muir Redwood Park near the Bay Area which, while gorgeous, is, like so many other natural areas, always so crowded that one cannot linger in any particular place, but rather must keep moving so those behind can have a turn to see too. It’s as if we’re kindergartners out on a walk holding a rope to stay connected to each other. Don’t go too fast or you’ll be on the heels of those before you. But don’t go too slowly or you’ll block those behind. Give me wild spaces free of crowds!
Yes, it’s great, crucial even, that all these people go to natural places. We’ll never save natural areas without a human recognition of their intrinsic value. And we won’t be able to recognize their value without going out into them. We simply need more protected natural areas. Less space for cars and buildings, homes, factories and industrial facilities. More space for people and animals, trees and plants, birds and butterflies, turtles and frogs.
Human beings have a deep-seated need to wonder. To experience moments of time wrapped in awe. We must as a world make space for this basic human activity by setting aside enough natural lands for us all to have the freedom of this primal human experience. Not where we must continuously keep moving as a group, conforming to the group’s needs and pace, but rather where we can sit, commune and simply be in the presence of the natural world and bask in its grandeur. Where we can slow down to the speed of wonder and take in the glory of a bird or butterfly, insect or plant. Where we can hear the unceasing rhythm of the world outside our species, let awe slip under our skin and permeate our bones, blood, and beings.
When paddling, I invoke the sense of sauntering Thoreau espouses. I like to slow down, abandon an agenda and simply come in to the presence of reeds on shoreline and light reflected off water. Cedar Waxwings scattered in the dead tree on shore and plants swaying in the current. The river gives me the chance to see things, be quiet; to fill with an other-than-human-silence, which isn’t silence at all, but ripples of blue water churning downstream, Red-Winged Blackbirds rustling in bushes along the shore, the light veneer of insect wings brushing air . . . and on and on.
I cast off from the shore of troubles, phones, bills, lists, logos and take refuge from the hungry world with its claws of machines and screens, plastic and ads. I slow down to the speed of wonder and drift in the current beyond words and language, only the slight whisk of water as my kayak moves effortlessly downstream. Or maybe it’s not always a slowing down to the speed of wonder. Aren’t we struck by wonder sometimes, as in a jolt of insight strikes like lightening and
immediately transforms our insight or understanding? In each case— slowing down or being struck—the gates of wonder open, and we enter the trance, the spell of wonder.
Old stories predating the advent of the Industrial Era describe how people can be transported to the fairy realm by stepping on a particular place on earth. One steps inadvertently onto the magical spot, falls through space and lands in an enchanted land outside time. There, s/he is bewitched and time passes differently than in the mortal world. Often, when returning to the human sphere above, months or even years have passed during what s/he thought were mere days.
Sometimes when I’ve spent the day at the river, I return home and feel as if I’ve left another world, an enchanted realm far from the modern everyday world of linear time and technology. It’s as if I’ve sloughed off a snake skin of burdens I carried from the world and didn’t need.
My mom asked me once why I insist on paddling alone. “To soul search,” I said. But I realized the true reason is the exact opposite of soul searching. I go alone not to search my own soul, but instead to connect to all the other souls out in the world beyond my species. In those connections to the more-than-human dimension, I’m fed, my psyche and spirit are nourished. I bathe in a sea of awe, slip past the gates of wonder, listen to the sounds of earth, and am changed, transformed.
Thoreau on sauntering from John Elder and Robert Finch, Nature Writing (NY: Norton, 2002) p. 180.
Black Elk passage from Phil Cousineau, The Soul Aflame (Berkeley: Conari Press, 2000) p. 78.
Terry Tempest Williams, Erosion, (NY: Picador, 2020) p.6.
Rabbi Heschel quote in Mathew Fox, Meister Eckhart (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2014) p. 15.