When I go hiking, I spend a lot of time being quiet. I like to listen to, and bathe in the natural world. I enjoy the sensations. It feels like therapy to someone stuck in the rectilinear world of square rooms, in severe, tall buildings, along dead-straight streets for the majority of her waking hours. Here, in the remaining patches of woods, I feel connected to myself as a human being, in an animal sense: vulnerable, excitable, wondrous, and just a component of the rich, diverse community of life.
The dancing sun and shade in the forest, the wind rustling in the leaves painted with the layered orchestral melodies of hidden insects and birds, and the cool scents of earth flush me with a sense of being alive.
In the excessively sanitized and artificially separated human-centric world, only human emotions and human negotiations matter. Only language carries weight. The Anthropocene has profoundly wrested, lassoed, and pummeled nature underfoot. Human detritus has floated to the remotest corners of the planet far afield from where humans themselves live, to threaten and choke life. From the vantage of the human domination, nature it seems is a neutered and diminished thing.
Yet, when I immerse myself in the woods, if even for a walk, the possibilities of other existence and other meaning are awakened. I am jolted awake in the woods, feeling myself to be more on an even plane with the rest of the planet’s creatures. My empathy for the birds, animals, and all the little creatures—whose lives go largely unseen in the modern world—is sharpened. With just my simple act of presence, often slightly self-absorbed and not even particularly keenly attuned to the natural world around me, I am still richly rewarded. Usually I witness some brief interaction from the drama and complex negotiations of others’ lives: a couple of blue jays squabbling around the woods, a painted turtle inching along a single-track trail who might so easily be squashed by a mountain-biker hurtling down, a hawk swooping into a thicket and scuffling around for what seems like a mysterious reason only to rise, with a great whipping, with a snake in its beak still squirming and alive. These moments only become available when I am without distraction, just ready to receive, hear, see, by being there.
Sometimes, however, I go walking outdoors with others who may not have the same proclivity to tune into the hidden world of nature in their surroundings. They are in it for exercise, companionship, health and sunlight, a change, or whatever else. I don’t want to impose on them, to quieten down to be able to observe and sense their surroundings more keenly. I think nature is the best teacher of attention anyway, so much better than I could possibly be, with a didactic summons to listen rather than to talk and chatter about the human world. Everything in its own, fitting time: that’s how nature seems to work.
And that is exactly how she opened up a moment of revelation when I went walking with a friend who, like most modern, urban people, wasn’t raised to pay attention and give importance to the quiet ways of nature. I brought her along the main walking trail around a lake, not even the small forest trails along the rises and gullies of the hills. The main trail has tall trees and good views, but is frequented by many recreational users and doesn’t reveal the enchanted, obscured life of the forest too much.
Along our path, we suddenly notice a turtle who has crossed it, likely dodging cyclists with decent luck, to get to the pond on the other side (it’s an artificial one that receives runoff from city streets through a combination of streams and pipes). Except there’s a problem. The turtle has run into an unexpected hurdle: a chain link fence. There in that moment, the drama of a turtle, confronted with a fence between him and his destination pond—his safe haven—joined us into the drama of being a small creature in an unpredictable and dangerous world.
While safely ensconced in sterile urbanity, we humans feel seemingly omnipotent and above threat. Yet we have the vulnerability of childhood still within us. We remember what it feels like to be vulnerable. As children, we knew by instinct that if we were to lose our mother, the ultimate shield from the dangers of the big world, we would suffer devastating loss. That closeness to the condition of other species, whose babies are equally lost without their mother, and who are not as powerful as the dominant human species, brings us empathy and compassion. We sense and feel the pain of animals sooner than adults do, tough as they have grown, to the ways of the world, having survived different challenges over time.
As witnesses to the turtle’s confrontation with this metal, man-made barrier which with his tiny legs and impossibly inflexible and outsized shell, he has little chance or capabilities of overcoming, we are immediately folded into the pathos of existence. We sense that tragedy and cruelty is in close proximity, particularly when uncaring humans, blinded to the ways of the rest of creation, insert themselves.
I drew my companion in by stopping and focusing attention: the turtle’s problem surely is our problem now. We hovered and peered at the fellow. Would we be able to help?
My companion spotted a solution sooner than I did—there’s a hole in the chain link fence a short few feet away. The turtle might have been a moment slower or might have already identified the gap and I didn’t realize it, but he was already cautiously feeling his way down the length, traversing the fence laterally. (A short moment later I realized I was not giving the turtle his due respect: wouldn’t I do exactly the same, not give up, but search for another way? Or maybe unbeknownst to me, oblivious humanoid, turtle has done this trick a few times before and was just going back to a known crawl spot?)
It could be that turtle was more wary of my undivided attention on himself, than of the barrier the chain link fence posed. He dragged himself on, keeping one eye cocked on us, to find a way through the barrier. How stressful to be cornered against the fence with some humans to make a show of it.
Slowly but surely (there’s a reason for this phrase that surely stems from the turtle’s comportment) turtle inched closer and closer to the depression in the ground where the chain link fence had a crawl hole beneath it.
He almost toppled down the slope with his unwieldy carapace. The relief could be seen in his gait. (Although, he might just have been happy to have the chain link fence between him and the large human.) I almost wanted to give him a friendly butt pat on his shell to send him on his way. As soon as he crawled under and through the fence, I don’t know, he seemed to gain a self-confident swagger to his crawl, and off he went at quite a different turtle pace than before.
Even the most distracted of walks can bring you close to the natural universe that modernity continually, humiliatingly denies. As modern people we have disowned and dissociated ourselves from our universal family. We consider them beneath us, not as important. But are we so grand? Look at how our grandeur has devastated the entire planet to the point that our own existence is threatened. Look at how our language and our tools have distanced us from our roots in nature and our kinship with other living beings.
The simple act of walking, graces the world with presence, and even without asking, brings rewards of relationship and connection. The turtle’s struggle is one in our own heart. He reminds us of the source of our shared impulses for life, for survival, for home, for safe haven. We cannot turn away.