I am hiking. The long trail up the mountain stretches out ahead. It’s a bright spring day on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The trees are desperately sprouting leaves celebrating the green ouroboros. While the air is cold, the earth is warm. A raven squawks from across the valley of the Temperance River below. On each side of the trail, the ash and poplar are just budding. I feel welcomed by two old birch standing as sentinels before the last climb. Cresting the summit I can see where the sky meets the water on the curve of the earth. I close my eyes and listen to the sweet sounds of the world. Sandhill cranes migrating north. This is the seventh day of my retreat.
I have chosen a retreat as a way to honor a friend who passed suddenly. Each year she spent four days alone simply reading and meditating. She was a teacher and said she needed to recharge. Being alone was a way for her to do this.
I am an introvert as well, but I’m unprepared for the silence and seclusion of the one-room cabin that I’ve rented. It’s out of cell-phone and internet range. The silver lake and trees are my only companions. The first day, I try to read, but find myself up and walking back and forth in a six foot bout of cabin fever. I go outside looking for things to do. I feel panic and an urgent need for other people. I am antsy but committed. I keep checking my phone which gets no signal. How tough can it be to be alone?
Then I make a cup of tea and go sit beside the lake. Nature has been a refuge for me since I’ve been a kid. Calm waves lap at the shore and I revert to childish imagination. I pretend that water trapped in granite rock pools are lakes and I am a giant looking down at the earth. Children have a perspective of time and wonder that I am grateful to conger now. But this also makes me feel small.
The pandemic challenge we face today is nothing like the minor eddy in time of a retreat. But the shock we are feeling at isolation and social distancing may be similar. Some of us are busy, but lonely. Some of us interact, but don’t really connect. Now forced into seclusion, I know I am feeling the drumbeat of loneliness and a lack of control.
What I suspect we may be feeling is distance from ourselves. Of course, we have fear for our loved ones, a fear of a future we don’t understand, but perhaps that of also that of being alone with ourselves. Our inability to sit quietly and absorb the world around us.
There are lots of remedies for overcoming loneliness. Ironically, mine is getting outside alone among the trees and the lakes, the prairies and the deserts.
Nature is impartial to our feelings, but we are not impartial to nature. I believe we have a genetic imprint that guides us toward nature. The rhythms of day and night, the pull of the tides and the touch of the wind, the flow of light and energy in trees, and the cycle of amino acids all unconsciously tug at us. We are of this earth not above this earth. But knowing that nature is impartial can also make us stronger. Not because we need to conquer nature any more than we need to conquer loneliness, but because it puts our lives in perspective.
Nature can help us transcend our aloneness by making us comfortable with our place in the universe and the cycle of life. When it does this, especially when we are alone, we can enter a state of solitude. I think maybe this is what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” An appreciation for the world around us, independent of our isolation from each other that makes our connections even more powerful. Knowing we are part of something bigger than this particular moment. Knowing we have limits and will return to the earth. It is this knowledge that is strangely comforting to me in a time of stress.
Not all of us can take a retreat or even get out into nature. But when we develop an appreciation of nature, loneliness changes to solitude. It also makes our connections to each other much more precious and valuable. Solitude leads to a type of strength, and we need strength very much right now.
So besides reaching out to those we love, or remembering friends, the other thing we can do now is get outside and see the beauty of the world.* Spend some time reveling in the trees and grass and water. Pretending rock pools are lakes and we are giants when we are actually quite small.
As I write this now, I am sitting in my backyard. The flicker of a shadow cuts across my table. I look up and see a Red-tailed hawk circle off in a rising gyre. The bird is something wild and inconceivable, but it seems to be saying to me, you are not alone, you are just part of the earth.
Take me with you, I say back.
‘We are all connected. Savor the Earth!’™
L. Hobart Stocking
* Do it safely, following guidelines for social distancing.