Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Brannan Island, CA (photo by omaatje9)

So said British author W. H. Murray in In Search of Swallows and Amazons. Lately I have been dipping heavily into the work of British naturalists, finding their words eloquent and illuminatingly descriptive of place and of being in places.

My own journey back to nature began with a book I found by accident: Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain by the late Roger Deakin. I had bought it on a whim, because it sounded interesting, and then laid it away. And on another whim, I picked it up from my stack of unread books on my way to the airport one morning in January 2008, little knowing how it would transform me in ways both subtle and profound.

I was captured—and captivated---from the first paragraphs, touched by Deakin’s mastery of prose, his ability of making his words take you along with him on his journey, which was a swimming adventure through Britain. He described rivers, lochs, oceans, forests, mountains, and meadowlands with clear evocative language that lifted me up and deposited me into the landscapes and water he traveled through. Never have I had a wait in an airport and a plane trip pass so quickly! I was so immersed in Roger’s world that I scarcely noticed the passage of time.

By the time I landed in Seattle, I was ready to take off into the woods somewhere and get lost in the embrace of the wood, to let the forest smother me in its green embrace. That very afternoon I took a walk into a wooded area near my family’s home and spent some time letting the sensory input of all that living green soak in. Shafts of light fell in angles, highlighting a tree stump with new growth sprouting from its top. Cedar needles crunched under my feet, releasing a pungent earthy scent. The whole of the wood breathed with subtle yet tangible life.

I found a log that was perfect for sitting and spent some time listening for the small sounds that make up the music of such places. The trickle of a stream made a merry sound as it meandered through a tangle of weeds and deadfall. A family of juncos chipped and trilled in a tangle of blackberry vines. And the wind, coming in infrequent waves, rustled through the crowns of the trees, whispering in a secret language I could not fathom.

All through my two-week visit I savored Roger’s book. It inspired me to look closer at nature, to take time to try to describe what I was seeing and feeling. I tend to rush along in life; my natural speed is full. But now I wanted to slow down and relax; I wanted to absorb more of what I was experiencing and I could not do it unless I stood still.

As a consequence, my bird and nature journal took on a new tone and grew from laundry-listing to detailed description. It was an epiphany. And I carried this epiphany, this new-found knowledge of the natural world, with me when I returned to Los Angeles.

But as always, upon returning home I felt like I had lost something. That something was all the big trees that one is surrounded by in the Northwest; our city trees are pitiful in comparison. So I was determined to set about finding my own ‘wildness’ nearby, to see if I could recapture the sensations and impressions I felt up north here in the urban wild. Was there were really anywhere in or near this sprawling metropolis where one could feel the touch of nature, to be one with it?

Decidedly a tall order, I realize in hindsight, but in actuality I have found little islands of ‘wild’ in the most unlikely places. Even our state parks are but poor imitations of true wild country, where the wildness has been confined and tamed into, well, parks! So one must be diligent and remain open to any opportunity for a touch of nature to fill ones heart and mind. But it can be done and I have done it. It is accomplished by being still. Not moving, not talking, not having an iPod stuck in my ears, but by being STILL.

I have been rewarded by many moments when I stood transfixed and transformed while small dramas unfolded before me: the symphony of air breathing through the crowns of eucalyptus trees across the street from my house; of giant stands of bamboo creaking and groaning in the wind at the UCLA Botanic Gardens; deer standing in the early morning mist at Topanga State Park; the breath of wind caressing my face and tousling my hair as I sat on a ridge above Whitney Canyon.

It is all in having an open heart and mind, of maintaining a spirit of adventure. Nature surrounds us everywhere, even in the concrete canyons of our cities. One has to sometimes look a little harder, but make no mistake—it is there. It waits for those that seek, and it will welcome you with open arms.

[Composed while listening to the haunting melodies of Afro Celt’s Anatomic, Sound Magic, and Release.]

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