Walking in the Woods
We’ve got a steady, unfortunate tendency to focus exclusively on what’s bothering us. We brood; we circle endlessly round our worries. We get drawn deeper into the gloomy recesses of our own minds. We lose touch with the brighter, more cheerful parts of who we are.
As we wander through the trees we’re struck by how lovely the light is; it’s broken and softened by the branches and leaves. We start to take in details: a squirrel is running up the trunk of a tree, birds are flitting between the branches. We start to see how different the various kinds of leaves are, pointed or rounded, broad, narrow, darker or lighter. We pause for a moment to root around in the undergrowth — pushing aside fallen twigs, acorns, pine cones and last year’s leaves to discover a beetle, a worm, some whitish maggots and a snail.
Once we start to pay attention, the natural world opens before us: an ant is starting a huge adventure along a twig; a bud on a tree is going through the momentous process of unfolding into a flower; a butterfly is opening its wings for the first time; with infinitesimal slowness the lichen is extending itself across the surface of a rock; a caterpillar is on it’s way to lunch on the far side of a leaf; a spider is engaged in perfecting the delicate architecture of its web. We are taken out of ourselves: we become absorbed in contemplating the separate, independent order of nature.
There’s a little windy path, threading its way through the trees. We can never see more than a few steps ahead, then there’s an intriguing turn. We don’t quite know what we’ll see: maybe we’ll come to a clearing or we’ll glimpse a rabbit hopping to safety in the undergrowth — but we’re sure it will be something interesting. It’s a tiny prompt that gently reactivates our dormant curiosity. How did a friend’s job interview go? What’s been happening in our sister’s (always elaborate) social life? What was the name of that novel a nice literary minded acquaintance was talking so enthusiastically about? Maybe we could try out that recipe for spaghetti carbonara? It didn’t sound so tricky.
It’s not that our problems don’t matter. It’s rather that they dominate our minds in an unhelpful way. Our sense of life, and who we are, shrinks to their dimensions. By getting interested in something else — in the life in the woods — we are freeing ourselves from our preoccupations, even if it is only for a little while.
Here we’re struck by the plenitude of existence and it’s poignant because its what we’ve momentarily stopped noticing elsewhere. Our instincts of observation are renewed. We’ll be heading back to the urban world with an awakened sensitivity to the vitality of a corner shop; to the varied personalities at the tables outside a café; to the odd architectural details of the high street; to all the richness and complexity that, recently, we’ve forgotten how to appreciate.
If you enjoyed this article, many of its ideas are explored further in Nature and Me: an essential guide to encourage children to explore, enjoy and benefit from the natural world around them.
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Founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton, The School of Life is a global organization helping people to find perspective and resilience in the face of life’s challenges. We share ideas through a range of channels, including books, eBooks, films, virtual classes and tools for emotional well-being.