I’m in morning traffic on highway 80. I catch glimpses of tense, eager, caffeinated faces all around me. People change lanes constantly, trying to get ahead. News is coming through the radio, reporting the global catastrophes at the top of the hour. They’ll report them again, in greater detail, starting in just 5 minutes. I’m tired from several nights of inconsistent sleep, but also wired from a little too much coffee and my own ambitions for the day ahead.
I look up to see a large, dark-feathered hawk on a high wire, looking down. We’re moving slowly enough that I can look right into his eyes. It feels like they’re asking me what the heck I’m doing down there.
It’s an instant reminder not to take myself too seriously. To see us from the hawk’s gaze is to have to laugh a bit at our excessive turmoil. All our noise and nonstop movement.
Nature is quite the reminder.
And the refuge.
I wish I could perch up there with that hawk for a while, watching the traffic below. I find comfort knowing that even that quick exchange has changed the way my day will flow. I’ll try to see things from his perspective a little more, at least.
Every chance I get, I head out to the Sonoma Coast, where I can listen to the languid waves and notice when I’m so caught up in my thoughts that I don’t even hear the monstrous pacific ocean right there in front of me. It makes me wonder what else I’m missing in those moments of tunneling down so deep in my thoughts all my perceptions are lost.
When I hear the waves again, I’m brought back to the moment. To the comforting seat of sand beneath me and the way the sunlight reflects different colors across the water as the day progresses.
Every moment along the shoreline is different, and yet there’s a familiarity that sets me at ease and energizes me all at once.
It’s like turning a key from the realities of everyday and entering real life, where we were meant to be. A great blue heron sits stoically on a jagged rock. I walk ever so gently around him so as not to scare him off. Adorable sandpipers patter quickly along the sudsy sand as the tide recedes, flying in unison to a new spot a few feet away. They’re individuals, but they move as one.
On the path home I hear the distinctive sound of a hummingbird and stop to watch it flutter between winter blossoms. A tiny but pure delight.
Tony and I joke that our recent love of birds is a rite of passage, a sign of our aging times just as sure as the wrinkles on my hand that refuse to disappear even with copious amounts of lotion.
It’s a welcome change, as is my purpose in nature, which used to be just as forceful as any in my work life. I’d charge up a mountain, determined to make it to the summit. Sure, I took in the scene and enjoyed my surroundings – and I was getting all the benefits of fresh air and natural wonder – but admittedly I was on a mission. I had somewhere to be, something to achieve.
Recently, Tony passed on the John Muir quote: “Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
It was an instant invitation to slow down and fully engage the experience of walking a beautiful path, instead of focusing on getting to the end of it. It was an invitation to stop and observe the contours and softness of a bright budding poppy. To watch a single cloud’s journey across the sky. To notice that sometimes my breath aligns with the rhythm of the rising surf. So much more comes into view now, so much I might have missed.
Right now, amidst the current chaos and uncertainty in our public health crisis, I’m accepting that invitation as often as possible. I know how calming and restoring a few moments in the redwoods or even a walk in a city park can be. Studies show that even looking at a photo of nature can calm your parasympathetic nervous system.
And catching the eye of a hawk can change your whole perspective.
Maybe in this time of having to distance ourselves from each other, we can take the opportunity to get closer to nature. To saunter through its wonders reverently, just as John Muir invited us to do.
It’s an extraordinary place and we all have the key.