At the end of my childhood street, there was a hike that led to a waterfall. I knew it well, having done it with family and neighborhood friends since I was very young. It meanders around a gentle creek in the shadowy and lush forest, up a steep incline that offers an open view of the surrounding landscape, then travels back down into the darkness to reveal a peaceful pond, filled by the cold, clear water of a rushing waterfall.
This time I was hiking alone. I was maybe 13 or 14, and I set off with only a journal and a pen, looking for a nice to place to write, but with no other goals in mind but to enjoy the day. How awesome to be able to do that; to be alone with no destination, no way for anyone to get in touch with me, no obligations, or conversations, or distractions. I remember bits of the hike, the smell of Northern California forests that is so distinctive, of moss, oak trees, gently flowing water. The way the light filtered through densely packed trees, creating a kaleidoscope of sunshine and shadows across the trail. Finding the best path through the creek, looking for stones that are large and flat enough to cross without falling into the icy water. What I remember most, however, and the part of the memory that sticks so vividly in my mind, is when I found my writing place.
Once you get to the waterfall, there are many areas to sit beside the pond, where you can settle into a comfortable place to view the highlight of the hike. You can keep going however, above the waterfall, where the the trees open up and the sun shines down onto the rushing water. This is where I found it. Veering off the path to sit on some rocks right next to the creek, I took out my notebook and began to write.
I wish I knew what I wrote that day, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the way I felt, and the reasons why this memory sticks out to me whenever I’m called to search for a defining moment, to remember a time when I felt the most at peace.
Why is it that this seemingly ordinary memory feels so important to me?
“A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
If I did this hike today, I definitely would have brought my phone “just in case”, or to “check the time”. I probably would have taken photos to later post on Instagram. I would have the instinct to check it while I was hiking just in case something important happened. All other experiences would have been diminished, with the thought in the back of mind about what was happening that I was missing out on.
To walk through the woods by yourself without any way to contact anyone would be considered dangerous these days. What if an emergency happened? What if nothing happened and you missed out on the opportunity to be completely present because you were worried about “what ifs”? Sometimes it’s difficult to remember what it was like when you couldn’t be reached at all times, when you would go on adventures with your friends for an entire day with no way for anyone to contact you. It’s a freedom we rarely experience these days.
“We often forget that WE ARE NATURE. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.”
– Andy Goldsworthy
With all that disconnecting, you open up the space to really connect. In this moment, my surroundings were alive with color and sounds, the tiny wildflowers dancing at my feet, the oak trees rustling gently above my head, the waterfall rushing powerfully below. I was sitting among all of this energy and life, and in quietly becoming a piece of it, I found I was as much of a vital force as the surrounding trees, and wildlife, and water.
I think now of how often I consider nature something separate, outside, something to go to instead of be a part of. I think it’s so important for us to feel that connection with nature, to experience it with no goal but to go sit somewhere in the woods for a while. Or on the beach, or beside a lake – anywhere that you can just be, and be open to what is around you. Who we are is intertwined with the earth, and when we isolate ourselves from it, we are missing necessary keys to our well being.
“There is always peace in the present moment.”
– Dragos Bratasanu
In disconnecting from others and connecting with nature, I was able to experience the magic of being purely present. It must be what keeps me coming back to this memory. It’s a reminder that this feeling is accessible at any time, but it requires surrendering fully to the moment. It reminds me to let go of any outside influence, and to listen only to my own inner guidance. And if I can’t seem to get myself to see this in my every day life, I can always just leave my phone behind and go wandering into the forest, letting the path lead me to a hidden place where I can let go of everything, and remember how incredible it is to just be.