THINKING BACK ON MY LIFE, what I recall most lucidly are moments that took place in nature. Reaching Bear Mountain Shelter in a frozen, crystalline rain. A perfect, time-suspending launch off Blind Falls on Overflow Creek. Snowboarding runneled June snowfields in Rocky Mountain National Park. Bushwhacking through remote Valdivian forest in Patagonia. Paddling out pre-dawn, the air still chilly but the ocean bath-warm in El Salvador.
So much of our daily life is spent inside, with the insipid, chattering preoccupations that distance us from ourselves. Nature has a way of removing distractions, of commanding our deepest attention. She always has, after all, the last say.
Following this kind of thinking, nature is full of lessons we can draw from, lessons which can inform and inspire our daily lives. After three decades spent camping, paddling, surfing, snowboarding — and feeling better, more “placed,” more at home doing these things than anything else — here are some of the lessons I’ve observed:
1. Life is circuitous.
There are no straight lines or right angles in nature. Everything is a wave, a curve, a sinuous path. Rivers, as they dissipate their energy through a floodplain, form serpentine courses. It’s all back and forth. This is the way we descend mountains or accelerate on a wave or catch eddies through a rapid. It’s how we climb steep slopes.
Don’t worry that your everyday life is “all over the place.” That you try this and that. That you move from one side of the country to the other. That you’re vacillating between careers, relationships, everything. This is the model given to us by nature. Ride it out.
2. We’re meant to work.
Everything in nature is always moving, always working. Even when animals and plants are in dormant phases, this rest is a kind of active measure for conserving energy. The most primal work of all creatures is to procure food. And as such, we as humans have a capacity to work greater than we realize. Our bodies are built to walk dozens of miles every day, year after year.
Remember this when you’re feeling lazy sitting at your desk.
3. The harder something struggles, the stronger it becomes.
The oldest known organism on Earth is the bristlecone pine, which can live over 5,000 years. Gnarled and stunted-looking, grotesquely wind-flagged and seemingly half-alive, they grow near treeline in the super harsh alpine environments of the Rockies and Sierra, with extreme conditions almost year round.
The lesson? Struggle isn’t a bad thing; it’s the foundation of vitality.
4. Unnatural stress destroys life.
At the same time, it’s still a balance. Excesses of stress kill, whether it’s a polluted river or bloodstream. Nowhere is this more evident than in watersheds. Dams, impounded waters, silt buildup from agricultural runoff, temperature and chemical composition changes — these effects are so often “out of sight, out of mind” except for those of us who paddle, fish, or simply like to hike along rivers.
There is nothing more beautiful (and increasingly, rare) than a clean river, free flowing from its headwaters to the ocean.
5. Nature has an unbelievable capacity for healing.
And yet, as much damage as is done to the environment, it’s amazing how quickly places can recover. A great example is the growing list of dam removal projects around the US, such as the Elwha River in Washington and the Penobscot River in Maine. As soon as the dams come down, the silt begins to transport downstream, the old riverbeds fill back in, and the balance of aquatic life returns to normal.
Lesson? Our bodies can do the same thing. Diet and exercise can help not only lower blood pressure and plaque buildup in arteries, but actually reverse their effects on the body.
6. It’s all about communication.
All living things in nature are in a state of perpetual communication — whether simply registering information (e.g., sunlight, temperature, etc.) or actually broadcasting information via sounds, smells, displays. A study this summer (2013) proved that dolphins can remember companions’ calls for over 20 years even after not having seen them for all that time. Forestry experiments reaching back several decades show that trees and plants communicate with one another through pheromones.
In ways we as modern people are only beginning to understand through science (but, ironically, which primitive peoples have demonstrated an innate understanding of for thousands of years), all life is connected and communicates. How hard are you listening? Not just on the social web, or to shows, websites, and magazines, but to the people around you? The place you call home?
7. Breaking a trail is always harder than following one.
If you’ve ever spent time in the snow — snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or simply hiking in deep snow — you know that breaking a trail is always harder than following a path.
There’s an obvious metaphor here for whatever else it is you choose to do in life. Originality always breeds doubt, suspicion, difficulty. People are fearful and mistrusting of what they haven’t seen, heard, read, experienced before. Continue forward.
8. Nature always takes a graduated approach.
Nature is all about transitions. Small fish survive by staying in shallow water and tight places where bigger fish (that could eat them) can’t fit. Then, as they grow, they move on to deeper waters. Model your progression for whatever it is — writing, kite-surfing, traveling, drawing, paddling — on nature’s graduated approach. It’s not about mastering something all at once. It’s about progression.
9. Nature is eternal.
The circle of life is real. When you get to be a mom or dad, and one day are out exploring the woods with your child, you may sense this strange duality in that you’re both there in the role of teacher or protector, and at the same time feel as if no time has passed from when you were also a child first exploring nature.
Nature is the ultimate equalizer. It bends time into a circle.
10. Everything is nature.
It’s easy to think of nature as “out there,” those green spots on the map. To consider it only as wilderness. But everything derives from nature, all energy and matter, barbecue sauce, birthday cakes, front porches, Chopin ballades. It just takes seeing it all around us.