Nature makes you happy. I don't need to tell you that. Neither does science, but studies confirm that time in nature reduces stress levels and cultivates a general sense of wellbeing.
But what is less understood is what happens if you walk a little further down the trail. Lingering longer and oftentimes alone in wild places, you may find yourself stumbling into a grove of grief; deep, unexpected and potentially disorientating.
I first discovered the grove during an immersion year of bush living five years ago.
The first few months were pure joy. A lifelong flirtation with nature was finally given the time and space to turn into a full-blown affair. Just like the early throes of love, I wanted nothing more than to spend all my time with this more-than-human lover -- to explore every inch of her skin, know all the secrets of her elements, the nuances of both her midday and midnight moods. I steeped myself in nature's embrace, even my dreams filled with wild creatures. She was in my hair, the pores of my skin, under my fingernails. I fell head over heels.
Photo: Australian Geographic
It was during the depths of my winter hermitude when the grief first bubbled up. While some of it I recognised as old personal stuff surfacing, the majority I couldn't account for. It didn't feel so much like 'mine' but arising through me, a product of this process of slowing down, of listening and observing, of opening my senses. The deeper I reconnected, the more the grief seemed to stir, equal in measure to the continuing joy of the unfolding relationship.
Back living between four walls after the year, the grief was palpable in a recognisable form -- the mourning of a lost lover. The ache of losing a mother. It has softened over time but at times arises sharp and cutting, especially when I return to the city from a stint away.
Like with any difficult emotion it was easy to think that I had taken a wrong turn and should try and retrace my steps. But I knew there are no dead ends in nature, only doorways to be stepped through into some new landscape to be explored with curiosity.
Photo: Mark Guarino
I talked to my friend Matt, who, for the past few years had been studying a nature connection program. He too found himself unwittingly set upon by what he described as "ancestral grief" that "started coming up in a massive way."
Luckily there are guides who have navigated the terrain we found ourselves in.
Master tracker and bird language guru Jon Young (who is touring Australia for the first time this month), speaks of hitting a 'wall of grief' almost as a rite-of-passage when in the process of reconnecting to nature.
"As we reawaken empathy with the smallest living things and strengthen our ropes of connection with our neighbors, the pain of generational disconnection from each other and nature arises."
Instead of pushing it away, Young encourages his students to welcome grief as an 'ally' that will help 'awaken our unique gifts'.
"For thousands of years, ancient wisdom traditions have developed practices to tend to the grief and fear that can hold us back from healing ourselves, our relationships with other people and our children, and our relationship with nature."
"Through these practices, grief becomes an ally."
Activist and scholar Joanna Macy has been guiding people into 'grief' rituals in order to reinvigorate their social change work.
"Our experience of pain for the world springs from our interconnectedness with all beings, from which also arises our powers to act on their behalf."
In her simply named 'Work that Reconnects,' grief is the glue to heal the illusion of separation between us and the rest of the web of life.
Photo: Jamie Newell
Francis Weller, author of new release Entering the Healing Ground: Grief, Ritual and the Soul of the World concurs, writing:
"Through our ability to acknowledge the layers of loss, we can truly discover our capacity to respond, to protect and restore what has been damaged."
After finishing the first draft of this blog at my usual café in Brunswick, I wandered into the wholefoods store. The woman behind the counter recognised my face from an event on Facebook. Without any knowledge of the subject of my thoughts, she proceeded to tell me about the four years she spent living in the desert on an Aboriginal community. "I was heartbroken when I came back," she said, her eyes filling with tears.
We only grieve what we love, and love is what guides us to acts of greatest service. I now understand the grief to be the earth's reminder, a seed in my pocket, a lover's memento left deliberately in order to keep the thread alive, to not let me forget, to keep me on the trail and sniffing.
When we don't know what is being asked of us, perhaps this is where to start. To do, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggested, when asked what is the most important thing to do for the world, and simply "listen to the sounds of the earth crying."