I recently went on vacation to Yosemite National Park in southern California. There is not enough room in this column to do justice to the beauty of the mountains or the people who influenced and were influenced by the land. I knew, before visiting, that it was one of the first national parks. But upon entering Yosemite Valley, I understood the inspiration for the grand idea of protecting land for all to enjoy. One person who was influential in protecting Yosemite was the famous naturalist, writer and wander, John Muir. Inspired by Muir I adopted a style of outdoor wandering I call "mucking about". To me, "mucking about" implies very little planning in terms of the length of the trail, the time of return, or the activities completed. It takes a certain mindset to "muck about". One must forget about destination and think more of the journey. What awaits you is far more important then what you've planned.
John Muir, I believe was a "mucker". He went into the woods, sometimes with purpose but often not. He was always open to new discoveries and simple pleasures. Additionally, he was capable of traveling for days at a time with very little. Tinder for fire, some bread tucked into his belt and a sketch book was usually enough for him.
So, on the last day of warm fall weather I decided to go out for the afternoon to "muck about" in the woods. My safety and comfort required me to pack a little more than Muir. My usual load includes water, snacks (part of which are always chocolate), a book, a camera and a notebook. One this particular day I also included a coat and headlamp. I was not going to let the early evening of daylight savings time stop me.
On my walk, I forgot about how long it should take me to hike the trail I choose. In fact there were times I forgot all about the trail. I stopped to take pictures of the sunlight through the trees. I made dozens of unsuccessful attempts to capture the "puff" of the puffball, a mushroom that, when dry, release spores in the air when touched. I stopped and sat by a small creek and listened to the wind through the trees. I looked for beechnuts. I even found a soft spot on the ground, sat down and leaned up against a tree. With the sun's warm glow on my face and the curve of the tree a perfect fit for my back, I took a nap. This is my definition of "mucking about".
My adventure seemed to adopt the spirit of John Muir which is captured in his multitude of writings. In his journals he wrote "Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality." This concept of true freedom didn't register with me until I was immersed in the experience. Then I got it.
That afternoon, "mucking about" in the woods, I was free. I was free from want of wanting to be somewhere else, wanting to have other things, wanting to be doing something else. I had what I needed for the day and I didn't want anymore. Because I was free from want, I was free to completely immerse myself in the day and what nature provided.
Not once during this afternoon did I look at my watch. In freeing myself of time, I also freed myself. I lost all my worries and concerns. They seemed to melt away as I focused on the present moment.
But, as the sun sank below the horizon, something was triggered in me. I thought of the research I agreed to do for a Monday meeting, of a painting project left undone and the dirty clothes piling up at home. I was drawn back into the world of time limits, schedules and deadlines. A funny thought also popped into my mind. I thought, "This is the time normal people eat dinner." I was implying that what I was experiencing wasn't normal. During the afternoon, I was also free from society's expectations about what I should be doing with my time.
While I don't think we can deny our responsibilities, I do believe we all have the ability to lose ourselves to experience this kind of freedom from time to time. The natural world provides endless places and endless reasons to do so. To examine the beauty of the forest, wonder at the melody of birdsongs and listen to the babble of a creek rejuvenates and refreshes us unlike any manmade environment can. And not all our outdoor experiences have to be in exotic places or famous tourist attractions. In western New York and Pennsylvania, we are blessed to live in a place where land has also been protected for all to enjoy.
A part of me hesitates to say this now, understanding the busyness of the holiday season. But another part dares to say it. This is the start of a season that hopes for peace, joy and happiness. That and more is what I found in the woods on that afternoon and know that I will find again. Experiences in the natural world are intuitively worthwhile. I hope everyone can find even just a bit of time to free oneself in nature. For, as John Muir wrote "In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks."
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn until dusk and the building is open Mondays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sundays we are open from 1 to 4:30 p.m. and are closed Tuesday through Friday. Call (716) 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.