Sunday afternoon; fourteen gather in the parking area of the Scuppernong trailhead, Kettle Moraine State Forest, for “A walk in the woods with Philip Chard.” Straight rows of tall pines divide rectangular patches of asphalt cut into the forest. On this preternaturally warm, windy November day the lot is unusually full. Grateful, I leave my jacket in the car.
Philip Chard is a psychotherapist and naturalist – two vocations that merge in the relatively new field of ecopsychology, which unites mental health and spiritual wellbeing with environmental health and ecological principles. Among other things, he leads groups like ours….
After a very brief orientation, we head off along the wide, well-groomed Scuppernong Trail. Markers establish a one-way loop for cross-country skiing. Contrarily, we pass the “do not enter” sign.
More straight tree lines make the trail feel like a high corridor – or the nave of a gothic church. Is an architectonic forest 40 miles from Milwaukee more natural than an urban park?
As if reading my mind, Chard urges us to leave the beaten trail now and then – respectfully – in order to enrich our experience. Be mindful, attend to details. Allow yourself to be drawn to nature, to anything that attracts your attention. Among the regular rows of trees, I am attracted to irregularity. A thicket of purple brambles stands out against the gray-brown landscape. I’m not tempted to step off the trail into them.
A hundred years ago, he says, most people worked outdoors; now the reverse is true.
In contrast with clocks, calendars, and the daily grind, nature puts us in touch with “deep time:” geologic time, planetary time, celestial time. We climb a steep ridge – the trail following the line of a moraine – and observe the abrupt drop into a deep kettle, a depression formed 10,000 years ago at the edge of the Wisconsin ice sheet.
Time, like traffic, moves more slowly on a forest path than it does on city streets.
Each kettle we pass was once a mammoth chunk of glacial ice, calved from the receding glacier and then buried in terminal debris.
We go off-trail into a pine grove. A dense evergreen canopy hides the sky. The glen is dark and close. A carpet of needles softens our steps. Involuntarily, we hush, as if entering a chapel. I hear someone sigh with enchantment. Maybe me.
The sky is surprisingly bright when we reemerge onto the trail. The tops of the trees toss in the wind.
“The wind is the breath of the world.” We have reached a peak of sorts; a crest on the moraine with a view towards the setting sun. The flat expanse of Scuppernong Prairie stretches out before us – the largest wet prairie east of the Mississippi River.
Facing into the stiff breeze, Chard spreads his arms wide…: inhales deeply. Exhales deeply.
“Open yourselves to the wind,” he says. “Release your breath into the breath of the earth” for a spiritual cleansing. We inhale. Exhale.
Theodore Roszak coined ecopsychology in 1992. It was dismissed as ‘new age’ fluff at first, says Chard, but has achieved credibility. Although our brains are constantly bombarded with culturally conditioned information, we still think as our prehistoric ancestors did. Civilization and culture are the creations of humanity, but we became human in nature, not in civilization.
On impulse, one of our group climbs the sagging limb of a gnarled oak. “That was on my bucket list,” she says as she slides into upraised hands that gently set her back on the ground.
Nearing solstice, the afternoon darkens early. Clouds scud by on strong winds. Bright sun blinks through broken overcast.
The planet has received its 7 billionth human.
The Western black rhino was declared extinct this week. Other subspecies to follow.
The total number of rhinos left in the wild is smaller than the human population of Waukesha County, in which we are hiking.
“If ever you need strength…,” Chard says; then pauses. Unbidden, like the wind, the thought flies through my mind: who doesn’t? Pointing to the brown oak leaves clinging to twisted branches overhead, he continues more emphatically, “If you need tenacity just come out here in January. You will find many of them still here, still clinging.”
Trees are more completely evolved than humans, he says: wiser.
Is a chance meeting of friends like the random collisions of subatomic particles? It is a busy day in the forest. We pass many like-minded strangers. But, twice, we greet friends, hiking the same path. Perhaps friendship exerts a gravitational pull that makes encounters more likely. Still…
Life must be full of near misses.
The sun sets in subtle hues through a screen of tree trunks, beyond the far ridgeline. In the gathering twilight, Chard tells us we might have the good fortune to see the gloaming. “OK, I’ll bite,” someone says: “What’s the gloaming?”
The gloaming, he replies, is the moment sometime after dusk when day is indistinguishable from night. “Sounds mystical,” someone whispers. Like a portal between existential realms. The path under our feet is dim and a mist seems to have enveloped the trees all around us. We look up to see a still bright sky through the crevice in the canopy that mirrors the path. Not yet.
A bat rises from the leaf litter at our approach. It is indistinguishable from the leaves, as if a piece of the ground has lifted and fluttered off. The gloaming of the earth.
We still ourselves in the near dark. The susurration of the wind rushing through the treetops sounds like distant surf, like the breathing of the ocean. Here on the ground all is calm, quiet.
In the dark, we hear, your peripheral vision is clearer than your focal point. In my peripheral vision the corridor of the trail contracts, the line of individual trees merges into a wall; the people around me become phantoms. My eye is drawn, moth-like, to the broken hole of the sky, the still-dimming light overhead. Breathing.
In the peaceful, preternaturally warm November evening, we await the gloaming, when we are indistinguishable from the forest.