Editor’s Notebook: The stuff you stumble upon in the woods
Sometimes the most striking views are the ones that seem rather ordinary at first glance. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
“I don’t know if you have noticed the mountains this morning, the river and the changing shadows, the pine trees dark against the blue sky, and those extraordinary hills full of light and shade. On a morning like this, sitting in a tent to talk about serious things seems rather absurd, when everything about us is crying with great joy, shouting to the heavens the beauty of earth and the misery of man.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti, “The Awakening of Intelligence”
At last and alone, I found my way to the woods. I had reserved Site 27 in Pillsbury State Park in Washington months ago, when spring was a dream, and last weekend New Hampshire rewarded my patience with nearly four seasons worth of temperature fluctuations in an 18-hour window.
But that’s not all. It rained – a lot – and after dusk of the first night I waited out a line of thunderstorms in a two-person tent that gave the lightning something soft and bright to aim for. I also lost a staring contest with a rightfully confident snake near Lucia’s Lookout on the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway Trail, and nearly stepped on a red-spotted newt parked in the center of harm’s way. I took a photo of the little guy because you never know when you’ll run into a newt again. By the end of my 9-mile loop, I had counted 78 of them.
I saw a pair of geese goofing around in a pond that made you feel like you were the first person ever to set eyes on it, and passed far more lady slipper orchids than fellow hikers.
It was cold at night – my weather app said 40 but I suspect it was hiding a more frigid truth – and the morning sun showed very little interest in letting any woodland creatures, let alone a novice backpacker, bathe in a splintered glow. I dined on rehydrated vegetarian “chili” out of a bag, started a campfire that threw off as much heat as a black-and-white photo of a decommissioned wood stove, and played a nonstop game with myself where I would guess whether the tick I felt crawling on my leg was real or imagined.
If any of this sounds like complaining, you misunderstand me. All of it – the discomfort, the unease, the solitude, the beauty – was what I sought, what I asked for. And then when I was ready to go home, I went home.
I spent a long time thinking about the trip before it happened, and even though I know expectation is the enemy of joy, I admit I had big plans. This was to be my Henry David Thoreau moment, or even better the place where I would find my Bodhi Tree and true awakening. Short of all that, I could at least let the world of man slip away for a stretch and watch the heart rate number on my Garmin plummet.
But it turns out that my thoughts in solitude are not unlike toddlers at a trampoline park. “Wow, that glade is simply stunning. Did I remember to turn on my work email vacation responder? Also, remember that time I embarrassed myself in seventh grade? I should relive that as deeply and painfully as possible while walking among the newts and lady slippers, no?”
And so it went, beautiful sight after beautiful sight, and a lone backpacker trying in vain to will his bouncing brain into the present moment.
Oddly enough, or maybe unsurprisingly, I thought about Jiddu Krishnamurti a lot, too. Not his teachings, really, but his demeanor during the public talks I’ve watched on YouTube and the transcripts I’ve read. He was a fascinating guy because he was really, really cranky for a person who very well may have figured out the big puzzle – and I mean the BIG puzzle. For decades he tried to pass on a very simple lesson – “Do you want to know what my secret is? You see, I don’t mind what happens.” – made almost impenetrable by his method of deconstruction and conveyance. And he always seemed to be one audience question or comment away from a chair toss and string of expletives.
Days before he died in 1986, Krishnamurti is rumored to have said: “I have wasted my life. People were listening to me as if I am an entertainment.”
Imagine figuring out the secret – something so fundamental to human joy that its application could change civilization for the better in every way and forever – only to discover after several decades of telling crowds about it that there’s no way around or through the human ego. Imagine an audience so addicted to the story they tell themselves about themselves that their only real interest in any kind of secret is whether it will give them a leg up in their social circles and at work.
And imagine what he would say to a hiker alone with his thoughts in the woods, a regular guy who looks at everything yet doesn’t really see anything. After a long sigh, I think he would begin with this: “I don’t know if you have noticed the mountains this morning …”
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