Nature makes you happy. I don’t need to tell you that. Neither does science but it is, studies confirming that time in nature reduce stress levels and cultivate 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-blownaffair. 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 hermidday and midnight moods.
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 like so much like ‘mine’ but arising through me, a product of this process of slowing down, of listening and observing, of opening my senses.
Back living between four walls after the year, the grief was palpable in a recognisable form – the mourning of a lost lover.
I talked to my friend Matt, who, for the last 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.
Naturalist and tracker Jon Young 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,” he says.
Instead of pushing it away, Young encourages his student 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,” Young says.
After finishing the first draft of this article, I wander into the wholefoods store. The woman behind the counter recognises my face from an event on Facebook. Without any knowledge of the subject of my thoughts, she proceeds to tell me about the four years she spent living in the desert on an Aboriginal community. “I was heartbroken when I came back – literally,” 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 ThichNhatHanh suggested, when asked what is the most important thing to do for the world, and simply “listen to the sounds of the earth crying.”