“Time, time, time, see what’s become of me.”
– Paul Simon, “A Hazy Shade of Winter”
“[The Nature Principle] holds that a reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health, wellbeing, spirit, and survival.”
– Richard Louv, The Nature Principle
“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir quoted by Samuel Hall Young in Alaska Days with John Muir
The stream of time keeps flowing, and speeding up. Every day seems filled beyond capacity with stuff to do, like a debris-filled river. And it feels like more stuff is joining the flow all the time. Constant demands, continuous activity, ever more busyness.
Jeremy Rifkin wrote about this phenomenon in his book Time Wars. He notes that back in the 12th century if you ordered a cart from a cart maker, he worked when it was light and stopped before it got dark, as did everyone. Through all of human history we lived connected to and in rhythm with nature, with the natural cycles of the days and seasons.
Rifkin points out that when the mechanical clock was invented in the 13th century we began a process that has continued to divide time more closely, adding increasing structure to our days. At the same time we are moving further and further away from the rhythms of nature within which our species (and all species for that matter) has evolved, and of which our species is a part.
With the development of electricity we were no longer limited to working in daylight, and with every new time-saving technology we have divided time into smaller and smaller segments – ironically resulting not in more free time, but in more stuff to do, multitasking, and packing it into ever shorter periods of longer and longer days.
Way back when (not very long ago, actually) the fastest way to get a letter from New York to Los Angeles was airmail. That meant there was at least a three-day gap before you had to see that letter again. Now the exchange can be almost instantaneous and happens in the context of other high speed technology that did not exist in the days of airmail: email, texts, fax machines, the ability to talk by phone or video conference at very low cost to anyone on the planet. And that is on top of the regular stuff that existed back in the day: memos, meetings, and so on.
There’s stuff we either did or didn’t get done yesterday, stuff we have to do today, and as we look at our calendars we know about stuff we will have to do tomorrow. Piling on to that is a societal expectation to be constantly busy. Busyness is like a badge of honor. The busier we are, the more productive we must be. No time for non-doing, for stillness, for reflection, for just being. The rhythms of nature? Huh?
All of this takes a terrible toll on our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing, and therefore on our humanity. Anxiety, stress, weariness, feeling drained, disconnected, tapped out, spent, empty… these are very common and familiar maladies. I feel them myself way too often.
That’s why the line from Paul Simon’s song “A Hazy Shade of Winter” popped into my head. “Time, time, time, see what’s become of me.” I was feeling this way recently and I didn’t like it, a constant rush of stuff to do with insufficient time, grinding me into a state of ill-being.
I thought about times in the past when I felt this way and what had rescued me. It seems I have to learn this lesson more than once. What came to mind are experiences in nature that magically and remarkably restored me. From personal experience I can say that the Louv and Muir quotes shared above are full of truth. Here’s an example:
For several years I worked as an administrator at a Midwestern independent school and my job was very demanding. On call 24/7. Up early and up late. Basically a half-day off every week from mid-August through mid-June. Add to that, in one particular year, some serious conflict within the administrative team. By the end of the school year I was toast. Anxious, stressed, all of the above.
When summer break came my family and I drove to New England to stay in a cabin on a beautiful remote lake in Maine. We’d been there a day or so when my wife Lisa and I decided to paddle a canoe to the other end of the forest-bound lake, maybe a mile away around a bend, to a country store known to make excellent whoopie pies, the official state treat of Maine. I was a man on a mission.
Still on the pressure-cooker treadmill from the school year, vibrating with negative nervous energy, I saw this experience through a very narrow mental window: get in the canoe, generate as much power as possible with each stroke of the paddle, and crank my way along the length of the lake to reach the destination. Paddle. Eat whoopie pie. Paddle back.
We were making good progress when, almost halfway there, Lisa turned around from the front of the canoe and said “This is so pretty. Let’s stop here for a while.” My whiny response: “Aw, jeez. Do we have to??” I was thinking: Paddle. Whoopie pie. Paddle. Wisely, she sat quietly in the front of the boat enjoying herself, not bothering to respond to my pathetic mental state. I sat there scowling. For about ten minutes.
Then I started to notice things. The sun was warm. The forest was dense and green. The breeze was blowing gentle and cool. The lake was so clear and blue, and slightly disturbed by the wind it sparkled with sunbeams. There were blooming lily pads all around with dragonflies flitting here and there. I could see perch and bluegills popping to the surface.
And like magic, with no effort on my part, the tension and stress I had been carrying for months melted away. A familiar and nurturing inner stillness that I had not felt for a while began to awaken. Quiet. Calm. Joy. Wholeness. Connectedness. Then I began to more deeply absorb the life and beauty all around me. It became so obvious what really mattered; and it sure wasn’t all the stuff that had so consumed me and weighed me down for months, like baggage that I had carried all the way to Maine and even into the canoe.
I don’t know how long we sat there. I remember feeling grateful to Lisa for wanting to stop, for being at this special place with my family, and for the intensely healing experience I was having in that beautiful spot at that moment.
At some point Lisa interrupted the silence and said “OK, we can go now if you want.” I sat there for perhaps a half a minute and then slowly picked up my paddle and looked over the side of the canoe. We were in about five feet of water, over a shoal in the lake.
There, right below the canoe and resting on the bottom, was the biggest, most impressive snapping turtle I have ever seen. Even compensating for the magnifying power of water that turtle was something. Whoa. I pointed it out and just stared at it.
It was then, seeing that turtle, that the full lesson of the experience hit me. It was a lesson about how life should be lived. If I had kept paddling, thinking only of the task before me instead of enjoying every moment of the journey, I would have missed so much. I never would have seen or experienced any of it. I would not have released that burden or regained equanimity and a clear perspective on what matters.
That snapper was sitting right below me for I don’t know how long. If I hadn’t stopped, become still, practiced non-doing and just being, I never would have looked down. Just writing about it brings the whole experience back, including its restorative power.
It is so ironic. Our culture would have us believe that only in doing and being busy are we accomplishing anything, when by non-doing, making space to notice and reconnect with the rhythms of nature, we can accomplish so much more of what really matters in life: experiences of richness, insight, restoration, meaning, perspective, and a deepening sense of wellbeing.
This is not a new discovery. Just read what Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, or any number of other wise souls have to say. Muir gets the last word on the subject:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Oh yeah. The whoopie pie was amazing.