Bathing in Beauty

“This sudden plash into pure wildness – baptism in Nature’s warm heart – how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, cooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us. Here without knowing it, we were still at school; every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us. Oh that glorious Wisconsin wilderness! Everything new and pure in the very prime of the spring, when Nature’s pulses were beating highest and mysteriously keep time with our own! Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and streams and the sparkling lake, all wildly, gladly rejoicing together!”
-John Muir

That glorious Wisconsin wilderness – in the last couple months, I’ve been introduced to the Wisconsin wilderness, and glorious is a fitting description. I’m going to write a couple posts about the stunning scenery up here, starting with the trees.

The forest here feels different from any I’ve encountered before. I suspect one reason is the vast size of this timberland. These woods are considered part of the Eastern Deciduous Forest, which used to stretch from Florida to Canada and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Although much of that is fragmented now, immense tracts of forest remain up here, and I think that is a key factor behind the unique feeling of these environs. In many ways, a forest is a single living organism (check out Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees for more on that subject). So the bigger the forest, the bigger the being you’re connecting with when you enter the woods.

Driving provides a good sense of the magnitude of the forests up here, you can drive for endless hours, surrounded by woods the entire time, broken only by tiny towns with populations in the hundreds. Riding in a car up here can be an amazing experience, especially on the little county roads, each modestly named with a simple letter, e.g. County Road C. I’ve found 45 mph to be the optimal speed for cruising the forest: fast enough to get there, but slow enough to appreciate the scenery. Coasting along a narrow ribbon of pavement, winding through a sea of green under a cerulean sky bespattered with downy clouds, it’s easy to forget the world and feel only the wonder the trees.

While driving is great for appreciating the immensity, to really connect with the forest and feel the awe, walking is ideal, especially walking alone. Don’t get me wrong, a hike in the woods with other people is lovely, but then your focus is on them, your attention is on the conversation and you’re still interacting with the human world. Walking alone in the woods allows me to perceive the forest on a different level, lose myself in nature and commune with this mammoth entity. Away from the things of man, all of my senses consumed by the sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of the Forest.

A mature forest is like a cathedral of trees, towering above and stretching off into an emerald infinity. I love the sensation of walking under a canopy of trees, it’s like a hug, a great big warm embrace from this colossal being. I feel soothed and comforted, tension melts away as I soak in the vitality of the trees. The Japanese have a term for this, shinrin-yoku, roughly translated as forest bathing. That’s a good term, because the experience is cleansing and immersive, especially if you slow down and really connect with the trees. There are lots of books on this subject, but a good one for slowing down and surrendering is Forest Bathing Retreat, by Hannah Fries.

After a couple hours in the woods I emerge cleansed and restored, refreshed and rejuvenated. Nothings is fixed, the world is still a mess, full of pain and suffering, but internally I’m aligned with the harmony of nature, so I can exist in peace and love. At least until my interactions with the world suck me back into the shared delusion of hardship and adversity, and once again I must flee to the wilderness to sooth my soul in that glorious Wisconsin wilderness.

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