Borrowing the Forest: Nature Walks on Native Land
“Focus on the now.”
“Put the past to rest.”
So goes a short list of adages to help us remember that life is more than our worries about the future, or our scars from the past. The only real moment we’ll ever have is this one. But in our quest for peace of mind through presence, we sometimes forget the past and go blind to its resonance here today. A few weeks ago, I read Linda Karlen’s great piece on how the history of a place affects our experience walking in it. Her work inspired this article, and though she wrote of what we remember, I want to talk about what we’ve forgotten.
It makes sense that nature where we go to escape the din of modern living. The outdoors can innervate us with what our careers take away; it can imbue us with creativity and zest; it can clear the thought-pollution that swirls in our heads.
This is the world of the Indigenous peoples who inhabited the lands that became the United States. Though many of our academic history books start in the 1600’s with the founding of the Chesapeake Bay and New England colonies, North America was already full of people and cultures long before. In the Northeast and Canada, huge confederacies of Iroquois and Algonquians sprawled for thousands of miles. To the south, the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw peoples cultivated chiefdoms into nations. The Comanches built a vast empire in the Southwest, and the Sioux forged a six-nation alliance in the Great Plains. They all had complex political structures, far-reaching trade networks, elaborate belief systems.
Today, we often conceive of the great outdoors as an oasis. In much of our writing, nature is poetically described as untamed, pure, and virginal – the antithesis of the filthy and overcrowded and corrupt cities of humans. But most of us fail to recognize that pain and loss are embedded in the wildlands in most places too, because most places were once inhabited by Natives.
More than a decade later, I found myself in graduate school studying with a professor of Indigenous History, who was herself Native. Every high schooler in America has heard of the suffering of Native peoples, but to delve this deeply into Indigenous histories, and to study the ripple effect of those histories into the modern world, caused me ineffable distress. To date, my work for that seminar was the most emotionally difficult experience of my career.
But what do I mean when I say “excised from our history classes…and absent from the public mind”? My hometown’s official website briefly notes that some nameless Indians were “visited” by the conquistadors – but says nothing of conversion and murder. O’Neill Park’s website neglects to mention Indians altogether, and instead recounts the brave trek of the conquistadors through a seemingly unpopulated wilderness. The majority of public history, in fact, tends to scrub the ugly details of our nation's past, consigning them to the dim and dusty archives of research universities. Our history’s darker truths are, in a word, unread.
Forest bathing emphasizes mindfulness – the practice of focusing on emotional openness and sensory experience as a way of mentally decluttering. We look at colorful flowers, listen to the cheerful birdsongs, feel the crunch of leaves beneath our feet, smell the aromas on the wind. But mindfulness does not necessarily imply that we acknowledge only the present moment. In fact, we can experience the present through our senses while retain our awareness of the past. On a nature walk, we can acknowledge that our present experience is only possible because of the path that history took to arrive at this moment. Who stood here long ago and did exactly as I’m doing now? Who had an entirely different experience here? Who was deprived of a moment like this?
Today, my nature walks are still peaceful and euphoric, but a part of my mind remains fixed on the invisible fingerprints history has left all around the Canyon. I relish in the magnificence of great trees, but wonder about the bones and cultural artifacts swallowed by the ground I tread on. I revel in the quiet of the woods at dawn, but recognize that this serenity exists in part because of all the Native voices that fell silent. I try to enjoy myself, but I also try to remember. In a society that has forgotten, remembering is a duty, and a conscious act.
The Pyrenees, Spain
September 20-27, 2018
Our first Spanish-language training, taking place beneath the breathtaking Spanish Pyrenees. Relish in the majesty of the mountains!
Auckland, New Zealand
November 6-13, 2018
Escape the world in quiet New Zealand, where our training at Bella Rakha Retreat Center will immerse you in an exotic wilderness.