Finding wellness in the woods
When I moved from the Arizona desert to the woods of western Massachusetts in pursuit of a Ph.D., the change in scenery was initially overwhelming. As I walked home that first evening through my forested neighborhood, I couldn’t help but picture countless horror movie scenarios. The vast trees and darkness felt suffocating. Soon afterward, classes began, and I dove headfirst into my research. As the lab became my primary home, my wooded neighborhood became a forgotten part of the scenery.
With the onset of the pandemic, I suddenly found myself in my house, staring out each morning into the trees. The drastic shift to Zoom meetings, presidential press conferences, family emergencies and sheer confusion created a mental health crisis that felt both global and personal. I found comfort in the simple scenery beyond my window, and I eventually ventured out.
What began as an avoidance of cabin fever quickly evolved — from brief jaunts during lunch breaks to longer weekend adventures on more distant trails. The vast network of paths running right behind my own home astonished me. I often got lost that summer, and somehow getting lost was the best part of the journey.
I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly avid hiker, and I certainly couldn’t keep up on an extended backpacking trip. Even so, I continue to find solace in the backyard woods of my own neighborhood. Whether I’ve had a long week at the lab bench or cooped up at a desk, the lure of the woods invites exploration.
My slow, rhythmic walking pace may not win any medals for speed, but it is an act of meditative awareness. This is far more effective for me than any guided meditation, as I allow my mind to wander with my feet. And when I allow myself to get too lost, at least I know I’m never too far from home.
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