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Patrice Vecchione



I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown,
for going out, I found, was really going in. 
     John Muir

The beginning was unadorned, not in the least spectacular. My infatuation with the woods started with the most basic act: I bent to tie my shoes, and placed one size 7.5 sneaker-clad foot in front of the other one. Into the forest I went, along narrow, poison- oak bordered paths and on former logging roads, up hills, around bends, past trees and more trees, into sunlight and more often into shadow and dappled darkness. I didn’t set out to revive my imagination, didn’t think curiosity would be awakened, had no idea that joy would overcome me, and inspiration, too. A celebration of leaves and bees and wind wasn’t on my agenda, and I certainly wasn’t going out to find another avenue into the self.

I went into the woods for exercise—enjoyed the air filling my lungs when I walked up hills, felt my head clear, became enchanted by the views. Over time though, I became newly and deeply curious about the earth. Nature began working on my imagination, and I began to change. My calf muscles did and so did my way of thinking. My predictable way of looking at the world and at my own life shifted. I found possibility where there’d been none. The subjects of my writing and the way in which I wrote got turned upside down. I noticed how one thing was related to another, made surprising leaps of imagination, asked questions. Pictures formed in my mind that I rushed to put on paper upon returning home. My collages became influenced by the earth’s bounty and beauty. Poems and essays seemed to write themselves. Attention to detail and nuance grew in me, not only in the art I make but in my whole life. The boundaries of my curiosity dropped away.

I’ve walked in untrammeled beauty with my mouth hanging open and, chances are, you have too. Often it’s the littlest things—a fleck of mica, a downward drifting leaf—that get me. The other day I discovered this: when that leaf drifts downward, if the angle of the sun’s just right, you can see its approach not only by looking upward but by watching the leaf’s shadow as it nears the ground. One early spring day, Monterey naturalist, Nikki Nedeff, bent down to a little low growing vine, snapped off a leaf, crushed it between her fingers, and held it up to my nose. Yerba buena: beauty! It’s the scent of cinnamon mixed with mint and, maybe, chocolate. The name yerba buena, California’s original name, translates to mean good herb. Nature reels us in this way. No accident, either. She does this on purpose, just as flower nectar corrals the bees. We are drawn to the scent too.

Alan Watts wrote that the beauty in Chinese calligraphy “is thus the same beauty which we recognize in moving water, in foam, spray, eddies, and waves, as well as in clouds, flames, and the weavings of smoke in sunlight.” Much of the art we make is but a mirror of nature mixed with our very human creativity, our individual inclinations and our desire to see if we can, in fact, create beauty, too. Not all of nature’s beauty and not all of what draws us to art is tender, calm and lovely. There’s vitality in the rough and brutal—the horrible beauty of a fire, the hawk with the rabbit in its mouth. Being in the presence of the earth’s magnificence, it’s not surprising that we want to respond. Making art is one way to have a relationship with the natural world—all the forms its beauty takes.

“Green, oh, how I love you green. Green wind. Green branches. The ship on the sea...,” wrote the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, grabbing nature by the collar to pull her close. This is enchantment, and more. The Spanish verb, querer, can have a dual meaning, depending on how it’s used: to love and to want, to love so much you want and to want so much you love. It makes love physical, not always erotic, but in the body. If you say, “Te quiero,” to someone, you’ve got more than your eyes on them. Nothing abstract about it. Lorca was inspired by the Gypsy music called Deep Song and the dark side of the soul, the duende, and everything he wrote about bore the mark of passion, curiosity and of wonder.

Even the many small things of nature—crickets, snails, cherry blossoms—caught his attention, and he wove them into poems. In his poem, “Tree, Tree,” Lorca writes about a girl picking olives, “with the gray arm of the wind wrapped around her waist.” The wonder he wrote with is that which children possess, that as adults we wish we could reclaim. And we can. Imagine feeling so intensely about the natural world. To want is to love, at its most basic, is it not? In addition to the blue of sky and waterways, the brown of the desert floor, green is nature’s most frequently worn dress. Might we not call out for green with desire too? Might not holding even a leaf or a beetle in your open hand fulfill you?

How did Lorca happen to notice and love all that he did and then to write about it? He was born in the nondescript farming village of Fuente Vaqueros and his family also had a home in Granada. Both places gave him access to abundant beauty. A constellation of things led Lorca to view nature as intrinsic to creativity, to becoming the poet he was—the hours he spent wandering the countryside and freely exploring the Alhambra, a passionate temperament, a preoccupation with death, particularly his own, which occurred when he was far too young. What the green world has to offer is no less real in the twenty-first century than it was in the early twentieth.

In French, the word journey, journée, refers to the distance you can walk in a single day. Walking is my favorite way to be in nature. But rarely do I have the luxury of an entire day to wander. Usually, it’s an hour or two, and even that can feel like time I’ve stolen from something “important.” Ha! Little thieves, my feet know better. For years, I spent most of my outside time on a bicycle, which is great for the distance you can cover and because it’s so much slower than a car, so you see more. On a bike you’re bare to the air, not encapsulated, which helps to destroy the illusory divisions between self and nature. But walking is far slower, and for observing the earth and the self, and for developing a creative relationship with nature, far better. Walking, you change your scene but not quickly, so that you get to witness the landscape—from the grandness of sunset to the minutia of slow-ambling bugs.

In her memoir, Bird Cloud, author, Annie Proulx, known for her writing about Wyoming and the West, writes, “Walking induces a trancelike state that allows the mind freedom and ease and encourages exploration of odd possibilities and improbable connections.” Many of our great minds—writers, artists, scientists—have found walking enhanced their thinking. Darwin began his day with a short walk. Charles Dickens wandered the London streets late at night. Einstein was a walker. The poet Wallace Stevens put it this way, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”

A couple of weeks ago, walking on Jacks Peak’s Lower Ridge Trail, a former logging road, I heard a sound coming from the low, trail-side bushes, and stopped. It was a small animal sound, kind of a peep, but not birdlike. A few feet further along I faintly heard the same sound. Curiosity lit, I placed myself between the two sounds, stood looking, listening, waiting. A gray mouse darted out from the brush, wiggling around, flicking the ground with its long tail. Two mice were talking to each other! My sense is that one mouse was saying to the other, “Buddy, where are you?.” And its companion responded with something like, “Here I am.” As I listened to the chatting mice, a poem written by a first grade student of mine, Emmanuel Lewis-Cedano, played through my mind:

“I am the wind,
quiet like a mouse singing
to his brother.”

If I’d been riding in a car or even on my bike, this conversation, and so much more, would have been lost to me.

There’s a place on the trail where once I found a near-perfect eggshell. Each time I walk by that spot I remember the surprise of finding it and carefully carrying the tiny shell home. Sometimes even what’s long gone can be returned to us when strolling along a path. Being in a kind of abeyance, letting the mind roam, clears out the cobwebs. Antonio Burgos wrote: “ ‘Can you smell the jasmine?’ ‘What jasmine? There isn’t any.’ ‘The jasmine that used to be here in the old days.’” Walking in the woods returns my life to me over and over again.

The best way to be in nature, to really be there, to take in the ten thousand things of it, is to stay still. Easier said than done. When I was a child, if my mother caught me sitting still for more than a few moments, perhaps a crayon suspended in my hand, she’d say, in her most exasperated voice, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” Obviously, my mother was no meditator. Each time she pulled me out of my reverie, I lost a bit more of my ability to linger in the place between doing one thing and doing another. Years later, I’m still relearning how to not rush out of the suspension of activity. The forest is a favorite classroom. The beach is a good one too. I used to pack a book with my apple and cheese for solo picnics. No longer. Never can I bring myself to open one. I’d rather read the butterflies, the spider webs snaking from tree branch to tree branch.

This essay is excerpted from a book in progress: The Alphabet of the Trees: Restore Your Imagination in Nature

Patrice Vecchione
Patrice Vecchione is the author of Writing and the Spiritual Life: Finding Your Voice by Looking Within and a book of poems, Territory of Wind. She's the editor of many acclaimed poetry anthologies for children and young adults, including Truth & Lies and The Body Eclectic. For 35 years, Patrice has taught poetry to children through her program The Heart of the Word. She offers writing workshops in Santa Cruz, Monterey, at Esalen Institute, through the Osher program at CSUMB and elsewhere. Also a collage artist, her work appears on book covers and she teaches collage-making workshops in her studio. The Knot United, a new volume of poetry is in the works as is the book this essay is adapted from, The Alphabet of the Trees: Restore Your Imagination in Nature. 


Spring 2012

John Chandler
Alta Ifland

Shiloh Hellman
Thad Nodine
Patrice Vecchione
Stephen Woodhams

Dane Cervine
Eileen Eccles
Peggy Heinrich

Lauren Crux

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