In witness of the healing powers of nature

The Sunday Escapist

In witness of the healing  powers of natureI asked my dad more than 30 years ago, when humanity’s role in the ecological stewardship of our planet first landed on my radar, how serious these threats were to the existence of my homeworld.*

“My Little Flower,” he reassured me, “I believe we have evidence that Earth has survived threats even greater than those we currently pose.”

It was only a few years later (though my status as “little” and “flower-like” were already highly compromised by this time) that my increasing awareness of acid rain and deforestation and the hole in the ozone layer and the whales that needed saving had pushed my anxiety back to the surface. I raised the point again with my dad. Our conversation was much longer this time, though I suspect the increased length and detail were influenced more by my advancing maturity than the intensity of the threat.

While the substance of my father’s later answer was not really different, my final analysis was more nuanced: the capacity of nature to self-heal is not in question, so much as homo sapiens’ ability to survive nature’s subsequent adaptations. He also cautioned me that our obligation to protect our own survival was imperative because our actions could potentially wipe out the survival of many other species.

But my belief in the regenerative powers of the natural world endured (though I freely admit confirmation bias on this point), and in the last quarter century I’ve observed countless examples.

The latest occurred on our Sunday morning jaunt up the Pacific Crest Trail, heading south from Walker Pass.

Incredible though it seems to me, this was my first time on that particular section of the trail, despite hundreds of journeys through our surrounding wilderness. In the past few weeks I’ve noticed an abundance of hitchhikers seeking egress out of our comparatively civilized corner of the desert in search of continued sojourns through the PCT. I was not about to let these visitors outdo me in exploring my backyard, so we made plans to view for ourselves this piece of the world-famous trail.

As we neared the end of our 30-minute drive to the pass, I pointed out to my husband the uncharacteristically green tinge on the surrounding hillsides. We talked about how the above-average rainfall this year has extended the bloom this season. Even more astonishing, he noted, is that you can barely tell that fire raged through those hills just a few years ago. I had indeed forgotten the fire and had to squint to find any signs of it.

We arrived at the unassuming trailhead (not much more than a stone-braced plaque and widened shoulder along Highway 178). The sun was only just over the horizon, and the chilly air left me questioning the wisdom of bringing a straw hat and no jacket. I needn’t have worried — after very few minutes on the trail, even in the early morning, a jacket would have been an unwelcome burden.

The trail itself is picturesque and relatively even in terrain. We sauntered** across about four miles in two hours, though our trek was frequently punctuated by pauses for pictures and discussions of the flora and fauna on display.

For the more serious hikers, a longer section of that trail eventually takes you through rigorous elevation gain to historic McIver’s Cabin. I’m told the more intrepid accomplish the 18-mile round trip in a day.

Instead of focusing on covering ground, I drank in the sight of the groundcover. There were certainly plenty of black and grey leafless trees lining the trail, and sometimes obscuring it — giving evidence to the afflictions of fire, drought and bark beetle. But below that was a mosaic of lilac and fuchsia and yellow and green. The skeletal trees themselves were outpopulated by hunter and emerald and sagey green varieties, and this feast of color was capped by an azure sky.

On my many attempts to capture the scene with my inferior iPhone camera lens, I couldn’t help notice this flourishing new growth attempting to swallow up the dead and dying around it, which once again depicted Mother Nature’s resiliency. As I pondered this concept, I realized it can only be truly witnessed where the wilderness has been preserved and not where our natural resources have been traded out for the toxins introduced by overindustrialization.

My teenage panic returned as I was momentarily overwhelmed by the multitude of ways our modern conveniences conflict with our obligation to conserve. Slowly, that feeling was replaced by a renewed commitment to impart to my children the love of nature that was instilled in me. That eclipses any other single habit of conscientiousness we can pass along to the next generation.

This is not an altruistic philosophy. Yes, I want to protect my planet. But at the heart of my motivation is a sense of self-preservation — and not just the one associated with my desire to see humanity survive whatever environmental disasters (natural or man made) lie ahead of us. But because the healing powers of nature extend to us, marveling at the rejuvenation of the world around me is restorative to my own spirit.

— Rebecca Neipp

* I may have also been trying to trap him into revealing to me whether this planet, which often feels so alien to me, was in fact my homeworld … to this day he remains evasive on this point.

** Years ago I ran across a beautiful quote by John Muir, a lifelong hero of mine: “I don’t like the word hike. I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.” Muir has since been eviscerated by modern etymologists, who claim that his citation is as inaccurate as it is inspiring. But I have clung to it over the years, in part for the romance of the idea, in part because it justifies my inability to plod through the rugged wilderness at anything faster than a saunter.

Pictured: Members of the Neipp family (technically, hikers on the PCT) — Photo by Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2019-06-07