After living most of my life in the Northeast corner of the U.S. where high humidity is frequently a dominant feature of local weather patterns, I now live in the dry, high desert climate of the Black Hills of South Dakota. In addition to adjusting to cultural differences, it has also been interesting to observe and learn about the differences in local flora and fauna. Not surprisingly, stuff that grows where it’s wet is often totally different from stuff that grows where it’s dry.
Having grown up in congested suburbs and cities, I must admit that I did not pay much attention to nature during my childhood. My parents were not outdoorsy people. Once I spent two weeks in a Girl Scout camp in upstate New York, but that was the extent of my exposure to living in the woods. My mother appreciated the roses, dogwood tree and azaleas in our front yard, but she was not a gardener. We didn’t even have pets. In grade school I recall learning about butterflies and their emergence from cocoons. One day I found a cocoon on a branch, took it home and put it in a jar expecting to watch the birth of baby butterflies. What hatched instead was about 100 praying mantises. My mother freaked out and immediately ended my observation of nature in action.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I got introduced to trail running and, by extension, hiking and even a little bit of camping, albeit mostly with an RV. At first trail running was really hard for me. The roots and rocks, steep climbs and descents were alien and daunting. But eventually I came to really appreciate being in the woods. That exposure was enough to inspire me to become a lover of the outdoors, regardless of the season. The wide open spaces and abundant public land of my current home has increased that appreciation even more. Having said that, though, my knowledge of living things that reside in natural habitats remains incredibly paltry. The good news is I now have many friends with backgrounds in things like wildlife biology, ornithology and horticulture who have kindly been willing to share their knowledge with me. Now when I hike I find myself actually making an effort to observe the plant and animal life around me. Although I still rarely remember the names of things, I do notice many more things than I ever did before.
Recently I journeyed back to western Massachusetts for a hiking trip with friends. It had been many years since I had been there and I had forgotten how lush the forest can be. The area we were in had recently experienced abundant rains which brought out a profusion of leaves and flowers. When I left South Dakota the greening and blooming were still in very early stages so the proliferation encountered in New England was almost like sensory overload. The trees seemed enormous and the flowers riotous in the variety of colors and shapes.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip and a good reminder of the vastness of our country and the many regional differences. But I was grateful to return to the wide opens spaces of my current home. Still I commented on these differences to a friend recently and she said, “Here you need to think small.” It’s true. Even the deer and the squirrels are smaller here, but that doesn’t make them any less significant. Also we have a surprisingly wide variety of wildflowers in the Black Hills, but some of them are tiny. Little gems that only reveal themselves to the most patient and careful observer. Some flowers, like the hearty wood lilly, appear only as singles rather than in groups. They display a rare red bloom that seems to shine out in the middle of pine cones and ground cover. Living here has helped me to become more discerning and attentive to detail. No longer do I take abundance for granted. Yet life is tenacious even in the most seemingly inhospitable places. Here we see tiny trees and flowers clinging to the sides of rocks, returning to bloom every year despite wind, hail and temperatures that can reach into the double digits below zero.
All of these traits provide lessons that relate directly to my usual themes of mindful movement and practice. First, there is the call to be present in the moment. Paying attention to my immediate surroundings, rather than lamenting the past or worrying about the future, allows me to experience the joy of noticing what’s right here right now. Without that mindfulness I might miss out on some elusive and beautiful treat.
Secondly, there is value to “thinking small”. Little things can make a big difference. For example, sometimes the tiniest of modifications can turn a yoga or Pilates move from something dreaded into something do-able. Also small changes can result in big gains. Followers of this blog know that I’m a strong advocate for taking baby steps toward whatever goal you have in mind. Rather than overwhelming yourself and risking injury or turn-off by trying to do everything at once, take small steps and increase slowly. Start with 2 or 3 repetitions of a movement instead of 10. Hold the yoga pose for 1 breath instead of 5. Walk to the corner of your street or to your neighbor’s driveway and back rather than hiking for 3 miles on your first day out.
Long-time teachers in many disciplines often tout the benefits of adopting a “beginner’s mind” regardless of your level of experience in a particular discipline. This is because beginners usually have no idea what’s going to happen when they are just starting out. They have fewer expectations and are more willing to simply allow the process to unfold. Whatever it is that you want to do, if you start slow and practice regularly there will almost certainly come a day when you suddenly realize you are doing more than you thought you could. That’s a great motivator for continuing your practice. The key is that release of expectations. Don’t get hung up on the outcome. Just pay attention to the process and observe what is happening in each moment.
Your own ability to move and breathe is as miraculous as the amazing variety of living things that surround us. Treat your body with the same reverence and you will find its unique beauty.