Jaw Bone Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Tree Canker Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Costume Change Chrysalis Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, PhotographerWhen life throws scary at you, what do you do? As we increasingly consider mental and emotional health issues and strategies, I find that my answer is that I go to the forest. Of course, I go there when things are going smoothly too, but I agree with Henry David Thoreau when he wrote, “When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood.” He, in fact, recommended the “most dismal swamp,” but that is a little too slimy for me. I will stick with solid soil.
A few weeks ago I spied a bat dangling from the bricks on my front porch as I gazed at the moon just as I had asked my young students to do. It reminded me of how in Janell Cannon’s picture book Stellaluna, a young bat survives a predatory owl’s attacks, falling “down, down…faster and faster, into the forest below.” She clings to a branch until her strength gives out, then “down, down again she dropped” into an unlikely predicament. Bats and harvest moons are iconic figures of this season, and as I ventured out for a sanity walk in the Cache National Forest, everywhere I looked I saw more.
Fall forests are full of chilling scenes, and I was first struck by a gruesome sap bleed from a gaping evergreen canker. The yellow ooze seeping seemed beautiful somehow. I don’t remember ever being so captivated by a wounded plant, and because I lingered, I also spotted a chrysalis containing a caterpillar’s costume change on a neighboring tree. Next to that were the witchy remains of other withering forbs.
Beneath my hiking boots was a toothy jaw grinning amid fragile leaf skeletons scattered on the forest floor. Even as I swapped away the cobwebs I didn’t see ahead until it was too late, the eerie beauty of nature eased the tormenting worries in my life. There’s a Chinese Proverb that says, “You can only go halfway into the darkest forest; then you are coming out the other side.”
A good walk outside is great for the distressed heart and mind. I needed to find the unlikely power in autumn icons. As Mary Shelley wrote for Frankenstein, “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” Next time you are frightened by the unknowns or scarred by the realities, consider falling into a forest.
I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I’m wild about Utah.
Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Text & Voice: Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes
“…[A] word of caution: Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out…and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.”
Ed Abbey penned those words waxing elegiac on a barstool in Hoboken, New Jersey. I read them decades later on yellowed pages in a rain-drenched tent somewhere in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. When the rain stopped and summer ended, I enthusiastically disregarded Abbey’s first cautioning. I jumped into my car and rushed to the desert.
Another decade has passed since then, and Utah has become home as I’ve spent those years heeding Abbey’s instructions: walking and crawling over sandstone, through thornbush and cactus, blazing trails with spots of blood, finding and falling in love with places. The Colorado, the Green, the San Juan; Bears Ears, Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge; Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion; the named and nameless places in between—the cloven topography where we slogged through flash flood debris, broke through the ice of slot canyon pools, and howled at the setting sun flashing shades of red we’d never seen. After a time, the trails I blazed no longer led to vistas, but to memories.
It’s not just the canyon country I fell in love with, though. I came for the desert, but I stayed for the mountains. And after walking their well-blazed trails, I shambled down the ones overgrown and choked with disuse; and when those ran out, crawled on hands and knees. And I saw things. More importantly, I found something: perspective—of place and of home—perspective gained from the many secrets divulged by mountains and running waters, red rock amphitheaters and alpine meadows. It has been a great privilege to share the stories of those places with you all. They are my love letters to their secrets. My family is off to find and fall in love with new places, now, but I’ll always be Wild About Utah!
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service
Additional Sound: Courtesy & Copyright J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin and Friend Weller
Text: Josh Boling, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Josh Boling Utah A Love Story
Each step down the trail is a question. What is beyond that ridge?
Each pause to look, a reflection. Why is this here, and how?
There’s a cognitive reflex we humans have developed over the millennia called ‘instinctive elaboration.’ Basically, when our brains are exposed to a question—whether we’ve asked it ourselves or someone else is asking—every mental resource at our disposable is devoted to formulating an answer, or at least attempting to answer, elaborating on prior knowledge and the evidence in front of us. Our brains are bathed in serotonin in the process, and the mind’s natural instinct is to relax into diligent calculation. An example: “Why do California Condors have bald heads?” Your brain has probably just been hijacked by mental images of one of Utah’s rarest and most unpleasantly beautiful species; and I’m guessing you feel great about it.
Asking questions while exploring the natural world doubles down on this process of cerebral euphoria. Our brains are already hyper aware of our surroundings when engaged with nature. Asking questions about those things with which we are engaged magnifies that awareness—focuses it.
In a dry desert wash, I bent down to pick up what I had just kicked out of the sand. I turned the small chunk of petrified wood over in my hand a couple times, admiring the streaks of color, wondering what elements were there, what organic compounds they had replaced. After several seconds, I dropped it back into the sand and looked up to realize I was in fact several minutes behind my party. They hadn’t realized I’d stopped. I hadn’t realized they’d gone. My mind had been hijacked by questions about colors in the stone.
I carry a small, thin journal with me into the wilds. I write questions in it. Sometimes, I even try to write answers. Mostly, I just get lost in thought.
I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah!Questions
As a youth living minutes from the canyons east of Salt Lake City, I spent many Saturdays with my father carrying a backpack with sandwiches and his worn field guide to North American mushrooms. I don’t remember exactly which trails or natural wonders we encountered as we walked; we never carried a notebook or a pencil. That was decades before I’d carry a smart phone in my pocket. I wouldn’t say that our experience was without value just because I lack a tangible record of it today, but I wonder why it didn’t occur to either of us to document any of it. Now, when I am out exploring, I typically have my phone at the ready, snapping photographs of wildflowers and pinecones on the trail. My iNaturalist app and field guides provide identification facts instantly, and I move on. What am I missing when I don’t take the opportunity to slow down, sit down, and appreciate the wild details surrounding me? It actually wasn’t until decades later in a Utah Master Naturalist course that I opened a page of a nature journal and began capturing what there was to be wild about exploring the mountains, wetlands, and deserts of Utah.
Nature journaling is nothing new. Charles Darwin kept thousands of observation field notes. Lewis and Clark documented our American West as well. In Jacqueline Davies’ children’s picture book “The Boy Who Drew Birds,” John James Audubon says, “I will bring …my pencils and paper… I will study my cave birds every day. I will draw them just as they are.” As a school teacher, I ask my students as we explore the magic of Hardware Ranch, Bear River Bird Refuge, and Logan River to write and to draw. We carry composition notebooks, erasers, colored pencils, magnifying glasses, and rulers in sealable plastic bags. We date and title each entry, noting the weather and our location on outlines of Utah, and then get into the details from our five senses. What do we see, hear, smell, feel, and, sometimes even taste, like when we are at Antelope Island with Friends of the Great Salt Lake naturalists learning about pickleweed?
The children don’t always have the luxury of just snapping a picture with an iPad or smartphone on our place-based field learning experiences, and I hope that their engagement with and blossoming attitudes about keeping nature journals stick. In the book “Keeping a Nature Journal,” Clare Walker Leslie quoted Frederick Franck about just this: “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen.” I know I am not alone in thinking, especially when I am not wearing my teacher hat, that I lack the skills to draw natural subjects in any recognizable way. That cannot be an excuse, though, for not taking the time to quietly contemplate what I’m experiencing, being mindful, as naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton wrote, once “the ripples of my presence settle and let nature resume,” and recording it on paper as a permanent memory. There are some who say that we should be present in the moment outdoors and create a journal entry of the most striking memories upon return, but I would submit that engaging in trying to capture nature in a field journal in the moment only heightens the entire wild experience. I’ll share two examples from my recent adventures.
Along the trail down to the banks of the Muddy in the San Rafael Swell a few weeks ago I saw what I think, based on my iNaturalist suggestions and Deserts field guide, were huge yellow bee plants (Peritoma lutea). They were gorgeous exploding firecrackers of color complimenting the deliciously fragrant blossoming bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), so I stopped, crouched down, and took three photographs with my phone in varying degrees of zoom to capture the details. My intent was to go back to camp and draw it in my nature journal. I have the pictures, but I didn’t get around to writing or sketching a thing.
I am convinced that every time I open my nature journal to that page, I will remember that day with that hairy insect, and I am also convinced that I’ll never know all there was to appreciate about that bee plant I failed to take the time in the moment to capture in my field journal. There are so many resources online about nature journaling techniques, from a formal Grinnell-style field journal to tips for drawing flowers and bugs. There are also opportunities for citizen scientists interested in contributing to Notes from Nature projects sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute and zooniverse.org to digitally transcribe field journals. Explore the possibilities to be wild about nature journaling.