I’m driving to Craggy Gardens when a baby bear leaps out of the woods on the right side of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I’m not driving fast on the snaking, hairpin bends, so it’s easy to slow down and watch the little black bear. I’m excited because it’s the first time I’m seeing a bear. People have been telling me that sighting one or several is common, even in the neighborhoods or outside someone’s yard. Asheville being such a wilderness, step away from a main road into a backyard and you might stumble on a hiking trail or acres of undeveloped forest. The bears often upturn trashcans looking for food. For this reason, I’ve been advised not to put my trash in the cans before collection is due. You don’t want to wake up and find the driveway littered with scraps of garbage and a dented trashcan. Baby bear crosses the road in front of my car, stretches its paws to climb the rocky barrier on the other side and realizes that it’s too difficult. So it crosses the road back to where it had sprung from. I say, baby bear, don’t do that so often because you could get hit. The rest of the journey, I’m taken in by the radiance of the trees, red berry trees, vibrant oranges, yellow and brown. The trees are strikingly alive I wonder if they’re aware of it. By the time I arrive at the gardens, I’m in a buoyant mood.
One of the reasons for spending time in the woods has to do with the perspective of combining movement and stillness. I didn’t always know that that’s what propels me. I always thought that well, it’s nice to get away from the everyday, and time spent in nature is as rewarding as time spent inside if you use it properly… The dimension of movement and stillness came to me recently after listening to the travel writer, Pico Iyer, talk about The Art of Stillness. “The intimacy and depth we get from going nowhere and sitting still.” The kind of clarity and calm we experience inside of us when we arrive somewhere in the quiet and embrace stillness. Where we never have to look at time because it’s not important or relevant anymore. Iyer suggests that it is this time we’ve spent going nowhere that’s going to sustain us in other areas of our lives. I feel that he articulates what perhaps some of us encounter, who enjoy alone time in the woods, open deserts, seas and elsewhere, but don’t normally dwell on the inner aspects of the activity to give it shape, to define what it is we truly encounter, deeply understand, or why we do it, other than the obvious reasons of mental, physical and spiritual health, fitness, discovery, beauty of scenery and so on.
On this particular hike, I’m on the Mountain-to-Sea trail, which in my understanding has no beginning or end but crosses in and out of states, the Appalachian and western NC regions. I come by a couple with two dogs and the woman asks if the trail loops. I say all I know is if they keep walking they might end up at Clingmans Dome in Tennessee or in Virginia, anywhere really. They turn around and I move on briskly. This time I have no companion. I’m alone in the woods, a walking pole in my hand that gives me false confidence how I might use it if I come across a pack of wolves or bear family. I’m carrying a hunting knife as well, strapped in my belt, and a pepper spray in my backpack. I realize then that it was a good thing to see the baby bear while I was still in the car. It wouldn’t be that joyful if I saw it now because I would imagine mother bear near. The moment the animals appear (in my imaginary), I become aware of a keen, listening sense. I hear the woods speaking, the squirrels from afar before they literally show up. I hear the hum of my own mind quieting down. In my head I’m slowing to a pace I’ve never known before as I’m moving swiftly.
The grass before me has been leveled, as if a large mammal was lying on it. In fact, the flattened area stretches wide it’s like ten large mammals were lying on it. I walk faster, the mind sharper, vision widening. I can see further than my eyes, the pores of my body opening, alert, coming into being as if for the first time. The heart pumping aha, blood rushing to my ears, warming my face, eyes and nostrils. I’m breathing, expanding, becoming lighter. I’m aware of me, teeming with life as I enter a cluster of pine trees. It’s as if the pines are walking inside me and I understand them. I’m in and out of them all at once. And then a vista, and another. Wide views in all directions. I stop. Take in the spectacular mountain scenery. My feet planted into earth. Grounded. I am small. Human. Little eyes and feet. Insignificant in this immense forest. Yet, I’m also large, expansive, growing into trees, mountains and what surrounds. All movement and noises stop. The work of blessing begins.
I bless the trees and wish them well, then realize they have no worries. They don’t live in fear like I do, and they have no need of luck like I do. But I bless them anyway, and feel my feet go deeper into the land, the spirit of the earth flowing into me. That’s when I find my still point. I’d like to say that it’s like finding the needle on a compass pointing North but that comparison fails. It’s like finding God. In that still moment I feel a connection to something-someone larger than I. A connection to dimensions and spaces inside and outside where individual quiet meets the quiet of nature. The voice in my head finds the silence that’s only possible with attentive listening to nothing. I open my palms to the sky so I could hold this moment but the moment will not be held, only glimpsed. I look at my hands and see how small they are, how vast everything else is, and I am happy to be present, here and now. In this stillness I am unafraid because I have no past and no future. I am porous. I have the immediacy of feeling deep comfort, peace and freedom.
Later, I will sit and lean against a rock. Drink water. Eat a peanut-honey sandwich. Look. Bless the animals, insects, baby bear, friends and loved ones.