When Nature Talks, You Listen

By Sonya Rehman

“We need the tonic of wildness, — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.” – Henry David Thoreau

A trail through a sunlit Pacific Northwest forest.

There is much to be said about a change in perspective, an easing of a heavy heart and a newfound sense of inner fortitude after spending some time in nature. In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, encourages individuals to re-connect with nature through their five senses. A gentle sensory experience which cleanses one of the world and its accompanying anxieties.

During the start of the lockdown in Pakistan in 2020, Syed Abbas Hussain, a development consultant, found solace in regular walks around his neighborhood in Lahore. Spending time in the outdoors helped Hussain make sense of the unknown, lifting the fog in his mind amidst a bizarre era fast unfolding in the world.

“COVID-19 led to an unprecedented period of isolation which triggered anxiety and depression in a lot of people and made things worse for people already experiencing these issues. The silver lining of this dark cloud which was hovering over the whole world was that there was a lot of discussion around mental health and the importance of self-care and coping strategies,” Abbas states. “I personally experienced the therapeutic properties of nature walks which till today, I look forward to everyday. It is my downtime and daily respite from the rigours of life which allows me to exercise a visceral form of mindfulness. In the evening when the blazing heat settles a little, I set off for the park right across my house. I have noticed that on days when I am stressed, following a walk I feel a sense of calm and peace.”

For Aneeqa Ali, the founder of The Mad Hatters, a domestic travel company in Pakistan, tourism in the country suffered huge losses at the hands of the pandemic. While she mentions that some companies began spearheading online tours, it just didn’t cut ice. For Ali, physical mobility and interacting with local communities is imperative for an interactive, in-the-flesh, tourist experience.

However as lockdown restrictions eased in Pakistan and while international travel was still uncertain, Pakistanis were compelled to discover their own country during the holidays.

“Another trend which has cropped up due to the pandemic is experiential travel,” Ali says, “Instead of more populated, urban areas, people are preferring trips closer to nature and the wilderness. One reason is because of the anxiety that the pandemic brought with it and being close to nature always helps ease those tensions. Another reason is that people aren’t comfortable traveling to crowded, tourist spots and instead of staying in big hotel chains, they prefer renting out small, cozy Airbnb’s with their families and staying clear from exploring densely populated areas.”
For Ali, the pandemic was a “huge challenge.” For one, she didn’t know how long she was going to be cooped up at home. After all, being out in nature is not only her passion, but also her bread and butter.

“From ordering groceries online to being a part of countless Zoom meetings, the pandemic was very difficult to get used to. Even now we aren’t sure when things are going to get back to normal again…who knows how many more waves we’re going to be hit with,” she says, “Not having any financial cash flows for the first few months was a major setback, and on the other hand, when you don’t have anything to look forward to work-wise, it takes a real toll you. But one thing that helped me overcome my mental block was traveling when the situation had eased within the country. I got the chance to visit the northern areas to train local communities and frontline workers in ways to protect themselves from the spread of COVID-19. I remember coming back feeling very refreshed.”

A nature lover by birth, Fatima Saeed Khan, an alumni relations manager at a local university, states that one can learn a lot about oneself in solitude, while in the outdoors.

“[It] not only heals you, but also gives you the energy to overcome your hardships, while rejuvenating you in the process,” she says. “The clear, blue sky always tells me that the world has more clarity when you zoom out of your life and focus on the vastness of it. The air tells you that you’re thinking too much, that you need to breathe and to let things be as they are. That’s the beauty of nature, it teaches you that everything in your life has both a beginning and an end. If anything stresses me out, I go for a walk and allow it to clear my mind and break the pattern of thoughts in my head.”

Recently, for his 34th birthday, Younas Alam Chowdhry, an operations manager at a school network in Pakistan, decided to walk 34km from his house in Lahore all the way to the city’s historic walled city and back again. It was a personal challenge that Chowdhry felt compelled to accomplish.

“It was the furthest distance I’ve ever walked in my life,” he says, revealing that he religiously walks, runs, cycles and does yoga every week. But it wasn’t always this way. Chowdhry states that he was the very definition of a “couch potato.”

But four years ago, something in him snapped.

“I was in a very bad place in my life, my mother was very unwell and I had the odds stacked against in me in each and every way. A friend suggested that I should go for a walk – it was something I had been wanting to do for a while,” he says, “That one walk was exactly what I needed to clear my head and over the course of two years, my walking and running mileage has been roughly 2,700km.”

Losing his mother to a terminal disease right before the lockdown, Chowdhry had trouble processing her passing. The grief, particularly her final days in hospital, was breathtakingly painful. The trauma stood as a terrifying mountain that needed gentle introspection.

But walking and running – the physical activity of it all – helped unravel Chowdhry’s colossal heartache. Each footstep on the tracks, in parks or on mountain trails, pushed him closer to an acceptance, a final goodbye to his mother and his old self.

The result was a startling sense of self-awareness, and an understanding of the utter fragility of life. The other day I came across a stunning poem (‘Wild Geese’) by the late American poet, Mary Oliver:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

It has been little less than two months since my family and I moved to a far-flung corner of Islamabad’s suburbs. We’re a good 35-40 minutes away from the main city and about half an hour from the mountain resort of Murree.
While the shift took weeks before we finally moved in – transporting all our belongings right till the very last hairpin from one end of the city to the other end – nothing prepared us for what it was going to be like to actually live smack in the middle of absolute wilderness.

We’re in a cute little town which is sparsely populated. The number of scorpions, spiders, snakes and assortment of crazy bugs far, far outnumber humans. It took me a month to stop jumping out of my skin every time I opened the door to my study only to find a fat scorpion ready to pounce and sting me to high heavens. Okay I’m exaggerating. To be fair, 90% of the times they’ve been indifferent to us idiotic hulks.

The spiders too – the variety! The most horrific are these palm-sizes ones which have the longest, skinniest legs…and they don’t just move, they practically glide across the floor, faster than the blink of an eye. Don’t shrug it off, if you were in my place you too would look under your covers every half an hour like a mad woman to make sure one wasn’t crawling up your leg!

The storms? Don’t get me started. Given the sprinkle of houses in our block, one single thunderstorm can get even an atheist on his knees praying to the Almighty. Just trust me on this. In fact, the wind velocity can be so harsh at times that the wind makes these ‘wOoOoooOo,’ ‘OoOoOoOo’ noises; quite like how it used to sound in Ooty, India, during a trip in my childhood.

Nature in my town, is not just jaw-droppingly beautiful on misty mornings, when the clouds can be seen kissing the tips of the hills, but also terribly impervious to us mortals.

In my case, in these past few weeks, nature hasn’t healed me. She has kicked my ass. Worries and fears that I thought were neatly repressed in the sea of my subconscious, have revealed themselves with every introduction to an otherworldly (or dangerous) bug, or a wrathful thunderstorm.

I mean, the last time I hid in a cupboard during a storm I was what, 8-years-old? But thirty years later, here we are, back in mummy’s cupboard, this ‘fierce’ 38-year-old, wincing as the wind howls away outside the bedroom window.
But a few weeks is all it took to become a bit more thick-skinned. Now when I see a scorpion (which is rare after using copious amounts of rubber lining on all my doors and windows), I barely scream, if at all. And when the storm begins, I know it will abate within the next 20-30 minutes. I rationalize with myself. Nature works according to her timetable, her fleeting, intense moods. She’s boss and that’s the way it will always be.

Tonight, as I type out this article past 1:00AM, the night is quiet. It’s so quiet, that if I close my eyes, I can see the hills, the street down my house, the view of the entire town from the rooftop. The quietness is a meditation with your eyes wide open.

What was that? I can hear a stray dog – one of many that we feed every day – letting out a wolf-like howl. It doesn’t feel eerie anymore, but comforting. I imagine his sweet face, his wise eyes, his wagging tail…the old boy is part of this gorgeous vista, an important component to the scheme of things here, far away from the horns and the sirens and the to-do business of the city.

Do I, a die-hard city girl, feel lonely here? Yes I do. On many occasions. But the air is ripe with promise on a continuous basis. Time has slowed down. I have had time to reflect. Or maybe I’ve changed, maybe I’m teaching myself to make the best out of everything? Perhaps. This is temporary, everything changes. Just like the seasons and what nature wills. She has a mind of her own you see.

I’ve begun to appreciate life very deeply (no, not the scorpions, yet…) and just like Mary Oliver’s poem;

the world offers itself to your imagination
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I feel a sense of excitement, even when the nights are achingly quiet and void-like, I am delighted remembering that so much of what is to come to me is still unknown and will remain unknown until I am in it, until I step into each future that is being paved for me.

Perhaps that’s what nature does to you, it doesn’t just take you apart and heal you, it makes you remember who you were before the world diluted you…child-like, soft-natured and always in a state of awe.

Khaleej Times

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