“Watch where you put your feet.” Excellent advice for an area prone to the surprise slither of rattlesnakes and copperheads when you least expect them. It was advice often repeated by my father as we were growing up, and I knew where he heard it for the first time the day my laughing grandfather said it word for word when I planted my feet in the middle of a steaming pile of something recently extruded by a cow.
I’m confident my grandfather heard it from his own father as a child as he farmed the same rocks and roots, stepped over the same logs and walked barefoot in the same tall grass and shady, hidden places.
People spend hundreds of dollars and more to meditate and learn to “focus their awareness,” but all you have to do is take off your shoes and walk across a field knowing that something scaly might also be enjoying the afternoon sun.
“A wise man walks with his head bowed, humble like the dust” says the fictional hero. That’s good advice as far as it goes, but if you adhere to that counsel here in these mountains you might bang your head on a tree limb or worse, a hornet’s nest, if you don’t glance up as well.
And that’s precisely why I like walking off the beaten path. You watch where you put your feet. You give a keen eye to eye-level. You watch where you put your hands, because the vine you’re using to pull yourself up the slope might break you out in itchy red blisters.
All the senses are engaged. You hear the conversations of birds and the ebullience of falling water, the gossip of squirrels and the warning of crows. You smell the richness of the leaf mould and the sharpness of a ramp or wild onion. A breeze touches your face, and cold creek water cools your brow. When you walk the woods properly you experience the total information awareness that bureaucrats dream of and artists take for granted.
Better still, with the senses engaged and the mind focused on each passing moment, time slows down. The constant chatter of internal dialogue ceases. The incessant noise of assessment, comparison, judgment, and worry becomes silent.
I’ve heard it said that we’ve all but lost the ability to appreciate the natural world in such a way, and that we’re losing the ability to focus, to concentrate for an extended period of time. We live in a state of constant distraction.
I’m not sure we’ve lost the ability as much as we have diverted it. We still have our artists and athletes, and a few remaining craftsmen. We may not be able to read and comprehend a compound sentence or follow an extended chain of reasoning, but we can focus for hours on a video game.
It has been said that we’re simply adapting to a world of rapid change and advancing technology, and the adaptations for a world made by hand are no longer needed. I cannot agree. As long as we live on this earth, we are creatures of it. We are not yet virtual machines with disembodied brains.
We may not need all of the skills and adaptations of our ancestors, but we should stop short of considering ourselves superior to them. With all of our technological advancement, our grandparents slept better than we do, and when I see the number of cars parked at the trailheads every weekend, I know I’m not alone in suspecting that the ancestors knew things it would behoove us to remember.