The Tonic of Wilderness
Henry David Thoreau, the great Transcendental writer, sage, visionary, came to mind this week when I spent a few fine hours exploring the Audubon Community Nature Park just south of Jamestown in the fine weather. I walked the Orange Trail one day, taking the big loop out and back, and on the second day took the shorter but scenic walk out to the wooden overlook by the big pond. Afterwards, an hour or more later, I sat outside by the bird feeders sitting on a picnic table seat, letting the sun shine on my face and the breeze waft by. Mr. Thoreau would have approved. Anyone who was an English major at SUNY Fredonia will hear the fine professor Douglas Shepherd’s voice intoning, THOR-oh. Mr. THOR-oh. I hear it still, nearly half a century past. The writer himself advised, “say thorough. I am a very thorough man.”
It was a tonic, this wildness of the place, just as Thoreau says Nature can be. Our lives are fraught with busy-ness daily, details that fritter our lives away (as Thoreau said of us in our promising new land, even at mid-19th century), problems that confound us, illness, loss, grief. Sometimes months pass at a frantic pace, and we realize one morning, we have not stopped to breathe in a long time. That’s when we could use a trip to a wild place.
Wilderness need not be some mighty vast place. A wild place can be our own backyards if we are lucky where we feed the birds and enjoy watching them, knowing we are helping them through rough weathers and marveling at their endurance. A wild place can be a kayak paddle down the Chadakoin River to the boat landing where on either side we see forest and wetland that has looked the same for centuries. A wild place can be a major state park or national park. And a wild place can be a few hundred acres preserved by people who care about the environment and all its creatures such as the Audubon Community Nature Center just south of Jamestown.
This place — 600 acres of preserved wilderness — is tucked away on a road that offers an extraordinary view of the Allegheny Plateau contrasted against the placid farmland. Parking is free as are walks on the five and a half miles of trails. There are three major trails. The Yellow is the longest trail while the Orange is a comfortable mile long. The Blue trail is shortest though scenic enough with its overlook stretching out into the wetland prairie beyond.
We leave our cars in the parking lot and in five minutes we are deep within nature with only the sounds of the wild in our ears. The wind whistles through the trees so tall above the path. Here and there park benches beckon walkers to sit a while, to just sit. No phones. No noise of the modern world. Just the sounds of the wild and the beauty of wildness surrounding us. It’s a balm to just sit there in a forest glade, under the shade of the covered walkway, on a fallen tree. It seems all the cares of life fade into the distance if for a little while. Our breathing is slower. We smile. We stop hurrying. I’m tempted to write, it’s redemptive.
In that precious space we find wildness is the tonic of the world, a tonic sorely needed. On our journey through the woods and fields, we might see a mighty blue heron poised to fish in one of the many lily-laden ponds, a hawk soaring above us calling us kee kee kee. A family of geese with their butter colored goslings. A black snake may startle us and slip off below our feet back into the shadows. Painted and snapping turtles poke up their heads in the dark green waters. Green, bull and leopard frogs croak in chorus. If we are quiet, we might encounter a muskrat or two busy with their daily chores in muddy pond sides or a woodchuck sauntering across the grass. Chipmunks dash in pairs, zigzagging across the grounds, and the larger red squirrels sit above us in the branches, chippering away as if in conversation with all their brethren. Deer wander the park everywhere, often far across the wetlands. On any given day, visitors might see these creatures and others less common too.
The great bald eagle, rescued long ago, lives in a wooden sanctuary by the main building. She is larger than some children. Her wing span is broad as a tall man. It is miraculous to see her, eyeing us humans with a wary eye, unwilling to engage us. Perhaps she’s right. Humans are a dangerous species. Thoreau in his works Walden as well as his journals praised nature and scolded the human race. His voice echoes in our ears now, particularly, in a nation where environmental regulations are being stripped away. Thoreau is the guru of conservation and proponent of our great need for it. He warned us not to lust too much for fancy things, money, prestige; he admonished us for working too much and playing too little. It is he who shook a disapproving finger at over-industrialization and reckless land use. If we want to preserve the human race, we had best preserve nature, or in the end, the land will shake us off like fleas.
In Mr. Thoreau’s journal, “Walking,” he encourages us to saunter not just walk through nature. Sauntering, he says, is more deliberate, a conscious state of thinking and reflecting while walking through the wild. It cleanses the spirit, he said. It is a pilgrimage of sorts, this sauntering through wilderness. It reconciles us with the natural world. It allows us to see a larger world. We gain perspective. Like other Transcendentalists, Thoreau believed we see and understand God in Nature.
On the way back, we stop to sit a while in the Monarch Butterfly Garden with its nod to the great ornithologist from Jamestown, Roger Tory Peterson. Inside the main building, visitors can wander the bookstore, meander through the live animal exhibits and see tortoises and turtles, fish and snakes.
But the best part is walking through the wild, sauntering mindfully and quietly, outdoors, in tune with nature and communing with the open air. There’s a magic to it, this wondrous place. We leave renewed, deep inside. We are washed clean for a while by the tonic of such wilderness.