Recently, a very dear friend of mine was the victim of a crime. For reasons of pending charges, I can’t go into too much detail, but the story that followed the crime is an interesting one, so I’d like to share it. It brings to mind a quote by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, which is reminiscent of the quote I use at the top of this website –
What I know of the divine sciences and the Holy Scriptures, I learnt in woods and fields. I have had no other masters than the beeches and the oaks.
This story found me spending ten days in the woods, accompanied not by the victim of this crime, but by the criminal himself. This might make more sense if I add that the young man was the son of a very good friend.
After the crime had been committed, I spoke to my friend the victim, and she assured me that she had forgiven the young man’s trespass against her. Indeed, she wished that he might be helped in some way, since he was clearly on a downward path, but showed evidence that he wanted to turn his life around. So I spoke to my friend (the young man’s mother), and we agreed that perhaps what he needed was a little time in nature.
A Little Woods Therapy
It was decided that I would spend ten days with the young man in the woods. We would leave with no tent, no sleeping bag, no matches, no toilet paper, and no knife. It was us and the woods. My thought was that I could serve as a guide to help him find his own sense of responsibility and his own sense of self-esteem. Nature would be his primary teacher. My thought was that this young man would provide some of our basic needs, such as fire and food. The beauty of this approach is that I wouldn’t have to make rules and enforce them. Nature made her own rules, and put them very simply. For instance, if we didn’t provide for our own food, we didn’t eat.
A Foolish Endeavor?
I was told by some friends who work in the mental health field that it would be a mistake to involve myself in this young man’s life, but when I discussed it with my mother, who has long been a wise influence in my life, she suggested a different approach.
“We can’t be afraid of helping others,” she said. “Even when it might be dangerous for ourselves. That is why people don’t help the mentally ill — there is too much stigma, too much fear.”
Rebecca agreed, though it meant that we would be apart for ten days. “This could change his entire life,” she said. “And besides, it will be a great excuse for you to get out into the woods again.”
Master Oak, Master Beech
As I had hoped, nature quickly took the role of teacher. The young man had to learn to make fire without matches, and before he became adept, we spent a dark night and ate raw carrots as our dinner. We built shelters to keep us from the rain and cold, and I taught him the foods that nature provided in the forests and the fields. We were provisioned with some basic foodstuffs — carrots and potatoes and lentils — but there was little more in the way of comforts.
Nature created a perfect backdrop. In the woods, you feel insignificant and powerful all at once. We sat in our shelters during a pitch black night and felt the thunder shake the ground beneath us. We sat listening in the thick dark as something came creeping into our camp late at night on barely-heard footfalls. We felt hunger in our bellies, and learned what it’s like to want water. The young man spent a day blind, awakening his other senses, and a day silent, awakening his ability to see the world without words. We fasted for a day, and spent many hours perched in trees, watching animals or listening to the secret language of wind through leaves.
As the days passed, his churning mind slowed and quieted, and before long he learned to sit in long silences. By the end of the adventure we both were having trouble leaving the woods, even though I couldn’t wait to get back to Rebecca. He told me that for the first time in his life, he had something he could be proud of, something that gave a context to his life. He had found his place with the frustrations of trying to make fire without matches, found his place with the fear that comes when it’s pitch black and you have no source of light, and found his place with his own mind, that had always been ruled by impulsive actions.
Back to Civilization
Now that he’s back to civilization, I’m still waiting to see how long the forest’s influence will last. It takes only a short time in the woods and our lives begin to take on a different flavour. Enough time and we’re changed forever, made peaceful by the wild places’ influence. Whether ten days will have given him lasting change is still to be seen — he is writing the end of the story we began together in the woods. So far, things are looking good.
Some people thought it strange that I’d take so much time out of my life to help a stranger — especially one who had victimized a friend of mine. But is it not our gift that we can reach out to others, to make changes in people’s lives? Every day we have these opportunities, and if we seize them we beautify the world with our every action. It is my hope that this story might inspire all of us to reach out to others, to recognize when we can make a difference, even if doing so might disturb the usual flow of our lives. Each of us can play the roles of angels and Bodhisattvas, discovering true compassion and applying it to our treatment of both ourselves and others.
Nature As Teacher
My role was simple enough — to provide a sense of security when the nights were dark and frightening, to provide an example that showed that humans can be comfortable as barefoot creatures in the woods, and to encourage this young man to see his mental ‘problems’ as potential gifts — if only he could learn to ‘gentle’ the wild horse that was his mind. We spoke only a little of Zen and Awakening — it was the falling leaves and the pattering rain that delivered the real lessons.
I hadn’t spent this much time in the woods since my teens, and the experience re-affirmed my conviction that nature is one of our greatest teachers. I won’t soon be taking someone out into the woods again — at least not unless Rebecca comes along. But I’d urge each of you, if you get the chance, to at least find a few moments to stop someplace where there are trees and green growing things, and to sit in their midst and see if you can hear the soft reminders they whisper — reminders that can lead us home.
Rebecca and I invite you to visit our adventure journal at www.kentonandrebecca.com/journal.html =)