Forest Bathing: New Hampshire Woods

This weekend, I took a much-needed respite from New Jersey, end-of-year school minutiae, and general modern angst.  Normally,  I don’t like to travel on Memorial Day, but my body and mind were yearning from green.  While most of New Jersey headed for the shore this holiday weekend, my husband and I planned a four day get-away to Vermont.  The traffic was non-existent.  Everyone was headed in the opposite direction.  We zipped up the New York State Thruway and onto the beautiful scenic backroads of Vermont. 

Mountains rose up all around us, and I instantly felt at peace.  This is where my mind and body belong – up among the green and growing – deep in the green valley protected by the tall mountains all around. I feel safe here.  I feel like I can finally let down my defenses and lay down my cares. I meditate on one rolling mountain after another like giant green waves lulling me into a restful state. “Relax… breathe…rest,” is my mantra.  I vow to let go this weekend, to not check social media, stay away from cellphones, laptops, and televisions. I just want to be present to nature.

One day of our adventure, we drove from the Green Mountains into the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  Again, we took scenic backroads, past red barns, meadows of wildflowers and fields dotted with cows, sheep, horses, and goats.  Little sleepy town greeted us with good coffee, farm-fresh food, and country hospitality.  Spring in the mountains is opposite of the rush of New Jersey.  I longed to stroll along the hiking paths of the Kancamagus Highway.  We went to numerous favorite spots and arrived in the late afternoon at Sabbaday Falls.  This is a mile hike to a gorgeous waterfall.  I love this place.  I once came face to face with a moose here.  Everyone on the trail stood frozen in suspense.  I looked up and saw this gorgeous creature and smiled, “ Oh, you are beautiful,” I told him quietly.  Our eyes met, and I thought I saw an appreciative smile before he bent his enormous head down towards new-green leaves.  I continued on my way, changed.  I encountered one of God’s remarkable creations, saw him close-up in nature.  What an honor!  Having experiences like these in the wild, I believe, is essential to everyone’s health and well-being.  As Richard Louv notes in his book, Last Child in the Woods, “Progress does not have to be patented to be worthwhile. Progress can also be measured by our interactions with nature and its preservation. Can we teach children to look at a flower and see all the things it represents: beauty, the health of an ecosystem, and the potential for healing? ”

All that go-and-do exhausts our senses, and we need to get back to the woods to regain our balance.  Since I learned last year of the Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing” to reduce stress and maintain a strong relationship with nature, I have reminded myself of the importance that the natural world has on mankind. I am fortunate to live in an area with access to forests, swamps, farmland, and meadows.  And I’m doubly fortunate to have the resources to travel periodically to beautiful wild places. 

So as I walk along the riverside path, up and up and up to Sabbaday Falls, I soak in all I see:  water cascading over river rocks, trees clinging to the side of steep cliffs, and above me a lush canopy of green.  I am surrounded by beauty.  It is easy to feel calm here.  I float on this current of green.  Listen to the thunder of the waterfall, the gurgle of the river, and the songbirds’ lilting tunes.  I try to capture this moment of peace with my camera.  I focus and shoot all along the path wrapping myself in the healing powers of the forest.

No Reason to Fear the Wind

Spring is normally a busy time for me at school.  I’m in charge of standardized testing, grade placement, and wrapping up all student support documents for the year.  Everything in my entire being yearns to resist this regimentation.  Rather, my body and mind desperately need to relax, refresh, and find things to celebrate.  I have no desire to analyze test scores, manage student placement for fall, or organize all the hundreds of pages of documents that I am responsible for keeping current and filing away in the right places.

Instead, I want to relish warm weather and blue sky.  I want to delight in bright colors and the air filled with the steady hum of bubble bees.  I left school one day just a half-hour early to find my way to my local garden shop, Back to Nature.  It is a place I revisit regularly to find my balance and connect with green and growing things. 

As I park my car and enter the space, I immediately feel at ease.  Yellow and purple pansies greet me.  I take a deep breath.  I consciously drop my shoulders and let go of all the stressors that have been accumulating throughout the day.  They all mean nothing .  What matters to me is beauty and flowers and the spiraling bees drunk on honey.

I let myself wander, taking photo after photo of spring colors in the form of flowers.  I inhale their fragrance.  I’m not at school any more.  This is my small moment to enjoy.

For about a decade or more, I’ve been slowly growing my roots.  Letting go of toxic people even when they are family and allowing myself to feel joy. Growing my roots was a hidden and slow process.  I have always felt a little untethered, aimless, impulsive. Now, as I approach seventy, I want to slow down, consider the small wonders all around me, take them in, and sit in gratitude with them.  I don’t want to rush around being anxious and fearful.  I am cultivating faith and peace.  I know I will need a steady supply of these as I age.

The garden sheds that in December were filled with holiday wreathes, flowers, and decorations are now transformed for spring.  Bouquets of tulips and daises line the shelves.  Statutes of bunnies, frogs, birds, and turtles hide in every corner.  A large banner hangs in one shed proclaiming “When the root is deep, there is no reason to fear the wind.”  I stop and smile at this garden wisdom.  I know I need these moments for my roots to dig more firmly into the ground.  I know that tending my inner garden is crucially important.  Without these bits of respite.  I would once again feel in flux, at the mercy of the slightest of breeze.  Now, I have dug in deep, spread my strong and agile roots.  Now, I can’t be easily toppled.  Now I stand firm.

April Poetry #2 – Vernality

I am a word lover. I am intrigued by meaning and morphology. I love to ponder where words have been, and what I can possibly sculpt them into. Can I take an old word and use it in a new way? Can I find an out-of-date word and breathe new life into it? I just learned that a lover of words is called a logophile. I think I knew this before but it’s good to be reminded. Sometimes it’s comforting to have a label. I am a logophile. I am a poet. I am a lover of springtime.

This week, my students prepare to take standardized tests, and I am the school’s testing coordinator. My mother would have found this amusing and ironic because as a child I had overwhelming test anxiety. As I dispense testing tips and strategies, the children obediently nod and listen. I tell them that the most important testing tip I needed as a child was not to get lost in the reading passages. I told them I would sometimes get lost in the subject matter (i.e.: yellow-bellied sliders) or wander off thinking about a particular word I came across. I warned them to stay focused and read the passages like they were important directions. Don’t get off track. Don’t dawdle. And whatever you do, don’t daydream. They giggled when I acted out my 9-year-old self getting lost in a reading passage. They could see themselves in me, and they knew that although it wasn’t the best strategy for test-taking, wandering into daydreams can be so much fun.

So here is my wandering for today. I am going to play with the Old-English word, vernality , which came from Haggard Hawks, an account devoted to obscure and interesting English words. I loved the sound of it on my tongue – ver – na- li – ty. Vernality. Can you see green sprouting up along the creekside, can you hear the bird rustling in the underbrush, can you feel the sharp pricks of the thicket around your ankles, the slight chill in warming air? That is vernality, the quality of being vernal or spring-like.


Sun, over the horizon,
brightening morning,
warming the winter earth.

Red buds on black branches,
Chartreuse buds,
bulbous and dew-kissed.

The straw-colored field,
blushing green,
Dotted with crows.

Cardinals lilt in the air
like crimson marionettes,
sky to blooming branch.

Vernal pools appear,
spring peepers sing,
amphibian love songs.

Forsythia and daffodils
pay homage to the sun,
glistening golden.

Nature’s Cure

I am blessed to live in a place surrounded by parks and preserves.  Nature is all around me.  There are trails and hills and rivers; wildlife is at my fingertips.  Hawks circle above my head.  Fox slip through the underbrush barely escaping detection. I have always taken solace in nature.  When the world becomes too much, I invariably turn to nature.  As I walk the trails, I am on the lookout for something to surprise me, something to capture my imagination.  Nature is the best cure for writer’s block.  There is something always out there ready to be discovered, ready to be made known.

Hiking the Great Swamp in Winter

Twisted and weather-beaten,
A long, fallen  branch
Undulates under the pond ice,
Emerging serpentine,
Ready to strike
In the frozen air
Suspended in mid-hiss.
Its black, knothole eyes
Search for prey,
Its scale-clad body
Casts a dark shadow.
Nearby, a curious mouse,
Skitters across the ice,
Slides on silent feet,
Pauses for a moment,
Then, without trepidation,
Hurries on home
Through the frosted leaves.

Thank you to TWT: Slice of Life and SOS: Sharing our Stories
for providing me with discipline to write.

Power to Pause

This week, my thoughts came in quick, short phrases.  They begged to be placed into poetry.  January is a perfect month for reflection, and I am able to get to the center of my thoughts when I compose poetry.  Everything seems to fall into place, and I feel comforted by the rhythm of my thinking.

Experience of Place

For the past thirty-six summers, my husband and I have been fortunate to be able to wander and travel around the country – our beautiful diverse country: mountains, plains, deserts, and coastlines. Most summers are now spent in the Green Mountains of Vermont or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the rocky coastline of Maine.  This year is different.  Very different.  This year is a summer of home and schoolwork. As I look towards the fall, I yearn for those wondrous summer places.  I look back at photographs and remember.

Place is so important to an individual’s identity.  It shapes so much of who we are and who we choose to become. Right after college, I worked in a small publishing firm in New York City.  It was there that I became familiar with Roger Hart’s work on psychological geography and his book Children’ s Experience of Place, a study of eighty-six children in a small town in Vermont and their playtime experiences. (You can listen to Roger Hart’s interview with Ira Glass on This American Life – Act Three: “The Geography of Childhood”). Almost every child had a secret outside hiding place where he could discover new things and imagine. Hart explains how important it is for children to explore freely to develop a sense of self and strong identity.

When I became a classroom teacher, I brought that sense of wonder to the children I taught.  I carefully and deliberately brought their attention to the world around them whether I was teaching reading, writing, social studies, or mathematics. No matter where I taught, the children and I would go out exploring our environment.  In the suburban school, we fished in the river near our school and set up a fish tank with the creatures we captured: tadpoles, minnows, and an eel. In the city school, we adopted trees in Central Park measured their circumference to determine their height and sketched them throughout the seasons. We wrote a letter to the Parks Commissioner with a plan to help the trees on our school’s street to grow.  The children began to see themselves as integral to their environment. And I began to notice the social and emotional affects the outdoors made on children.  They became less stressed, more curious, and definitely more confident.  One parent wrote me at the end of the school year thanking me for all I had done. This was not the first thank you letter I had received, but it was the first letter I received that thanked me for teaching her child how to climb a tree.  This parent understood how important a child’s connection to his surroundings could be.  And that shy, hesitant boy left his third-grade year feeling brave and able to meet any challenge. 

The most profound experience I have had with how the environment fosters a child’s sense of place was when I was a 2nd grade teacher.  One of my students, Brianna, was exceptionally shy and displayed signs of selective mutism.  She spoke in barely audible whispers and continually hunched her shoulders and ducked her head.  I spent the year trying my best to bolster her self-esteem and encourage her to take small risks.  She remained mostly silent.  That is until one spring day when we went on a field trip to a local farm.  We were taking a tour and visiting all the farm animals.  Our guide gathered the children in a circle and asked for a volunteer to gather eggs from the chickens.  To my surprise and delight, Brianna raised her hand.  I caught the guide’s eye and motioned for him to pick Brianna.  He did and handed her a basket.  Brianna bravely skipped to the chicken coop and went in.  Immediately, she came running back without any eggs and her head bowed. 

I walked over to her and said, “You were so brave to volunteer.  Do you want me to go with you and we will gather the eggs together?” 

She nodded her head and we turned around quickly towards the coop.  It was dark and musty and smelled like chickens. I was going to model for Brianna how to reach under the chicken and grab an egg, but all of a sudden I had an amazing realization.  I was absolutely terrified to put my hand under a pecking chicken! 

I expressed this aloud:  “Oh my goodness.  This is scary.  I hope she doesn’t peck me.  I don’t want to do this, but I want the egg.  Okay…  I’m going to do it…  Don’t peck me… Here I go…  Oh, it’s so warm…  I have it!” 

All the while, Brianna began to giggle and then laugh loudly.  I looked at her and smiled.

“Do you want to gather the next one with me?” I asked. Brianna giggled and nodded.  I put my hand over her hand, and together we picked another warm, brown-speckled egg. We put them in the basket and walked out of the coop into the spring sunshine.

Brianna ran ahead shouting, “We gathered two eggs.  Mrs. Emery was so scared.  She was so funny!”

From that day on, Brianna chattered easily with me and her classmates.  Taking that one risked changed everything for her, and it taught me the power of place, how interactions with nature can truly heal.

That was many years ago. I’ve heard from colleagues that Brianna grew up to become an actress.  And when I think of her, I smile and remember that spring day when we gathered eggs together.

Often my poems express that connection between the natural world and human identity. Now that I’m stationary this summer, I use my backyard and our surrounding parks for solace.  I know these days of August are precious, and I intend to keep wandering close to home.


The dark-eyed junco

Flits under the thorny

Brambles and black mulch,

Her blue-black body

Camouflaged among

The twisted branches,

She is well hidden

Only her sharp, quick

Movements betray her.

How many years have I been

Sitting on awkward hands,

Head bowed wishing,

Wishing to be hidden?

If I could make my body

Small enough, dark enough

I could hide away and

Be forgotten.

The dark-eyed junco

Perches on tender branch,

Ruffles her slate-gray feathers,

Contemplates the summer green,

Her white tail feathers flash

As she takes off

Into the cloud-filled sky,

Daring to be fearless

Suddenly, she’s gone.


Your golden head rises

Out of the rusty rubble

Just another weed –

You push your way out

Between cracks in the sidewalk

Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass

You grow strong –

Impervious to your surroundings

Your leaves, jagged toothed

Spread green along the old gray ground

You are not discouraged –

You’ve never depended

Upon rain or fertilizer

You provide your own sunlight.