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Awe in the Rainforest
Leaving the city (and the kids) behind.
Earlier this week my wife Shelby and I spent the night away from our kids for just the third time ever. Our twin boys, now a little over two years old, stayed with their grandparents on the Washington coast while Shelby and I traveled north to Lake Quinalt, where we stayed at an historic lodge just inside Olympic National Park.
The lodge opens up to a large grassy field that slopes down to the lake, with chairs, picnic tables, and lawn games that give you an excuse to spend time there while enjoying the view.
This is a place where you come to relax.
But with a rainforest right behind the lodge, this is also a place where you come to hike.
We managed to get two hikes in during our 24-hour trip, a short one on the afternoon that we arrived, and a long one the next morning.
During that long hike, the Quinalt Loop Trail took us first along the lake and then up into the rainforest, where we walked through a dense, lush environment unlike any I can remember experiencing in the U.S.
Traveling by foot through that environment, at a walking pace, allowed for a gradual transition into a world so distinct from our everyday life. We left streets and houses and screens behind. We replaced them with trails and tress and birds. Our state of being and mode of thinking changed too, just as Annie Murphy Paul describes in her book The Extended Mind:
The time we spend scrutinizing our small screens leads us to think small, even as it enlarges and aggrandizes our sense of self. Nature’s vastness—the unfathomable scale of the ocean, of the mountains, of the night sky—has the opposite effect. It makes us feel tiny, even as it opens wide our sense of the possible. It does all this through an emotion that we confront most commonly in nature: awe.
That’s what we felt in the rainforest: awe.
The experience of awe…prompts a predictable series of psychological changes. We become less reliant on preconceived notions and stereotypes. We become more curious and open-minded. And we become more willing to revise and update our mental ‘schemas’: the templates we use to understand ourselves and the world.
As we enjoyed the renewal that comes with time spent in nature, we also had the chance to imagine a different future for ourselves and our family. For a few years now we’ve been chatting about moving out of the city and onto some land.
One major reason for that potential move is to surround ourselves and our boys with more nature. We want them to have their own experiences of awe on a regular basis. That’s not impossible in a city, but it does feel harder.
In Hunt, Gather, Parent, Michaeleen Doucleff describes awe as a parenting technique through this story about her daughter Rosy from time spent in the arctic with an Inuit community:
One evening, Elizabeth, Rosy, and I are walking back to Maria’s house at about ten p.m. Over our heads, the sky is majestic: the sun hangs low over the bay, and streaks of clouds glow pink and purple.
We’ve been working all day, and Rosy is cranky with tiredness. She sits down in the road and begins to whine. I ignore her. So she starts to cry and scream. Elizabeth walks over to her, kneels down, and says with the brightest wonderment in her voice, “Look at the beautiful sunset. Do you see the pink? The purple?”
Rosy looks over at Elizabeth suspiciously. Her brow furrows, but she can’t resist Elizabeth’s sweetness—nor the sunset. Rosy turns to look at the sky. And her whole expression changes. Her eyes soften. The crying stops. And she stands up and starts walking.
It occurs to me that Elizabeth just did something I’ve seen many other Inuit moms do while I’ve been in Kugaaruk. The moms practice an incredibly sophisticated psychological tool with children from ages one to sixteen: they teach them to replace anger with awe.
If the boys had been with us on that hike in the rainforest, I would have pointed out this tree that we saw just off the main trail:
“Look at how that new tree is growing on top of that old stump,” I’d say. “Isn’t that cool?”
My wife called it the alien tree because of how the roots look like tentacles wrapping around prey, something otherworldly.
That’s the thing about our disconnection from nature: there’s so much interestingness out there that we’ve never seen before that it feels like another world to us.
I’d like to spend more time in that world, and more time sketching it out too.
I created the illustrations above from photos I took during our short trip. Drawing forces an attention to detail that we don’t typically have time for. It slows us down and sharpens our focus.
Typically I draw for more conceptual purposes, to help me remember what I’m learning or to think through a complex problem. But it was nice to be reminded of the simple pleasure that comes from drawing what you see.