Morning Stretch

Yesterday morning I thought of my friend Movement Amy as I was outside watering plants around my yard and stretching down and pulling 100’ of hose and balancing on rocks and off camber surfaces and stooping and swaying my arms and I thought ‘geez how many million things are firing right now in my body to make all these things happen without me thinking about that until just now and how good it feels to use it and revel in it as I move.

I noticed she’s opened a new chapter in her book of whatever it is we’re all doing on this planet:

If you’re local, you should check her out. She’s the goods. If you’re not local, she’ll also make you your own special videos and send them to you with internet magic. I got 3. Game changers.

No more events today.

Saturday was open. Up early and made coffee in the underground lair while listening to the Bosstones. Headed out for a walk with Titus.

Talked about nihilism and child prodigies. Sartre and the Stoics. The weekly menu and cooking rotation as an element everyday existence. Russian prisoner camps and optimism. Canadian Literature and its identity crisis. Drank coffee.

Later. Bike ride. Old haunts have changed color. Watched some light dance in the sky.

May, 2019
Same spot January, 2021

Soon I will eat my fill of instant-pot French-dip sandwiches and most likely fall asleep watching the Habs game before I pull myself up the stairs to collapse and sleep the sleep of Ivan Denisovich. I have a bed and some SkratchLabs for tomorrow so tonight I am the King of all I survey.

That’s it. You’re up to speed.

Productivity & Distraction

Cal Newport dropped Staying Productive on Distracted Days over on his blog and it’s a nail-on-the-head observation for me.

“Productivity” is a slippery term. It’s often used to refer exclusively to the rate at which you produce value for your business or employer. I tend to apply it more broadly to describe the intentional allocation of your time and attention toward things that matter to you and away from diversions that don’t.

A lot of days, this probably involves a solid push on professional activities, as craft is an important part of cultivating a deep life. But not every day. If there are consequential national events transpiring, or you’re dealing with a crisis in your personal life, or you’re not feeling well, a productive day doesn’t necessarily require steady progress through a task list.”

Since the switch to working from home as a result of Covid-19, this has become a daily reality for me. I’ve come to look at it more as being ‘productive’ on the project of what David Cain likes to call ‘getting better at being human’. Sometimes that means day-job work and sometimes it applies to other things as well. In the end, both streams benefit.

Physiological Resonance

Theres a 90+ acre area of river flats about a 10 minute walk from my house. It’s land that is for all intents and purposes uninhabitable – it floods every spring. There’s a road on it and nice access to the Nashwaak River. There are fields on it where hay was harvested. For over 10 years I’ve walked with my dog and ridden my bike down there in every kind of weather. Waded in the river in the summer’s heat and snowshoed across several feet of snow in the winter. I know I haven’t been the only one, I’ve seen lots of locals down there from time to time. Most, like me, respectful of the fact they were on someone else’s land, but some people not so much.

It recently changed owners and when it was up for sale I walked down there and would fantasize about turning into some sort of ‘park’. A place where people could walk, bring their pets, get close to the river and nature. The new owner intends to put cattle on the property and as such they are fencing it all off and the ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Keep Out’ signs have gone up. They are completely within their rights to do so – I have no complaint with them – but I’m disappointed I won’t be able to go down there any more.

I thought of all this reading an article by Lucy Jones, Pathways in the Urban Wild.

Studies suggest that when people spend over twenty minutes in “urban nature,” levels of two physiological biomarkers of stress—salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase—drop.

…If it’s been raining, and I can smell petrichor—that metallic, ferric scent of the earth after it’s rained—then brainwave activity linked to calmness and relaxation may be triggered. Listening to birdsong rebalances my nervous system. Watching the daisies move in the wind soothes mental fatigue.

…Then, there’re fractals. Fractals are abundant in the living world. From ferns to lightning, salt flats to ocean waves, and, for the purpose of my urban nature safari, plants and trees and sprays of “weeds” that peep through the cracks in the pavement. The deep-green leaves on these plants are fractal, meaning a self-repeating pattern of a shape that varies in scale, rather than being repeated exactly. Once you know what fractals are, you’ll see them everywhere.

Richard Taylor, Professor at the University of Oregon, discovered that patterns with a fractal dimension of 1.3 (most fractals in nature fall between the 1.3 and 1.5 interval) provoked brain waves suggesting a relaxed but focused state. It turns out that the retinal vessels in our eyes are fractal, so when they view a fractal shape, our eye locks into place, so to speak. Taylor called this “physiological resonance.” We often forget that humans spent 99 percent of our evolutionary history in contact with the natural world, and there may be a genetic disposition within us to prefer fractal shapes, like Savannah-type shaped trees such as acacias, as well as landscapes with prospect and refuge and water sources. When it feels relaxing to look at these sprays of weed in the cracks in the pavement, it’s partly a response to an inherent genetic memory.

On the news this morning there were discussions around the rise in calls to doctors, therapists and associations for mental health assistance since the start of Covid-19. This should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. I myself have come to the conclusion that the best thing anyone can do in these uncertain times is to keep themselves as physically AND mentally fit as is possible given the circumstances.

People living on the sharp end of nature deprivation are not given fair opportunities for stress recovery, restoration, and relief from mental fatigue that connection with the living world offers. The way land is owned and controlled is connected to who is allowed to feel the deep joy and calm of being with wild things.

…I experienced this recently while paddling and swimming in one of our favorite nearby rivers. It was a scorching hot day, and we’d taken a net out to look at minnows and admire the banks, sequined with turquoise damselflies and cellophane-winged dragonflies. I was hoping to see one of my favorite emergences: pearlescent mayflies on their one day of life on earth. We walked to a stretch of river I’m attached to, spotting swallows and hearing the sound of the cuckoo on our way. Swimming in this bend of river became an essential place of healing for me during periods of postnatal depression over the last few years. Alongside clinical help, being in the cold water, among the poplars and kingfishers, was sometimes the only thing that could ease some of the psychic and hormonal storm.

While we were sitting on the banks, an angler arrived and told us we couldn’t be there, that the river was “private fishing land,” leased to a local anglers’ society, and we were forbidden from being in it or on the riverbanks. The bailiff might be around, and he had a dog, he said.

Later, I confirmed that this river, the main river in my town which stretches out into the countryside, is indeed leased to a private fishing club (fewer than 80 people), so the townspeople (110,000) are not allowed, legally, into it. I’ve been back once, but I stood still at the water’s edge: held back by a feeling of shame and the discomfort of being in a place that is not meant for you.

I have plenty of other places I can go for walks and ride my bike – literally stepping right out my door. I will not want for lack of places to seek some physiological resonance.

Where I live is already decidedly more rural than Ms. Jones’ locale but her article has reminded me of something I’m always trying to keep within reaching distance of my day-to-day experience, and that is there are a lot of people that simply don’t have access to ‘the Outside’ in the way I do and can’t access it with the ease that I can and I remain extremely grateful for that.

Get More Awe

Almost daily I’ve been walking to this spot and sitting alone in silence. The insight and inspiration it has given me is hard to convey.

In the past few months, I’ve been taking a lot more walks. I take a short one almost everyday after my morning zoom call/meeting with work, usually only 20-25 minutes or so, but I’ve been taking longer ones too. I’m fortunate that I can walk right out my back door into almost wilderness – unfortunately it’s being developed for houses – but there’s still some nooks and crannies you can sneak into and feel like there’s no one around for miles.

I often stop somewhere and sit and just look around. See how many things I can notice. Count various critters seen. Wonder about the type of trees or why leaves change a particular color. Lately I’ve stopped taking pictures, no matter how good the scenery – it’s really just about that moment.

Today I came across this article on Raptitude, The Healthy Emotion We Don’t get Enough Of – and I get it. I’ve been fully awe-ing out on my walks.

A recent study has identified another beneficial ingredient of walking: the emotion of awe.

The researchers believe awe reduces self-preoccupation, promotes connection with others, and fosters pro-social behavior. It does make sense that feeling the vast scale and mystery of nature’s processes might make the human brain less consumed by worries about housing markets and doctor’s appointments.

You don’t need to have Yosemite in your backyard to find awe. A single tree is awesome, in the word’s true sense. It’s a towering plant that grew from a sprout, making wood out of sunlight, spreading tendrils through the ground beneath you, at speeds slower than stillness but with sidewalk-buckling force. It stands there every night, and every day, performing this mysterious and unstoppable work. There are billions of them, and if you give them enough time they’ll cross continents.

I often look around and find myself thinking, “so much of what is here is older than me. So much will still be here when I’m gone.” It doesn’t come from a morbid place, but one of, well, awe. That these things are so complex and resilient and incidentally, don’t give two shits about me and my trite problems. It’s very humbling and liberating. Having just finished reading David Suzuki and Wayne Grady’s Tree: A Life Story has probably helped. Never mind that I didn’t understand half of the biology – it still gave me new insight into the complexity of the earth and its creatures as well as the interconnectivity of all things. It couldn’t have been a better primer for autumn walks.