Story by Kari Blood, Kestrel Land Trust Communications & Outreach Manager.
It was a weekday, and normally I would be at my desk at the Kestrel Land Trust office in downtown Amherst. Instead, I put on my hiking shoes and shorts, tucked my binoculars, water, and bug repellent into my saggy old college backpack, and—feeling a little giddy and ridiculous at the same time—I headed out to explore.
No, I wasn’t headed out on an African safari, or an excursion into the jungles of Costa Rica, and not even to gape at the staggering beauty of the Grand Canyon on my own continent. My travels were much closer to home. In fact, nearly every time I put on my backpack this summer, the places I set out to explore were part of the place I call “home”—and I’m so thankful that they are.
Within 15 miles of my house in Hadley, I can set out in any direction and soon find a place where nature provides the setting, the sounds, the lessons, and the poetry, if you stop and pay attention. And though I always knew those places were there, I have rarely taken the opportunity to let them show me their magic, alone. Just nature and me.
The Gift of Time
This summer, I was grateful to have been granted the gift of 8 weeks to spend on sabbatical, relieved of daily work responsibilities after more than 7 years as a full-time staff member. A sabbatical is typically a benefit provided in the academic community, meant for research and travel, but recently more nonprofits are seeing the value in offering an extended period of time away from work to help long-serving staff members de-stress, refresh their minds, and reconnect with their passion for the mission. Kestrel is one of these foward-thinking organizations that has adopted such a sabbatical policy.
When it first began in early July, I immediately felt the clock of repose begin ticking and the internal pressure to “make the most of this opportunity” weighed me down, sucking at the joy I wanted to feel. What did I need to do with this time? What should I do? When I returned to the office in two months, what exciting stories and experiences would I be able to bring back to my colleagues to prove that my time had been spent with suitably worthy undertakings?
Because I spend so much of my work life behind a desk, simply getting outdoors was my main goal, and while I knew this was relevant to my work at a land trust, it didn’t seem like enough—at first. And yet, it didn’t take long before the shape of my particular sabbatical emerged and the value of this simple goal became clear.
Each morning, I would rise, look out at the blue sky and know that all I wanted to do was to be out there, beneath its mesmerizing brilliance.
What I would actually do soon seemed to matter less than feeling the sun on my face, tending to my gardens, allowing myself to lose track of that ticking clock while I watched bumble bees glide from one tiny flower to another or the felt the hummingbird’s wings softly rattle the air around my head as I stood still watering the plant he was feeding on.
I allowed myself to listen to the sounds of the crickets and cicadas, to look closely at the shapes of the leaves on the wildflowers growing in my perennial bed, to observe how the wind fluttered the oak and pine tree branches the same way the ocean currents move seaweed. I watched scattered pockets of sunlight appear on the grass around me and for a moment it seemed like magic as they disappeared and reappeared in a slow-motion pulse of light and life.
Over time, I forgave myself for this unproductive indulgence, and then eventually embraced it. In her powerful book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer says:
“When you have all the time in the world, you can spend it, not on going somewhere, but on being where you are.”
For me, this was the priceless value of my sabbatical experience: Not only to have had the deep release of simply being with nature and myself, but to have remembered how important it is for all of us to make this a part of our everyday lives.
Over the summer, I visited more than a dozen places where I could be closer to nature, from conservation areas in the Valley and the Berkshires, to state park trails, to the Cape Cod National Seashore. In each place, no matter how near or far from my actual home, I felt the power of listening closely to the voice of the land, the water, the plants, and the animals that allowed me to share it with them. There is deep comfort in this. As Kimmerer observes:
“A place becomes a home when it sustains you, when it feeds you in body as well as spirit.”
I realized that this is one of reasons the Pioneer Valley felt like home to me even when I first moved here. The land provides rich food for my body and my soul around every turn.
Taking the time to let nature guide your spirit to go, do, or simply be should not be viewed as an indulgence. It is as necessary to life as food and sleep: You could live without these things for a short time, but before long your physical, mental, or spiritual being will wither away from its lack.
Fortunately, I learned that we don’t need to take a sabbatical to make this “unproductive” but priceless time in nature a part of our lives. We only need to give ourselves permission, for just a little while, to let go of everything else. It will all be there when you get back, but your spirit will be in a better place when you do. It will be at home.