Have you ever felt like your life could be eerily narrated by Dolly Parton’s song “9 to 5”? Every morning, you “tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen. (Still) pourin’ yourself a cup of ambition. Out on the street with folks like you on the job from 9 to 5. (Please modify to the Japanese equivalency. Thank you.)
Like Dolly, your commute is shared by the same school of black suits in a larger sea of concrete. Moving along your pre-programmed path, you unknowingly get sucked into the crowd, becoming just another cog in the wheel. Yet, it doesn’t stop there. All of your day seems automated—you wake up, go to work, and then head home. In between you stop at the conbini—and if you’re lucky—on certain days you meet friends at a bar or restaurant after work. You hit the snooze button and repeat it all again.
Then one evening as you wait for the train, you suddenly notice the stranger standing across the platform from you. It’s strange. You’ve seen them before, but where exactly? You study them closely for a moment, noticing how life has drained from their hollowed face and their body stiff in anticipation for the evening’s rush hour. Like most people waiting, they’ve disconnected from the present moment, trading it in for easy daydreams and an Instagram post on their phone. There’s an announcement about the oncoming train that catches your attention. You abruptly turn to look at the station’s green clock. Fifteen seconds later you turn back and instantly freeze; realizing that the person you were looking at all along was you.
Don’t worry, it happens to all of us.
On days like these when I feel like a stranger—less than myself—and like there’s a growing dissonance from within. I know then that it’s time to recharge. It’s time to go back into the wild and get reintroduced with the natural world.
For me, hiking or going to large forested parks is where I find solace.
The trees remind me to slow my steps. The fresh air and scent of pine regulates my breathing, and naturally the sounds of Dolly begin to dissipate. As the sun dances through the branches above, I touch the lower leaves and trace the rough bark with my fingertips. I quietly tune inward and remember what it is to return to myself, to return home.
Growing up in a small, rural town in America, nature was all around me. Through its enduring presence, I discovered early on how deeply embroidered we all are with it. Not just in an anthropocentric sense where the natural world is seen as simply a resource to harvest. Rather, it’s something much deeper. We are one with it.
A great way to explore this inherent connection is with the term “interbeing.” Coined by the renowned Vietnamese monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, interbeing is the idea that everything’s existence is reliant upon everything else in order to manifest. In Thay’s book, The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, he employs the example of a sheet of paper and a cloud to explain this relationship.
He states that, “without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper.” In the case of these two objects, things that appear completely unrelated to most of us are in actuality a part of a larger continuous cycle. Both playing a crucial part for something or someone else’s existence.
A more digestible analogy I like to use is right and left. Right cannot be defined without determining what is left. Another is a flower, which cannot exist without all the elements that contribute to it being one: the dirt, water, sun, the bees that pollinate it, etc. This principle applies to us as well. We are inexplicably linked to and are a part of the natural world. We all need it and it needs us. Yet, with the lures of concrete jungles and a hyper focused world where we want things now, it can be hard to recognize this interdependence. And it can be even harder to remember it.
Fighting this erasure in and outside of ourselves isn’t new. Rather, it has always been a part of the larger fight for social justice at least in the West. Historically, colonization and racism wasn’t just about the systemic dismantling of BIPOC communities from their native lands. It also was a separation from their culture, collective memory, and identity that was directly tied to it.
This disconnection continues today in the fight against climate change where most of the communities that are vulnerable are communities of color. Despite this, we are often left at the ground level in positions of labor and out of the greater conversation and decision making of environmental stewardship. Leaving many of us to feel like natural spaces aren’t for us. I mean why would it be when most outdoor adverts, well-known environmental conservationists, and nature shows are rarely hosted by BIPOC?
This lack of representation is further reflected in a 2018 report published by the George Wright Society (Scott & Lee, 2018)[i], which shows that Black Americans account for less than 2% of all visitors to national parks. The majority of which are located in rural, mostly white areas. The distance and cost to travel coupled with the reality of being a social anomaly only adds to our barrier towards reconnection.
Still, there are many bent on reclaiming natural spaces and filling in the lines of the environmental narrative where it was once erased. One of which is photographer Chanell Stone. On her website, she states her current focus is the ”exploration of the Black body’s connection to the American landscape.” This is exemplified in her recent work, “Natura Negra,” where Chanell challenges this view of disconnection through the greenery that’s often overlooked in vulnerable, gentrifying – and largely Black neighborhoods.
Another individual rewriting the outdoor discourse is social activist and avid-hiker Evelynn Escobar. Utilizing her passions to make change, Evelynn is the founder of Hike Clerb. An intersectional women’s hiking focused on empowering others to reclaim space in the larger hiking community not only as a right, but also a form of protest.
Where to Go?
Rediscovering the magic of nature is not only an external trek, but also an internal one. Like any relationship, it takes an ongoing conversation where you must be open and patient to build trust and understanding. Luckily, practicing in a country like Japan where it’s relative size and abundance in nature makes it easier to access whether that’s at a park, the mountains, or the beach.
How to Connect?
One easy way to begin is by allowing curiosity to lead you. Walk slower and try taking a different route home. Be like Chanell and Evelynn, and allow yourself to open up to all the greenery around you. If you find that your weekdays are just too hectic to slow down, try the weekends. Schedule a hike or day at the park. While there, see if you can find a place of ease where you can sit and have a picnic, or bring a book or a journal to jot down your thoughts. Whatever you decide, don’t forget to bring the most important thing: yourself.