Magic Fire Mountain is the monthly newsletter from Adam Burk + Co. This month’s newsletter is created by Zoë Romano. Zoë is a runner, writer and coach who grew up playing in the Maine outdoors. Hiding out in the woods behind her house encouraged self-reliance, inner calmness, and the joy of discovery, and led her to try things she’d never before done; namely running across the country alone at twenty-three, and several years later, running the entire route of the Tour de France. Her story in this month’s newsletter shines a light on spending time in the outdoors without feeling compelled to quantify its worth with scientific metrics.
Quotable: “Doing for doing’s sake traps us in a perpetually unrewarding hamster wheel of productivity. A rewarding life, instead, comes from the intelligent integration of being and doing, and true being requires that we reinhabit our relationship with the living world.”
– Maria Popova, “Harvest and the Human Spirit…”
When I was a kid ...
by Zoë Romano
I often ran away from home. There was a small patch of woods in my backyard, and beyond that, a meadow, and a pond. I’d pack a bag of snacks, run across my backyard at a moment when I hoped my parents weren’t looking, cut through the forest, and head for the meadow. There, a large boulder sat, half-covered in moss. The meadow grass grew to my chest, but once I perched on this boulder, my boulder, I could see out across the jade tips of grass. In one direction was the woods; in another, the pond; and way up and over the tree line, the triangular top of my house. Then began a brief but intense series of concerns: I’d wonder if I’d been seen and how long it’d take for my Mom to come looking. I’d wonder if I was making her worry and if I was being selfish, while also being certain that I deserved this time away. Inevitably I’d forget why I ran away and start playing. When it got dark, my Mom’s voice would call out over the treetops, “Dinner!” and, invariably, I’d return home the way I came. The walk back was filled with psychological counsel between myself and myself. How much trouble was I in? Was it even worth going home? Maybe I should just sleep out in the meadow?
At the dinner table, however, it was as if I’d never gone. I never got in trouble. Not once. But sometimes, I wanted to get in trouble. I needed to be reassured that home was an anchor and a constant, away from which a kid could never truly, permanently, exist. Last year my Mom and I joked about the memory. I ran away all the time, I said, and not once did you come looking for me. Didn’t you worry? My Mom laughed at this. I always knew where you were, she said. I never looked for you because you needed that time, to be out alone in the woods. Which in turn made me laugh, kind of pathetically because of course, I’d always thought I was the one pulling the wool over her eyes, sneaking away on my own and getting away with it.
But my Mom knew those adventures were good for me, and I must’ve known it too, because I went and pursued them, again and again. This was in an era before in-depth scientific analyses about how time in the outdoors affects our blood pressure or stress hormones. It was an era in which the pull of the outdoors was still a most mysterious and poetic force.
So how then, did my Mom know that running away was a good thing?
Now, there are lots of these studies that could explicitly explain this. But sometimes these studies make me cringe because they seem to be in defiance of doing something because you know you like it. They separate us from our felt experience of the outdoors by assuring us that our five minutes in the woods is worth it because it has a measurable, quantitative, scientific value. If it turned out that being outdoors didn’t chemically improve our physiologies, but we still experienced it as enjoyable, would it still be considered worth doing?
So let’s flip the perspective, and rather than consider how nature makes us feel because of what’s in it –mountains, trees, soil, etc. – let’s instead consider what isn’t outdoors.
In my childhood story, there were three things that were never with me when I ran away: my parents, the Internet, and a clock.
If we may project these things to represent larger concepts, they become, respectively: help, society, and time.
Because I didn’t have help from my parents I had to solve problems myself. I had to plan out my bag of food, an outfit appropriate for the weather, and, when an obstacle occurred, I had to face it without the well-intentioned intervention of my parents. I will never forget swabbing and bandaging my own scabbed knee, or the time I climbed into a tree because I was scared of a neighborhood dog. When you are out in the wild, even if the wild is just the backyard forest of your childhood, you will have to do something you’ve never done before, something that in other circumstances has been done for you, or not done at all. In this way I also learned how to fail, and find out the world doesn’t consequently end. In being self-reliant, I formed a relationship with my strength; it became, as a matter of course, a point of self-identification. Furthermore, I naturally sought a safe place once I was away from my house, and I almost always found it atop that boulder in the meadow, or in a tangle of bamboo clustered at the edge of the woods. I felt as safe there as I did in my bed under the covers or inside an embrace from my parents. Unknowingly, I was finding or creating, a shelter outside of my home and my parents. Realizing that shelter can be found in something other than our parents or outside of our given support system was and still is a helpful concept.
Because there was no Internet with me, there was nobody telling me what to do or how to think or behave. Better put, there were no social media sites or viral articles subtly suggesting what material, which ideas, aspirations and actions, people and stories were valuable, or not. It was much easier back then to leave the Internet behind because there was not yet any Internet in my life. But nowadays I still do the same, and any good visit to the outdoors will become great if we manage to cut out the relentless background noise made by the world reacting to itself, over and over and over again. If we do so, we can see what becomes of our thoughts and emotions without the explicit presence of society and its pressures. When I ran away, no virtual person was making me feel a certain way in a comment thread. Nobody was (unintentionally) reminding me that girls are assumed to be a certain way by saying, gee, it’s so great to see a girl playing out in the woods. In my free mind, there wasn’t yet any reason whatsoever for why a girl in the woods might be exceptional. I got to think for myself. And now as in then, being outdoors helps me assume an outsider’s perspective on my life in the real world, which helps frame the challenges and triumphs of that life in better light.
Lastly, there was no time. Sure, there was sunrise, the warmth of midday and goosebumps as dusk came and the clouds turned purple. But there was no such thing as seconds and minutes and hours. An idle mind is a creative mind. How to be bored was one of the most important things I learned as a kid. It is still important. Learn to be quiet with yourself. Now I’m a grown-up runner and writer, and unstructured time is a non-negotiable part of each creative day because it is easier to be curious outside of time than within it. Together with no parents and no Internet, the absence of time lets us think creatively through things without feeling goaded or distracted.
It's well understood that when one physical sense is lost the others become stronger. Perhaps the same is true for the less tangible senses; perhaps, when our awareness of time and our senses of social pressure and parental protection are taken away or withheld, our senses of self, of imagination and curiosity, confidence and creativity, flourish. We get to think freely, for ourselves, critically and reflectively, not reactively or reductively. We have space to wonder, and marvel, to create or to rest in a different kind of shelter, and in being self-reliant, we learn how capable we are. We become better problem solvers because we have time and freedom and imagination to first frame and understand the question before we attempt to answer it.
The internet is great (hey, we’re on the internet right now, aren’t we?!), and time isn’t so bad, and supervision is helpful. Choosing to step away from these things to go be outdoors doesn’t mean we ought to feel ashamed for seeking them out in different circumstances. But the emptier our mind is when we go outdoors, the more space we’ll have to fill it, from atop a sunny boulder or below a thicket of bamboo.
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