While out hiking New Year’s Day on the grassy prairies of the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, I saw a small toad in a slender crevice of water. The long narrow pool of water was ensconced between two gabbro rocks, solidified roots of ancient volcanoes, formed eons ago when tectonic plates wrestled together on the earth’s shifting surface. The creature had burrowed itself into the grimy sand below the still water and blew bubbles, forming a creamy foam circle the size of a child’s thumb on the water’s surface.
I had been looking at the larger landscape, sighing contentedly at the sight: golden grasslands with patches of melting snow in shadows beneath towering trees, rusty grasses that slapped our pant legs like old friends, dusty brown gabbro piled on top of each other like an endless litter of puppies, with the tinkling sounds of waterfalls and black rooks flying overhead. While my senses feasted on the desolate beauty of the winter prairie, I missed the smallest possible thing, until my partner called out to me, grabbing my hand and pulling me near the tiny universe hovering near my large human feet.
Truth be told, I was vexed to be interrupted from my view of the land. I wanted to savor the experience, to drop in and melt into the stark beauty. The Japanese have a word for this sort of experience I craved: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, the idea that the key to our healing is held in beholding nature. As a child of an outdoorsman father, I feel most at home when I am walking outside, the movement helping me unhook from fear that accompanies me through life. I wanted, in fact, to commune with the glory of God surrounding me, vulnerable and whole, my suffering from the fateful year of 2020 transformed by the restorative power of nature.
I craved shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, the idea that the key to our healing is held in beholding nature.
But my partner redirected my attention from the manifold to the particular: a buried toad with a small foam coverlet hiding its insubstantial body. Kneeling down at the makeshift pool, I marveled at how good it must feel to burrow yourself into sand when it is so cold outside. The toad must hold its breath for a long time to survive harsh winters, blowing luminescent bubbles of air. I wondered at how snug and safe its little shelter must feel.
Considering the toad’s humble abode, I slowly returned to my version of shinrin-yoku, my forest being the grassy prairie and far distant mountains, all muted browns and soft pinks and faded reds against a cobalt blue sky. The long, sinuous hiking trail ascended to a cliff overlooking the prairie, with its tall grasses, loblolly pine, barren post oaks, and juniper bushes rejoicing together in their silent praise of being. The freshly melted snow waterfalls rushed along the muddy trail, baptizing the earth with rivulets of icy water, leaving plenty of terrain for a tiny toad to work its way and nestle inside the ground for a brief winter respite.
Sometimes we are like toads, running away from the numerous challenges of life and burrowing into our own petty beliefs and false notions that wall us off from ourselves and each other. Even the English language offers a tunneling of sorts, obscuring the truths we hold from each other through stilted pleasantries. We burrow into comfortable scripts, sharing only niceties when we are with others, missing the marvelous opportunity to bear compassionate witness to the fullness of each other in all our weird anxieties, existential angst, and tiny longings. Even amid a pandemic, the rates of depression and anxiety skyrocket, the loss of the felt sense of connection and intimate, vulnerable sharing between ourselves hurts our beloved communities more than we dare admit.
Sometimes we are like toads … burrowing into our own petty beliefs and false notions that wall us off from ourselves and each other.
As I returned my gaze to the deserted winter landscape, my impromptu shinrin-yoku handed me another key to my healing. The toad was not depressed, not at all; he was only just being himself in all his imperfect glory. And neither was the slender rock holding the toad’s watery home nor the electric blue sky dancing with distant cirrus clouds or the mighty pale grasses, which waved languidly in the winds, showing off for everyone and no one in particular. The whole area positively sang with the aliveness and joy of being right here and now, my envy at creation’s good fortune at being so comfortable and at home in themselves.
We so often forget how vital it is for us to wake up from our stupor of shame and wholeheartedly embrace ourselves as we are, how much we earthlings need to practice being present right now rather than chasing after the seemingly endless quest for wealth and possessions, productivity, or accolades, which only consume Mother Earth’s dwindling resources. But I preach to myself, earnestly seeking to welcome myself as much as the earth welcomes me, just like the tiny toad who blew bubbles for the Lord in all its tiny praise, its festoons of worship found in being just exactly as it is.
After walking more along the muddy trail, which crisscrossed patches of gabbro and water and grass and trees, we spotted a hiker we had chatted with earlier, who wished us a good trip and gave us tips on which trails to hike next. An hour prior at the trailhead, the hiker handed me his tall red hiking stick as I ambled across a rocky river bed swollen with snowmelt. With the loaned staff, I crossed over to the other side, no shame in me at all, only the intuitive wish to accept his help stronger than my residual fears of connection, noting how magical it felt to walk with three legs across a surging river and take support as it came to me.
Just like you, I am another walking miracle in the world.
I ended my shinrin-yoku backtracking through the grassy prairielands, my partner and I reminiscing about our time as we returned to our car, my mood lifted through intimacies shared while hiking the land. I muse the toad and I have more in common than I think, if I remember how the earth and sand and water held its fragile and resilient body much like that hiker’s staff and my partner’s hands held me up as I tottered across wet rocks to dry land. Like the toad, I accepted the table in the wilderness that was given, burrowing into the goodness of being my own blessed and bruised and beloved self. Just like you, I am another walking miracle in the world, all of us traveling together, all peoples and plants and animals, all light-filled stardust and belonging to the good earth and our God who never stops loving us. Perhaps our healing begins when we pause enough to notice the smallest graces and breathe out thanks, whether through bubbles or words or wind.