SAM RAPOPORT has always loved the Great Outdoors, but thanks to COVID and a new friend, he discovers how to appreciate Nature closer to home, even in his own backyard. It also had an impact on his own inner world, the Great Inner Space.
I found my favorite T-shirt in a thrift store, faded red with swooping ski-town font “Explore the Great Outdoors,” an outline of snow-capped mountains looming over a pine forest and a winding road. This was the iconography of Nature with a capital “N” that I worshipped, as I took pilgrimages through the breathtaking valleys of Glacier National Park, the desert canyons of Zion, and the thick woods of the Cohutta Wilderness. In my mind, Nature was always pristine, always “out there” away from the city of Atlanta where I lived. Hiking was about trudging through miles of monotonous south-eastern forest to reach a stunning mountain top view or swimming hole. Whether it was a river valley or hilltop, North Georgia or suburban park, the woods in between me and my destination always blended together: brown, boring, peppered with trees. That is, until I met Kathryn.
Kathryn ran a nonprofit in Atlanta called EcoAddendum, which focused on showing residents the value of the ecosystem around them and taking action to protect it. She took the outdoors club I ran at my university for nature walks in nearby parks and showed us how to identify native trees by their leaves, their bark, the sheen of their acorns. She pointed out invasive species that, if left unchecked, would smother every other plant in sight and wreak havoc on the entire ecosystem. Armed with snippers and shovels, trees choked by English Ivy and wetlands covered head to toe in Japanese Chaff Flower became battlefields in the fight for biodiversity. Previously uniformly unremarkable terrain turned into a narrative of diverse microbiomes, of floodplains and upslopes, sunny sides, and watersheds. Fallen fences and towering oak trees told tales of farmers living there centuries ago, clearing a pasture for their livestock but leaving the oak tree, providing shade before air conditioning and acorns for the pigs to forage.
Just as the natural world around me changed
by the day and week and season,
so too did my inner world.
Putting myself in the beauty of the world
below my feet and in front of my eyes
allowed me to leave the whirlwind inside my head,
if only for the time it takes to watch
the winged fruit of a maple spiral to the ground.
There were oaks older than our Declaration of Independence, older than borders and nations and steam engines. Steep slopes that prevented farmers from ever tilling the land, leaving the old-growth soils intact, and harboring rare species like Trillium and wild ginger that only spread their offspring on the backs of ants, traveling only meters over the course of decades. If the soil was disturbed, these sensitive species would die off, and would never be able to return nor escape to new lands – ants have a hard time outrunning a bulldozer.
Hearts a bustin’, we learned to love these wild places. Accessible but irreplaceable, these old-growth forest remnants were right in our backyards, yet from a surface glance would be indistinguishable from any other backwoods. I recognized the diversity and beauty of these hidden old growth treasures, and at the same time, discovered a greater appreciation for my own backyard. From my lawn, I harvested Plantago, a salve for burns and bug bites, and not bad in a salad. I foraged for blackberries down the street, bringing home buckets laden with sweet summer treats for my neighbors and myself.
That same urge for exploration previously made me upset about visiting the same space twice: If there were so many amazing things to see in the world, why would I waste my time on somewhere I’ve already been? A global pandemic combined with looking through Kathryn’s eyes allowed me to change that view. Over the course of the past year, I’ve walked the same blocks of my neighborhood thousands of times and run the same loop through Piedmont Park dozens and dozens of mornings. I have come to realize that just as two forests are never the same, a walk through the woods is never the same twice.
When I was in the mindset of noticing, of slow appreciation, I found so many wonderful joys of life in front of me: A family reunion of mushrooms after the rain, the slow maturing of my neighbor’s fig tree, the gorgeous carpet of redbud blossoms on the sidewalk growing thicker by the week. Beauty and awe are not a function of how spectacular the sight is, but an internal matter of awareness and appreciation. Just as the natural world around me changed by the day and week and season, so too did my inner world. Putting myself in the beauty of the world below my feet and in front of my eyes allowed me to leave the whirlwind inside my head, if only for the time it takes to watch the winged fruit of a maple spiral to the ground.
Exploring the Great Outdoors
can bring joy and amazement,
but so too can exploring
the Great Inward space of ourselves.
I found there was no longer a great divide between the Great Outdoors and the world outside my back door, both boasting tremendous tulip poplars and the scurrying of squirrels. Exploring the Great Outdoors can bring joy and amazement, but so too can exploring the Great Inward space of ourselves. If you ever find that on a thrift store T-shirt, please, please let me know.
Article by SAM RAPOPORT
Illustrations by ARATI SHEDDE
April 01, 2021
April 01, 2021
April 01, 2021