On the joy of limitation
These 30 Walks in Nature did not feel like a project. They felt like a calling – a calling into peace, a calling into health, even a calling home. As each walk started, my pulse quickened in anticipation and curiosity. After a few steps, my heartbeat returned to normal. A smile spread across my face. My body felt, and stepped, lighter.
I began these walks hoping to know my city in a different way from my usual daily driving to my office downtown and walking around the central business district (a term which increasingly seems like a farcical naming decision). And different from my driving to various sporting and entertainment outposts for my daughters’s activities.
Through these walks, I did come to a certain kind of knowledge about my city, distinct from my prior appreciation, which seemed limited. These walks in nature were also limited – but now, at least, I have two limited platforms to layer over each other.
The theme of limits came through loud and clear. I visited 30 different green spaces in and around Louisville. Many, many more exist within the friendly confines of Louisville Jefferson County – about 145, according to Wikipedia. Expanding our horizons a bit to the adjacent counties and nearby counties in southern Indiana, Wikipedia lists a further 51 major parks.
And these are only parks. I took a few walks in backyards and random green spaces. I left a huge swath of ‘green Louisville’ untrodden. I didn’t even see many of the large non-park areas of nature, such as Waterfront Botanical Gardens, Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace, or Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. Through my research for the walks, I became aware – dimly – of even more opportunities to enjoy nature nearby – the Abbey of Gethsemani – famous as the home of Thomas Merton – has 1,500 acres with miles of trails nearby; the Nazareth Retreat Center also contains abundant walking paths; as does the Mount Saint Francis Center for Spirituality; and numerous farms, orchards and cemeteries.
Within the nature I visited, I spent anywhere from 15 minutes to 5 hours. Even when I stayed for hours, I left feeling a distinct sense that I’d seen and experienced only a tiny fraction of nature’s offerings. Far from bothering me, I perceived in each departure from nature an invitation to return and enjoy again – and anew – its wonders.
I felt limited in another way. I experienced the sights and sounds of nature, but I know precious few names of the birds making the calls or the trees and flowers I saw. True, I felt my body react when I heard a birdsong or saw a towering green tree. But we humans seek knowledge – we give names, we attempt to understand relationships. We feel more when we know more – or at least I do. The sharp cry of the Blue Jay felt different inside me once I’d learned to recognize its call. I rejoiced in particulars.
Even after 30 walks in nature, I know few particulars. I can tell the songs of the Blue Jay and American Crow; I can tell pretty well those of the Northern Cardinal and the Hairy-throated Woodpecker. I made no progress in differentiating trees or fungi or clouds. I still know…um, zero…of them by sight.
Again, I felt this limitation but it did not frustrate me. Or at least it did not stop me. It made me eager to take more walks in nature – to use the Merlin ID app to become familiar with more birdsongs, to read Tristan Gooley’s books on ‘navigating nature,’ to match specimens with field guide pictures, and perhaps even to find a nature mentor one day.
Knowledge brings me joy. Lack of knowledge also brings me joy – a joy of wonder – a joy in having the opportunity to find out, to learn, to expand.
Additional reflections deal more with feeling than thinking. I felt called to nature – or maybe, called back. I felt called in to nature. I felt a profound sense of being at home on these walks.
A potent, overwhelming sensation kept welling up inside me – that these walks are my work. They are my life, or a significant part of it. At one point I told a friend, “I don’t want to take 30 walks – I want to take 300.” Over the course of taking these walks, the taking became a fundamental part of what I do in this world. They became an elemental piece of who I am.
I walk. I walk in nature. I have many, many walks in nature ahead of me.
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