Hello everyone, most of you know me, I am Jan. I’ve been a member of the UUFP since the year 2000. I am a biologist, a naturalist.
My funny accent might give it away, but as a lot of you know, I am not originally from here. I grew up on the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean. As a child and teenager, I spent a lot of time in what was called the knoekoe (the local name for the bush) on the island, taking it all in; just moseying and looking around. One of my favorite things was looking for ball cacti, pulling out their little pink fruit out off the white pads, and eating them. I would also just fantasize about what I saw, about making trails so people could enjoy and appreciate nature more.
This carried on in my adult life, I first worked in international development, and then afterwards I had a 20-year stint as a field biologist. I loved being out in the field, experiencing nature in its fullest. I still do, you can try to take me out of nature, but I do not think you can take nature out of me; it draws me in like a magnet. Whenever I can I will be out there, find a tree I can hug and even kiss and be one with for a few seconds, feel grounded.
Of course, you can take photographs of nature (as I do) or look in photo books, but as Annie Dillard wrote in her essay “Total Eclipse”: “Lenses enlarge the sight, omit its context, and make of it a pretty and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas card.” Being emerged in nature, living and breathing it, is so important. At least, it is to me, and I hope to convince you that it should also be for all of us. Only outside can you touch and feel the trees and the soil; breath in the smells and fragrance and feast on the views. As you can imagine, I really hated to go back to the office to write reports about my fieldwork, especially since it usually meant that my fieldwork would turn it into some subdivision and destroy some of nature's beauty.
Earlier on as a graduate student there was nothing better to take pre-dawn measurements of plants in the desert of New Mexico and then hearing the coyotes howling around me at sunrise the minute the sun hit the area. It was magical; you knew they probably had been watching you all along and you never noticed them.
Later on, as a wetland scientist working in the woods I could not just do my job. Especially when working alone, I just loved to take time out at a beautiful spot and just sit on a log or lean against a tree and observe nature around me for 10 or so minutes.
Field work was not without its dangers. I will never forget the day I was struck by a water moccasin also known as a cottonmouth in Virginia Beach. The snake shot out of the high grass and hit me in the legs. I let out a very loud high-pitched scream. Thank goodness it did not break skin but just got stuck in my pants. But that night, 12 hours later my heart was still racing. The very next day, I did come eye to eye with a timber rattlesnake in the same area. I noticed a beautiful skeleton of a possum and bent down to look at it when I heard the rattle. The rattler just stood there and warned me to back off, as to say “this is my carcass,” so I slowly backed off, turned around and walk a different way.
Did I kill the moccasin that bit me the previous day? Absolutely not! As our 7th principle mentions, we have RESPECT FOR THE INTERDEPENDENT WEB OF ALL EXISTENCE OF WHICH WE ARE A PART; or in other words, I believe that we all have our place on this little blue marble that floats in space and we need to respect it and take care of it and of each other. The snake defended its territory and I stepped in it. I did not get hurt and I know my heart was good, at the time. On the next day, the rattler just warned me to stay away. Not all snakes are bad, not even moccasins. A number of years ago I ran into two that were mating (and they were not aggressive), they were not at all interested in me.
You have to take precautions, during the times I've spent outside, have been bitten by so many ticks and have gotten rocky mountain spotted fever, one of the tick-borne diseases. And let's not talk about all those mosquitoes.
Did all this deter me from ever going out into the woods or nature again? Absolutely not. This was in 2003, and I still go into the woods for work and I still do it almost daily for pleasure. Am I more careful? Naturally, I am getting older you know. But I just love to explore, bushwhack and take it all in.
I think that I suffer from an extreme form of Nature Deficit Disorder. Nature Deficit Disorder is a term first defined by Richard Louv, it indicates the need of people to reconnect with nature at times to regain balance in their lives. Louv contents that a lot of personal inner problems, social problems and inner-city problems can be brought back to the disconnection from the natural environment.
The way I deal with my Nature Deficit Disorder has always been to go out in nature. I guess in the old days when I grew up on that tropical island you could have called me a loner. Being out in nature was my solace, and actually it still does. You could say that I could be considered an introvert. Later on, I learned by way of some psychological tests that I am truly an introvert among other things. However, as an adult I have forced myself out of my shell when I am in public.
Being an introvert does not mean that you do not like to talk to people or that we are anti-social. Every person needs human interaction and so do introverts. However, we introverts also need a lot of recovery time or me-time. For me it is so comforting to retreat into my own world and in particular in the natural world where I can be alone. That is my way of expressing and dealing with this curse of being an introvert.
So, when I am done teaching or interacting with people, my alone time is best spent outside hiking in the woods, on my sailboat on the water or in my kayak. Doing this alone would be great, but with my loved ones is great too, as long as they do not expect me to talk too much. I often just like to be in my own thoughts. However, when I am sailing I am just concentrating on staying on course and not running aground, but even that clears my mind.
I am not sure if he was an introvert, but the famous John Muir who hiked up and down the Sierra Nevada around the 1900s is credited as the person who initiated the Sierra Club, and was the impetus of the National Park Service wrote “the deeper the solitude the less the sense of loneliness, and the nearer our friends”. Muir also wrote: “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” I think he was onto something here.
Earlier this decade Japanese researchers introduced the term Shinrin-yoku loosely translated as forest bathing. No, it has nothing to do with an outdoor shower, although I am still trying to convince my wife that we need one of those too. The Japanese researchers showed that the volatile compounds or phytoncides emitted by the vegetation in a forest, in particular the conifers, lowered the blood pressure and slowed the heart rate of their subjects, and one exposure to these chemicals (or to the woods) could last as long as two weeks.
John Muir also wrote: “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” As our friends from Japan found, of all the trees in nature, pines are the highest emitters of phytoncides, those chemicals that are good for you.
Maybe this is why pines have a rich history in mythology. Of course, we use them in our Christmas celebrations and with good reason. Many cemeteries plant pine trees and other conifers as symbols of eternal life, they stay green throughout the winter. Druids in England lid bonfires in Scotch pine forests during winter solstice celebrations. The Romans worshiped pines during the spring equinox festival of Cybele and Attis, while in ancient Greece worshippers of Dionysus often carried a pine-cone-tipped wand as a fertility symbol. Even in Siberia and Mongolia, people there enter a pine forest in silence and with reverence.
Native American people see the pine tree as a symbol of wisdom and longevity. Its needles and sap are medicine that protects people from illnesses, witchcraft, and more.
In the Orient the pines are also associated with longevity, virtue, youth, masculinity and power. The Japanese word for pine is Matsu which also stands for “waiting for the soul of God to descend from heaven.” In ancient Shinto beliefs, gods were said to have ascended to Heaven on a pine tree, where they now reside on a beautiful volcanic mountain in giant or old trees. Pine trees are associated with the New Year in Japan. So much so that many Japanese hang a bundle of pine twigs and bamboo trunks known as a Kado matsu ("Gate pine") on their doors to receive a blessing from the gods.
This almost reminds us of Muir’s quote: “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world,” doesn’t it?
While I love that quote, and conifers such as pines rule, I would love to expand Muir’s quote to: “Between every two trees in a forest is a doorway to a new world.” I strongly believe there is power in nature as a whole, and not only in pine trees.
For me, it does not matter how familiar or unfamiliar the woods are, every time I step outside into the woods the worries of the world fall off my shoulders; I can retreat into my own world and relax. Early on in my life, in Holland, Uganda, Nepal, Yemen, and New Mexico I was in my happy place when I was alone just strolling around in nature, looking around and sometimes studying the things I saw around me.
What do I look for when I retreat into the natural world? For one, I grow bonsai trees at home and it is great to study the canopy of mature trees in the forest for examples to style my little trees. In my reading by E.O. Wilson you heard me tell you that he considers that there is more order in a handful of soil than in on the surface of all planets combined.
To me nature is full of order; full of hidden patterns, and that is another thing I am always on the lookout for. It is survival of the fittest, parsimony, and full of those patterns waiting to be discovered and understood. That is what I do in the woods.
Think about it, every spring the leaves come back, the dogwoods and the redbuds flower and we have to deal with pine pollen. Let me tell you, I had the worst allergy season this year. In summer months, nature does its thing, I enjoy watching the adult birds raise their young, watch the skinks (or lizards) in our backyard, and just see everything grow. In fall nature is preparing for winter. In winter, you notice things you hardly see other times in the year, like when looking up in the canopy you see that not many tree canopies touch each other. Also, that there is a rhythm on the way the trees branch and the way side branches come off.
In her book: “The Solace of Open Space” Gretel Ehrlich wrote: “Autumn teaches us that fruition is also death; that ripeness is a form of decay. The willows, having stood for so long near water, begin to rust. Leaves are verbs that conjugate the seasons.” Yes, nature to me is very predictable and it helps me to sort my thoughts. So yes, a new door opens every time I enter nature, I discover something new.
Those snakes, ticks, mosquitoes and other varmints are not going to stop me from going out there. I take precautions, use bug spray, watch out where I step. I need to get out and be one with nature. The tall trees are my cathedral, my spiritual home. That is why all those parallel tree trunks in the forest are so important to me; they are my doorway to a different, a new world. As I said those forests are something we all need, not only for clean air and clean water, but also as a spiritual experience, for our sanity, our health and overall wellbeing. Once I enter the woods I need to become one with it and feel grounded, to touch the bark, feel the tree, like when I was young when I needed to eat those little red fruit in in those cacti. But most of all, I need to get out there and I urge you to go too.
Organisms are all the more remarkable in combination. Pull out the flower from its crannied retreat, shake the soil from the roots into the cupped hand, magnify it for close examination. The black earth is alive with a riot of algae, fungi, nematodes, mites, spring-tails, enchytraeid worms, thousands of species of bacteria. The handful may be only a tiny fragment of one ecosystem, but because of the genetic code of its residents, it holds more order than can be found on the surfaces of all the planets combined. It is a sample of the living force that runs the earth – and will continue to do so with or without us.
Edward O. Wilson
The Diversity of Life
Let us go out now into the sunlight filtered by the pine trees and oak trees. May the subtle fragrances of the woods bathe your body and your lungs. May this all bring you blessings and enhance your enjoyment of life for days to come, until the next time you can return to nature and experience it all over again.
Bless it be.