It was with awe

That I beheld

Fresh leaves, green leaves

Bright in the sun

—Matsuo Basho

Last year, during the early months of the pandemic, I took up writing these little essays once again. But it was not exactly in good faith—that is, I did not do it in the original spirit of the Quotes & Commentary, as an exploration of my own beliefs. Instead, as has happened to me before, the essays became a vessel to comment upon current affairs, which of course meant the COVID-19 pandemic. I had an awful lot to say about things I know very little about. So now, for a change, I will focus my attention closer to home.

As it happens, I am as close to home as it is possible to be right now, since I am visiting Sleepy Hollow for the summer. There are, of course, a million things I enjoy about being here. Family, friends, and food handily win gold, silver, and bronze, respectively. But over the years, I have come to realize how much I long for the natural environment of my native place—the climate, flora, and fauna of the Hudson Valley. 

Madrid has its beauties, especially in the mountains. Indeed, the Hudson Valley is, by comparison, flat and undramatic. The atmosphere, too, is rather cloudy and thick here compared with the crystalline clarity of Spain. Even if you do find a sufficiently high place, the view can be obscured by the humidity.

But what my hometown has in abundance are fresh leaves, green leaves. It is just so verdant here that, compared with arid Castille, it can seem like a tropical rainforest. Trees—many over one hundred feet tall—cover the landscape, some of them in turn covered with climbing vines. In Madrid, if you want to visit anything remotely approximating this, you have to make a reservation weeks in advance and then drive to the Hayedo de Montejo de la Sierra, a beech forest occupying a microclimate in a mountain valley, where you will be given an hour-long guided tour. It’s just not the same.

Here, by contrast, I have Rockefeller State Park right behind my house. I can go anytime I want, for as long as I want; and that means every day I can. Walking, hiking, or running is obviously good for your body. Research has shown that spending time in nature has positive psychological effects, too. Indeed, “forest bathing”—a kind of tree-based therapy—became something of a fad in Spain a few months ago. It is taken seriously in Japan and Korea. I have no idea whether a walk in the woods can help with severe depression, anxiety, or trauma. But I am quite sure that it can put you in a better mood, help calm you down, or make you think more clearly.

Part of it, I think, is the sensory richness of natural environments. A forest is visually more complicated than most urban landscapes. It is not organized using perfectly straight lines (something seldom found in nature), in neat and orderly rows. Living things are shaped by natural selection, while the land itself is shaped by the geological processes, neither of which result in anything like a suburb or a cityscape. Nevertheless, it is not random or chaotic. Rather, natural landscapes are organized more subtly, on scales of time and distance that are not necessarily perceptible by us.

Forests are also rich in every other sensation, too, though admittedly I don’t spend much time touching and tasting. Perhaps I should. There are wild blackberries and blueberries in this area. But there is also poison ivy and ticks carrying lyme disease, so I tend to stay on the gravel paths. Still, my nose keeps quite active, drawing in all the various fragrances—cut grass, sheep dung, flowers, compost, and most of all fresh air, untainted (for the most part) with exhaust. And I am not inclined to take air for granted these days, since a couple of weeks ago the smoke from a massive fire in Oregon drifted over and turned everything grey, rendering the air harsh and unwholesome. I had a cough for weeks.

Yet it is the sounds that I cherish second only to the sights. The forest is sonically active, especially in summer. Cicadas scream from the treetops, while crickets sing from the undergrowth, and birds of all variety are calling all around. Just today I was lucky enough to see a hawk on a nearby branch, uttering its piercing cry. Madrid, by comparison, is as quiet as a church. The sensation of being surrounded by this chorus is intensely soothing. It is like being submerged in a cool bath. Matsuo Basho appreciated this, too:

In the utter silence

Of a temple,

A cicada’s voice alone

Penetrates the rocks.

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