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Take a Hike: Awe walking

On Thursday, Jan. 7, it was sunny and still and the sky was blue. The temperature was just above freezing. Snow was on the ground but the trails were mostly down to the leaves. With walking poles, I set out from my house, looking for bluebirds in the hope that my belief that people are generally good, despite the events in Washington, D.C., the day before, could be restored.

The sound and feel of the snow and frozen leaves crunching under my boots were satisfying. Soon after stepping onto the trail, I walked around one of my favorite glacial outcrops of rock, inspecting lichens, and was surprised to find a child’s footprints in the snow. The bright sun brought out the intense green colors of mosses. Sparkling water was burbling in the rushing streams.

Periodically I stopped and looked straight up into the treetops, admiring the lines of the bare branches reaching into the sky. I studied the patterns of the bark on trees, and touched the dry pale bark of a fallen sugar maple. Farther along, I was attracted to the uncommon orange color of the ends of a sawed-off log. A chip of it had the scent of cedar. After a while, I reached a pond. There was a skim of frosty ice over most of the water, except where mallards were dabbling. A beaver lodge sat silently in the distance.

When I reached the part of the walk where I expected to see bluebirds, I heard a lot of bird chatter and saw hairy woodpeckers, a red-bellied woodpecker, blue jays, mourning doves, and some small birds flitting about so quickly that I couldn’t identify them, but no bluebirds. Up the lane, I disturbed a raptor. As it flew away across the field before alighting into a distant pine, I saw a flash of gold color across its wide wingspan.

When I left the woods, I noticed the sun glinting on the long, pliant needles of small pine trees. Near my house, I patted the warm soft fur of some dog friends.

According to physical fitness columnist Gretchen Reynolds of The New York Times, I had just done an awe walk. Her article, “An ‘Awe Walk’ Might Do Wonders For Your Well-Being,” alerted me to the fact that while we acknowledge the importance of outdoor walks on health and mood, our mental approach to walking outdoors can enhance those benefits.

Most people will feel a sense of awe before monumental natural features such as waterfalls or mountains, but awe can be elicited by simply walking with curiosity and awareness in your own natural environment while having a little mental conversation with whatever you encounter.

Reynolds points out that an awe walk is outwardly directed, not a time to work out personal problems, make plans, or meet exercise goals. Although an awe walk may occur anywhere, in his essay “Walking” Henry David Thoreau writes, “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.” The poets William Blake, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, and Mary Oliver were awe walkers. So take a few deep breaths, step outside, and in the words of William Blake, prepare:

To see the world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

Further reading

“Auguries of Innocence,” by William Blake.

“An ‘Awe Walk’ Might Do Wonders for Your Well-Being,” by Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times. Published Sept. 30,2020, updated Oct. 1, 2020.

“ ‘Awe Walks’ Boost Emotional Well-Being,” by Nicholas Weiler, University of California San Francisco, Sept. 21, 2020

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