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NatureZen: Wanderin’ in the Woods

by Kaci Murley, Deputy Executive Director

As Brandi Carlile asks us, “Have you ever wandered lonely through the woods?” Chances are, if you subscribe to Overton Park Conservancy emails, the answer is yes. Chances are if you live in Memphis, it’s been a while. Like most of us, you drive your car back and forth on Poplar Avenue, scrolling through your phone when you wake up and before bedtime, and chances are you have not been out wanderin’ in the woods. At least not lately, you haven’t. I hope we change that.

Last month I went wanderin’ with some artist friends as part of the Conservancy’s first NatureZen Week, a celebration of the healing power of nature. Smack in the center of Memphis grows the Old Forest State Natural Area – a literal lung for our city – and during this recent walk I breathed in the deepest wave of creativity and connection to space than I have felt in well over a decade.

Let me set the stage. We’ve been testing different avenues for offering environmental education programming via the Old Forest – mindfulness “forest bathing” walks, science-based scavenger hunts for kiddos, and in this case, a nature journaling workshop for “artists.” We’d lead folks into the woods in small groups, give them a prompt, and watch the magic unfold. In my group, we invited friends with degrees from prestigious art colleges, whose works are featured in Times Square and major online platforms, who have decades of experience leading creative programs at universities, nonprofits, and small businesses – people certainly suited to create something beautiful and provide us feedback for welcoming others into the experience.

Nature journaling groupThe group was led by our talented friend, Taska Sanford, who asked us to define a very basic question: “What is nature journaling?” The group gave expected answers about sketching outdoors. Then Taska flipped us on our heads when she explained how nature journaling could be so much more than just drawing what you see.

You could count the number of magnolia trees on the golf course or draw a map of the forest’s undefined “spaghetti trails.” You could trace a cicada’s fallen broken wing, describe the smell of the crispy winter wind, or record the chorus of migratory wood thrushes. You can work in a fancy notebook with colored pencils and rub red and yellow oak leaves directly on your page. Heck, you could simply use the Notes App on your cell phone. You could record the conditions, the weather and location, and use specific prompts like “I notice those mulberry trees along the forest edge… I wonder why that one tree is so short… I want to learn more about if I am able to eat those berries and not die…” Nature journaling can be for researchers, musicians, scientists, artists… anyone curious and vulnerable enough to put the pen to the paper.

Ah, putting pen to paper. Here is my struggle. Am I the only one who attempts to write their thoughts, or sketch a sketch, only to decide to toss it since no one would ever want to read this garbage and why do you even try?? Or you begin to write. And you hold back your truth. And you edit for the approval of a nonexistent audience who will one day disapprovingly publish your journals for the masses after you die (probably from eating unresearched berries)? Not to mention how intimidating it might be having coworkers who are published ornithologists, tenured arborists, spectacular naturalists with talents for intelligently and eloquently communicating about Mother Natch. My guess is I am not alone in assuming my mediocrity.

One place I feel most creative and confident is in my travel journal. Plotting maps of unfamiliar towns, pasting stickers from local pubs and museums, recording an analog of cherished adventures. My travel journal goes with me on every vacation or conference, and I am proud to show her off to friends and colleagues. Unlike my “bleh” pursuit at keeping a proper personal diary, working in my travel journal feels fun and without expectation. Could I somehow translate this into journaling about nature here at home?

A peek inside nature journals
A peek into the journals of some of our workshop participants.

I walked into the Old Forest surrounded by Taska and those artist-friends that day, thinking the same about nature journaling as I did about my personal journals. I felt inferior to the talent surrounding me, and as the hostess, I assumed the activity’s end goal should land on someone else. But as a I walked around observing everyone’s vastly different methods and perspectives, it hit me that in these woods, smack in the middle of the hustle and bustle, everyone belongs. No matter your background, your degree or your baggage, anyone could walk their happy ass into the Old Forest and connect to something.

Y’all, when I tell you this experience knocked me off my feet. In my four years at the Conservancy so far, this was the deepest time I felt so confident and connected to a piece of the park. I was not searching for this experience, but more likely I had not taken the time to allow myself to have it.

I am finally writing these words currently in Ventura, California, visiting my husband’s family for Thanksgiving, far away from the Memphis canopy of towering oak and poplar trees, surrounded by succulents. In this season of gratitude, I am thankful for time and space. I am grateful to work for an organization and in a place that opens doors to creativity, to inspiration, to healing. Mostly I am grateful for this recent experience in the Old Forest, and the intense power of time spent in nature. Over the next week, I hope to blur the boundaries I have set for myself between travel journaling, nature journaling, and writing from a place of good, old-fashioned vulnerability. And in this new season, I hope you, dear reader, find your own time to open up. Whenever and wherever you are. Cheers to the Old Forest. Cheers to nature. Cheers to wanderin’ lonely in the woods.