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How cancer helped transform my relationship with nature

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How cancer helped transform my relationship with nature

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I have hiked and run hundreds of times the trail that leads up Animas Mountain just blocks from my house in Durango, Colorado. But one afternoon last winter, when he was strolling under clear, slanted sunlight, it felt different. The switchbacks were encrusted with week-old ice and mud. The colors of sage and juniper were muted and the air had the lazy bite of winter in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The excursion couldn’t have been more mundane. I know the contours of every tree, shrub, rock and cactus. And yet I felt a feeling of euphoria just to be there. The way was no different, but it was me. This is one of the strange blessings that have sprung up after last year’s draconian treatment for breast cancer. It takes very little to open up to the beauty of the world.

Now that I’ve got surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and 12 months of targeted drug therapy completely behind me, and I’ve got a clean health certificate – for now, at least – people are asking me what I’ve learned. I see the tense expectation written in the muscles of their faces. Sometimes I even sense their impatience. I can’t get a pithy bite, because the processes of real healing cannot simply be summed up. They spread, jump and stop over years and decades. The treatment was a leap in healing that only begins with the body and began more than 15 years ago.

To say I was severely wounded as a young adult would be an understatement. Shortly after I moved to Santa Fe to work for the magazine, one of my supervisors told me that I was so anxious to do a good job that it unsettled him. I was forced by a kind of insane perfectionism, which my upbringing and intensive training really required in retrospect. Part of me wanted to be free of it, but I didn’t know how. There can be some security in familiar suffering.

It wasn’t a mistake that I ended up in Santa Fe. The loosening process began in its tidy deserts under the vast western sky. Even the non-damp air felt more spacious out there than in the big cities in the east where I grew up. I learned to climb the empty cliffs outside of town and ride a road bike for the first time. After work, my boyfriend and I went on excursions, from simple bouldering after work to climbing the alpine peaks after sunset with a view of the city lights. Most of the time we moved fast or hard or both, but sometimes I paused long enough to notice more about my surroundings. I especially liked the orchestral silence of the desert before dawn, as if everything was waiting to start the song.

The opportunity to be outdoors regularly has been a privilege and blessing that I valued very much. It was the key to slow, healthy relaxation of my nervous system. But at the same time, perhaps subconsciously internalizing cultural standards of productivity and selfishness, I prioritized activities that required speed, strength, and dexterity over those that focused on slowness, attunement, and contemplation. I appreciated walking over meandering and long backcountry skiing days over gentle cross-country touring as if everything had to be big and remarkable. Since high school I had been trained to put even my extracurricular activities on some sort of internal resume.

I noticed that the outdoor culture around me also seemed to promote this perspective, or at least not deny it. It was a patriarchal view that encompassed the challenge of food and action of being – getting somewhere and becoming someone through perceiving, receiving and communicating. Even as I flipped through the pages of this magazine as part of my work, I noticed that in general there were many men who did bold, dangerous things. That’s great. I like men. And adventure. But it was an imbalance that I internalized, not only in relation to the activities I chose, but also to the trappings of the so-called outdoor lifestyle.

I remember my friend who was an equipment reviewer handing me trendy outdoor clothing. (Maybe he wasn’t keen on my old-fashioned sweats and cotton T-shirts.) I was happy to have free technical clothing, but I also subconsciously adopted a belief system that everyone had to look a certain way outside . This external print seemed to merge seamlessly with mine internal expectations so that I couldn’t always tell one thing from the other.

Over the years I have arbitrarily, and very slowly, drawn to a less rigid and more intuitive way of being in spite of myself. Part of that is the blessings of getting older. I’m 40 now. Of course, my body slows down a little and my need for constant positive self-reinforcement is less. But it wasn’t until I was forced to not only slow down, but actually stop, that I realized the rest of these slowly dying habits: I got cancer.

Although my tumor was small, the cancer was aggressive and had already spread, which meant I needed industrial-grade chemotherapy. After an infusion, I sometimes didn’t leave the house for days. It was like a land mine exploded inside my body. I was lying on the couch, actually trying not to be there because I was so uncomfortable, my stomach was chafed and sore, my mind slow and tough, my eyes blurred, as if I were looking through churned water. Of course, I wasn’t skiing or hiking; sometimes all I could do was just go outside and look at the trees. I felt unsteady and driven. Cut off from the constant movement, which in some way orientated me to what I believe to be, I felt as if I had misplaced my identity.

One winter afternoon on the sofa, I was staring through a skylight at a cloudy sky and listening to the screeching of a little herd of goose above me. They happened to flutter across the rectangle of bright haze above me. That glance felt like a gift, a reminder that the world I had left behind and that seemed so far away to me was not as far away as I thought.

I began to pay more attention to the nature around me, the ducks and herons in my neighborhood and the leisurely transformation of the plants over weeks and months. I adjusted to the humble beauty of things I hadn’t really noticed before – the textures of rocks, the way shallow water turns into splinters of paint with the slightest movement. I was delighted to see a deer sneaking on tiptoe through the river one early morning.

As terrible as the treatment experience was, the relative simplicity of life opened up new ways of seeing its former complexities. I began to see more clearly and deeply what is being lost if I always move at speed or with a predetermined goal – and if I relate to the natural world in only one way, through movement. It seems absurd nowthe earth is the totality of who and what we are; It’s what we’re made of, where we’re from and where we’re going. To limit our understanding and relationship with it in any way is tragic.

And yet I realized that even in the recent past I sometimes loved my time outdoors – as dear as it was – as checking off the “exercise and wellbeing” box of a mental to-do list on the way to something else looked at . There was almost a subtle spirit of acquisition, a self-centered need and haste that I hadn’t noticed, but that had excluded the deepest sense of presence. I wonder if just looking at nature through the lens of my own needs has at some level brought about a subtle extractive mindset.

Nowadays, I feel free to be outside in a number of ways – a way that I would have thought drowsy in the past. Recently, a friend and I sat in a large meadow, wedged between two cliffs, and played around with watercolors for hours. (I’m horrible, but who cares.) Sometimes I just stop and stand and watch birds that I would previously have found ridiculously boring. (It gets more interesting when you have the patience not to move that much.) Occasionally I sit in a thicket, close my eyes, and listen.

But this long unlearning is not just about slowing down or avoiding technical clothing. I love climbing mountains, backpacking and skiing deep in the wilderness. We humans need an element of challenge. And I undoubtedly appreciate a well-made piece of equipment. (I’ve collected an embarrassing amount of it.) This process is more about having the balance of mind in order to be able to choose how to relate to nature at any given moment, rather than so much to be bound by internal or external constraints. Ultimately, this freedom supports a deeper, more real, sustainable and nurturing relationship with nature and with oneself. Maybe they are not that separate after all.

I recently met my mother in Sedona, Arizona for a week. While she was resting one day, I decided to sneak into a ravine quickly. I didn’t think I’d be gone long so I slipped on my sneakers and headed out in jeans and a t-shirt. I was so fascinated by the steep canyon walls, red towers, rocky knobs and bright spring green that I carried on. The pandemic was starting to ease, and I felt a sense of buoyancy that might just be in the air.

On the way back I started to trot profusely. I just felt like it. It didn’t seem to matter that I wasn’t wearing a sports bra. Every few hundred yards I sprinted and raced through the ponderosas and the terracotta monoliths that towered over me. There was something so simple and liberating about it. I wasn’t trying to get anywhere. Reaching a certain pace or a certain mileage could no longer occur to me. It was just the pure, pointless joy of a human body moving through space.

As my perfectionism continues to change and express itself more subtly, something else seems to happen naturally. It is a regaining of my own humanity on a level beyond words and culture, a reorientation towards awe. In all its misery, cancer has ruined my expectations of myself and of what the world owes me. Given these claims, the only appropriate response to being in nature seems to be – in whatever way I am able – to be amazement.

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