The Mantra, by Alicia Erdoes

Last week in class, we talked about the paradox of consciousness- of how humans have to put effort into existing in the “now”. It wasn’t until then that I realized how true that really is. I guess it makes sense. It is as if that is the price we are charged for enjoying a higher level of reason than the rest of the animal kingdom. It made me wonder which was more favorable.

The sun was brilliant and for the first time in months, I wasn’t chilly on the walk home. Fifteen minutes passed, and I couldn’t even recall what I had seen. Once I hit South College, I realized I had been thinking critically about the next few years of my life. Not about the weather, not my footsteps, not my surroundings- the upcoming years. I had been calculating how long I would have to work before saving up enough money to travel the world. What was I doing? There’s no guarantee I’ll even be alive tomorrow. So I kept walking. My house came into view on the right just before the bridge, and it vanished again behind me. I walked under the bridge, past the train station, and followed the running path.

I walked through Newark, across campus, all the while trying to keep my mind present. My phone stayed in my pocket, and I tried to form conscious sentences about every sensory detail of the journey. I am walking to North campus. The sun feels great on my skin. Something smells fantastic- probably Newark Deli & Bagel. That girl’s dress is beautiful.

When I approached the bridge leading to Laird campus, I instead took the steep path on the right side that winds down under the structure. Instinctively I headed to the left and finessed myself through the patches of brush and bushes that line a small creek. I knew I was visible from the bridge, and probably looked a little crazy, but that was just fine.

The ground beneath me feels a little warm, probably because it’s been stealing sunlight between branches. I kicked my flip flips off and put my toes in the moist earth at the edge of the water. That just may be the best feeling in the world. I closed my eyes, leaned back on my hands, and tilted my face towards the sky, finally giving the sun a proper greeting. A few minutes passed, and two squirrels chasing each other across the creek brought me out of my sun trance. I realized I had successfully kept my mind there the entire time, without a single thought other than what was immediately around me. I focused in on the squirrels, and figured that must be how they feel all the time. I bet they never worry about what they’re going to do after graduation.

I watched the water, flowing slowly but surely towards White Clay. Where had it come from before that? Maybe it was runoff from someone up the road who decided to take advantage of the warm weather and wash their car today. And before that, it was in a hose, before that maybe a water tower or a pipe. Here, now, it is in a creek, but in a matter of hours it will be in White Clay, and eventually it will reach the ocean. Just another one of life’s chains of events, to get everyone where they need to go.

I realize this is the first time in months that I am wholly happy. None of my responsibilities have dissipated, and the problems I had yesterday still exist, but none of them can touch me in the “now.” There is a quote by Kurt Vonnegut that has been my mantra for the last couple of years, and it resonates right now more than ever. “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

I’ve started reading Listening to Whales and I’m flying through it, partly because it’s so interesting, but also because Alexandra Morton’s life seems like a dream. She says that no matter what she is doing, when she sees a whale she runs out to her boat and follows it. To me, that is the epitome of living in the “now.” And better yet, that is her job. She essentially makes a living by observing- by just being present. Admittedly, she is usually in the presence of much more interesting things than I am, but if she can do it, why can’t I?

My new mantra is, “I urge you to please notice.”

Skunk Cabbages, by Lauren Gregory

I come down to my spot on a warm afternoon. The waning light filters through new clusters of foliage, burning into delicate membranes—a canopy of green flames. A crooked branch stretches itself across my path, adorned in a pale blue-green frock of foliose lichen. I stoop to feel its frilled edges with my fingertips and take a few pictures. As I sit down on my rock, saying quiet ‘hellos’ to the fishermen along the bank, I notice that the narrow, pointed Beech buds have not opened yet. They are held aloft like so many spears, despite the disarming warmth of late April.
A man dressed in tall wading boots stands in the middle of the creek, waiting. His line grows taut, the pole bends, and he lifts a shimmering trout out of the water. The other men notice and talk to him about the bait he uses, which he calls “trout magnet.” “It’s a little gold worm—there’s something about the color gold that they like,” he says. A woman on the bank casts her line emphatically and says, to no one in particular, “I just hate it when people leave their trash here in the park. I would pick it up, but I don’t have a bag.”
To my left two fishing lines are held securely in a pair of PVC pipes that had been pushed into the impressionable dirt along the bank. A man sits nearby with elbows resting on bent knees, waiting. His wife sits to his right in a chair, and their son stoops behind them to carve shapes in the sand with a stick.
I decide to journey down the bank, so I pass the sitting man and his two lines and follow the path to its natural end. I hesitate for a moment before I jump across the small stream that separates the terminal path from the unbeaten understory. Water striders are dashing across the surface in sudden, mechanical explosions and a pair of mammalian footprints wanders down a sandy bar not far from where I stand. In the understory, a colony of Skunk Cabbages grows abundantly in clusters of lively green. Reaching out, I rip off part of a leaf and smell it—and unsurprisingly, it smells skunky! I think of the several lines in Mary Oliver’s poem “Skunk Cabbage:”
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein.
Wondering what she meant by a “continual spattering of protein,” I later did some research and discovered that the odor attracts pollinators that fertilize its little yellow flowers, which cover the rounded “spadix.” How strange and wonderful!
On my way back I find a motor lodged in grasses and shrubs, and a few other sundry parts. The motor is rusted over and appears to be a long-term resident of the understory. An old wheel hub leans against a steep incline a few paces away, and I spot more scrap metal on a nearby hill. It is a strange gathering—each part is lifeless and isolated, and yet they are planted among such growth and interconnectedness. I climb the bank ungracefully, replete with thorns, and follow the path home.

Altered Worlds, by Ana Bowe

I stumbled upon an inverted map of the world: land became sea and vice versa. It abruptly reveals how vast the earth’s oceans are. We spent so much time researching information regarding other planets and life in space but until recently, we had little information about our own planet. Children fantasize about life as a mermaid or living in the ocean, but life for humans underwater is irrevocably impossible.

In Listening to Whales, Alexandra Morton explores the communication and culture of whales off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. She was one of the first researchers who more closely observed the communication between the orcas or dolphins themselves rather than interspecies communication. She truly appreciates and respects these gigantic mammals’ culture and refrains from forcing our way of life onto them like pushing a puzzle piece into the wrong spot but somehow making it “fit.” Her empathetic way of studying orcas trumps any aquarium’s rationale. People made it possible to observe magnificent sea creatures through the creation of aquariums and aquatic parks or visiting centers; however, these creatures act completely different in captivity from how they would act in the wild. Whales become so close-knit that they form pods that basically speak different languages. Aquatic parks, such as Marineland and Sea World, hinder the animals’ abilities to communicate with each other when they capture the animals from different parts of the world and store them in an area as big as a box compared to their normal “world.”

Parks justify their horrific behavior by stating that they serve as an area for education. The documentary Blackfish takes a close look at how these parks operate revealing immoral and cruel treatment towards specifically killer whales. Trainers withhold fish/food from them as negative reinforcement so that they appear to be trained animals and perform for human entertainment. The amount of education from parks like Sea World is slim to none. Children dream of having a relationship with a whale or dolphin one day, directly encouraging the domestication of wild animals. A recent article published in National Geographic discussed humans’ desire to tame wild animals. Some argue that these animals should be allowed to be held as pets while others argue that this is simply morally wrong. Last year, I cared for my family friends’ five Labrador Retrievers, one of which was pregnant. Over the course of the month the family was gone, I frequented the vet and rushed home to see if the mom had gone into labor.

When I first noticed her growing stomach, I sent a frantic email to the family basically asking what I need to do to care for her and the future puppies. The owner, only accessible through email, responded with, “Ana, dogs have been birthing puppies without human help for many years…the mother will figure it out.” Reading that email humbled me quickly. My primary focus became to make the mother comfortable without overstepping any boundaries such as forming a relationship with the puppy. Even for a domesticated animal, we must give animals the ability to independently live as much as we can. We constantly want others including wild animals to conform to our lifestyle even if that means making a wild animal depend on human.

If we domesticate every animal, we will kill our natural world. The amount of factory farms would increase solely to feed the captivate animals unable to explore and search for their own food. While some people may be able to visit a park and learn about orcas, most people learn about how to train and domesticate something that should be free. Blackfish successfully conveys the terrors that go on in aquatic parks such as the small tanks housing multiple unrelated orcas, separating families based on profitable opportunities, and the sagging fin caused by a whale’s depression.

Listening to Whales takes it a step farther and reveals whales’ massive emotional capacity, synchronized movements, and extreme closeness within a family and pod. The lessons especially children learn from these types of parks are to dominate and domesticate the world.

The Ties That Bind, by Tim Hoffman

In the midst of my busiest semester yet, I am faced with one of the most arduous topics in science: quantum mechanics. This branch of science is so difficult to grasp that even Erwin Schrödinger, the pioneer of quantum theory, was less than fond of it. This material is essentially the study of particle behavior down at the atomic level—where classical laws of physics begin to fall apart at the seams. As overwhelming as it is, this topic defines the fundamental parameters that govern our world. And continuing deeper, these quantum mechanics give rise to the idea that all things (atomic particles, subatomic particles, energies, so on) are connected in ways unimaginable. To ignore this dynamic interconnectedness of all things is foolish.

Nikola Tesla created the most beautiful description of this theory. As one of my most revered idols, Nikola Tesla was a mad scientist who understood electricity on levels that others couldn’t even fathom. He erected several laboratories and fastened together fantastic inventions, which were so far advanced that many deemed him to be insane. As a consequence of all of this, Nikola Tesla understood the physical qualities that bind us all together. His illuminating explanation states, “Though free to think and act, we are held together, like the stars in the firmament, with ties inseparable. These ties cannot be seen, but we can feel them.”

I became stunned every time I read that quote back to myself—both by the beauty and complexity of its words. This research is daunting material, and no one should spend too much time thinking about it in one sitting. So I went for a run in pursuit of clarity (plus I was also overdue for a little exercise).

After about two miles, I decided that was enough and fabricated a finish line for myself. I stopped. I removed my headphones and realized that I was gasping for air at an alarming rate. My skin was beyond hot, expelling all the sweat it could find. I had hoped that the rain would be there to neutralize this effect, but although the forecast predicted a one hundred percent chance of precipitation, there was none to be found. And for that matter, the sky wasn’t even that cloudy. The resulting scenario left me physically drained and overheated, like a fish out of water. After a brief period of stretching and catching my breath, I looked up. I discovered that my finish line was adorned with a remarkably massive magnolia tree. I think I had subconsciously noticed this landmark on my way in, but it felt like I was just seeing it for the first time.

Its branches whirled outward in jagged spirals that gave it this hauntingly artistic arrangement. The roots of the trunk melted into the ground like hot wax off a thick candle. The most distinctive feature about the tree however was the innumerable freshly bloomed magenta flowers that lined the tips of the branches. Large pink petals composed countless little explosions. This tree was absolutely magnificent, and perhaps I was just lightheaded and delusional… but it felt remarkably alive, a guardian of the forest. The life within it was so palpable, and I attributed this feeling to the xylem cells that I read about in David Haskell’s writing. These cells transport water throughout plants by masterfully exploiting the laws of physics, allowing the sun to exert the majority of the necessary energy. Thinking of these forces hauling “a thick rope of water up from the ground” made the tree feel increasingly more alive to me.

My heart was still racing, pumping blood quickly and efficiently throughout my veins. As my body pulsed with blood, so did the tree with enormous volumes of water. I’m a natural at ruining cool, evocative moments like these, so I thought, “We’re not so different, you and I.” I smirked and chuckled at the magnolias. But the fact of the matter was that this tree and I had so much in common. Arbitrarily speaking, the tree was a large part of who I was, and I it. This feeling of connection, this vibe, explains perfectly the theory that I was trying to wrap my head around earlier, and there I was experiencing it first hand.

This universal connection explains how deeply imbedded we are within our environments. For anyone to say he loves the environment is to say he loves himself. To say he loves food or music or his friends is to say he loves the environment. The list goes on. David Haskell speaks generally about these ties in relation to plant-derived medicines. He generalizes, “Through the ancient biochemical struggle between plants and animals, I am bound to the forest through the architecture of my molecules.” Haskell easily identifies himself as part of the forest through his physical structure. Denying this truth would be a major injustice, yet lo and behold, modern American societies are skilled in the art of denying this interconnected relationship.

Generally ignorant to this idea, many people begin to fragment the world into finite sectors. They believe they can exploit parts of the earth without affecting the whole. Instead, a ripple is created in the vast collective structure, responsible for a myriad of environmental problems. It must be understood that these ties, though tiring to understand, are very real—real enough for science to aid as our ally. Because of this, hurt is universal, and we experience just as much of it as we damn onto the environment. The same can be said about love. Only we are responsible for our destruction, and only we are responsible for our salvation.

Serenity in the Familiar, by Marisa Andreazza

Spring break has arrived, which means that I am back home in northern NJ, right on the border of New York.  More importantly, spring break enabled me to head back to my favorite place in the world: Ramapo Mountain State Forest.  I know some of these trails like the back of my hand, and I have been anxious all semester to be able to write about the pure beauty that resides here.  As I drove about 20 minutes west from my house to get to my favorite trail, I simply could not contain my excitement.  I felt like it was going to be a glorious, peaceful experience of all-day hiking, without any stress from school—and it certainly was.

I headed onto the trail in my hiking gear and automatically felt right at home again; the rocky terrain for the first mile or so put me right back in my place.  Each step was taken carefully, paying attention to the natural patterns of the ground and its lack of any sort of paved surface—exactly the way hiking should be.  Beginning to head further into forest, I hear the sound of flowing water from a tributary crossing through the path way.  This week brought a lot of heavy rain, perhaps explaining why I felt as though the stream was more powerful than I had last remembered.  Initially struggling to keep my balance on the slippery, wet rocks that led across to the other side, I tightened the straps on my backpack, stiffened my posture, and kept going.  There’s something so beautiful and different about hiking by yourself in such a remote—yet familiar—place, as opposed to hiking with others or in a forest that you aren’t quite as familiar with.  Here, I know and appreciate the lay of the land so much more.  I can identify with what I see; certain feelings of confusion that I have in White Clay vanish here and are replaced with a sense of real understanding.  I am less of just an explorer, and more of an observer.

Looking to my left, I pass some striking witch hazel shrubs.  They bloom in late winter to early spring, making my hike incredibly timely.  I stopped to kneel down and appreciate their inherent loveliness for a while.  Here are these shrubs, gifted with the most tender and beautiful yellow flowers in the midst of a forest that still carries the weight of bear branches.  The petals on these flowers are incredibly fringe-like; they are thin and rather rectangular in shape, growing in clusters.  Seeing such a pop of color among so many barren trees and shrubs gave me such a positive feeling.  Hiking onward, I couldn’t help but smile.  After some time elapsed, I hit one of my favorite spots.  To the left, through the trees, is a stunning view of the Ramapo Lake.  I found a large rock to sit on for a while, to take it all in.

From experience, I know that this particular environment near the lake lends itself to many species inhabiting the area, unlike less diversity that would occur as I hike higher up into ridge-top habitat.  Pulling out my binoculars, I observe a few hooded warblers right away.  It seemed like the color yellow was following me today!  These birds have a pale brown back with yellow underparts, and as I focus in and follow one particular warbler with my binoculars, I note that it is a male, due to its black hood surrounding the bright, yellow face.  There is a lot of dense undergrowth here, and I see these birds swooping down to feed on insects in the vegetation.  As I remain focused on the one male bird perched on a tree’s ledge, I hear his beautiful song. Ta-wee ta-wee tee-oh.  It’s such a loud, succinct whistle—crisp and clear.  Forcing myself to stop watching this beautiful bird, I tear my eyes away to notice some of the other native bird species here.  I notice the red-eyed vireo—a relatively small songbird with olive green coloring and white underparts—resting in the newly emerging foliage of a blooming tree.  Looking out into the distance a bit further I notice the ovenbird, another songbird, but a bit larger than the red-eyed vireo.  With their characteristic white coloring, heavily streaked with black, I can’t help but notice these birds right away as well.  Resting on a branch, these birds interestingly flick their tails up and gently lower them again—a seemingly common characteristic of these birds at rest.  Feeling satisfied by my experience here, I continued to hike upwards.

I finally reached my favorite spot after a few hours of hiking—such a sweet, sensational feeling!  As I climbed the mountainous terrain, it became difficult at times, but this view has always been worth it.  Being so high up, from here I can see the New York City skyline amidst a sea of mountains in the distance.  It’s such an amazing sight to see, yet I refuse to photograph this moment.  Though I love pictures, some things in life are just too beautiful to capture.  Only our minds can truly remember such a vivid, lively image.  There is something about photography—at least from an iPhone anyway—that really degrades natural beauty.  So instead, I close my eyes, breathe a sigh of relief, and take it all in.

Near this area is an old, abandoned castle which now serves as a paradigm for nature’s ability to take over.  Nature certainly reclaimed this castle.  There is practically an entire ecosystem growing between the remaining stone walls.  Lately I have learned the importance of finding a small space in nature to observe, rather than always focusing on the big picture.  I owe my longing for this intricacy to David Haskell, who in his book The Forest Unseen observed a small patch of the woods for an entire year, noticing things even at a microbial level.  Though I don’t have nearly enough of a scientific background to do exactly that, I just wanted to really step in his shoes, at least for a day, and to try to observe all of the things I could in this rather small area that was burgeoning with life.  Sitting down on the ground, I readied myself, trying to open my eyes to the little things.  I usually look up, or around, but rarely down.  Being close to the ground, I felt the need to examine the soil and plant litter, because I’ve always learned of its vital role in an ecosystem—to enrich the ecological productivity of the area and provide a rich organic layer of soil (the O horizon, or top layer).  Right away I notice some decomposers, from small worms to a millipede.  I have never had the experience of seeing a millipede up close, but they are really quite interesting.  Examining its form, I am fascinated by its shape and the arrangement of two legs per tiny segment of its body, where each double legged segment is a result of two single segments, fused together as one.  I stare at the little critter among the fallen leaves and twigs for quite some time, just watching its movements.

As I look away and scan my eyes upward, I notice a rope-like vine that has invaded the stone wall at my eye level.  It is in this moment that I jump purely out of impulse; I spy a black snake, over two feet long in the brush nearly right in front of me.  Here I was, examining this tiny millipede and taking absolutely no notice to the snake in front of me.  Though I do consider myself a nature lover, there are certain boundaries I have.  I thought this snake to be a common black rat snake, but to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure.  Taking a step back, I needed to watch from a bit further.  Immediately, this frustrated me.  In Haskell’s book, he gives us a sense of how connected to nature he is.  He hears a sound—not knowing the danger or implications of it—and doesn’t move, but rather waits to find out what is headed his way.  More adventurous still, he brings himself alarmingly close to a tick, knowing the diseases it may carry, and dares to observe it as close as he can.  These things stood out to me and really inspired me.  Reading his book made me want to become more adventurous; if I consider myself a nature lover, shouldn’t I bring less fear to the table?  Sitting and watching this snake crawl away, seemingly shy after seeing me jump back, forced me to come to terms with this aforementioned idea.  I had just lost a brilliant opportunity to watch a species that I have never encountered before by jumping back instead of staying still.  It is a new goal of mine, therefore, to become more still, observant, and adventurous in the way that Haskell presented to us in his brilliantly written book.

As I headed back down the trails after a long day, I had a lot on my mind.  Though I could have been more adventurous today, I really just look at this day as a positive experience.  Being in my favorite place, I was filled with joy to be home again—to breathe in the air here, and to feel the familiarity of this forest.  Even though I perhaps made some mistakes, I find such solace in knowing that I had one purely beautiful day—and nothing can ever take that away.

My Own Mandala, by Cady Zuvich

The first time I learned of mandalas, it was during my junior year in high school. And I mean really learn. As a first grader, I would often spend hours sprawled on the beige carpet of my living room floor, segregating colors within certain shapes that filled mandalas to guarantee some sort of symmetry, unaware if my color construction had any true cosmic significance pertaining to my subconscious mind.

Flipping through my high school psychology book years later, I came across a small insert within a much longer section on subconscious thinking. The section provided explanation of psychologist Carl Jung’s admiration of mandalas––”the psychological expression of the totality of the self.” Therapies to this day derive from Jung’s love of mandalas as it inspires certain psychologist to task their patients with sketching their own mandalas in hopes of drawing conclusions of a person’s individual mental experience.

Today, I went to the woods with a mission: to sketch my own mandala. Inspired by “Forest Unseen,” I became increasingly fascinated with it. After a quick bike ride––the crisp air still leaving my fingers numb––I at last reached my own mandala. My mandala, I thought, has no physical boundaries but is rather everything I experience in this spot. My thoughts. My sights. The sounds and the touch and that particular smell in the air when winter slowly deteriorates, inviting spring to take over.

I’ve never been much of an artist. In elementary school, I was certain I was terrible at art. When teachers would hang the “best of” art projects on bulletin boards, mine––which felt sparsely picked––were always considered by myself to be displayed out of pity. Convinced my teachers only did so out of fairness to the lesser talented painters; positive I would never be as talented as the others. This apprehensive self-consciousness never settled as I evaded high school art classes (besides photography, which I oddly found more conventional). Sketching in class self-consciously even brought feelings of artistic inadequacy––worried everyone sitting around me would find my sketch attempts futile.

In the woods, within both my physical metaphysical mandala, all of these insecurities disappear. One of my favorite aspects of nature is that you do not have to compete with its beauty. In life, all of us filled to the top with heaps of self-depreciating insecurities and questions. We remind ourselves of our inadequacies as we look at others to compare. Why am I not smarter or successful than them? How do I stack up against a significant others new girlfriend? These looming questions conquer our thoughts. The feeling of inadequacy is incidental and inherent––a seemingly unavoidable aspect of the human experience. In the woods, though, nothing in comparable. It’s beautiful, and its something that is a part of your essence.
Sketching my mandala soon becomes second nature. I am calm, the water breaking through the rocks and flowing down the water bringing me solace. The tip of my pen begins to travel in waves with rounded edges and gradual falls. The dynamic of waves, from the trough to the crest, reflects life in many ways. “The highs and the lows.” “The dark times and the happy times.” The resilience of a wave is what I admire most. How, after violently crashing, the wave will always rise again.

Embodying my explorer in the spirit of Lewis and Clark, I am struck by rustling behind me. Bracing for the worst, I soon meet the wildlife I have been waiting for: two bunnies standing feet part with unwavering stares directed at each other. One bunny breaks the tension, chasing after the other until they are both traveling circularly, going round and round and round for minutes. Looking at my mandala, circles embody aspects of the mandala until it is whole.
Gazing at my mandala, I am filled with joy. With other artistic expressions, judgement by others is daunting, thought-consuming and leaves you feeling unconfident. But…this! This is mine. This mandala is mine, and it is me. The interconnectedness, the impermanence, the smaller pieces––its all what makes up not only me but also the universe.

The Great Escape, by Ally Brincka

I can’t remember what it feels like to be warm. In both the physical sense and emotional sense. The warm sensation that usually accompanies this feeling is a distant memory at this point in time, and I struggle every day to try to bring it back into my life somehow. The past few weeks have been extremely nerve-wracking, both academically and temperature-wise. Just as we finally reach spring (and approach a much needed spring break) and I expect to feel content at last, rumors of another snowstorm begin to spread around campus like wildfire. Why now? Clearly the universe can sense my heightened levels of stress and anxiety, choosing to top everything off by throwing yet another obstacle in my path to success.

The sound of my boots methodically pounding on the concrete below pulls me away from my dismal thoughts and makes me attune to the silence that surrounds me. Sometimes silence is a beautiful thing, and other times it can swallow you whole and make you go crazy, trying to fill it in any way possible. At this time I choose to fill it by focusing on my breathing and the sounds of birds around me, signifying to each other in a language I am incapable of understanding. Glancing up I see a hawk gliding above the treetops, sailing through the sky majestically and becoming one with the wind. I’ve always wondered what it’s be like to be a bird and see life from a new, superior perspective to that of everyone else. It must be remarkable to be able to look down on the world and sail around effortlessly without a worry in the world, above all the negative energy and hardships that constitute life on ground. To me a bird has the perfect life; if only I could somehow take flight myself and escape from all the responsibilities binding me to Earth.

The creek is extremely clear today, and its translucent surface gives me a glimpse into the murky depths below. The dark brown, muddy bottom shows no signs of life save for an unfortunate dead fish, its body lying mangled on the creek floor in a symbol of hopelessness and despair. I wonder gloomily what happened to it, and pray I don’t end up in a similar fate in what is sure to be a brutal and never-ending week ahead of me. Staring at the fish I think of a passage in The Forest Unseen that particularly stood out to me about the tiny ant’s struggle with a piece of fruit: “The fruit is as large as the ant, but she raises it high above her head… sets off for the center of the mandala, stumbling over maple flower stems, recovering, falling into leaf crevices, crawling onward. Her path is torturous, circling back to bypass gashes in the leaf litter, walking backward through tangles of catkins” (88). The desperate struggle of the ant with the weight of something as large as her own body left me in awe and was especially inspiring. As she “reaches a penny-sized hole in the litter and ducks down” (88) I revel in her success and wish I, too, could be as strong. If something as tiny as an ant could take on and overcome such an enormous weight on her own, why can’t I? It seems silly but the story of the ant inspires me to keep going even when the going gets rough, and to power through even when it seems like I have hit rock bottom.

Thinking of the tiny ant and decrepit fish alerted me to the constant, everyday battle in life, essentially the fight for survival. Some are lucky enough to win the battle (the ant), while unfortunately, others do not have the same luck (the fish). Life can be unusually cruel sometimes, but the lesson I took away from the story is this: You win some and you lose some, but as long as you have an internal drive to move forward, anything is possible. I will remember the story of the ant as I tackle the upcoming week filled with inevitable stress that accompanies piles of work, quizzes, and exams, continuing to climb up the mountain no matter the obstacles in my way, just as she did.

Life as a Mandala, by Lauren McGowan

Today as I walk along my bank, I am determined to see more than the trees and the geese that I’ve reported on the for the past six weeks. There has to be more out here. For the past two months, I have blamed my non-discoveries on the cold weather. Haskell observed Tennessee in the dead of winter and discovered more than I could imagine. I start my search at a recently uprooted tree that I discovered last week. I thought the large trunk and stump would become a shelter for insects. But I was wrong. Or maybe I needed David Haskell’s magnifying glass. Either way I found myself asking the same question – where is everything?

I walk further down the bank, disappointed but not discouraged. I find a new spot after the creek bends, and try to observe my own mandala. I sit at peace for awhile. But then my mind starts racing, asking once again – where is everything? I feel as if I’ve been staring at a patch of ground for hours and haven’t seen anything.

Does this mean I’m disconnected from Nature? I feel disappointed in myself. In his prologue, David George Haskell states that “mandala” is another word for “community.” If I cannot explore this community, am I not a part of it? Am I just an imposter who takes Nature for granted?

Since I cannot properly examine a mandala out here today, I figure I would examine one more abstract – my life. The mandala can be a metaphor for anyone’s life. It is created overtime, following a pattern that cannot be seen until it is finished. Both are filled with minute details. And sadly, both are washed away after they have ended.

Through Haskell’s study of his Tennessee mandala, it has become apparent to me that everything within the community serves a purpose. From the lichens to the devil-like shrew, they are where they are supposed to be. If I think about my life as a mandala, then everything within my life must serve a purpose. As I start to think about what compromises my life, my head feels as if it is stuffed with clutter. There are things in my life that clearly have purpose – my education, my friends, my family. More logical and tangible are food, shelter, water. All of those are obvious items serving my purpose in life, and I do not need a magnifying glass to see them.

Then I take my mental magnifying glass out and start to examine everything else filling up my life. Soon material products are swirling around my head and I start to feel dizzy. Anything that I could buy from a big box store, I own. But why? In this century we are convinced we have needs that are really nonexistent by advertising companies and the culture that fuels them. My materialistic mandala is made up of numerous clothes, make-up, perfumes, shampoos, lotions. On a normal day I believe I need these things. When they run out, I run out like a zombie, and buy more. When my mandala is completed, will it be filled with minute details like how many bottles of lotion I have gone through?

As weird as this sounds, this is something that concerns me. I am not concerned because my mind feels cluttered, or because I am just now realizing how materialistic my life is. I have known for awhile but I’ve been in denial. Today as I contemplate what my mandala consists of, I have to admit to myself that there is no changing my mandala. It will always consist of materialistic details. I am trapped in this cycle. I am trapped by advertisements and the culture that I live in. I am trapped by peer pressure. If my friends are using products and buying new clothes every month, then I will too. I do not know how to stop. A mandala filled with beautiful colors, like the Tibetan monks, but for all the wrong reasons. T

This is a sharp contrast to the natural mandala Haskell studied, or even the ones out by the Brandywine that I have tried, but failed to study. These communities found in nature serve a purpose and come together to create something beautiful, something with meaning. If my mandala is the opposite of this, does that mean my life does not serve a purpose? Does that mean my life has no meaning?

I am aware of the cynical nature of these questions. As I sit in the dirt, watching and hearing the river flow by, I feel more disconnected to nature than ever. The most I can do is realize that one day my mandala will be washed away, absorbed into nature. The most I can do is try to make decisions that will give my mandala purpose in the world.

An Oasis of Contemplation, by Paulina Knotts

Once again, a blinding whiteness painted the ground disguising mid-March as a winter wonderland in the arctic north. And once again, these woods had a fresh clean slate with all of last week’s footprints buried beneath the snow.
I sat at my familiar rock after brushing it’s powdered cap off with my sleeve. Week after week I’ve come here with the snow hindering physical change to my untrained eye. This however seemed to evoke more vibrant sensory awareness. It was colder than I remembered in past weeks. The sharp cold entered my lungs reminding me of the feeling Vick’s vapor rub gave me as a child when I was sick. A slight gust of wind caressed by exposed face and neck biter enough to send chills down my spine. It was only a matter of time before my toes felt numb and I was consciously aware of the rock beneath me as if I was sitting on a block of ice.

The sky was white. But a grayish white that wasn’t blinding to look at and contrasted against the earth’s pure white floor. I had spent so much time observing the ground in weeks past but with everything covered in snow I found a new appreciation in looking above. Once my eyes adjusted to the change in view, I could focus on the varying shades of grey and white swirling above. Thick clouds flowing in compliance with wherever the wind wanted to guide them.
The one-square-meter patch of ground David Haskell calls his “mandala,” his symbolic representation of the universe, is just as much affected by this sky and these clouds as the white tail deer that crosses in its boundaries and the microorganisms living within. For the first time since coming here I thought of my patch of woods on both a philosophical and universal level, rather than just my neighborhood or even my country and the local behavior impacting it. People have a profound interconnection with nature that operates at and through every scale, from the molecular, as Haskell observed, to the cosmic. His mandala vision reveals the universe in a patch of soil, which is astonishing once really thought about.

I laid back completely relaxed with my arms spread open in the snow. I briefly closed my eyes and let out a deep sigh upon reopening my eyes. Again looking up at the swirling clouds, I imagined the universe beyond them—much like in movies when the camera zooms out from planet earth until it disappears among the millions of starts. It’s miraculous to thing how insignificant these cold woods are I lay in, yet how significant they are all at the same time. Significant to the deer cutting through these woods. Significant to the birds chirping overhead. Significant to the trees and the fish swimming in the stream below, significant to the insects and microorganisms that my blind eye couldn’t even see. Significant to me.

We all have our blind spots to nature, just as the universe may have a blind spot to microscopic planet earth. But nonetheless, we are all interconnected and everything is complex, lively and important in it’s own respect. Modern man has become blind, he needs to slow down, find stillness and rebuild his connection to nature. Through our appreciation of our surroundings we can learn again how to live in harmony with the world. These ordinary woods I venture to each week are made special by concentrated attention, an “oases of contemplation” that can “call us out of disorder.”

Looking Closer, by Paige Lewis

           It’s incredible how systems work themselves out. Whether those systems are biological—the deer’s one of a kind digestive system, or the Carolina chickadee’s unique ways in which it keeps itself warm—social—how friends move in and out of your life for no apparent reason, yet the new friendships always astound you with their richness—or other—how everything ends up falling perfectly into place, regardless of how much time or how much hardship it takes to get there. As I get older and meet new, beautiful people; travel and explore diverse cities and endless forests, I learn more and more the importance in appreciating life’s simplest, and most amazing pleasures.

As I sit in my spot today, after spending the weekend in Boston with my friends (and theirs) from my recent semester-long study abroad program, I reflect on how genuinely lucky I am to have met such delightful people, at such a time in my life when I am able to be flexible and pick up and travel wherever I want to. Thinking about this flexibility reminded me of a passage of “The Forest Unseen” I had read on the bus early Friday morning on my way up to Boston from Philadelphia. “In moderate winds, leaves bend back and flutter. As the wind’s force increases, leaves change their behavior and absorb a portion of the wind’s strength, using it to furl into a defensive posture…As the wind abates, the leaves spring back unrolling into sails again” (95). Like the wind, life blows hardships, busy schedules, and chaos our way. However, while in those times we protect ourselves against the wind, they pass and we unfurl and grow back into a better version of our previous selves. During this time of growth and unfurl, I can feel myself morphing into something better than I was before: A more adventurous person, unafraid of taking opportunity and going for it…and not allowing another gust of strong wind to hold me back. While the winds are inevitable, the positive change that is born from that hardship is the most beautiful product.

Just like in the Tennessee forest, the wind is blowing hard today, rattling the leaves and blowing them across the open field. It’s cold today, like every other day it seems like, despite it now being spring. Tomorrow it’s supposed to snow again, and I can’t help feel that this season will never loosen its grip. After the long and tiring weekend, I decide to sit on the ground and take a more detailed look at what I normally tread over. The ground feels surprisingly soft for such a cold day, and I study the square foot directly in front of me. Covering the ground almost entirely lay a large amount of acorn caps—some broken, and some still attached to brown, supple acorns. Occasional twigs lay in undeterminable patterns, resembling a game of pick-up sticks. The grass is brown but the new green growth shoots up the middle, splitting the dull, brown leaves.

Unlike the Tennessee forest, there’s not much happening in this square foot of ground. I can’t help but feel a little bored, and my eyes burn from tiredness. My eyes abandon my spot, searching the landscape for something that will hold my fleeting interest. To my left a little ways away, I see a large brown blob. Curious, my eyes remain glued. After a couple minutes, it moves, and I spot a head. It’s a groundhog. After a few minutes more, it positions itself to parallel my exact stance. Head forward, bottom on the ground, staring and unmoving. And then it disappears into the ground, it’s big bottom protruding from the ground and then disappearing in one swift movement. So that’s that.

As I get up to leave, a strong smell of cedar overcomes me. It reminds me of times at my cabin in Northern Pennsylvania, and grounds me again. Those times as a child in the woods were simpler. But as I look around me, I watch the trees sway in the wind. Their leaves may be bracing the attack, but I can promise you trees, let the wind die down. It will, and it’s great. There are good things coming.