Happiness

■ Self-initiated self-caring

Have you ever been backpacking or camping in the woods? Shelley never had. She was a city girl. Her dad would never take his car off a paved road, and her mom would never stay anywhere except in a luxury hotel. Then her class teacher, Ms. McKay, announced they were going on a hiking trip: four days trekking through the woods, three nights camped out in tents. How could she get out of it?

Well, the fact was she couldn't, and so she found herself tramping along with a pack on her back that she was sure even a Sumo wrestler would struggle with. It was a burden she didn't want to bear but she also knew it carried things essential for her survival, so she found herself needing it and hating it at the same time. Was she ever glad to dump it when they finally got to their campsite!

Ms. McKay called the girls together. "When you have set up your tents"—great, how do you do that? wondered Shelley—"I want you to explore the woods near camp. Don't wander too far away." No worries about that, thought Shelley. "I want you to look closely at what you see. Let yourselves discover the colors, the shapes, the shades, the tones, and the movements. Let us make this a silent exercise. While you walk and look, no talking for the first ten minutes." You have to be joking, Shelley mouthed to the friend standing beside her. She didn't know if she had been silent, ever, for ten minutes in her life, apart from sleeping.

She looked up at the trees. Hey, the leaves weren't all green. Each one was a different shade of green—light green, dark green, yellowy-green, blue-green—and they were different sizes and shapes, and moved differently in the breeze. The tree trunks weren't brown. They were gray and brown, and black and green. Some had smooth bark over which you could run your hand, while others were too lumpy or splintery. One tall tree had a hollow trunk just big enough for a teenage girl to hide in. Checking it out to be sure it was free of spiders and snakes, she slipped inside. At least she could hide here till the ten minutes were up, then jump out and startle a passing friend. As she sat there, she watched a shiny beetle making its way up the inside of the trunk; she was fascinated as its delicate legs climbed over mountainous ridges and deep valleys—at least for a beetle—on a journey to where? she wondered. When she heard other kids chattering again she felt reluctant to leave. There was something peaceful about her tree-trunk hideaway and she didn't want to leave her beetle. For a while, she stayed on.

After supper (along with carrying a backpack, she could live without the camp food, Shelley thought) Ms. McKay asked everyone to quietly sit around the campfire, close their eyes if they wished, and listen to the sounds of the forest. The crackle of the fire sounded friendly and warming. The breeze rustled the leaves of the trees. Strange, thought Shelley, how she had not noticed it before. Now it seemed overwhelmingly present. Someone let off a loud fart—that was the baked beans for supper! Giggles rippled around the campfire before the quietness of the woods settled again. Sev eral sort of birds were calling: whistles, twits, songs, and then the hoot of an owl. Despite all the sounds she still thought of it as silence . . . and it felt good to listen.

Over the next few days, Ms. McKay asked them to be aware of the smells around them (not after you feed us baked beans again, Shelley said to herself). The woods smelled . . . how would she describe it ... yes, they smelled green. Damp, fresh, clean, fragrant . . . and definitely green. She would crush some different leaves between her fingers as she walked, letting the aroma waft toward her nose. She liked the earthy smell of the soil as she lay so close to it in her tent at night.

"Have you ever discovered the tastes of the forest?" said Ms. McKay. "Nature lets you know what to avoid. Anything that is red or grows on thorny plants is likely to be poisonous. Just taste the things I show you." Yeah, your insurance is probably not up to having a poisoned kid on you hands, said Shelley's head. Ms. McKay pointed out leaves they could chew on (but not swallow) to experience the flavor, and wild fruits that were edible.

"Let us also be aware of our sense of touch," said Ms. McKay on the last camp night. "Our skin is our biggest sense organ. Ifyou could peel it off and spread it out, it would cover two square yards." Gross, thought Shelley. "Let yourselves discover what tactile sensations you experience in the woods. Not just what you touch but what touches your skin, like the coolness of the breeze or warmth of the sun."

Shelley felt the ground as she slept on it at night, the smoothness and coarseness of tree barks as she passed, the texture of leaves as she crushed them in her fingers, and the difference between soft soils and rocky outcrops as she hiked over them. She came across another shiny beetle, caressed its silky back, and felt its delicate legs walking across her hand. She picked up a feather in the trail, drawing its softness between her fingertips.

Having always thought of herself as a city girl, Shelley surprised herself when she got back home. She wanted to go walking. She hadn't seen before how many lovely gardens there were down her street or what a delightful little place was the park at the end of the road. As she walked she saw the colors in the gardens, smelled the fragrance of flowers in the air, felt the warm of the sun and the cool of the shade, and heard bird calls she'd not heard before . . . and it all felt great.

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