Bathing at Bonanza

My apologies to Tony Menden, the fair and fine husband of my silversmith artist friend, Jean Menden. He had invited me to share a meal of baby-backs I had smoked for him the day before and this was my moment of delivery. With a temporary loss for words, it was several moments later after I drove away that I realized I was just feeling funky. Seemingly there are two widely held definitions; one where you feel aligned with the spirits of the soul, or when you aren’t. My alignment was certainly off.

The Mendens live about a mile south of the Bonanza, or northern portion, of Big Stone Lake State Park, and is basically an oak savanna nestled against a bank of the old Glacial River Warren. This is where I turned when I pulled from the Menden’s lakeside gravel road. Heaven knows why I turned toward the state park, yet there I was slowly navigating the park road along the savanna aimlessly looking for deer. Or, so I thought. When I reached the Education Center I stopped, parked, grabbed my camera and headed off into the woods.

Obviously they were calling. Initially perhaps it was to see if I could find a puffball mushroom, for photos of the prized mushrooms have started appearing on social media sites. What could be better than a juicy, grilled steak alongside a slab of buttery and garlicky puffball? 

The weathered path at Bonanza meanders through the savanna.

Then, less than a hundred meters down the path came the realization that what I really needed was to do some forest bathing. Based on a physiological and psychological exercise that emerged in Japan in the 1980s, and is called “shinrin-yoku” in their language, forest bathing combines yoga-like breathing, meditation and awarenesses while sauntering through the woods. A few months ago I took a class at the Minnesota Master Naturalist’s Gathering Partners “convention” at Prairie Island outside of Redwing. Although I’ve thought of forest bathing several times since, I just haven’t.

So I stopped and sat down off the weathered trail and slowly began taking in and releasing deep breaths. After some 40 years of doing yoga, meditative breathing is nearly second nature. With my eyes closed to concentrate on the meditation, to temporarily close out all that surrounded me, some of the funkiness began to fade away. My mind was feeling freer, and I was feeling, well, even a little “high.” Yes, that kind of high.

Among the keys of forest bathing is to bring awareness to all of your senses so you can experience the timbered environment on all levels. Smell was my first concentration, as it had been in the class. Then I began concentrating on sounds. Although the sounds of boats came through the canopy there was no real interference. It was then I realized my hearing aids were still in the charger back home, so perhaps the worst was not being able to hear the birds. Honestly, this isn’t much of an issue for sometimes bird sounds are simply too much for me to handle, and my goal was to relax, to ward away the funkiness in search of some internal peace. 

Like an eye in the forest poking out from a long dead and prone oak …

Those exercises seemed to have helped, so I stood, reached for the camera and headed down the trail. I found myself stopping ever so often to breath in the cool, morning air, that search for smell, to search more deeply for various scents of nature. Yes, there was a muskiness, especially as I neared a stream meandering through the wooded ravine. Searching the treetops, I started seeing the fleeting flights of brownish birds although I couldn’t make the species. Little did it matter. 

My strongest sense is sight, and there was much to see. Wild flowers dotted the path, and I became keenly aware of the ever changing treescapes, both along the forest floor and in the canopy above. The path led through an overreaching canopy of burr oak, dogwood, ash and maple, traversing down the hill toward the small stream. There a new wooden walkway had been built over an older bridge, and the two created a nice, comfortable place to sit for a rest while listening to the hypnotic sounds of rustling water. It was perfectly meditative, giving me a sense that mentally I was feeling more free of any lingering stress or mental discomfort. My forest bathing was working wonders. Something about a saunter through the woods and a burbling creek.

Visually I was becoming increasingly more aware of the small wonders of the forest, things I may have overlooked on another day. One was an incredible view inside the soul of a downed oak, peeking out at me like an eye of the forest. And there was a flower beside my knee that strangely and suddenly introduced itself, a streamside orangish flower I couldn’t recall ever seeing before. iNaturalist suggested it was an Orange Jewelweed. In the woods White Snakeroot poked through the grasses to create small, woodland “meadows” around the bases of tree trunks, and even a view of a hillside of sumac caught my attention, the reddish berries poking up from the green carpet of leaves.

As usual when I’m in an oak savanna, above me the stately limbs of the oaks once again fascinated me. There, deep in the woods, a sense of comfort came from being surrounded by the haunting beauty of a rich, oak savanna. Although I’ve made numerous images of oak limbs over the years here at Bonanza and in other savannas, here I was raising my camera again and again. As J.R.R. Tolkiem, author of the Hobbit tales, wrote:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

The worn pathway curved alongside the lake for a few hundred feet before angling back toward the heart of the savanna. Suddenly I sensed some familiarity as I began to recognize different features from past walks and photography events below the Education Center. There would be a climb up the hill, although thanks to the deep breathing before and intermittently throughout the saunter, the walk up the hill was hardly a bother. Memories of an art and science camp with fifth and sixth grade students began to come to mind, bringing brief smiles of recollection — one of many memories gathered here.

I can never seem to have enough of the stately limbs of the oaks.

Then I thought of the Mendens, and felt fresh misgivings of my turning down their kind invitation. I simply wasn’t ready, and in the brief conversation we had as I handed off the bag containing their racks of ribs, I realized that without knowing why. As I reached my car I felt rejuvenated and mentally free, far different than I had felt nearly two hours earlier. It was then I realized that not all who wander are lost, and the old that is strong does not wither. And that the shackles on my soul were lifted.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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