There was nothing special about the woods where I ran in high school. Nestled on the corner of two major roads in my town, it was impossible to hear the rustling branches of the trees over rush hour traffic. Moving quickly through the various trails and paths through the woods, I hardly ever paid attention to the beauty of the land or the ways in which I felt understood by the trees that surrounded me.
When I left for college and had to depart from the soil that had received thousands of my footsteps over the span of four years, no part of me felt sad — I never allowed myself to establish a relationship with the woods that had served as a home for me for years.
When I was sent home from college during my sophomore year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not easy to nurture my spiritual life. Any in-person events were off the table, so turning to nature became one of the only practices I felt comfortable engaging. According to Springtide Research Institute, I wasn’t alone — a quarter of young people reported feeling safe in nature during the pandemic. The old woods I once ran through became a trusted, safe place for me to reflect.
Though I returned to the woods, I no longer thought of myself as a runner, so I began to meander through the woods every few days, slowly walking the same trails I once ran. No longer racing past groves of trees meant I could take more in. I didn’t have to concentrate on avoiding the rugged roots coming up through loose pockets of dirt as I ran, so I could look around. I was introduced to a new version of the woods — a version that was beautiful and fully alive.
Suddenly every tree was proclaiming its createdness to me. The tree that had once served as a marker telling me I had a mile left to run before I was done now stood in its own majesty. As I began to associate the tree with decades instead of minutes, it no longer signified time remaining, but rather the time available.
The more time I spent in the woods, the more questions I began to ask about God, the world, and creating a life well lived. If I ran past the beauty of these woods for four years, what other beauty has passed by me without a second thought? What can these woods show me about myself as I live through a time of real, physical death surrounding me? What does it mean to bask in the creativity of creation? How do I endure growing pains when I feel stuck in the space I inhabit?
The answers to these questions were given to me by the dirt road I ran up and down every summer so as to avoid the beating sun: it reminded me that I did not have to wander far to discover divinity — but that divinity was already present in the unchanging nature of a line of trees; in a trail that guided people for years; and also in me, an important member of God’s creation.
Like visiting an old friend, I now see my relationship to the woods in a much brighter light. Even though the world is opening back up and I can begin to engage with others, I cannot grow spiritually without regularly communicating with the natural world through hikes or walks. As a young person navigating the space between being who I am and becoming the person I was created to be, sometimes the only constants in my life are change and some trees.