Nature provides a salve for the soul

The soft orange sunset over the American River cannot cleanse the mind completely of all its sorrow.
The soft orange sunset over the American River cannot cleanse the mind completely of all its sorrow. Special to The Bee

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.

– John Muir, 1901

Never have I needed nature as I need it now.

When I was a child, long before I ever heard of John Muir, I hiked on weekends with my father and sisters in the chaparral-covered Santa Monica Mountains. We would pack a lunch and eat on a hill with a view of the Pacific Ocean stretching out to the horizon. Other days, friends and I would hike into the mountains and follow a mossy creek as it meandered several miles down a ravine to Santa Monica State Beach.

In the summertime, I went to the beach, bodysurfing waves that gave a good ride but weren’t so big they would crush you into the sand. On summer evenings, my sisters and I would stay out as late as we were allowed (dusk), playing kick-the-can with neighborhood boys on the lawns in front of our homes.

When I grew older, I would drive up the coast with my boyfriend to a sand dune north of Malibu where we would sit, looking out at the sky, the stars and the sea bathed in moonlight. This was in the 1960s, too, so I had more freedom. The sorts of fears that parents live with now – thinking that their child could readily be snatched off the street or propositioned on the Internet – were not present.

Thinking back, my good memories hang in my mind as totalities unto themselves, unlinked to any specific events or dates. All those years, I was using nature as a salve for my soul, though I never fully realized it until I got older and the world became an undeniably darker place.

These days I travel every few weeks to Sacramento, where I lived for almost a decade in the 1970s, to visit family and friends. There I swim in the American River. If I go late enough in the day, I usually have the river mostly to myself – along with the geese, the egrets and a few fishermen. My husband passes the time on the shore, throwing sticks into the water for our dog.

The soft orange sunset over the American River cannot cleanse my mind completely of all its terror and sorrow, however. Lurking around the edges of my consciousness are too many terrible matters – whether it’s the Islamic State, schoolyard shootings, terrorism attacks or the string of young African American males dying in encounters with police.

I still run back to the outdoors for solace, though, and I raised my two sons to find peace there, too. Nature remains the best balm there is, even in 2015.

Susan Sward is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco. Reach her at sward.susan@gmail.com