On September 11 this year, I got up early, walked to the beach and watched a great black-backed gull in the surf. After breakfast, I got on a bicycle and rode off into a fog so wet that I needed raingear. Later, the sun prevailed and I spent a glorious day immersed in nature, fully aware of wind, and smell, and ever-changing visions of a living landscape.
I was on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, on a five-day bike trip around the Cabot Trail, but establishing a connection with nature can occur in lots of places. The Shiawassee River that runs through my home-town provides my most accessible environmental source, but the opportunities are many, if we choose to make them. Why do we go to nature? For me, I reaffirm five fundamental values when I spend time outside: Life, Beauty, Transcendence, Relationship, and Inspiration.
1. Nature is life. Being in nature connects me to the elemental: water flowing, air felt, plants growing, animals observed, and the music of bird sounds. When I encounter nature, even in a streetside planter, I am aware of life, both in its tenacity, as a flower takes root in a cement crack, and in its fragility, as an insect dies with the swat of a hand.
I like to walk in nature, because it allows me to stop, and stoop, and examine life in its most minute and delicate.
But on a bicycle I can take in more of the diversity of life in less time.
On a day’s ride through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a long climb took me from the seacoast with whales offshore, along a stream through a stand of Canada’s trademark maple trees, up through a spruce forest, and finally to the stunted growth of a taiga and a near-tundra environment atop a windswept plateau 550 meters above sea level.
When out in nature on a bike, wind and temperature changes are keenly experienced. Weather is not an abstract symbol on my smartphone. I am immersed in the environment, and sights and smells constantly change. The use of my legs, the testing of my physical self, reminds me that I too am a creature defined by my biology. I am a part of nature.
2. Beauty expresses the universal. Emerson, in his essay “Nature” wrote that “the world exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty.” Beauty is an elusive, perhaps discredited, philosophical term, but I know my life is enriched when I encounter a perfect dahlia bloom in the Halifax Public Garden, or take in the grand view of the Cape Breton coast after a long bike climb. Nature delights us with its creativity in its expressions of beauty.
But beauty is more than the perfect combination of design, and color, and light.
There is some inherent quality in certain natural objects or experiences that exceeds identification or classification.
We stood on the top of a cliff just north of Ingonish and watched a bald eagle, perfect in his white and black coloration, glide up to eye level and look at us sideways from 20 feet away.
There was much more in this moment than an ornithological achievement. “Every natural action is graceful,” wrote Emerson. “Beauty, in its largest and profoundest sense, is one expression for the universe.”
3. Transcendence through nature. Being in nature reminds us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves in current time. Looking across the expanse of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, clouds and sun and distant rain make apparent the cycle of water upon which we depend. The exposed geology of the shifting earth and the discontinuity of multi-colored rocks reveal that much has happened to create the cape upon which we were now standing. Life is fully present in the form of a black bear feeding upon blueberries, but the reminders of death—rotting fish on the shore, the barren trees of a burnt-over hillside—are also constant. Our time here will be short, but nature will persist.
4. We exist in relationship. We are in relationship with nature, and with one another. A trip into the out-of-doors not only affirms our dependence upon nature, it also highlights the importance of our relationships with one another. While I have had many a quiet moment alone in nature birdwatching or reflecting, my most significant encounters with nature have been with a group of people. Heading off to a wild place often requires some journey of time, distance, and effort, and it is both easier and more satisfying to make that trip with others. This bike trip was similar, with both a support team to help me through the tough moments and fellow pedalers to share with me the discoveries.
Both our human relationships and our interactions with the natural world are two-way. We depend on one another, and our actions have an impact, either positive or negative. On the toughest day of our trip, we were thankful for the bright sun and the cool breeze off the ocean. Our guide recounted days lost on other trips to violent Nor’easters that brought waves up over the road in places.
We were very aware of the more profound ways in which nature has sustained, and challenged, the residents of Cape Breton. The ocean provides an active fishery in several small towns we rode through. While lobsters abound, over-fishing and environmental changes have greatly diminished several fish populations. This was perhaps most evident in the Salmon Museum along the Margaree River, which contains haunting photographs and fascinating gear—legal and illegal—from the bountiful history of the Atlantic Salmon fishery. Fortunately, the majestic fish has survived, and with help is now recovering.
5. Nature is a source of inspiration. Spending long days on a bike, often in single file, gives one time to think. I considered both the grand scenery flashing by, but also about the piece of technology that carried me along. The bicycle may be one of the most simple, yet profound, human inventions. It translates the power of our legs, which by animal standards are slow, into a relatively speedy and efficient means of transportation. And it provides mechanical locomotion without the use of fossil fuels or noxious emissions. For me, I appreciate the connection it provides with the immediate environment, whether pleasant or not.
The relationship between humanity, technology, and nature has been complex, and not one that has always benefitted humanity or nature. Often, without thought, we have employed a technology that has offered to save us time or increase wealth, but we have not fully considered the costs. Still, the best of our technology has extended human capacity and done so in ways that impose small costs or even provided a benefit. The bicycle has proven to be one such technology, and it’s basic form has been with us now for close to two centuries. After a week on a bike, I came away more enamored with this technology as a symbol of how we can use our intellect to take advantage of what nature has to offer, but without doing major damage to the resource we seek to enjoy.
The Peace of Wild Things.
Nature offers us so much, both in terms of sustenance and the opportunity for spiritual growth. But death is part of nature as well, and one day we took a break from biking to hike out lonely White Point, where violent water batters exposed rock. There you will find a simple memorial to the those who have died in an unfortunate encounter with the powerful ocean. The people of Cape Breton have a close relationship with the sea, and while it supports life, sometimes it claims a life as well.
The line between what is good and lovely and what is evil and dark is thin. Biking provides this reminder as well. The exhilaration of the downhill run is tempered by the thought of loose gravel on a sharp switchback. And while the drivers of Nova Scotia were as considerate as any I have shared a road with, we were still sometimes shaken by a truck cutting too close as they passed us by on the narrow shoulder of the road. Life is good, but we cannot measure its length.
This year, I spent September 11 biking from fog to sunshine, along a beautiful edge of nature. I was invigorated. On the dark days after September 11, 2001, life was not so joyous. As I struggled to make sense of that human tragedy, I turned to one of my favorite Wendell Berry poems:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
How to get there:
Cape Breton is rich in both culture and nature, and the Cabot Trail provides a biking route around some of its most scenic areas. Here is a link to the Cabot Trail with maps and information. Find more about visiting the area at www.novascotia.com
|As always, thanks Anna
Several options are available for biking on your own or with a guided tour. We travelled with Pedal & Sea Adventures, and had a fantastic trip.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park is a natural area of special significance and worth visiting on a camping trip; hiking opportunities abound.
If you go, be sure to spend some time inland as well, along the Margaree River, and learn more about the recovery efforts associated with the Atlantic Salmon. Be sure to visit the Salmon Museum.