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My Soul Needs More Than a Sound Bite

In the wake of hometown shootings, the forest consoles

I strapped on my hiking boots last week, in search of a story of resilience. The past few months have rocked my world in a way I haven’t felt since 1968. Then, the debate of the Vietnam War raged full-pitch at my kitchen table while the news brought more bad news. We didn’t have the repetitive negative beat that we have today with 24-hour non-stop coverage, but the events battered nonetheless. Martin Luther King met the bullet of James Earl Ray and then we lost Robert Kennedy. The body count rose while riots erupted in Washington, DC where my dad worked. I was eight years old.

Julie K. Hersh
New life springs from a fallen tree
Source: Julie K. Hersh

Back then, I’d escape into the woods behind my house, far from the television that screamed problems that my 8 year-old brain could not fathom. We lived in Northern Virginia. No doubt the slice of parkland behind our house was small, but, to me, it seemed like uncharted wilderness. The light dripped through leaves, the breeze cut through thick humidity, the damp decay of logs gave way to mushrooms and sprouts of green. Life persisted despite chaos, despite hate, and despite problems that felt unsolvable.

I live in Dallas now. Until a few months ago, I felt safe in a bubble of harmony, carved with friends of different races, ages, income levels, political beliefs, religions, and sexual orientation. I like to think of myself as a cross-pollinator, able to bounce between groups, hear beliefs that often conflict and perhaps broaden the understanding of one group to another.

My harmony bubble burst with Orlando and the tattered remains shredded with the Dallas shootings. When violence like this happens, people retreat to their base groups and close up. Fear demands the security blanket of conformity. In moments where we most need to listen to solve problems, each group places their hands over their ears, feeling only the vibration of those who chant the same chant. Single acts of violence overshadow positive progress, even though many strive for progress on a daily basis. A cross-pollinator like me slams against the logic of blind certainty.

I went to Washington DC in late June, sandwiched between the shootings in Orlando and Dallas. A friend of mine, DR Hanson, and I went to the Newseum. After three floors of review of war, tragedy and injustice, I turned to DR and said, “This is depressing as hell. I KNOW something positive has happened in the past 200+ years in this country.” We turned the corner to see the display for 9/11. How many diseases were cured, how many lives were saved, how many acts of kindness went unreported? I know bad things happened, but I refuse to believe the last 200 years was only tragedy.

Still reeling from Orlando, the Dallas shootings ripped off the scab. Brilliant efforts to rebuild trust helped, such as the gathering at Thanksgiving Square. I attended the memorial service in Dallas for the fallen police officers.

Julie K. Hersh
Police Chief Brown at the memorial service
Source: Julie K. Hersh

The grace and unity of the leadership displayed by Mayor Mike Rawlings, Police Chief David Brown, President Bush and President Obama reassured me. When Gaye Arbuckle raised her hand, she seemed to heal all of us as she belted “Total Praise.”

Within a day, I saw that service picked apart in media, social media and conversations, missing the whole of its worth. A thin slice statement or movement cut and pasted, magnified, lost the healing power of the event. The same sentence is hallowed or despised depending on who spins the story. This is the news, I get it. Controversy gets hits and perspective is irrelevant. Who needs to listen when we are so confident in our outrage?

Julie K. Hersh
My little skunk friend
Source: Julie K. Hersh

About a week ago, I decided to turn off the news, sign off Facebook and hike. The Republican convention spurred the idea, more shootings and Facebook rants sealed the decision. I took a trail up to Pecos Baldy Lake, hoping to reach the top of East Pecos Baldy. I’d made that hike a few years ago and wanted to conquer something. The first four miles of the hike offered dark forest and open meadows dotted with wildflowers. Green poured through Aspen leaves. Even a little skunk didn’t foil my mood. I just watched him (her?) as he tottered within two feet of me, then scurried away.

Along the hike is a burn area from wildfires in 2013. I dreaded this part of the hike. Envisioning miles of burned trees and lifeless fields, I trudged forward, knowing the burn area was just ahead. As I turned into the burn area, my eyes defied my expectations. Wildflowers exploded everywhere. With only an iPhone, bright patches of pink and yellow spotted with purple larkspur, monks head and blue chiming bell can’t be captured with the same impact as standing in these fields of color. The energy of being there is lost in two dimensions.

Julie K Hersh
Fireweed on trail 257 leading to Pecos Baldy Lake
Source: Julie K Hersh

I knew the name of the bright pink flower, but I’d never experienced the essence of its moniker. Fireweed: the flower that spreads like weeds after the fire.

I almost avoided that section of the forest because I was so certain of what I would see. This is why I hike. Nature offers symbols more powerful than our instant interpretations of life derived from our immediate experience. Beauty springs from destruction. Life persists under the most unlikely circumstances. Perhaps for me, most importantly, our goals are not as important as the accidental miracles that occur along the way.

When I reached Pecos Baldy Lake, I ate my turkey sandwich, contemplating whether or not I had the energy to complete the last hour of the hike to the summit. The weather answered that question with a large clap of thunder and drops of rain. A hike on a bald mountain in a lightning storm made no sense, no matter how close.

I tossed on my red raincoat, hitched up my pack and headed back down the mountain. My boots slapped in puddles of a gentle rain through the burn area, interrupted by pounding thunder that shook the ground. With nowhere to take shelter, I kept walking. Sometimes “the only way out is through” as Carl Jung once said.

When I return to the flatlands of Dallas in 100 degree heat, I’ll try to remember the lessons from the hike. The mountaintop always exists, but often factors out of our control, like bad weather, counter our best efforts. Even if I can’t reach the mountaintop that day, it’s important to keep my eyes open. Sometimes what I perceive to be the worst part of the hike gives way to unanticipated joy.

Julie K Hersh
Source: Julie K Hersh

Like the forest, Dallas will heal. I will heal. In a burnt, stark forest, flowers open. Pollination begins, spurred by bees and butterflies. When we pause to listen, our hearts will open, too. As a child in the woods, I knew this instinctively. As an adult, I need to walk further and see more to believe. The seeds of healing and compassion reside in each of us. We just need to remain open for the flecks of green and bright color that remind us that life persists.