Becca Balint: A walk in the woods

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I have always been prone to worrying. In my legislative life, I fret about bills, vote counts, and how my constituents are going to make ends meet. It's not easy to quiet my brain; there's so much important work to be done. And although I've heard my whole adult life that meditation could help settle my active mind, it doesn't seem to work out for me. Quiet moments of simply sitting and breathing often turn into long minutes of list making in my head: calls, emails and texts I need to return. Although in my less forgiving moments I call this persevering, at other times I know this hypervigilance serves me and pushes me to work hard. But, of course, I still need time to recharge. And I find that solace in the woods.

My young daughter Sarah has recently started to join me on my weekend jaunts. Several weeks ago I returned home from a long romp in the woods with the wing of a barred owl I'd found on the trail, clearly the result of an attack from a predator. When I showed it to her and demonstrated how the wing folded up like a fan, she was beyond entranced. The look on her face was identical to the one she got this winter when we were out on a cross-country ski and found an animal skull. It is a look of pure bliss and wonder. Finding these treasures are more glorious to her than finding a wad of cash. She feels like she's been let in on a special secret.

Last summer she attended one of the day camps run by the Vermont Wilderness School (VWS), and she found her people. Whittling, tracking animals, building fires, and simply reveling in the woods brought her in touch with a core part of her identity. It was not news to us; as a very young girl she thought worms and crickets were the most amazing beings on the planet. And she'd call her wary brother over to see "the most adorable slugs ever!"

She now does the VWS school-year program called Oyase. Every Wednesday she spends the day in the woods of Marlboro and then emerges from the forest covered in dirt, charcoal, and brambles. There's always a grin on her face and an air of both confidence and self-satisfaction. Her brother is intrigued by her identity as woodswoman, but there is no envy. He recently said to me on the drive to pick her up, "Can you think of anything more distasteful than spending the entire day in the woods?" Abe prefers a good hotel with a pool and room service.

Last weekend Sarah and I brought along a canvas bag filled with sketchbooks and pencils so that she could stop alongside streams and rock formations when inspiration struck. In the end, she decided not to do any sketching; she wanted to do a long hike instead. By the end of our adventure, we'd collected feathers, glittering rocks, interesting sticks and other wondrous things from along the Retreat Trails. She remarked that it had been a "perfect" morning, and I heartily agreed.

When we'd first headed into the woods that day, my heart was heavy and my mind was feeling dark. I felt ill-equipped to do the work required of me and could feel self-doubt taking charge of my inner dialogue. I was dreading facing my chock-full legislative email inbox. Several hours later, we both felt completely rejuvenated — a glorious mix of calm and energy. I was ready to do the hard work before me.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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