Breath 

Tree, gather up my thoughts
like the clouds in your branches.
Draw up my soul
like the waters in your root.

In the arteries of your trunk
bring me together.
Through your leaves
breathe out the sky. 

--J. Daniel Beaudry

In October, 2018, I was invited by the owners of a patch of old growth forest in Bath County, Virginia, to camp on their property.  Their forest is under existential threat due to its being in the right-of-way for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and there had been a protest encampment that summer.  (As of January, 2019, the landowners had not been served with eminent domain documents.)  Aside from attending an interfaith blessing of the trees one afternoon, I spent my time there tramping up and down steep hollows with my camera equipment, including a heavy tripod.

Early one morning, I gradually worked my way up a ridge trail, positioning my camera and tripod to focus on a large growth of bracket fungi growing from a tree at eye level.  I was so engrossed in framing the fungi through my camera’s viewfinder that I failed to notice sounds of crunching leaves nearby until I glanced up.  A large mother bear and three fat cubs were passing by just on the other side of the tree.  All parties were equally startled.  After giving me a dirty look and issuing orders to her cubs, mom took off up the trail while the cubs quickly climbed nearby trees.  Knowing that my presence was disrupting family life, I retreated down the trail long enough for them to be on their way.

Aside from the bear-related adrenaline rush, I came away from the forest profoundly at peace, having soaked up its sights, smells, and sounds.  Yet, I could not help but feel the dissonance between this peacefulness and my knowledge of the impending violence to be wrought, though the trees (and bear family) seemed oblivious to this threat. 

In these photos, I try to capture my experience of Shinrin-yoku, which translates from Japanese to “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”.  I include a photo of a carved wooden infant that had been nestled at the base of a “grandmother” tree called Ona during the interfaith blessing. 

Why no bear pictures? I could say that I didn’t want picture-taking to interfere with my direct experience of the closest bear encounter I’ve ever had, but a more honest answer is that I backed away from my tripod while keeping a close eye on mom.