Forest Bathing: Thoughts on The Mountain School Fall ‘18
by MALIA CHUNG ‘20
While I hate the idea of hunting, I found the act of tracking with Alden, The Mountain School’s Head of School, to be humbling. Before we set out, Alden taught us to walk like hunters, to move with quiet care, padding across the dried-leaf ground. He led us in loops around the forest; we crossed brooks on fallen tree limbs and intruded on a young patches of ground where the long grass had been matted down by resting animals. Along the trail we observed the two-pronged shape of a moose track and pulled fine bear hairs from the grooved bark of a tree. I was entranced with all of it: the silence we kept as we moved, the fluid shape of the landscape—as though we were yielding to the forest’s larger order. While the underbrush revealed no startled animals, the woods left me with an understanding of journey, my placement in a larger setting—all that I can’t know.
When people ask me why I love writing, I tell them that when I write, I slip into this double consciousness in which I can see the past and present in finer detail. At The Mountain School this fall, I found an infinite number of details to pay attention to: the panoramic view of the White Mountains from the campus’ Garden Hill; the snow-dusted maples in the Sugar Bush; my dorm’s view out across “Siberia,” a huge plowed strip of green, sloping land; the roadside pond all forty-four of us swam in during late August and played broomball on by mid-December. I found that knowing something or someone well allows for compassion and empathy to grow in us—both tools that allow us to fight for what we love. Through all of these lessons of place, I found that I measured the quality of The Mountain School by the connections among people: Jack Kruse, my 6’ 3’’ English teacher; Ben Tiefenthaler, Latin teacher and apple enthusiast; Kit and Comfort, my Underwood dorm parents; my nine dorm mates—how I’d travel any distance to continue our conversations, to feel completely unguarded.
I do not, in my future, see myself living for any extended amount of time in an area as rural as Vershire, Vermont, but at the same time, I found something beautiful in the landscape, its ability to create a sense of place, a topic of discussion which many of my classes—particularly my English class—focused on.
Over the course of this past semester, I saw this theme again and again in our Mountain School English curriculum: in Adrienne Rich’s “In Those Years,” Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” Robert Frost’s “Directive,” Reverend Nathan Perkins’ narrative tour of Vermont from 1789 (his conclusion that “woods make people love one another & kind & obliging and good natured”). All of these accounts tell us to look at nature to see ourselves more clearly and fully: to see ourselves in context, which is to acknowledge our own evanescence.
But more than anything, I think, the outdoors, tracking with Alden, helped me see that I can never know a place completely. To know something well is to understand the limits of knowing. Perhaps, to know what we don’t know and to live (at ease) with this uncertainty, this vulnerability, is what it means to belong, to understand a place, to love a place, to understand yourself.