By Mike Blouin
Last June I tore my Achilles tendon playing basketball. Don’t get carried away thinking that I’m some sort of basketball player – I’m not. I was playing one-on-one with my friend Chris, who is not exactly Michael Jordan, on a court at our old middle school. I jumped to take a shot, in a perfectly normal way, and heard a POP. Next came searing pain and lots of swear words, and the slow realization that my left leg wasn’t working properly. That evening, my sister Julie and I went on a very expensive field trip to the emergency room.
Ten days later a surgeon sewed the tendon back together. After the operation I spent two weeks in a spare room in Julie’s Boston apartment. Since the room wasn’t normally in use, it contained only a few items: a wooden chair, three pink plastic containers stacked against a wall, a rolled-up rug, and a lumpy mattress in the corner. Its walls were white and bare, and the only window was a skylight. It had the aura of a dreary whitewashed cave.
For the first three days, I couldn’t leave the room except for short, painful expeditions to the bathroom across the hall. The constant throbbing pain dissipated after thirty-six hours, but I still couldn’t stand for more than 30 seconds without feeling like my leg might fall off. So, splint propped on a mountain of pillows, I attempted to entertain myself. I watched obscene amounts of Netflix. I called my parents and friends, read books and blogs, and patrolled Facebook like a cop on a beat. I stared at the ceiling. I wrote embarrassing, hyperbolic journal entries about my predicament. At turns, I felt restless, bored, and sorry for myself. I was split off from the beautiful cornucopia of real things in the real world like never before.
During this period, while trapped indoors in an air-conditioned room in the middle of the city, I read Thoreau’s essay, Walking, on my laptop. Henry extolled to me the benefits of exploring the outdoors on foot, writing, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
Henry really knew how to rub it in.
On day four, I made it down a set of stairs and out onto my sister’s back porch. I spent hours out there, listening to thumping music and squabbling neighbors, watching birds and squirrels, sweating profusely in the early-summer humidity. It was heaven. For the next week, as I continued to heal, I made the pilgrimage daily. Without the porch, stuck in that white-walled room, I might well have gone insane.
About a month after my injury, when I was still on crutches, I was in the midst of organizing a community-centered event for the Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire. There were to be activities for every type of nature lover: moth collecting, bird watching, tracking, sketching, a plants walk, even a pond exploration. A few days before the event I got a call from a man named Don. He wanted to join us for the day, and was looking for activities that were wheelchair accessible. I wasn’t sure what to tell him – most of the events required long hikes on rough, steep trails. Don and I talked for a while and determined we could make it work if he wanted to join the tracking or sketching activities. He called the next day and said, no, he had decided against it. But he promised he would keep an eye out for future events.
“I won’t give up,” he said. “I’ll keep trying.”
Talking to Don was like a punch in the stomach. My disability would fade; Don’s never would. I had often wallowed in self-pity during my temporary isolation from nature; he faced permanent challenges with optimism and dignity. Of course, Don’s situation is not uncommon: many face physical, economic, geographic, or cultural barriers that make it difficult to explore the outdoors. But it had been easier, simpler, not to think too hard about this.
Now, nearly three months later, I’m back outside. I can’t run or jump yet, but I can walk. Last week I found a wasp nest hidden beside a footbridge I cross daily. I watched the wasps for a while, trying to find patterns in their routes to and from the nest. Later I found copious globs of nectar hidden under the leaves of a fruiting basswood – but only on one tree. I collected a few leaves, caught a glimpse of three cardinals involved in an apparent love triangle, and walked home, full of questions, feeling tingly and alive.
I’m starting to forget how it felt to be unable to walk, and I don’t think about Don all that often anymore. I worry that the way I came to see my relationship with nature – as fragile, precious, and privileged – will fade away with my injury. It well might. But I’ll try to keep coming back to what I felt and learned these past three months, and try to act with these lessons in mind. I can’t promise success. I can only promise I won’t give up. I’ll keep trying.
Mike Blouin is a 2nd-year graduate student in the Field Naturalist program. He spends lots of time thinking about people in nature, and the nature of people.