Balance For Today: Lessons from a Rock Cairn

Yesterday I took to the woods in the afternoon.  It’s the first week in about ten years when I don’t have any sort of schedule.  There is no work calendar hovering in the background, I’m not on vacation for a certain amount of time, there are no appointments to plan around.  I’m a free agent, at least for now.  So I did what I do when I can do whatever I want – I went to the woods.

Going to the woods is what I tend to do when I am feeling melancholy, unsure, anxious, or angry.  It’s a place to go when I’m grieving, wondering, lamenting, or stewing about something outside of my control.  Basically, going to the woods (or prairie, or ocean, or any other natural area) is healing.  It’s a place to go in celebration as well, but lately, its role in my days has been one of holding space for what needs to rise from the ashes of what has recently burnt away. 

There’s a waterfall on the edge of one of the state parks close to my house.  It’s fed by a natural spring, and the grounds where it sits used to be the old Silverbrook estate and laboratory, now only evident in some old stone foundations and crumbling pillars.  I hiked down the steep trail from the access road to the spring as a gentle dusting of snow fell, the cold wind piercing my skin and whistling through the white pine trees that dot the landscape.  I watched the crystal clear water bubble up from the earth for a while, meandered around the pond full of bright green watercress, and felt myself melt into the rhythm of the forest as I walked deeper into the trees.  After emerging from the forest trail, I made my way over to the waterfall and marveled at its powerful cascades as they crashed into the rocky ravine below.  I followed the waterfall’s creek further down the ravine to the St. Croix River and watched it fade into the larger body of water, now partially frozen as the cold temperatures take hold.  As I hiked back up to the main trail, I looked to my right and stopped.

There on the larger boulders on either side of the creek, someone had built three huge rock cairns.  The largest was closest to the trail, and it was taller than me, the stones increasingly smaller as they found balance on their neighbor.  And the stone on top was huge,  yet there it was, perched just so and not going anywhere.  The other two were closer to the stream of cascading water, and smaller but no less well-balanced, the stones in varying sizes and shapes, each placed in exactly the right spot to maintain the structure. I could imagine the person who made the cairns searching for just the right rocks to place, and then one by one patiently placing each stone in just the right way.  I imagined that it probably took quite awhile to construct each one, and I found myself wondering how long they’d last.  I wondered how many times they toppled before the right balance was found.

Somehow seeing these rock cairns reminded me of the things that can help with regaining balance in a time of searching through murky waters or walking over a path strewn with erratic boulders.  They reminded me of the patience it can take to create something that works.  They reminded me of the delicate and often unusual beauty that pervades everything in nature and in a human life.  They reminded me that things can shift instantly, in any direction.  They reminded me that there is a lot that remains outside of my control and that I often don’t get a say in what happens.  And they reminded me that I get to choose what sorts of things I want in my life, whether it’s in the form of perception or situation,  and they reminded me I get to place my own rocks where they need to be to feel solid.  Even if they fall sometimes, and even when what used to feel like the “right balance” shifts.

I came to the woods to lose myself in the rhythm of the woods and waterfall, and I did.  But I also gained some reassurance that the right balance doesn’t always look how I think it should, and it can take a while to find the placement of the pieces that make up a life.


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