When life gets too busy, KATHLEEN DEAN MOORE remembers the childhood joy of nature.
many years, my life has been impossibly over-scheduled. I finally
resorted to computerized, categorized, color-coded to-do lists. I so
single-mindedly finished and deleted tasks from the list that the
consonants wore off the delete key on my laptop, leaving only e e e,
and then the whole delete button fell off the keyboard and bounced
under the radiator. My colleagues can gauge my stress levels by the
pitch of my voice; I live at a screeching e, an octave above middle c.
So I assumed I understood stress. But just to be sure, I looked it up. Stress is a noun meaning “adversity, pressure,” from estrece, “narrowness,” from the Latin strictus, “compressed,” from stringere, “draw tight.” But stress is
also a verb—“to place greater importance on.” The etymology surprised
me and made me wonder. Does stress come from compressing too much into
too narrow a life and then placing outsize importance on all those
assignments? Or put it this way: Is stress what happens when a person
fills her life too full of her self-important self?
yes and no. The millions of people who are grieving, who are thirsty,
who are unable to feed their children—they have not chosen their
challenges. My situation is different. What I experience is the ironic
stress of the privileged, which is stress nonetheless. And here’s the
thing: Once I figured out what stress might be for me, I realized what I
could do to reduce it.
should have known all along. When I fretted as a child, gnawing my
fingernails, my parents always sent me outside, giving me a gentle nudge
out the door as if I were a bad and beloved dog. I resented it, of
course. But what happened beyond the walls?
the branches of a willow tree, I lay on the grass and breathed the
willows’ smell, like dusty lemons. Dusky air, chirring with cicadas and
sweet with a breeze across peonies, warmed me like a blanket. Maybe time
itself paused to rest unget der the willow, or maybe I mistook its
motion for the sway of leafy branches, but I remember being surprised
when the wild, orange, Midwestern sunset descended. Fireflies floated
over the lawn. A star sank through the last purple stripes of the day,
and a dog barked far, far away in a night so dense with the scent of the
peonies that I might have been underwater. Sometime after, the porch
light flashed on—my mother, come to fetch me. “Can I stay here?” I
asked. She returned to the house and brought out a blanket. When she
turned off the porch light, the night flooded back in, warm and sweet
How could I have forgotten this?
could I have forgotten that the wild, damp world is an answer to
stress? The expanse of the natural world, the infinity of the night sky,
and the long reach of the winds dwarf human concerns. Here is where our
minds can unclench, our hearts can break open, and we can step outside
our narrowed lives into a world that is without limits in time or space
or beauty. The universe itself breathes in and out—the trees inhaling,
exhaling in the rhythm of day and night, and the Earth slowly rotating
into and out of the light, the green leaves shining.
Stress, n. antonym gratitude.
Kathleen Dean Moore , author of Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature and Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, is a distinguished professor of philosophy at Oregon State University.