I spent last Sunday at Storm King Art Center, a 500-acre sculpture park nestled in the Hudson Valley, about an hour north of New York City. A bus dropped me off at 11am and left me until 5pm for six languid hours of wandering.
For six hours, I climbed up and down the ebullient slopes of the Center’s emerald fields, which erupted with trees like fireworks in crackling bursts of sun-shattered gold and amber and rich ruby red. For six hours, I meandered along the woodland paths, crunching acorns like crystal under my shoes. The scenery was blanketed in a sumptuous velveteen hush, woven by concealed crickets and speckled with sporadic children’s giggles. The breeze swirled confetti leaves in delicious spirals around my ankles, like glittered embers dropped from branches, still burning.
I hardly noticed the sculptures. I was spellbound by the excruciating beauty of the landscape. By the end of the day, my soul felt cracked open, my thoughts were scattered like the leaves, and my camera reel was packed with scraps of color, like an attempt to rake it all into coherent piles to explain why it unarranged me so profoundly.
I am still rearranging. I am still sorting out Storm King’s significance.
This is not a trim and tidy essay. This is a rummaged collection of messy thoughts to be looked at like gathered leaves in the light and pressed between pages for safekeeping. Hold them gently, or they might crumble in your hands.
I almost didn’t go. Six hours seemed like a long time alone in nature without any possible distraction or escape. I couldn’t walk away or hop on the subway when I’d had my fill. There would be no taxis. There would be no Wifi. I would be trapped, ironically, in the great outdoors, with no choice but to wait for my 5pm bus.
But a precious thing happens when you succumb to being stuck somewhere in solitude: you settle in. You get cozy in the decided comfort of captivity. You don’t glance at your watch and worry perpetually about when you should get home to finish folding your laundry. For that small slice of time, your fate is contained, so you are able to savor the experience without wondering what should come next.
With each hour at Storm King, I let the scenery soak deeper into my skin. I noticed more minuscule details within the massive expanse, fizzing all of my senses. I felt increasingly present.
With each hour, every moment seemed more beautiful: the swished sound of unfolding my paper map. The tiny silver spider that skittered across the knee of my jeans. The sweet smell of leaves under my fingernails. Yesterday and tomorrow disintegrated into total insignificance as I weighted my feet to that soil and pillowed my head in those clouds and let that wind weave a tight sweater around my body.
I wish I’d been “trapped” there for longer — maybe eight hours. Twelve. Twenty-four. Long enough to think I’d seen it all, heard it all, felt it all, and to want to leave — but to still be stuck for longer. Long enough to get uncomfortable. True depth is buried under what’s uncomfortable.
I think we’re terrified of powerfully positive feelings, just as much as painful ones, because they crack the armor that secures our self-created identities. If we open up to wholehearted wonder at the world’s magnificence, it might uproot our petty practicalities, or make our stubborn worries meaningless, or render us small and insignificant.
If we agree to be moved, we might be blown over. If we let life soak in deep, it might stain.
And so, instead, we numb. We escape. We run towards the things we concoct, contort, and control.
We reach for drinks and drugs to make the world sparkle brighter or to blunt its blow. We submerge ourselves in social media to evade the intensity of fully personified emotions. We preoccupy our hearts with gossip and politics and trifling insecurities, with Kardashian clutter and career hustle. We let life’s lusciousness pass by in the breeze while we stare down at our screens, rarely noticing little lovelinesses like the consistent hum of crickets or the tiny silver spiders or the sweet smell of leaves.
Since I’m trying to dig towards true depth, I’ll be honest here: Storm King made me cry, if only for several stunned seconds. I was standing on top of a particular hill with wind dancing pirouettes around my ankles, while the trees coyly bobbed their branches in response, and something inside me said, “Life is a dance, and we’re not watching.” It suddenly felt like a tragedy, to think about everything we miss because we expend so much energy in meaningless and self-serving ways. We neglect the simple miracles that twirl tirelessly around us because we’re busy tripping on the chaos we’ve created on our own.
We are missing the pirouettes, and we are missing the point.
Leaping into leaf piles feels good, in the most basic human way. It’s the bliss of pure sensation.
I wonder if we could curtail our common cultural craving for potato chips if we spent more time crunching leaves. If we’d stop pining so much for the soft saltiness of french fries, if we sunk more fingers into soft and salty sand. If the rich fragrance of soil, hand-dug and tended, might palliate the palate for cake.
Maybe, we’re just hungry for vivid feeling, with our senses all unknowingly anesthetized by busy routines and shiny screens and a deluge of noisy media messages. Maybe our entire economic system is content to keep us numb to natural sensation, so that we feel the need for what they’re selling.
What if all that the earth wants is to stain our shirts with its sweetness? To skin our knees on its patches of beauty, sketching gentle scars? To crack us apart like acorns? To transform us like trees at autumn’s peak to technicolor magnificence?
We call her Mother for a reason: Nature is there to nurture, to teach, to be a role model for growth and good values.
If she has it right, life should look like fireworks, with eruptions of color and collapsed embers, vibrant and scattered; but should sound and feel like crickets, humming soft, serene, and steady. Like silent fire, simmering in gemstone shades.
A full-bodied life is both peaceful and explosive at the same time.
Certain parts of you are dying and due to be let go. Let them go.
Rotten resentments, soured shame, treasured worries turned stale, tightly gripped bits of grit that crunch and crumble — let them go.
Gossip. “Busy.” Envy. Competing for likes on your latest Instagram posts. Let them go.
Those old, warped ways of being don’t serve your growth. Let those dead leaves die. Let them go.
Your brilliance and boldness are laced in the leaving leaves of you. Your true colors are revealed only in release — only when you surrender your grasp on what’s past its season. Only when you cede to uncontrollable change and choose instead to celebrate — to dance your branches in its breeze, to toss confetti like the leaves. Only when you loosen up your outer layers but stand steady at your core; when you keep your roots, but drop the rest.
At Storm King, I noticed myself breathing the same way as the wind, in and out, in and out, luxuriously and loudly like in yoga class. The simplest essence of living is nothing more than moving air through open space. Nothing more. Nothing less. The breath begins the dance.
If you’re breathing, you’re okay. I’m okay. We’re okay. We’re all okay. We are all absolutely 100% okay. You are okay.
You’re like the autumn trees — a magnificent miracle. You’re rooted in earth but branching towards heaven, with each ounce of strength you spend shaking your limbs while holding your ground. Your brilliance and boldness are laced in the parts of you that are dying. Let them go. Grow your roots instead.