Of Forests and Feet

Susan Jenkins
Feb 4 · 9 min read
Paths formed through moss by sheep in the Bornia preserve, the Netherlands. Photo by the author.

Last fall I left the Netherlands for a long trip to the US. I had a number of things scheduled, including visits with family in Pennsylvania and friends in New York, and a retreat in Vermont — all places where I had lived back when I lived in the states. For about six months I had been feeling vaguely undernourished in my adopted land, and it seemed related to a disappointment with the nature I was finding here. It was paired with a feeling that I was losing some element of the landscape of my life — figuratively and physically — from the 40-odd years that had passed before moving overseas. It felt like an incapacity, as if I missed a limb or some small organ. I came to the Netherlands in the summer of 2016 for a Masters degree, with plans to stay in Europe for a while. When I first arrived in the city of Utrecht — where I studied and still live — I was impressed with how green it was, and how much water was woven into the surroundings, within and around the city. I was studying art, and made installation works that used or interacted with the local landscape and its history. But over time I came to realize that something was keeping me from feeling at home, and it seemed related to the landscape. Everything that is green in the Netherlands–that is to say ”nature”– has been planned, planted, and curated. The country is famous for saying, “God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” When I first came and would comment to Dutch people about how much more green Utrecht was than most cities in the US, often they would respond with a chuckle, saying yes but we made all of it. It’s all designed, not “real.” After a while, I began to feel what they were talking about.

On the plane to New York, I resolved to fill up on as much outdoor time as possible on this trip — hiking, or simply walking, my feet connecting with old roots and landscapes. Though I lived in cities all of my adult life in the US, I was usually only an hour by train from mountain hikes, which I did regularly. During this three-week visit, I wanted most of all to remember how it feels to be in a landscape that isn’t curated down to the last tree, shaped by an aesthetic and societal vision I am just beginning to understand.

I was outdoors on rocky trails nearly every day in Vermont. I was at a program with a Daoist qi gong teacher I have studied with for many years, in a retreat center where I once lived for a year, nestled in the Connecticut river valley across from the White Mountains. I was in upstate New York for a few days after that, and went hiking in the Taconics near the Massachusetts border. In Pennsylvania, where I grew up, I was among the familiar valleys of the Brandywine, Schuylkill, and Delaware rivers. I visited parks I have not seen since I was a child on scouting trips — French Creek, Marsh Creek, and an old property near Chadds Ford, where some of my family’s first Quaker ancestors had settled. I was mostly alone in these places, which was fine. A key aspect of who I am today was formed by the hours I spent alone, on imaginary adventures, in the woods near my house. Now living in the densest country in Europe by population, finding solitude is more challenging.

The moment I first stepped into Hubbard Park in Montpelier Vermont, after a few days in the city, I felt it — the thing I missed. Barely 20 steps off the parking lot I had to sit down, the feeling was so palpable. In the distance, I could hear the voices of children with their parents somewhere else in the park, and a chainsaw a mile away, but there were also birds I had not heard for a while. And then, there was the soft whispering sound of the breeze as it moved the tops of the maples and oaks, and that soft tinkling as the dry leaves, nudged free, fell in a slow-motion rain through the branches and touched their companions on the forest floor. And many other ambient sounds filled the space, too subtle to identify, yet essential. The contrast I felt so powerfully at that moment was as if I was hearing a live symphony after having only heard music through small speakers. The vividness of a live symphony felt not just in the ears but the whole body — an experience of not just the senses, but of a vital energy that underlies all things.

While I was with the Qi Gong teacher a few days later, I lamented that this qi energy, which was so easy to connect with in Vermont, was something I could not feel in the Netherlands. Her reaction was sharp (as was typical) when she said more or less –“it’s the same sky, the same earth.” It’s true, I thought. So the obstacle is my mind. I resolved optimistically to make an effort when I returned to the Netherlands to spend more time exploring the energy of nature preserves, woods, and places where one can walk in the landscape — and perhaps if not find solitude, at least find a connection. This is the first of an evolving journal of “field notes” from these excursions.

Wandel 1: Driebergen —the Bornia and Heidestein reserves.

Freshly returned from the states, I had the ambition to start by finding something familiar in the Netherlands, if it existed — hills and trails. But finding a place to start looking was somewhat daunting. I knew that there was an area in the eastern part of my province with some elevation and trails. There are many “wandelgids” (walking guides) around the internet with trail reviews, and national park web sites with filtered search engines, but what I began with in the end was an email newsletter from the national rail service NS (Nederlandse Spoorwagon) that had serendipitously appeared in my inbox, with a link to their own curated list of favorite wandelpadden. (Wandeling is the term used where Americans would say ‘hiking’ — and pad is a path). I chose a route from a town just one train stop away — Driebergen — and set off.

Driebergen is within the Utrechtse Heuvelrug (literally “hilly back,” the word translates to ridge in English) — an area of hills in the east of Utrecht province that are the remains of the last ice age, a glacial moraine covered in forest, heath and sand, like what you would find on the North Shore of Long Island, or Cape Cod. Except that here, the ocean is no longer close by. The elevations are a modest 50 meters (164 feet) but for one point that rises to just under 70 meters (226 feet). The Utrechtse Heuvelrug is designated as a National Park, but surrounds towns and incorporates old farmsteads, and connects with heritage estates, called landgoed, in a pattern of semi-borderless integration. Studying the map, I was slightly perplexed. It wasn’t clear where the town and residential area ended and the park began.

The NS route led from the train station (naturally) past the pancake house (also a given) to a landgoed with a large brick villa surrounded by professional landscaping and edged by a broad, varied woodland with gracefully undulating paths. Just next to this was a busy street, and on the other side, a property dense with trees behind a fence. At the rear of the property, crossing another road, I entered a much larger wooded area, fenced, with a sign for Heidestein — one of the designated areas on this route. The path was wide and fairly straight, leading through a lightly wooded area to a more open, cultivated one where a low ridge rose, slung with stairs but also a tunnel to pass through. Choosing to go up, from the top of the hill I looked down on what might have been a quarry, kidney-shaped, with a large tree-covered island in the middle. The water had a peculiar clarity and after a moment I realized that you could see through it to the bottom even at this distance — a basin that was white in many places, as limestone might appear, the reflections of the sky mingling with it. It was connected to a narrow stream of water — a slot —leading in the direction I was headed.

I came across places where paths too narrow to be human criss-crossed a needle-covered hill under a large pine, and other places of thick moss with etched lines — animal trails from hoofed feet engraving a web in the terrain. After following the route for a little while, I realized that it did not use any of the narrow trails I saw meandering off, but stuck to wide, straight paths — I was a bit bored by this. I had wanted to be climbing and descending through forested terrain, specifically not seeing what was coming. I walked out onto a wide heath with rolling dunes. I was there just past the bloom, which must have been spectacular a week earlier with purple flowers. Hoof-prints made desire paths across the sands to a watering hole. As I left the heath and entered a pine grove, I saw the source of the prints, lazing and grazing — a small number of sheep. I felt like an interloper, though clearly in a space that had been made for them, it was theirs full-time— I was a guest. Entering deeper forest, I began to use my phone to navigate, exploring the smaller trails in the same general direction I was heading. Further in, off-trail looking for a place to pee, I found a nice hill in the middle of the Bornia reserve with tall pine and cypress creating a secluded enclosure. It was quiet but for a few distant birds, though one never leaves the sound of the highway behind, only a kilometer (.62 miles) away.

The mountain-bike trail that loops through this area is curving, rolling single-track through thick and thin woods, running between the towns of Zeist and Austerlitz. It was my favorite terrain to walk, reminding me most of the narrow, hilly trails with hidden curves that I was accustomed to as a hiker. Since it was Wednesday, most people were at work — I only occasionally encountered others: a pair of silent bird watchers with large telephoto lenses on their chests, gazing upwards (and somewhere above us, a loud bird call I didn’t recognize), and a couple of mountain bikers who whizzed past on the MTB trail, their wheels giving off a gritty ‘shhhhh’ as they peeled through the hard sand.

There were a couple of moments that felt lighter than air —

Taking an unmarked trail around another forested hill in the Bornia, thick with pine, cypress, beech and oak, the floor covered in brilliant mosses. I came around a corner into a deep green area that seemed older than the surroundings, a bit fairy-tale like. I had the momentary feeling of stepping into an illusion.

Twice sheep came into my path. The first was in the heath. The second time, I emerged from the forest to walk along the edge of another heath, the forest to my left, not long after emerging from the deep green place. Coming out of the woods ahead of me I saw something scamper — a dog, black and white, running ahead of what turned into a large flock of sheep, with two dogs rushing back and forth, herding the flock onto the path. The white wool hindquarters moved in clusters; marked with yellow, green, or blue they formed a kind of moving abstract spot painting. They emerged from the forest as a stream flows into a pool, forming a thick shapeshifting mass before me, the only sound a gentle pitter-patter of 400 small hooves. Already heading the same direction, I started to film as I walked slowly into the midst of them. It occurred to me that the dogs would not be working alone, and just then I felt myself watched. Turning to the trees, I saw a man standing at the back of the herd with a long, gnarled herder’s cane, his simple brown clothes hanging loosely — an apparition of another time. I smiled, and said nothing. He said nothing, but smiled gently in return. His face was open and luminous as one who spends all their time outdoors with creatures must look. From behind him came a young woman in outdoor gear, another hiker, and we exchanged glances also smiling, saying nothing. Slowly, we walked side by side through the throng of soft bodies, not saying a word. I slowed, and she moved ahead. It was ordinary magic, but it bloomed everywhere.

What was that feeling? Was it of something being proven true, regarded privately? A re-confirmation of something forgotten? A reminder of the possibility that perhaps, in letting go of judgment, there is an opening to the invisible. And ultimately, it’s the feeling of gratitude.

Susan Jenkins

American writer, maker and wanderer in the Netherlands. Versatile art and cultural researcher with an international background.

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