The 5 Lessons I Learned After 21 Days in the Woods
Walk into the unknown and feel the magic of the natural world
I have a good friend, my neighbor, whose habit I admire: she goes into the woods early every morning. Like a musher with her three huskies by her side, she meanders through the forests, occasionally foraging for gems like Tree Lungwort or Black Chanterelle — mushrooms she brings home, dehydrates, and then eats. Though she’d never claim the title, she’s a true naturalist with vast woodland expertise, an acumen that far exceeds my own. From my window, I watch her leave in the early, crisp mornings, heading out and into the unknown forests that circle our small town.
According to several habit experts, including James Clear, author of the notable book Atomic Habits, it takes about twenty-one days to form a new habit. Thus, inspired by Clear’s book, my neighbor’s daily practice, and the natural world around me, I decided to try and emulate her habit and commit time each day, for 21 days, to the woods. The amount of time I spent among the trees varied, but no matter the weather, I journeyed into the thickets. Here is what I learned:
1. We Are Never Alone
Occasionally, I came across another hiker, someone walking their dog or trail-running. Sometimes I saw deer and almost always squirrels or chipmunks. What surprised me, though, was how alive the river was, how vibrant the trees felt, how vital the ground was beneath my footing. The organic energy in the forest filled me up, forever altering my understanding of authentic connection.
2. Fear Lives in Me
There were several times over the course of the twenty-one days when I was afraid. I was nervous when the wind picked up, the leaves bustled, the tree cover darkened, and the shadows moved like a bear or a coyote. One day, when I was deep into the middle of the woods, a little lost and worried about time, I saw a man approaching. With a walking stick in his hand and an eerie smile, he greeted me and stopped.
Panic rose through me. I actually think I would have felt less fear if he had been the bear that I’d imagined. “Lovely day.” He nodded his head. My pace quickened as I passed him, our jackets almost brushing each other on the narrow, winding path. “Yes, enjoy!” I scurried away never making eye contact and not looking back — my fear a reflection of unchecked societal systems that infiltrate even the natural world.
3. Observation Is a Skill
Like anything, it takes practice, especially as an adult. Instinctively, my children see everything. When they came with me into the woods, they stopped so many times the hikes took double the time, and I loved it. On one of our favorite paths, at one defining turn, there’s a tree with a deep hollow and a bulging burl.
“Mom, what do you see?” My daughter pointed to the growth on the tree’s otherwise smooth trunk. As we chatted about the different images that came to mind, I was reminded to pause and use my powers of imagination more often.
4. Direction Is Circuitous
Many meditation teachers refer to the “monkey mind” — those thought boomerangs that sometimes come when we sit with ourselves, attempting to be still. As a novice meditator, I know the monkey mind well. In the woods, when I found myself lost, unsure which direction would bring me home, that monkey mind raced. In those moments, I reached for the same grace that I extend to myself during a frazzled meditation. Direction can be circuitous. It’s okay to feel lost. Roundabout routes can still get us home.
5. Shared Experience Matters
Wandering into the woods, whether we are alone or with company, captures part of the duality within the human experience — a journey that is both solitary and communal. On the twenty-first day of my habit experiment, in the forests that surround my home, I brought a friend with me to trek through the trees.
With the sun’s rays pouring through the canopy, we embraced the wilderness together, step by step on the leafy trail. I’d wandered alone many times over the last three weeks, but in the end, to celebrate my adventure with a friend illuminated a central truth for me: our experiences are elevated when we share them.
The frost comes in the mornings now. Fall has slipped away. And yet, almost forty days have passed since I began emulating my dear neighbor’s ritual. I continue to venture into the forest, to walk into the unknown, to listen for the lessons, and to feel the magic of the natural world.
Laura Milligan’s writing has been featured in a variety of publications, including Mantra Magazine, Edutopia, and Moms Don’t Have Time To Write. Working with students of all ages and abilities, Laura began teaching English and language arts in 2003.
Laura’s novel-in-progress is titled Lucy’s Lane. She’s currently enrolled in Grub Street fiction workshops and serves as a teacher at New Haven Reads and a professor at Middlesex Community College.