A Needed Moment of Calm

I’m what’s called aHighly Sensitive Person(HSP). Without going into the details, Dr. Elaine Aron has been studying the phenomenon of Sensory Perception Sensitivity for years now and estimates that up to 20% of the population is as well. The short version is that stimuli that most people find irritating at worst can be debilitating to us. Bright lights, loud noises, large crowds, and intense (or even not-so-intense) smells are just the beginning. Here’s a decent summary and comparison with things like introversion (I’m also one of those).

A full day of work as a business writer for a tech startup, even in my quiet, dimly-lit basement office, can leave me struggling to put two words together or run errands without feeling the urge to curl up in the fetal position and sob. Between meetings and Slack interrupting my work flow, it’s just exhausting.

To counteract that exhaustion, I’ll take mid-day walks around my neighborhood. The 30 minutes outside does my mind and body a world of good and helps ensure that I can get through the afternoon’s work relatively unscathed.

That said, and the actual point of this piece, is that by the end of the week I’m still operating at a deficit. My brain is tired, my body aches, and my senses and nervous system are shot. My remedy for this is to get outside as much as possible. Trees, mountains, and rivers are my answer to HSP overload.

What follows is a short piece I wrote for a creative writing workshop. The assignment was to write with all five senses. I add proprioception (your sense of where you are in relation to the world around you), so six senses it is. I’d love to hear your thoughts, either on the writing or on all things HSP!

As I pull into the unassuming gravel parking lot, careful to dodge the massive pothole just off the edge of the cement, I’m happy to see only one other car. I may find the solitude I’m seeking after all. After parking and making sure my parking permit hang-tag is visible hanging from the rearview mirror, I make my way over to the access trail. Originally cut by fly fishers and whitewater kayakers, this isn’t a trail so much as a ravine. With the goal of getting to the water fast, there was no felt need to make even the pretense of an easily accessible route. As I pick my way over the exposed roots and around the rocks nobody bothered to remove, I can feel a lightness returning to my body. The sound of rushing water fills my head and the smell of new rain and fish invades my consciousness.

Then I’m on the rocks. Ranging in size from golf ball up to watermelon, traversing the shore here requires slow, sure footing. As I listen to each step cause cascades of smaller rocks to tumble over the larger ones, the fast-moving river comes into full view. There’s an island that’s formed, in the area where a tributary empties into the main river, and it’s grown to around 20 square yards and with the water level down it stands nearly 5’ above the waterline. Carefully picking my way over to the edge of the tributary, a new sound pushes the roar of the water aside. Looking up toward the opposite bank, I see an eagle perched on the very top of a snag. It’s scanning for lunch and telling its partner where to look with a haunting shriek that pierces the rushing of the river.

The river smells fresh today. It’s a mix of the ozone released by the spring rain that fell earlier in the morning, the fish making their way upstream, and the rotting wood laying all around the shoreline. There must have been flooding over the winter, I haven’t made it up here in several months. Slowly making my way upstream, I notice a new smell getting stronger, its peaty, like aged whiskey. Ah, there’s a tree leaning over the water that’s covered with a thick, spongy layer of moss. I’ve never seen such a vibrant green shade, either. It’s somewhere between the deep green of the surrounding evergreen trees and the neon green on the sign in front of my local pot shop. 

I’m not fond of how I ended that, but the feedback I got was all excellent, so I’ll leave it at that.

I love the different colors the water takes on. The main flow is coming straight from snowpack runoff, while the stream starts in the foothills further north.

Today’s visit to the river was vastly different, but in important ways also much the same. It’s spring and we had an epic snow year so the water level was quite high, making that tributary island much smaller and lower than I remembered it. The water from that stream seems to take entirely new courses through the rocks every time I make it out there.

It’s only 45 minutes or so from downtown to my spot, yet I manage to find at least some peace and solitude every time I visit. Today was no exception. A couple of pickups followed me into the lot, causing momentary concern, but they went further downstream and took their kids with them.

I found a new spot to park myself, a bit up the tributary stream and partially hidden from the main area of rocks and shrubs. Got almost an hour of the quiet I needed before a family arrived with kids and picnic supplies in tow.

That’s OK. My ass was falling asleep from sitting on the rocks anyway. Maybe I’ll make it back next week. I hope so.

Next week I also hope to write some about the work being done to study just why being in nature is so calming, for everyone, but particularly for those of us with persnickety nervous systems.