Leading with Nature

walking in partnership with nature

Walking into the Woods: A Solstice PhotoEssay

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By Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD

Dark times compel the heart to open.

Yet we don’t have to wait for the longest night of the year or a stunning tragedy. A walk into the woods or desert or along a shore can also open the heart.

Why do we want the heart to open? It helps us stretch how we see and experience the world, so we can be wiser and more skillful leaders. We need to walk in others’ shoes to truly assess risk and build society to work for all. Pioneering psychologist Carl Jung even believed that we have a primal force inside us which yearns for us to grow. This force draws hardships to us to compel us to reflect, learn, and evolve. 

The Buddhists have a name for heart opening: Bodhichitta or the awakened heart. I read about Bodhichitta when I experienced a devastating loss. I felt an unstoppable, burning ache in my heart. When I read that this was something good, like a candle flame from deep within, I learned to be grateful that the ache would make me truer to myself and more compassionate in the world.

If we practice opening the heart day-to-day, of our own volition, we can expand our hearts and wisdom even without the deep darkness of solstice or unimaginable tragedies like the massacre at Sandy Hook.

A thoroughly used telephone pole stands near a living tree.

A thoroughly used telephone pole stands near a living tree.

A living tree resides in a village of metal and concrete.

A living tree resides in a village of metal and concrete.

Heart-opening is vital when we live in high-tech, concrete cities or economically depressed towns where conditions may inspire or require us to shield and close our hearts in order to get by. Even as efficiency and control can bring us prosperity and new possibilities, they can also bind our hearts and minds into a knot. 

A knotted mind can (forgive the pun) be our undoing. We can undermine our very efforts when we limit what we allow ourselves to see and feel; and what we choose to value, promote, and protect.

So what is a simple way to open the heart?

Walking with Trees for an Open Heart

I like to walk away from places that stifle into places that inspire. The act of moving from one environment to another can open the heart and mind in small, daily ways that help us grow.

Recently I walked from my urban village to a woodland park about three miles away. I decided to observe the trees along the way. Just the trees. At first I judged and classified them: big, small, majestic, chopped, broken, withered, evergreen. That was my left brain talking – the mental function which is so good with facts, names, analysis, and decisions. This is an organized, useful, productive way to be in the world.

But after a while, I felt like there was a snapping turtle in my head. This snapping did not match what was going on around me – breezes and blue skies, curving branches and running children. Naming things was knotting up my mind and wearing me out. So I let the images of the trees wash over me. I did not hold them in my mind. I took them in: their grandeur, wounds, fruits, and quietness. I relaxed. The fresh air and calming movement changed my state of mind.

Entering suburban areas, my mind shifted. I noticed different dynamics between nature and human settlements. Nature had more space to be nature. Nature seemed less choked than in the “DO NOT ENTER” picture above. Nature and civilization existed side-by-side to a greater degree. 

Residents enhance a garden with a rock wall and wind chimes.

Residents enhance a garden with a rock wall and wind chimes.

Bare winter branches stand with the shell of a new house, both awaiting new life.

Bare winter branches stand with the shell of a new house, both awaiting new life.

Roses express their whimsy through a fence.

Roses express their whimsy through a fence.

Benefits of an Elastic State of Mind

Before we get to the woods, let us pause and think metaphorically about implications of different states of heart and mind for leadership.

Our challenging times ask us to lead and operate in new ways. As Einstein indicated, we cannot create problems with one state of mind, and expect to solve them without a different state of mind. And to think in new ways, we need new experiences, such as walking away from concrete and telephone poles and into a community of nature.

Maybe we tend to lead and work in only a few states of mind (e.g., slow or fast snapping turtle mind), and we begin to think those are the only legitimate, useful ways to think. We may be living in an extreme or narrow state which makes our reality brittle and vulnerable. For example, if we mainly see trees as urban ornaments to squeeze into concrete habitats or raw material for telephone poles, as above, how then will we see our fellow human beings? The viewpoint we use with one arena – trees – may mirror how we view other situations and beings. Will we view employees in the most utilitarian light, or live in fear and disdain of fellow citizens who think differently? Will we shut down new opportunities because they are unfamiliar? These limited states of mind seem to protect our security, at least for the short term. Ultimately they may limit our potential and even be dangerous to ourselves and others.

But maybe snapping-turtle mind is all we know. It’s not that we are being stubborn. We simply may not know how to be another way. Fortunately, new experiences can open us to new states of mind. Let’s continue walking to the woods.

Walking into Wonder: A Totally Useful Activity

I have been walking for an hour. I approach the woods. As I enter the woods, I feel a completely different atmosphere. I feel relief. My body suddenly takes a slow, full breath. The trees here bask in the community of other trees. They can be themselves here. So can I. 

Sidewalk ends. Trees can be trees together.

Sidewalk ends. Trees can be trees together.



Overhead tangles do not have to make any sense. They just are.

Overhead tangles do not have to make any sense. They just are.

There is a network of trails in the woods. I walk for 30 minutes and descend into a hidden valley. A rocky stream runs through. There are no formal bridges. I crisscross the stream on scattered rocks. I am coming to the heart of the park.

I look up. I feel two trees are speaking to me. One is smooth with a dark, narrow cave at its base – a yawning mouth. The other radiates energy from exposed layers of shaggy bark with random, artistic beauty.

Entering a hidden ravine, I was greeted by these two beauties - probably an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) (left) and a Pignut Hickory(Carya glabra) (right).

Entering a hidden ravine, I was greeted by these two beauties – probably an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) (left) and a Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) (right).

Together they captivate.

Together they captivate.

The indented topography of the Hickory bark seemed to form a shallow mouth, echoing the cave mouth of its neighbor.

The indented topography of the Hickory bark seemed to form a shallow mouth, echoing the cave mouth of its neighbor.


Their message was simple: welcome, slow down, notice our beautiful community.

Why did these particular trees speak? Upon reflection, I may have been able to connect with them more than with other trees because their facial features – their mouths – felt human. Maybe trees with anthropomorphic features – those which appear to have human form – are able to penetrate my being and be heard. Maybe when we see ourselves in others, we are able to open to their spirits. Maybe when we notice others’ miraculous qualities in ways that remind us of ourselves, our spirits are able to connect at levels beyond pragmatism. This is a totally useful activity that will help us survive and thrive in this utterly changing world.

Yet seeing others because we see our reflection is not enough. We need to look beyond the surface, because others with intrinsic value and desire to contribute and thrive do not always look like us. They may be from a different generation. They may be from a religion, ethnicity, or culture that feels foreign and confusing. They may have different mental or physical abilities. Or they may be from a different species entirely. We may have low ability to include their needs and gifts in our vision. Ongoing visits to the woods, or any meditative practice over time, will deepen anyone’s ability to connect with the other.

Seeing the Woodland Community and System

After being greeted so gracefully, I begin to see the community of this hidden valley more completely. I am in my right brain. I can see beyond the concrete and immediate.

When we see a single tree in isolation, we forget that like humans, trees are capable of forming community with all of life. Seeing them all, we can feel there is something more present than a collection of trees and plants. We can see a living system.

Communication and cooperation is happening among these trees, even if we are not trained to see it.

Communication and cooperation is happening among these trees, even if we are not trained to see it.

Life is palpable here.

Life is palpable here.

Cathedrals were designed to mimic the lines and light of the forest.

Cathedrals were designed to mimic the lines and light of the forest.

What can seeing systems mean for us as leaders, as we think about our employees, partners, and communities? As leaders we have experiences with people and may have deep-rooted beliefs: “if groups are left to their own devices, they will… (fill in the blank).” But do we really know what human systems look like when they are left to their own devices? How can we learn how people behave in situations that are more organic than what is possible in cubicles or mines or assembly lines?

One way is the simple, yet powerful, method for group exploration and dialogue called Open Space Technology (OST), originated by Harrison Owen. An Open Space meeting usually lasts 1-3 days, focuses on a particular issue, and invites all players in the system to participate. It may involve tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people. Open Space has only a few, minimalist rules: enough to keep the process constructive while allowing freedom to express, explore, argue, collaborate, and emerge with organic results. Because the few rules for Open Space have been honed to let the organic power of groups emerge, they are surprisingly powerful in their simplicity.

Harrison Owen has worked with Open Space meetings for many years, and has observed similar patterns of movement and behavior among participants, regardless of the culture, topic, size of meeting, or language. “A group will have an ebb and flow,” says Harrison. “It will be circular, or split into groups. There is a dance.” Like natural systems, human systems appear to have innate abilities to heal themselves and resolve issues. Open Space meetings let us see those abilities in action. (You can read more about Harrison’s experiences observing Open Space meetings in notes from one of his presentations, including references to his web site and books.)

Open Space also strengthens compassion and empathy – the ability to value what others need or feel. Experiential processes like walking into the woods or participating in Open Space will help us understand how other beings – whether trees or people – exprience life. We know from Sandy Hook and other tragedies around the world that individuals and groups either miss or ignore signals that danger is imminent. We may be able to help avert disasters in the future by expanding our spectrum of experiences so that we can see, acknowledge, and act on signals with wisdom.

Saying Goodbye

After a walk in the woods, unless we are squirrels or deer, we probably need to go home. When leaving the woods, I had the most perfect experience to complete my connection with trees: I met another anthropomorphized ambassador:


As we look to turn challenging times into growth and evolution, I wish you the benefits of connecting with nature and other beings. I would like to hear about your experiences walking in the woods or marsh or desert. I would like to hear what you learn and how you apply it.

Please remember those who may not have safe access to nature and/or may be so consumed with survival that they have no time or means to be in nature. Indeed, I ask you to remember nature itself. If you are so inclined, please join me in contributing with service or money to a social or environmental nonprofit, whether local, national, or international. Here are several that I recommend: 

– Arts for the Aging
– Daughters of Mumbi Global Resource Center
– Institute for Conservation Leadership
– Latin American Youth Center
Our Task  which is holding its Earth 2100 Conference with George Mason University in July 2013
National Council for Science and the Environment which is hosting the Environment and Disasters Conference in January 2013
National Parks Conservation Association

Special thanks to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority which cares for the woods in these pictures and is also a worthy recipient of donations.

Please share your comments, questions, and stories at the link below. Happy Solstice and a Peaceful New Year!


Author: openingcreativity

Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD, is Principal of Opening Creativity LLC, which helps nonprofits & multi-sector teams reach their highest potential through participatory processes, leadership development, consensus building & more. Please visit Opening Creativity's web site at www.openingcreativity.com.

One thought on “Walking into the Woods: A Solstice PhotoEssay

  1. Thank you, Kris. Appreciate and value, especially – reminder to stay open and open-hearted; learn from trees and nature; respect for trees, both individually and communally; how an everyday activity like taking a walk can be transformative. Do you ever touch the trees? I find they communicate even more when I do. Happy merry. Thank you.

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