Condensing Nature’s Wonder to a Thirty-Minute Lesson
My wife of now 45 years was visiting our daughter and her family in northern Alabama. I had stayed behind to perform my presidential duties at Urbana University in west-central Ohio. On a warm, humid, late spring Saturday afternoon, after a long day of weekend catch-up, I saw the sky beginning to darken to the west. The forecast had portended evening storms, potentially severe, as a front steamed in from the Mississippi Valley. The radar showed a bright red, north-south-oriented line over Indiana heading in our direction at 30-40 mph. Our forecast now included a severe thunderstorm watch.
I had ridden my bike at dawn, logging 30 miles, yet I had been sedentary for most of the day since then. The thought struck, “I can grab a few quick miles, indulge my penchant for stormy weather, and actually count a little coup!”
Counting coup refers to the winning of prestige against an enemy by the Plains Indians of North America. Warriors won prestige by acts of bravery in the face of the enemy, which could be recorded in various ways and retold as stories. – Wikipedia
Technically, I suppose, my decision to mount my two-wheeled steed was not about gaining prestige in the face of an enemy. I have never viewed weather as the enemy. Yet clearly, pedaling south along the nearby paved rails to trail did involve some risk and considerable dare. Perhaps even no small measure of what others would consider absolute foolishness.
Choosing to Act
I quickly changed into my biking clothes. By that time, the National Weather Service had upgraded our Watch to a Warning. I did not have more than 30 minutes to go out, make a judgment of when to turn, and rush home to regain shelter before the front slammed into Urbana, Ohio! It’s a good thing Judy was not home – she would have protested and probably kept me from my foolishness. I exited the garage, rolled the quarter mile downhill and west to the bike trail, and pedaled hard southward.
There are times when I cannot remember what I had for breakfast, yet now five years after my little dare, I recall details of the ride as though I had thought of little else since then. Cumulus were boiling to the west as I achieved the trail, dark and ominous beneath them. I could not yet hear thunder, at least not as I accelerated on the trail to cruising speed at 15 mph. A steady breeze drew thick air from the south, slowing my pace, pushing against my chest. I felt the adrenalin as I anticipated the decision I knew I would need to make about turning to avoid what the radar suggested would be inevitable. About a mile down the trail, I entered a half-mile open-field stretch, which afforded a horizon-extending view to the west. I could now see the deepening shades of the imminent storm, stretching north-south in a solid line. Even the rain shield had begun to appear a few degrees above the horizon.
I stopped for a moment, hearing the distant rumble, distinctly cloud-to-ground, but still many miles west. I resumed my southward vector, entering a mile-and-a-half forested stretch, getting darker by the minute, with thunder audible above the movement breeze and my own heavy exertion breathing. Below the parking area at Cedar Bog, I once again emerged into open fields with a view to the west. I stopped. I gasped, perhaps I had gone too far. Four miles from home, the sky had turned ugly, deep-dark, thunder growling and threatening, the rain shield now many degrees above the horizon – and I am four miles from home. I quickly calculated, with southerly wind picking up, I can race northward at some 18 mph, which meant I could be home in 14 minutes. Now, I pondered, all the while beginning to head north, how far can a storm forging east at 40 mph travel in 14 minutes? Yikes, that’s a little more than nine miles. This beast was at most nine miles west of me, and licking its chops to catch me exposed on the trail. Every three minutes of my sprint home brought the storm two miles closer!
When I exited the forested cover, my heart leaped, the monster was nearly upon me. Flashing cloud-to-ground lightning, almost night level darkness, and the rain shield way too high for comfort. The wind rushed past me, catapulting me forward. To make matters worse, the town’s storm warning siren began to scream (a tower stood no more than half-a-mile from me), adding to the cacophony of sound announcing the squall line. I thought, “I am not going to make it home before this thing swallows me.” To the extent I could muster, I pedaled harder. The wind pounded, thankfully from behind. Thunder seemed on top of me, yet the lightning still did not crackle the way it does when it is right there. I reached the street where I shunted to the east within a quarter mile of home. The rain shield now obscured the streetscape less than a half-mile to my left as I turned east. Lightning had begun to crackle.
At last, I entered my driveway as the first fat drops began to fall. I grabbed the garage door opener from where I had placed it, and walked my bike into shelter as the wind-driven deluge struck, sirens still blaring. Whew, that’s cutting it close! I went upstairs to watch the storm surge and then begin to fade. Lots of in-close lightning. A few small branches and leaves found their way to the ground, but no reports of serious damage. I recorded between one-half and three-quarters of an inch of rain. Had I not made it home, I would have been drenched and a bit shaken by the wind and lightning. However, I had challenged the beast, made a good call about when to turn, and judged correctly. I had counted coup. I had added an element of adventure and a dose of risk to an otherwise rather dull Saturday. University presidencies can be quite stressful, but let’s face it, seldom does the job entail true risk. Rarely did my workdays involve a stimulating rush of adrenalin. In fact, while quite rewarding, the jobs are dull in the sense of risk and adventure. I relished the break. I wanted to touch the demon, and escape its wrath. I ached to do something that had potential consequences… personal and internal. No one was watching. Judy didn’t even know. This was between me and the storm, and my psyche.
Merriam-Webster online defines foolish: lacking in sense, judgment, or discretion. Had I ventured forth that late afternoon without checking the forecast, looking skyward, and calculating the time available or assessing the actual risk involved, I would gauge my action as foolish. Instead, I applied my sense and understanding of the developing weather upstream. I used informed judgment based upon the set of factors involved, including my own perceived ability to know when to turn tail. The final criterion, discretion (again from M-W online): the right to choose what should be done in a particular situation. I applied a full measure of discretion. What was I to gain from challenging the storm? I know, challenging the storm is a stretch; I chose to tempt and avoid the teeth of the storm. Instead, I was challenging myself. Storms do not win or lose. They simply are, and they do what they do oblivious to the acts of, or the consequences to, man. A storm is neutral – swallowing me would not have altered its path.
Again, was my ride foolhardy? I placed no other person at risk. Would I have, for example, enlisted my grandson on such a daring adventure? Certainly, not at his current age of nine. At age 16? Perhaps then, so long as I was sure he could pedal at the pace needed to make it back to the garage before the onslaught. I would also need assurance that he could deal with the pleasurable terror that I anticipated if I misjudged the turnaround. I knew that I would embrace and relish being caught, although I was intent upon beating the storm to the safety and shelter of my garage. As it was, I did not subject anyone but yours truly to the adventure.
The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.
Winston S. Churchill
In terms of return to my mental well-being, I am convinced I made a good choice – the right choice – that stormy afternoon. I have enjoyed countless fair-weather rides. They provided exercise, great beauty, occasional companionship, inspiration, and a feeling of satisfaction. Seldom did those rides yield thrill, a sense of felt-danger, or potential consequences. Sure, I recall one predawn when a skunk appeared in the dark within inches of my lead wheel – a momentary rush of adrenalin, but no spray. The skunk was as startled as I, not having time to react with a blast directed my way. Another time, a deer at dawn streaked from my right after leaping a trail-side fence, missing me by a matter of a few feet. Again, a brief adrenalin jolt from the near miss, but not enough to term it anything beyond an enjoyable ride.
I often tested my own physical limits. Tempting fate did not engage me daily. In fact, once per year or less-frequently sufficed during my biking days, when we lived along Ohio’s Simon Kenton Trail. When I ran competitively, at about the same frequency, I would venture into pre-dawn darkness when weather conditions would welcome only fools. Heavy snow; deep accumulation; blasting wind; patchy black ice; borderline temperatures, when I would return with some amazing frozen moisture decorating my hood, hat, and face. Judy did not think me a fool – she knew it to be so, that my mental condition was such to prompt occasional action that escaped her logic. Okay, did I say I ran competitively? To be accurate, I ran recreationally, yet I competed intensely with myself, intent to beat my prior times, the same run on previous days, my running colleagues, and even those unknowns on countless ten Ks, five Ks, five-milers, ten-milers, half-marathons, and the seven full marathons I ran. A recreational runner would not be so darned competitive!
I did have one line I would not cross, evidencing at least a trace of sanity. I would not leave home with a moderate rain already falling, or one heavier. I did not mind gradually getting wet, or being caught by a deluge. I always knew the temperature that awaited me, and could dress in anticipation of gradually transitioning to soaked. I had an aversion, however, to beginning a run by immediately becoming soggy, before warming up with a slow mile or so.
Lessons for Life and Work
So, what are some lessons that derive from this tale of weather coup-counting? First, life and work can be dull and boring. Occasionally, do something different, break free of your zone of comfort; enter your zone of courage. Second, measure the risk associated with every decision. Risk to comfort is a far cry from risk to health, well-being, and life. Risk to self, while important, falls far short of placing others at risk. Know the conditions and trends within which you operate. Seek metaphor and meaning in all that engulfs you. Find a way to learn from everything you encounter. Dare to appear a little foolhardy to the quick-to-judge and undiscerning; people may underestimate you, which is often a good thing. Dare yourself, especially when no one is watching. It’s about you, and not how you appear to others. Feel the rush. Sharpen all four dimensions of fitness: my foolish dare pushed me physically, demanded mental acuity, activated pure spiritual adrenalin, and stirred emotions deep within me. Get outside; return to our biological legacy. We lived in the elements for most of our human existence. Nature is hard-wired in us. Once in a while, reconnect to your visceral and evolutionary roots. You’ll be amazed at what you can stir within yourself. I elevate my heart rate by composing these thoughts and recollections five years beyond the experience. Synapses are firing and re-firing; the rush returns. The list for me is long.
He who hesitates is a damned fool. – Mae West
I did not hesitate that afternoon. The window of opportunity that had opened when I noticed the western sky darkening was closing rapidly as the squall line advanced at two miles every three minutes. So often in life and work, windows open and close quickly, giving us little time to react and make the most of the opportunity. We must be vigilant, and prepared to act. Nature instructs through her every movement that conditions are never static.
Making a big life change is pretty scary; but, know what’s even scarier? — Regret.
A poster I recall
Whether a big life decision, or a quick venture on the bike trail, regret is always near at hand. Judy and I made a decision (not spur of the moment) now a third of a century ago, to leave a perfectly wonderful position in the paper and allied products manufacturing industry to return to university for my doctoral degree. Many considered what we did as foolhardy, including a number of my associates at the company. We knew the venture entailed risk, but certainly not to life and limb. Some said to us, “You are tempting fate.” Ironically, a few years later, during a mass restructuring of that industry, another multinational company acquired Union Camp Corporation, the Fortune 500 company I had left and that my colleagues had viewed as their career-long employer.
You often meet fate on the road you took to avoid it. – French Proverb
Unfortunately, they met fate and found themselves unemployed on the very road they viewed as safe and secure. Most of them eventually re-positioned themselves professionally, yet not without setbacks, long anguish, and some settling for less than their UCC trajectory had led them to expect. Was our decision foolhardy? We didn’t think so, and we have no regrets. New horizons opened. Way led to way, and that has made all the difference. The window opened; we acted before it closed. Certainly, we have made mistakes along the way. There is a difference between making a mistake and making a foolish mistake. Some of mine were avoidable; some were ill-informed; and, yes, some in retrospect were foolish, i.e. lacking in sense, judgment, or discretion. However, all provided lessons for learning. I have said many times that experience is that thing you get right after you needed it. A mistake, foolish or not, is wasted unless we learn from it.
With relief, I can say that my bike trail dash was anything but a mistake. I learned little from it other than confirming that my decision was right. The ride paid huge dividends in satisfaction and intrinsic reward. I did nothing truly dangerous, and over the course of my life that has generally been the case. I’ve never run with the bulls – talk about foolhardy! That one takes the prize. Yet it is just another version of counting coup, often, I would imagine, alcohol-induced. No alcohol entered my bike ride equation. However, I did achieve a considerable mental boost and derive near-euphoria from the challenge. Never having even experimented with illegal drugs, I can’t imagine surpassing that afternoon’s safe, legal, and quite inexpensive high.
I recall standing in Yosemite at the base of El Capitan, looking up at the tiny figures on the wall. My stomach fluttered just watching others doing what to me was truly inconceivable. I just this moment sidetracked from typing these words to an Official Google Blog introducing a “Vertical Street View” of this iconic rock wall. Wow, the view from up there doesn’t flutter my stomach; it generates absolute incredulity and fear. The blog had this to say, “Climbing is all about flirting with the impossible and pushing the boundaries of what you think can be done.” People have died climbing the face. My venture may in some reduced way have flirted with the impossible, at least from the perspective of those for whom thunderstorms incite stomach flutters, and worse. I suppose, too, that I intentionally pushed the boundaries of what I thought could be done, yet falling short (the storm catching me) was a kind of falling I could accept. Falling short of goal on El Capitan, say from 2,000 feet, could be a bit messy.
Running with the bulls at Pamplona is another crazy adventure, likewise dangerous, that annually injures 50-100 people. Fifteen fatalities since 1910. A dozen or so cattle covering ~1,000 yards, 1,100-1,600 pounds each, at 15 mph, through narrow streets. I risked being soaked; I’ve been wet before. I’ve never been gored, nor do I intend to be! Running with the bulls – foolhardy and dangerous. Daring the storm – a bit odd perhaps, but not foolish.
Fools make feasts and wise men eat them.” – Benjamin Franklin
Many of us find fascination in watching and contemplating others ascending El Capitan, admiring their skill, strength, and courage, and sharing the feeling of dismay that anybody could, or would, do such a thing. I read of one climber who spent 17 days successfully free climbing to the summit. Seventeen seconds would have placed me in cardiac arrest! The first team to ascend “The Nose” route, three men climbing expedition-style in 1958, took 47 days. The current speed-climbing record stands at 2 hours, 23 minutes, 46 seconds, a rate of nearly 21 vertical feet every minute. Nature presents challenges wrapped in beauty and festooned with exquisite danger. Some among us cannot resist the urge to conquer seemingly impossible odds. I’ve never had trouble resisting that urge, when the risk is to life and limb. Yet there are others who seek such feats and, as Ben Franklin observed, make feasts of incredible daring and doing for us observers to eat.
I must remind myself, and you, that those who do extreme climbing (or extreme anything) are not novices. They’ve spent thousands of hours on the ropes, climbing and learning, honing skills, and practicing technique. It’s the same for effective learning, living, serving, and leading in any endeavor. The best in any field seem to accomplish the near impossible with ease, yet nature teaches us that it is ease earned, not gifted. I recall the story of a woman who approached the virtuoso pianist after an amazing concerto, saying to him, “I would give my life to play like that!” He replied stoically, “I did.”
“We’re all fools,” said Clemens, “all the time. It’s just we’re a different kind each day. We think, I’m not a fool today. I’ve learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we’re not perfect and live accordingly.” – Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man
Although being world class in any field requires near perfection, the truly exceptional watch for the flaws, and focus on correcting for them. Most of us are far from perfect. Most of us make enough mistakes to fill two lifetimes of learning. Nature inspires us to accept that we have limits, yet implores us to reach beyond those limits that we alone impose upon ourselves. I could have sat on the porch that afternoon, watching the sky lower and thicken, listening to the wind and growing thunder, and then rushing inside at the last minute. I would have enjoyed the spectacle, avoided any threat, and then regretted my pitiful cling to comfort. Clinging to comfort doesn’t advance the cause of a species or assure a full belly for the individual. Staying on the porch would not have scratched my itch. Watching the storm from my porch might have given me a sentence or two to place in my daily journal, but it would not have given me a chapter in a book. Living, learning, serving, and leading are about filling volumes.
Hearing Nature’s Symphony
I’ve watched people run and pedal with ear-buds muting the magnificent cacophony of nature’s voice. I have never heard ear-bud music as stimulating, comforting, and fulfilling as nature’s full-throated serenade. That afternoon, as I turned right for the final short sprint to the house, I mentioned that I could see the dense rain shield obscuring sight just a few hundred yards to the west. That visual stimulation alone helped propel me up the hill. I did not note earlier in this essay that I could hear the rain as it pounded wind-swept toward me. That ride, and all of life and work, was a deeply and profoundly sensory experience. Our electronic devices dull our interaction with nature and her delectable sensory buffet.
Drivers may have seen me feverishly pedaling that late afternoon, thinking, “How foolish.” The sight of me may have been a visual feast for some, and they devoured the sight with relish. Some may have laughed. Yet this fool may have been the cleverest of all. Those 30 minutes yielded a lifetime memory and stimulated deep thinking. I am better for it. And wiser, I believe. What is the value returned for such an effort and dare? I suppose I could gin up a monetary value, but I prefer simply to observe that venturing forth proved to be invaluable.
I strive to bring nature into all that I do. Life and work occasionally call upon us to perform within tight deadlines – to get ‘er done before the squall line hits. We all benefit from knowing our limits, and especially in forcing ourselves to, and beyond, our perceived bounds. Life and work are not enriched by sitting on the porch, safe from the action. Sure, an occasional, deep-breathing respite on the porch provides renewal, contemplation, and relaxation. But that should be deliberate and purposeful, not the result of intentional avoidance of some potential adversity.
Success requires rising to the occasion, recognizing opportunity, and leaping to advantage the moment, to seize the moment. Carpe diem! Once in a while sitting on the porch is a reward for action, not a substitute for engaging fully. Success requires pedaling like crazy when circumstances demand it. Success entails knowing when to act, and when to seek shelter. Success also requires treating ourselves to what we find delightful, so long as nobody gets hurt, and provided the action is moral, ethical, and legal. My foolish weather dare had no strings attached, no guilt, no obligations, no consequences, no out-of-pocket expenses. All lessons for living, learning, serving, and leading are either written in, or are inspired by nature. Inspiration came to me without limit during that brief ride and full exposure. I was one with a higher power, and along with full inspiration, once more came absolute humility. What a great lesson for us humans to be reminded that we are nothing.
A towering thunderstorm reminds me that I am of little consequence. And that same storm instructs me that I have an obligation to extend nature’s lessons and inspiration to others. Spreading the gospel of Earth Stewardship is the small price I must pay for enjoying the magic and wonder of this world that sustains us from conception to death. I pledge to devote my remaining days to Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. To Applying Nature’s Wisdom to Life and Work. So much of nature’s wonder can be condensed in 30-minute lessons.
All we need do is get off the porch. Mount your steed. Test your limits. Challenge yourself. Pursue inspiration. Embrace humility. Make a difference. Live. Learn. Serve. Lead.