Jenn Barton: Simplicity

Kids' natural curiosity nurtures their social and emotional well-being.

Hundreds of bacteria inhabit one square inch of skin. Imagine what lives in a cubic inch of soil, and then behold a whole tree, not just a young sapling, but a hearty hemlock that has survived the centuries, housing a multitude of insects, birds, mammals, fungi, lichens, mosses. We go to the woods to live simply in an unfathomably complex and intricate system. What is it that speaks to us of simplicity?

In Webster’s words, simple means: “1. not hard to understand , 2. having few parts, and 3. not special or unusual.” This definition defies nature’s reality—in truth, nature is hard to understand, complex in its myriad parts, and, to add a subjective bent, exceedingly special and unique. Still, we have ordained nature as the teacher of simplicity. How can this be so? Let’s behold the complexity for a moment, the excessiveness, and we might worm our way into a new understanding.

When my daughter was four, we tirelessly collected acorns from a single tree out her bedroom window. For weeks, the gray squirrels serenaded us by chomping and dropping these hard-capped treasures on the lawn, in the woods, even on our heads. We sorted them into categories—by color, by size, by hardness, by the presence or absence of caps (or hats, as she called them)—then counted them by tens, tallied, and recorded the results. Over a thousand acorns covered the carpet! According to Dr. Marc Abrams, Penn Sate professor of forestry, ‘A mast year can occur twice in a row, or there might be several years in between. “There’s no way to predict it.”’

Wildlife thrives on excess but does not depend upon it; the squirrels stockpile more acorns in a mast year, but can adjust to a dearth the next year. Humans, however, specialize in hoarding—food, clothing, money, possessions—and might have a tag sale once or twice a lifetime; voluntary simplicity is not our strong suit. Throughout our lives, we expect to either maintain or elevate our standard of living, never to decrease it. Loss, instead of being a natural part of the unpredictable cycle, signifies failure. Squirrels, on the other hand, are ceaselessly adapting to what the environment presents them, the boom-bust reality of forest life. They cannot hoard and elevate their status. Excess is subject to decay; every last acorn will be recycled without trace the following year. Removed from natural cycles of decay, human excess persists, sits on shelves to gather dust until we forget where or why we even saved it. Even so, we are captive to its care.

We go to the woods to learn of letting go, to realize that we can’t even remember what lines our shelves at home, the excess we insist we couldn’t live without. As we move along the trails, our hands fall open at our sides, relaxed, needing nothing to grasp. Water sloshes in our bottle, a food wrapper crinkles in our coat pocket. We carry only the weight of sustenance and shelter. We have brought little. We return with less. What we receive looms large in the heart, not in the hands.

Photo and video by Daniel Casado. Text by Jenn Barton.