Tonic of Wildness

Tonic of Wildness

My family and I have been searching for a good swimming hole. Here in Tuscany, we’re blessed with miles of exquisite, pristine ocean beaches but we haven’t yet discovered a really good freshwater swimming spot. The Arno River runs right through Pisa, but near as I can tell, it’s a pretty industrial waterway. You don’t see people swimming in the Arno – and I don’t swim where the locals don’t (because I don’t want to sprout a tentacle).

After a lot of research and a few false starts, we decided to check out Candalla Falls. It took about an hour’s drive, culminating in a narrow, zigzagging, one-lane road (with two-way traffic). Nothing like starting with a nice adrenaline rush!

When we arrived, we discovered there was no parking; I mean, not really. Everyone was parked along the edge of that little one-lane road with two-way traffic, with “No Parking” signs scattered throughout. After the harrowing drive, we weren’t ready to give up and go home so we decided to risk it and hope for safety in numbers. We parked as best as we could, popped the mirrors in, and hiked up the road to the waterfall.

You guys, this place was pure magic.

There was an old stone villa tucked away in this tiny mountain cove next to a crashing waterfall. I’m guessing it was some kind of old mill or something, as you could still see where the waterwheel had been. There was a stone channel running beneath it that would have directed the water through the wheel and down river. And there was even a small spout at the top of the stairs where water was channeled for washing off after a hard day’s work. A group of teenagers were climbing up the side of the villa and jumping some 30 feet into the deep pool at the base of the waterfall below.

After watching for a few minutes, my husband saw a pathway leading from the old stone bridge up the mountain on the other side and suggested we go check it out. I couldn’t fathom leaving the beautiful swimming hole we had just discovered to go hiking in the 100-degree heat, but I also like adventures. So, we went trekking up the dusty old path, past the waterfall, following the curve of the river below. Within 10 minutes, we found ourselves staring up at a monolithic cliff overhang, stark white streaked with black. At the base, we could hear people splashing, laughing and talking, so we decided to check it out.

You guys, it was pure jungle magic.

The river flowed and swirled around piles of boulders under the shady canopy of wild jungle trees. And just beyond, climbers were scaling that white stone cliff. We waded across the river and just a little downstream until we found a little swimming hole of our own.

The bright blue water was ice cold, but was oh so soothing in the 100-degree heat. We felt like wild explorers, poking through the channels, cracks and crevices of those massive boulders. The kids even found one channel that worked like a waterslide.

It took a while for me to notice her, but just above the downstream pool, a woman was sitting on a grassy patch in the sunlight, reading a book. After a while, she pulled out a notebook and started writing. And then, she laid down in the grass and fell asleep, next to the babbling brook below. She was there before we came and remained after we left. I tried hard to give her privacy and not stare too much, but it was such an idyllic scene. It reminded me of Thoreau’s Walden.

I’m a big fan.

In July of 1845, Henry David Thoreau built a small cabin beside Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts. He said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days at Walden, contemplating and writing his deepest thoughts, beliefs and philosophies. According to David Ward, a National Portrait Gallery historian, Thoreau wasn’t running from society, he was trying to reform it. “The point,” Ward says, “was for him to cultivate himself.”

The wisdom that arose from Thoreau’s time at Walden have made an unmatched impact on American literature and philosophy, and have created profound ripples through such political movements as abolitionism, civil rights, and environmentalism.

Thoreau is one of my personal heroes. His commitment to introspection, personal development, societal advancement, and his craft are values we need more of today, perhaps more than ever. And he practiced and honed them all by living quietly and simply in the woods.

Thoreau famously said, “We need the tonic of wildness – to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

Amen to that.

4 thoughts on “Tonic of Wildness

  1. This summer I glided across the crystal suface of a remote mountain lake on my paddle board. It also made me think such elegant thoughts as these!

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