The Adrenaline of Stillness

Can you get the same rush simply watching a leaf fall as you do climbing or mountain biking?


Let’s begin with two versions of home.  Version A: Quiet lake, soft breeze, hammock swaying on the porch at dusk. Version B: Summit ridge, flash of lightning, electric crackles leaping the brain’s every synapse.

Put a different way: over here we’ve got slow, mellow, contemplative encounters with place, while over there we’ve got fast, manic, hypercharged encounters with place. Both modes are valid. Both modes are fun.  Equally, though differently, both modes open the local environment to us and, in turn, open us to the local environment.

But what about the overlap of Version A and Version B? Better yet, what about the possibility of synthesizing these distinct (arguably conflicting) modes of engagement? I fantasize about making the introduction: Adrenaline, meet Stillness… talk among yourselves.  Putting differences aside, perhaps you will become friends of a sort?  Perhaps, without knowing it, you already are friends?

Though I do dearly love motion and action and adventure and thrill—shooting rapids, scrambling crags—I actually spend the majority of my recreational hours sitting silently in the deep woods: spacing out, going passive, inviting the surrounding scenery to come in close, to wash over and through me.  And I’ve noticed that, on rare and delightful occasions, this cultivation of stillness prepares me for a unique sub-category of adrenaline rush, an intense and fleeting high.  It’s a jolt no less jolting, I’m tempted to say, than leaping from a ledge into Lake Champlain or skiing the resort when every trail is bulletproof ice.

Take, as a kind of thought experiment, the following scenario.  You’ve cleared the afternoon schedule, locked the damned iPhone in a drawer, and aimlessly wandered the sugarbush behind Farmer Bob’s barn at the end of the street. Now, lounging on a mossy log as the sun sets, your breathing steady, your eyes glazed from staring at a nearby maple’s crimson crown… hmm, nothing particularly amazing happens.  The day slides toward night.  The forest slides from calm to calmer.  You slide farther, farther, farther into the droning trance of foliage, into the sweet gentle hum of—FALLING LEAF!

At this precise moment—this pinprick instant in the great sweep of time marked by a single vibrant leaf’s letting go—the ancient mammalian glands also let go, releasing a flood of Jim Beam, Benzedrine, and refined white sugar into your bloodstream: wheeeeee! This non-event is, in fact, a Huge Event, an Awe Event, and it makes you gleefully shiver. The leaf seems to fall through vast inner spaces, what Chinese poets from a thousand years ago labeled xin, or “heart-mind.”

Hey dude, we’re planning to bike the Skull-‘N’-Crossbones Trail at Mach 5 this weekend,  jazzed out of our gourds on Monster Energy drinks, earbuds blasting Black Sabbath… you in?

Pause for deliberation.

Uh, no thanks.  I’ve got this random tree I need to visit behind Farmer Bob’s barn.

What it comes down to is perception: the magic of making ourselves available to an ecosystem’s uncountable small wonders, the mystery of being both in and with a place. We typically understand rushing adrenaline in terms of our own personal dynamism (my body hurtling through space, my body careening and caroming), but consider the alternative. By settling the fanny on a mossy log we settle consciousness.  By settling consciousness we ready ourselves to participate, via perception’s strange transference, in the dynamism of another—an Other.

It’s weird psychological stuff, and I’ll admit that my metaphors may not be the best articulation. They do convey, however, at least a piece of what I feel when a peak suddenly blushes with alpenglow, or a camouflaged toad slyly emerges from the backdrop of bankside grass, or a colder thread of wind unravels from the fabric of already-dang-cold wind.

Despite the difficulties of talking about this experience, I believe that most folks know it viscerally, in the neck’s raised hairs and the sudden wow-wow-wow that races as a spark up the fuse we call backbone. For an example of what I mean, return to that initial image of the quiet lake and the hammock on the porch. You’re swaying, swaying, swaaaaaying, drifting off, beginning to dream about—


A loon wail.  A rent in the silk of evening that is, simultaneously, the silk of a hammock-lulled heart-mind.  This is a common enough occurrence in our lucky corner of the world, right?

It strikes me that the Huge Awe Event is only inches away at any given moment, and that we need merely recalibrate our xin in order to surge with its power. At the kid’s soccer game—a spider web in the bleachers trembles under the weight of winter’s first snowflake. Stuck in traffic—the rearview mirror frames a violet horizon nicked by the blade of a rising crescent moon.  Stooping to gather fumbled mail from the gravel path—a raven’s wings whoosh the air ten feet overhead.  These may not yield gonzo, may not zap us like a pissed momma bear (Easy, lady, easy) or a gripped ascent of frozen waterfalls (Are you positive I’m on belay?) but it’s valuable to recognize that they could.

Subtlety, that’s the word. There’s a massive excitement to be located in nature’s subtle changes—those shifts and twists and fades and flutters of our immediate environs—if only we properly tune ourselves, dial the correct frequency.  And here’s the coolest part: my “research” in the obscure field of Adrenalized Stillness Studies indicates that there’s an inverse correlation between degree of subtlety and degree of rush.  The daintier the phenomenon, it turns out, the wilder a ride.

An anecdote to illustrate this final point: January in the backcountry, early Sunday morning, no pressure to hurry, to break camp and commence the hard, homeward trudge.  Following a second cup of coffee, I find myself bundled and hunkered, butt to a pillowy drift, heels dug in beside a thin pool… find myself lost, that is, staring for a spell of indeterminate duration at the water’s glassy surface.  Unbidden and unannounced, the glass shatters mutely around a wee visage, a muskrat’s whiskery face, and a tingle sprints up my spine in precisely three nanoseconds.  Quick as the face appears, though, it disappears, leaving me delighted by the presence that has become absence.

Is that it? Are we finished?

Not quite.

The last ripple-circle dissolves into nothingness.  The glass returns.  And then the very smoothness—such incredible smoothness—is my buzz.

Contributing editor Leath Tonino is the author of two essay collections, both published by Trinity University Press: The Animal One Thousand Miles Long (2018) and The West Will Swallow You (forthcoming October 2019). An altered version of this essay previously appeared in Adirondack Life.

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