Guest Column

Standing Still in the Wilderness

I discovered something recently that many others have enjoyed for much longer—hunting. Unlike those who take to the woods with rifles, shotguns, crossbows and every other conceivable weapon and gadgetry, I go there without any of the aforementioned. I’m not actually a hunter.

Fortunately, my son is. I use the term “fortunately” because at his age he is required to be accompanied by an adult when he’s afield. And whether it’s a matter of convenience for him or out of obligation by me, I’m usually the adult accompanying him. For that I am extremely grateful.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about hunting as a result of our many forays into the forest, it’s that you have to keep quiet and sit still. Most of us know how difficult that is for one who works as a superintendent. Sitting still and staying quiet can be a hard test. The Taoist saying, “We have nothing to do and no place to go,” is my mantra whenever I get fidgety and my thoughts turn to all of the unfinished tasks I have waiting at home and work.

Sights and Sounds
Interesting things start to happen when you sit quietly for extended periods of time. You begin noticing things.

The first thing I noticed was how the environment slowly starts to change. What at first appears to be a place devoid of activity gradually awakens. All kinds of creatures come out and do their animal things. It usually starts with the smallest critters and progresses to the larger ones, as if they’re following some type of etiquette manual. Birds swoop in, fluttering from bush to bush looking for the scarce berry or two. Chipmunks race across the leaves with reckless abandon. Squirrels move cautiously from branch to branch betrayed only by the twitching of their tails. And if you’re lucky a deer will suddenly appear from nowhere.

There are sights, sounds, odors and natural movements that have their place in nature. I’ve watched deer stand for what seems like an eternity, looking, listening and smelling for the things that don’t belong in their natural environment. It’s how they survive.

Perfect Analogy
One of nature’s truths served as the inspiration for comments I made to staff on the opening day of school. I was looking for a way to focus on our similarities rather than our differences, while recognizing that we come from different places, shaped by different circumstances and forces and nurtured by different support systems.

I found myself looking at two large oak trees—one growing in the woods, the other in an open field. The tree in the woods was tall with few branches. It was surrounded by other trees, which no doubt helped protect it from nature’s forces. The tree in the field could best be described as being stable and gnarly looking, its multiple branches twisted and shaped by its vulnerability to lightning, snow and ice. It stands on its own substantial root system, strengthened by withstanding the forces of the wind. But even as different as they are in appearance, once you peel away the bark and outer layers the grain of the wood is exactly the same. My perfect analogy!

Sitting quietly has helped me become more observant—able to see and hear things around me that I don’t normally see in the busyness of my everyday life. I’ve enjoyed many a sunrise and sunset as the earth transitions from the dark of night to the light of day and back again. I’ve seen colors and textures that usually escape me. I’ve closed my eyes to better hear the sounds that are often unheard. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s helped me better understand what it means to exist in a state of being rather than doing.

This aspect of hunting serves as a wonderful analogy for how we need to spend some of our waking moments, being 100 percent present to ourselves and to what is around us. We neglect to still ourselves to search for the wisdom and truth that resides within us. I have come to understand that the better we know ourselves the better leaders we become. Leaders who are guided by their own wisdom and truth rather than the wishes and wants of others. Leaders who have the capacity to take risks and take a stand. Leaders who have the courage to lead!

Elusive Truth
Those quiet hours have provided me with the time to explore my own truths. Time to reflect on questions that I’m quick to ask but seldom take time to answer. Questions that help me peel back the many layers that cover my inner wisdom.

I recall a time in the past year when I was faced with a difficult personnel decision. Removing myself from my everyday environment and asking, “What’s really important in my life?” helped me rethink and clarify my priorities. I was able to make a connection between my personal and professional selves, between my mind and my heart, to reconcile the contradictions and tensions between my ideals and my professional role. The resultant decision ended up being consistent with my personal convictions and came from the heart.

There have been times, while sitting quietly among the trees that I’ve felt as if I’m invading a space I’m not supposed to trespass. Exploring my inner self can be much like that. For one reason or another it’s a space I often neglect to explore. Making time to quiet myself and travel inwards is difficult at times. I find I have to schedule those quiet moments of reflection. There are times when my mind and body long for the quiet and those journeys, a longing to discover what lies at the center of my being.

Just like the creatures that seem to be guided by instinct so too have we possessed our wisdom and truths. Sometimes we stumble upon them quite by accident. Sometimes we come upon them by being still.

So far, the deer have eluded my son. And for that at least a part of me is thankful.

Mark Bielang is superintendent of the Paw Paw Public Schools, 119 Johnson St., Paw Paw, MI 49079. E-mail: