As an ecosystem ecologist, Janine Bloomfield studied the damage a hurricane wreaked on a rainforest. Now, during the pandemic, she examines the storms of her own mind.
When I was an ecosystem ecologist in my twenties, I meditated without knowing it.
I remember one of the first times I really felt the presence of the forest. A soft light filtered down through many layers of green. Rays emerged between towering Douglas fir and western red cedar, lighting scraggly vine maple and viburnum shrubs, down to a fallen old growth giant covered in moss. The ground was soft and spongy with hundreds of years of needles turning into soil beneath my boots.
I try to have the perspective of a scientist and a heart of compassion—compassion for the storms in myself, and the storms we all feel.
Our group of fifteen graduate students was in a remote old-growth forest on the Olympic Peninsula, a temperate rain forest in the northwestern corner of Washington State. I tried to match the neat descriptions and diagrams in my ecology textbook with the exuberant, chaotic profusion of greenery surrounding me, failing miserably. I was overcome with wonder and appreciation, and humbled by the indifference this forest of giants had to my presence.
Many years later, when I sit down to meditate, I remind myself of that sense of curiosity, wonder, and appreciation for what the present moment is bringing me. While I sit, I feel many things: agitation, rumination, what do I want to eat for lunch, the strange itching that won’t go away, until it does. Open to the chaos in my mind, I am reminded of what it felt like to look at that old-growth forest for the first time. These mental experiences are the leaves and roots, the needles and the soil, of the ecosystem of my mind.
But there is more to studying a forest, just as there is more to meditating. Methodical and precise observations provide a structure to make sense of the forest, a complex place that, like the mind, is inherently impossible to ever completely understand. This unbiased and methodical observation is at the core of meditation as it is the core of ecosystem ecology and science in general.
Sometimes my mind is like that peaceful, old-growth forest. And sometimes it is like a forest after a hurricane. One night not long ago, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. My leg cramped with the sciatic pain that ran down from my lower back, and I was hungry from trying to lose the weight I’d gained from not being able to take the long walks that were keeping me sane in this strange pandemic year.
This was the year my husband lost his job, and tensions in our house were high. It was my son’s senior year, and I worried every time he went out to see friends. Would this be the time he came back sick? We were on top of each other too much, and each of us longed for space and the time when we could play our own music very loud, free from glares and resentment.
I did what I often do under these circumstances—obsessively doomscrolling my favorite news sites. I told myself that now was the best time to meditate. And then I scrolled down to the next article. Unable to settle, twisting and turning, disordered—a hurricane mind.
In September 1989, I was in the lab in New Haven, Connecticut, when Hurricane Hugo ripped through our team’s field site in the Luquillo National Forest in Puerto Rico. When I was able to return a week later, the site was unrecognizable. What had been a dark, heavily forested hillside with a mat of thick roots was now open sky, beneath it piles of logs and debris stretching to the horizon. The carefully placed nylon bags of leaves and roots, anchored with PVC pipes, that we’d set out to study the decomposition rates of tropical forest matter were long gone.
One lone hot pink flag marked what had once been the study area. I looked over the damage and felt overwhelmed. How could I salvage anything for what was supposed to become my doctoral thesis research in ecosystem ecology? How could I make sense of the devastation?
I remembered that evening. Graduate students, field assistants, and professors gathered at the field station, three or four one-story buildings with red terra-cotta tiled roofs. Millipedes bigger than my hand still crawled up the walls, but in my memory the song of the native tree frogs, their distinctive and once relentless “co-quí,” was missing.
We were all in shock. Years of sweat, data collection, and carefully devised milestones had all been blown away. “What do we do now?” I said, more to myself than anyone else.
My major professor was subdued but determined. “We start again,” I recall her saying in her faintly Finnish-accented English. “This is a hurricane-adapted ecosystem. There have been other hurricanes in the past. There will be more to come. We are lucky to be here now to see what happens next.”
And so we did. We gathered new samples and tied fresh pink flags on the wreckage that was our study site. We took soil samples and collected what leaves and roots we could find to put in mesh bags. Our research became about how a forest grows back after a hurricane. How a wild, open, brown pile of debris so quickly sprouts green shoots and new life. We accepted the reality of where we were and tried, as best as we could, to apply the tools of nonjudgmental observation to what we had, not what we had lost. The co-quís came back soon enough to torment us with their loud singing through the night. Eventually, I finished my PhD, my research adding incrementally to our knowledge of these forests.
Now, during this endless pandemic winter, my mind feels like a hurricane has just passed through it. I understand why it is so common that people avoid practicing meditation in times like these, what a challenge it is to simply sit. As I did at the field site, I feel overwhelmed by the difference between how I imagined my life and how it actually is.
This morning, instead of a good night’s sleep, a brisk morning walk, and a clear mind, I am filled with frustration, tiredness, and anger. So I think back to Luquillo and the lessons I learned after the hurricane. I remind myself that this is the very moment to sit. I am lucky to be here, to see what happens next. Instead of measuring roots and leaves, I observe my mental and physical processes. Thoughts, feelings, emotions wash through—I am open to it all. Not good, not bad, just what is.
I try to have the perspective of a scientist and a heart of compassion—compassion for the storms in myself, and the storms we all feel. I feel a wave of calmness as I touch again what is and let go of what I wished it would be. Things start to feel more possible. I return to my breath. I am ready to begin again.