City Malaise, Cured by a Cloud Forest?

I liked Oaxaca as soon as I learned to say its name, all those airy vowels, each subsequent “a” a little fuller in my mouth. Last year, I was in the throes of a deep depression. But reading “Oaxaca Journal,” Oliver Sacks’s account of traveling that Mexican state to study its flora with the New York Fern Society, made me feel dreamy and brave. A flash of wanderlust, my fascination with the fern (which began when I failed at keeping one alive in my tiny Brooklyn studio) and a physical urge to escape the brutal careerism of New York all nudged me into opening my laptop, taking a chance on my savings and booking a one-way ticket to the region.

At the time I flew out, I didn’t know very much about southern Mexico or botany, just that after reading the journal, I wanted to experience the quasi-spiritual journey Dr. Sacks had reported: “Tree ferns, climbing ferns, filmy ferns, shoestring ferns, they are all here, in unparalleled diversity.” Endless gullies of serene maidenhair ferns and giant 15-foot horsetails, long streams filled with Kelly green hornworts — all tucked within the elevated cloud forests of the region, whose shrouds of mist seemed to hold the very healing power of natural wonder that Dr. Sacks, a neurologist and naturalist, loved to praise. At the time he wrote the journal there were 690 species in the state alone.

I’d begun to fall in love with ferns in part because they remind me to rededicate myself to qualities I sometimes forget. They are, for instance, profoundly resilient: Often the first full signs of life to repopulate razed habitats, their spores are capable of floating across entire oceans to take root. And in living among them, you feel the surety of being in the company of earth’s long history. (A favorite possession of mine is a palm-size, 300-million-year-old fossil of one.)

I was a dues-paying member of the New York Fern Society, which met regularly at the New York Botanical Garden, though — a bit awkwardly — only nominally so. I was a flake when it came to the meetings, the Bronx feeling prohibitively far away from south Brooklyn even on warm Saturday mornings.

ImageThe cloud forest of the Chinantla region in the mountains surrounding Santa Cruz Tepetotutla.
Credit…Daniel Borris for The New York Times

In an eerie coincidence, when I landed on the Oaxacan coast a few months later, I opened my email to a newsletter announcement “that the N.Y. Fern Society will be disbanded.” John Mickel, the founder who had organized the Oaxaca journey Dr. Sacks had joined, was in poor health, the note reported, and the society decided to discontinue after 45 years: “We have loved you all and are grateful for all the adventures we have had together!” A cringe of regret filled me. Then, a measure of relief that at least I was here now, retracing a few of the society’s old steps.

After some days of sun-drenched reading on the beach, I found myself in the pitch-black parking lot of a McDonald’s on the outskirts of Oaxaca City at 5 a.m. Hearing that I was interested in the ferns, the woman who managed my inn on the coast urged me to attend a multiday fair called the Feria de la Diversidad Biológica y Cultural de la Chinantla.

After nearly an hour, a white minivan pulled to the curb. A woman with a clipboard stepped out, looked my way, paused, then nodded when I gave my name. I gently climbed in, joining a dozen or so snoozing passengers as the van lurched forward in dark silence. The low-slung pastel buildings of the city eventually gave way to endless rows of thick oaks on hillier lands. Even as the sun rose, the temperature dropped as we went higher — bringing goose bumps to my thighs, left bare by my shorts. A woman sitting next to me wordlessly offered a knitted wrap and smiled. “Inglés?” she asked. I nodded furiously. We had to get to the other side of the mountain to reach the village and it would be warmer there, she reassured me. We chatted for a while — about her work as an ecologist, about the enormous pythons native to this area. (They were “basically not dangerous,” she said. I remained unconvinced.)

The fair took place, my new friend said, in La Chinantla, an area whose name was derived from an Aztec word meaning “an enclosed space,” because of the mountains surrounding it; but I would be very happy, for there would be many “helechos” — ferns — to see in the cloud forest. Not long after, she motioned for me to look out the window just as the van was entering a thick white mist: I was delighted to suddenly find myself in what truly was a forest enveloped in clouds.

The climate of these rare tropical forests is a relatively cool one, ideal for humidity-loving plants that would otherwise be smothered by heat: Mosses, lichens, enormous pines and ferns all thrive. I spent most hours over the next few days mutely immersed. I ate thick, chewy yuca tortillas with black beans and rich, stewed tepejilote, a kind of palm flower.

Credit…Daniel Borris for The New York Times
Credit…Daniel Borris for The New York Times

I moved past waterfalls surrounded by maidenhair and poked around the great plumes of ostrich ferns growing by the riverbank, pushing apart leaves to examine the strange and beautiful patterns of sori on their backs, which contain and produce spores. Ribbonlike spikemoss and delicate polypodies crept neatly over rock faces.

I learned from locals how milpas — the Mesoamerican farm system in which crop harvests are rotated to regenerate the soil — are cleverly designed to allow crops like banana to grow along the steep hills of the forest. I dangled my legs in the cool river, mist rising just above its rippling clear surface.

Life in New York, which in my mind a month before had felt suffocating and hopeless, with its persistent goal-setting and endless notifications from devices, felt distant. From the vantage of a big river rock, nothing was more urgent than sinking into a moment, absorbing as much as I could around and within me.

Each morning in the cloud forest, I joined a hike with a dozen or so strangers. The bilingual speakers with us took turns patiently translating the tour guide’s observations of the lush tree foliage and the variety of canonical ferns: everything from epiphytes — which knit their way around trees, cascading from trunks and dripping from branches — to magenta, filmy ferns growing underfoot, their leaves so translucent I could see my palm through them. I loved discovering simple ferns best, whose elegant, undivided leaves made them look like a child’s drawing come to life.

Credit…Daniel Borris for The New York Times
Credit…Daniel Borris for The New York Times

I could physically feel the chatter and anxiety in my brain fading — lost to nature or maybe just the green cicadas calling for mates around us. It’s hard to navel-gaze or wallow for too long in the natural sublime, reliant on the compassion of strangers, with no cynicism of thinking you know what comes next.

Now I recommend a trip into nature — or even just a hobby requiring fresh air and a bit of discovery — to everyone I know. It has done something different for me than yoga, experimenting with psychedelics or talk therapy, which while helpful, never allowed me to “break clear away, once in a while,” as John Muir put it, to “wash your spirit clean.”

Research, for what it’s worth, has proved nature’s healing effects on anxiety, mental fog and malaise. Gardens and parks alone do wonders — and one widely cited study found that people experience great leaps of improvement in cognitive health after just three days in nature.

Not everyone, including me, can afford to leave our jobs and travel into the wilderness whenever we’re feeling down. God knows if we could, nature trails would be as overrun as a SoulCycle class. But many of us who are professionally fatigued can break away for just a bit. For me, it’s meant I now actually most appreciate the little, local surprises: finding ferns growing in concrete, or turning down a street in the neighborhood as leaves bloom for the first time in spring and as they turn in fall — always a little more sublime than you last remembered.

On my final morning hike back in Oaxaca, the path before us fell into a deep misty grove, the tree ferns several stories high, their slim but sturdy trunks swaying, their leaves arranged radially like parasols. I wandered to a young one, growing at a slant just off the path, only as tall as my hip. I traced the snug coil of its fiddlehead with my fingers, imagining it unspooling with grace in the months and years to come, hoping that I might do the same.

Wei Tchou (@weitchou) is working on a book about her family and the cultural history of ferns.

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