Spirit in Nature trail system offers connection to sublime

By TAYLOR PHILLIPS

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A map shows the Spirit in Nature (SPiN) trails off Goshen Road in Ripton.

Tucked away in the foothills of the Green Mountains, the Spirit in Nature Interfaith Path (SPiN) Sanctuary provides a haven for contemplation, reflection and interfaith dialogue.

The series of walking trails in Ripton, Vt. is intended to “connect the experience of nature with faith traditions,” according to the SPiN website. Each of the 14 paths is designated a specific faith and is bespeckled periodically with posted quotes, designed to provoke thoughtful interaction with the natural world. All paths lead to the Sacred Circle, a clearing in the trees that centers the entire sanctuary. The faith traditions range from Druid to Buddhist, including Interfaith and Pagan trails.

The inspiration for the sanctuary came in 1997 with the Dalai Lama’s historic visit to Middlebury College. During his time on campus, the Dalai Lama gave a talk entitled “Spirit and Nature,” which connected interaction with the natural world and practicing faith. Carol and Reg Spooner, current board members of Spirit in Nature and environmental activists, took the talk to heart and created the Spirit in Nature Interfaith Path Sanctuary. 

After a series of negotiations, the Spooners convinced then-President of Middlebury College John McCardell to lease them college-owned forest land, eventually settling on SPiN’s current location just off Highway 125, near Ripton.

In fact, the sanctuary’s history is indelibly intertwined with that of the college, from its original inspiration at a college lecture to its location on college land, Middlebury College students have historically engaged with SPiN, walking on the trails and volunteering their time to the sanctuary. Several students have even served on the SPiN board, including Ella Houlihan ’21. She learned about the sanctuary from the Spooners, who she got to know while working in town and was inspired to take time and explore the area, eventually leading to her role on their board.

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At the center of all 14 trails, including paths based in faith traditions from Druid to Buddhism, is the Sacred Circle.

“Few students know about (SPiN),” Houlihan said. “It’s an incredible study break and opportunity to admire the fall foliage and soak in the world around you.”

Houlihan also noted that the board intends to actively market to Middlebury students in the future, hopefully exposing more of the student body to the remarkable experiences that SPiN has to offer. The sanctuary’s most recent newsletter highlights the first-year seminar that used the sanctuary as the backdrop for its writing workshop last year. Craig Zondag, SPiN board member, led the students on a short orientation through the paths before the seminar did a writing exercise.

However, the vast majority of students seem to have never heard of SPiN, let alone visited the sanctuary themselves. And they are missing out.

SPiN is more than just a series of paths. The intention of the space is not only to facilitate interfaith dialogue, but also to foster a sense of caring for the environment. “Spirit in Nature is an antidote to seeing nature as a resource to be exploited,” SPiN board member Ron Slabough said.

Slabough also explained that “forest bathing” is key to the sanctuary’s mission. Forest bathing, which is a literal translation of the Japanese word “Shinrin-yoku,” involves the meditative practice of bathing in the forest atmosphere, using all five senses to experience and explore the natural world. SPiN is the perfect place to forest bathe, with its multitude of trails and meditative atmosphere.

The idea of Spirit in Nature has proved popular and has spread to six other locations in the Northeast, including one in Norwich and others in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

SPiN is located just off Highway 125 on Goshen Road. To access the sanctuary, students can either drive directly there or take the ACTR bus towards the Snow Bowl, to be either dropped off at Goshen Road for a 0.4 mile walk to SPiN or sometimes riding the bus directly to the SPiN parking lot. Anyone interested in further information can visit the SPiN website at spiritinnature.org.

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