Back to Nature
The other night I was out walking in the November chill. Many of the leaves had fallen, and the crystalline brightness of a full moon leapt through the branches of the surrounding trees. It seems odd to talk of the clarity of night, but here I was in a vast surrounding darkness that was completely incapable of subduing the razor-sharp light. The scene called to mind another Light that the darkness could not grasp, eerie and awe-inspiring at the same time. It reminded me once again how easily the mind rises from the vast and joyful surprise of nature to a penetrating perception of the activity of God.
Nature is a marvelous thing, but (Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the contrary notwithstanding) there is no such thing as a pure “state of nature” for man. Man has intellect, which enables him to see nature as something separate from himself; he has the capacity for tradition by which he links himself to others, present, past and future; and he has a constant will to discover meaning and chart a course. For these reasons, man always bears a culture of his own making. Human culture may be many things, but the one thing it will never be is purely natural.
I use the term “natural” here not primarily to differentiate it from the supernatural, though there is something decidedly supernatural about man’s capacity to interact with nature in his own special way. But in this case I am talking about the natural world in which we materially find ourselves, in which we play a part, but in which we perceive that every creature except man is fixed in a specific, endlessly repeating pattern of life. We humans, then, are never completely “of” the natural world, as with a tiger or an ant or a bush. Nonetheless, we do respond deeply to nature. We see in it something fascinating, grand, larger than ourselves, full of unspoken meaning.
The human person, then, resonates with nature, but always as a being partly outside of it, always in a mode of giving or receiving. We operate not as dumb beasts unable to stand outside but as gods, relatively speaking, perceiving meaning and giving meaning in return. There is something in our relationship with nature that is nourishing not just to our bodies but to our minds and souls. Our receptivity to nature—our contemplation of it—can lift us out of our private cares and open us to something larger, to a more cosmic vision, perhaps, or to a deeper peace.
Even if it is hard to “put one’s finger” on man’s precise relationship with nature, it is a relationship that most people experience. Whether sunning on the beach to the sound of the surf, kicking through the leaves during a vibrant autumn stroll, gazing at the spectacular sweep and majesty of a mountain summit, or simply sitting out in the back yard, most of us find that getting out in nature is the equivalent of “getting away” from just about everything we want to leave behind. This past Wednesday evening, for example, my mind was tired and cluttered enough that I couldn’t compose a coherent paragraph (though some assert this is normal), and any CatholicCulture.org user who emailed me during that time was in grave danger of receiving a snappish reply. So I went out and cleaned all the leaves off our deck and our porch, and out of our front garden. It was, well, therapeutic.
For me there is nothing quite like a stiff breeze (though I might at times shake my fist at it for where it drops all those leaves). Whether on a walk, on a sailboat, or even inside when I can hear a whistling under the eaves, the wind seems to pick up my spirits as easily as it does all those leaves, making me feel that the universe is full of life, and myself a part of it—relishing the gale and standing against it at the same time. I might not be so sanguine, I suppose, if I had ever experienced a hurricane or a tornado. And that’s a good reminder that nature doesn’t love us as we love her—a good reminder, in fact, that nature can’t love us, that nature can’t even desire to love.
It’s true of course that we’re all different, and there are undoubtedly a few of us who are emotionally isolated from nature, failing to delight in her charms except at a safe distance, such as in pictures, television and movies. And there are some afflicted so terribly by allergic or other conditions that nature is to them always a threat, even when she is at her most benign. But these exceptions, as evidenced by the dismay with which we encounter them, only prove the general rule that to commune with nature is both a positive and a universal thing, something that can take us out of ourselves, putting our ordinary vexations in a different perspective, helping us to unwind and relax, nudging our fractured personalities back toward wholeness.
Our Need for Nature
You could say, I think, that this is something man needs. In fact, scientific researchers are beginning to find evidence to support what innumerable essayists and artists have long affirmed, that we actually need contact with nature if we are to avoid a sort of isolated disintegration. The most widely-circulated text which tries to marshall empirical arguments is Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, which became a best-seller when it exploded onto the scene in 2005. Louv and others argue that our own contemporary culture tends to keep children away from nature too much, owing to growing parental fears and the omnipresence of addictive electronic entertainment. The result, preliminary evidence suggests, is children who are abnormally tense, who lack creativity, and who suffer from attention deficit disorder.
This sounds just like me when I’ve been too long in front of my computer screen. (I admit it: Writing with wood products like a pencil and paper, outside and in the wind, is just too much trouble.) It also raises an age-old question about the difference between urban and rural living. Until the 1930’s, for example, most Americans lived in rural areas; now a sizeable majority live in cities. A number of comprehensive theories have been developed to explain how rural living fosters human wholeness and human virtue, whereas urban living tends in the opposite direction. There is even a significant Catholic homesteading movement. Pushed too far, of course, these theories would ultimately deny that God can be found in the city; it is always dangerous to elevate an insight into a doctrine. But you don’t have to visit New York City often to realize that Central Park serves as a kind of haven, not so much for the body as for the soul. (It also doesn’t take a long visit to find out that my beloved wind is well-represented in urban environments. You meet it all too sharply as it funnels down any city street.)
Now it would be a great mistake to jump on just about any bandwagon rolling out of secular educational circles, but in the aftermath of Louv’s book, I think our current educational establishments are on to something in recommending that everybody spend more time outdoors, that everyone build time for contact with nature into their hectic schedules. Unfortunately, this therapy doesn’t work so well when it is simply another requirement on a list, something to check off so we can say we’ve done it. There is a lot to be said for the benefits of outdoor activities and even outdoor work, but part of the secret of human well-being is to approach nature less as a platform or a task and more as an escape, an opportunity to relax, to explore, to open ourselves in wonder.
Put kids outdoors, and they’ll explore and wonder. Adults explore more cautiously, more discriminately, and less obviously, but they too will experience wonder. This is how we resonate with nature when we don’t make a program out of it, when we’re not calculating either how to check it off a list or how to make it productive. Instead, we’re savoring our own being within nature, our connectedness and our difference, all at the same time.
Nature, Religion, God
This resonance of man with nature can lead to experiences that are almost ecstatic, and we do well to remember that they are one-sided. The ecstasy is all ours; it is not an ecstasy of relational love. Unfortunately, this ecstatic experience has led not a few who love nature to make something of a religion out of it. When this happens, except in cases of deep cultural and religious ignorance, it is really just another disintegrative way to flee from God. The English poet Francis Thompson was an expert on such flight, having tried every means of escape imaginable, every possible way to find a resting place where Pursuing Love couldn’t reach and take possession of him. In his classic poem of conversion, “The Hound of Heaven”, he describes his nature phase:
Across the margent of the world I fled,
And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
Smiting for shelter on their clangèd bars:
Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to Dawn: Be sudden—to Eve: Be soon;
With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over
From this tremendous Lover—
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;
Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,
The long savannahs of the blue;
Or whether, Thunder-driven,
They clanged his chariot ’thwart a heaven,
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:—
Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
Thompson was neither the first nor the last to imagine that nature could return his love, or that man could be made whole without a reciprocal relationship. This is why I said earlier that nature is incapable of love. In plain fact, love is not natural, at least not in the sense in which we have been using the term. Therefore it ought to tell us something about man that man alone in all of visible nature can love. By the time he wrote his great and moving poem, Thompson rightly saw natural things as “servitors” of the Hound of Heaven, who pursues each of us for sheer love. These servitors could not hide him from God; nor, in “their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit,” could they even so much as summon the wish to do so. Instead, even in their midst:
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbéd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat—
“Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.”
As with so much else in life, we must be formed well—or, at the least, not be malformed—to fully appreciate nature in its complete constancy and fidelity to the Creator. When we turn to nature, we sense its vastness as an antidote to our own pettiness, its power as a rebuke to our own pride, its beauty as a corrective to our own goals, its otherness as a check on our preoccupation with self. We interpret all this as Proportion; we experience all this as Peace. But we need to be aware that nature is merely God’s astonishing clothing, and though we can enjoy it, we can no more ask anything of it than we can ask anything of our shirtsleeve, our belt or our shoe.
This awareness is instinctive in us unless we have been carefully taught to the contrary. Down through the millennia of human history, men and women have experienced nature and thought of God. This natural leap of our intuition, and this alone, unlocks the full meaning of nature, its deep mystery, releasing its medicinal qualities to maximum effect. And so we ought to nourish this intuition. It is a very good thing for us to enjoy nature, and to get away often from all that weighs us down, by giving ourselves over to nature’s charms. But to be fully restored we must not limit our sense of wonder to nature purely in itself. Without effort and even without conscious duty, we should give deeper play to our wonder. We need to recognize the form beneath the garment. We need to draw aside the veil to see the Face.
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