“I never before saw a plant so full of life; so perfectly spiritual, it seemed pure enough for its Creator. I felt as if I was in the presence of superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy.”
John Muir, Father of American Conservation and Founder of the Sierra Club
What moves a man to see the divine in nature? What stirs his heart so that he will drop to his knees in gratitude and dedicate the rest of his life “in service to that vision” (Gail Wells)?
For John Muir, the experience came upon him unexpectedly and without seeking. According to his journal (Stephen Fox), Muir had been walking through the wilds of Canada when he came upon a rare orchid, calypso borealis (Gail Wells). It was in that moment of discovery, of newness, “when beauty transforms into the sublime” (Holmes Rolston III), that Muir awakened to a deeper connection with nature and with himself.
What happened? The answer to this lies in the mystical experience. According to philosopher and co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous Gerald Heard, all living things seek to transcend their present condition and reunite with the underlying Reality of the universe (The Barrie Family Trust). If this is the case, then we are all seeking to transcend our limitations and gain direct knowledge of the divine.
Within most, if not all, spiritual traditions, there exists an esoteric, often secret, path that seeks to unite the seeker’s soul with the divine. This mystical path can be found in the Guru-disciple relationship of India, in the teachings of the Cabbalists of Judaism and in the writings of the Essenes of early Christianity. This is also true of indigenous spirituality, like the Aboriginals of Australia and the Hopi Indians of North America.
In all of these traditions, it is the stilling of the mind, the cessation of thought that leads to mystical experience (Patanjali). This can come about through the meditation practice of yogis, the contemplation of an unsolvable Zen koan or even in an extreme moment of fear as in certain Aboriginal rituals (the “walkabout”). In Muir’s case, in that moment of seeing the beauty of a rare flower, his mind became still. Once the mind “shut down”, he was open to perceiving that underlying reality which gives energy to all things.
Not everyone experiences nature in the way John Muir did; but nature’s affect upon emotions and levels of stress is well documented. A 2003 study by Ohio State University researchers suggested that driving commutes are less stressful and frustrating if drivers are exposed to vistas of nature rather than urban views. Using a series of stress tests and videos depicting highway driving through natural and man-made environments, researchers found that the levels of stress were lowest when study participants were exposed to the scenes depicting mostly nature. As researcher Jean Marie Cackowski noted “It is clear from the study that our natural environment has a psychological affect on us, even when we’re doing something mundane as driving a car“(Environment And Behavior).
What happens that even a daily commute through vegetation will significantly calm us? When we enter the woods, whether they exist in the city park down the street or as pristine wilderness a thousand miles away, something happens to us that allows us to drop the mental image that we hold of ourselves and the world around us. In nature, we come face-to-face with something that is completely free of thought, without desire, something that is completely unpretentious, something that is unconditionally what it is. And this, in turn, calms us, soothes our mind and allows us to drop our defenses, our desires, our pretension, even our hopes and dreams.
Nature asks nothing of us nor does it seek its identity through us. It exists as it is with no pretension that it is something else – the broad-leafed maple acts as a maple tree and not a meadowlark. Whether we trample the grass or carve our initials into the bark of an elm, nature, an embodiment of the underlying principle of all things, remains undisturbed.
And we respond. In our hectic modern day world, nature is our oasis. A place to escape from the incessant spinning of consumerism and self-seeking, most of which is our own doing. “Forests are sacraments of life rising up on Earth” (Holmes Rolston III). Nature is our refuge and our friend, reflecting back to us our own greatness.
We have experienced the sanctity of a golden sunrise while pausing at the top of a mountain ridge. We have held our breath in wonder as we watched an eagle swoop down from over towering spruce and pine seeking a meal from the river below. In these moments, are mind disengages from our usual thoughts of how things should be and we, instead, see things as they are. And in this acceptance of all that is, there is a beauty that does, indeed, become sublime; that is the moment we become divine.
For some, this experience leads them to see man’s destruction of nature as an outright horror. Kathleen Dean Moore, in her book of essays Holdfast: At Home In The Natural World (New York: Lyons Press, 1999), writes of her travels through the Oregon Coast Range and areas of logging that remind her of the devastation of war. “The view from the end of the road,” she writes “is a landscape of irretrievable loss.” From this perspective, she seeks change through the written word and innovative education.
For others, the influence of nature and its sublimity brings a review of how things are done. Not satisfied with current policy, they seek change through new policy. Editor Peter List writes of how Aldo Leopold came to be considered one of the fathers of environmental ethics. With the help of the writings of Henry David Thoreau and others, Leopold began to question US Forest policy that left the land degraded “through shortsighted land practices and inadequate land management by the government”. His book The Sand County Almanac brought a new perspective to the field (Peter List).
There are some who take personal risks in support of nature. The Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics was organized in 1989 when several US Forest Service employees grew dissatisfied with what they saw as an out-of-balance policy where biodiversity was being “shoved aside” for timber production. And Bill Shoaf, a US Forest Service leader in the Tongass National Forest of Alaska risked his long and distinguished career when he objected to a flawed report on old-growth harvesting in the Tongass (Peter List).
Holmes Rolston III tells us, “In the primeval forest humans know the most authentic of wilderness emotions, the sense of the sublime. By contrast, few persons get goose bumps indoors, in art museums or at the city park. We will not be surprised if the quality of such experiences is hard to quantify. Almost by definition, the sublime runs off the scale”(Holmes Rolston III).
Why? Because anything built by man will necessarily be embodied and subject to limitation; nature, on the other hand, is free from the confines of being human.
As we walk that secluded ridge at dawn, where the chickadees flit from bush to bush and the gentle breeze moves the tall grass, we are alone but never lonely. Nature brings us closer to her by being unconditional and genuine and in doing so, she brings us closer to our own, true, Self.
1. Gail Wells. The Tillamook: A Created Forest Comes Of Age. Oregon State University Press. 1999
2. Stephen Fox. The American Conservation Movement. John Muir And His Legacy. University Of Wisconsin Press. 1986
3. Holmes Rolston III. Values Deep In The Woods. Environmental Ethics And Forestry. Ed Peter List. Temple University Press. 2000
4. Holmes Rolston III. Aesthetic Experience In Forests. Environmental Ethics And Forestry. Ed Peter List. Temple University Press. 2000
5. The Barrie Family Trust. Explorations In Contemporary Spirituality. 2007
6. Patanjali, Swami Prabhavanada, Christpher Isherwood. How To Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms Of Patanjali.1996
7. Environment And Behavior. November. 2003
8. Kathleen Dean Moore. Traveling The Logging Road, Coast Range. Environmental Ethics And Forestry. Ed Peter List. Temple University Press. 2000
9. Peter List. Editor. Environmental Ethics And Forestry. Temple University Press. 2000