“What we call fiction is the ancient way of knowing, the total discourse that antedates all the special vocabularies.”
- E. L. Doctorow Esquire, August 1986
“We learn who we are through the stories we embrace as our own. – The story of my life is structured by the larger stories (social, political, mythic) in which I understand my personal story to take place.”
- Sallie McFague Speaking in Parables (1975)
“The stories scientists tell are not simply bedtime tales. They place us in the world, and they can force us to alter the way we think and what we do.” (49)
- Thomas Levenson Ice Times (1989)
As we adventure though the seasons, meditating and reflecting on our experiences, a narrative inevitably emerges. “Remember when x happened?” “Last year, at about this same time …” When did we last go to x (i.e., a particular place)? Want to go again today?” “All of the things that have happened there!” The longer we immerse ourselves in Nature’s cycles, going deep and ever deeper into what the round of the seasons presents us, the more insightful will be our stories; even our anecdotes of ‘this hike’ or ‘that visit’ to a certain natural vista that has inspired or that sill haunts us with intimations of meaning.
While there are stories that can be told about every aspect of our lives; and these should be told and culled for their meaning—I want to focus on the stories that emerge from our hiking and sauntering, sojourning and dwelling while out and about in Nature. What stories are we moved to tell ourselves (in a journal or audio record) after a hike? What tales do we want to share with others _and why? By weaving stories out of our experiences our in the woods and fields, we gather ourselves toward the discernment of the meaning of our lives, in increments of moments that yet may seem like a giant’s steps.
Meaning is definitely tied to experience and is cultivated through reflection and meditation on what has happened to us. We are each a complex association of experiences; a pattern of things remembered – those that have impressed themselves upon our souls – and thus we express ourselves via the impact our experiences have had on us, for better or for worse. This expression often has a narrative dimension. Part of the gist of a spiritual life is learning how to discern which experiences contribute to our overall well-being and which detract from it—and then to choose the experiences that best facilitate us in our becoming. Becoming is the work of the spiritual adventurer; the charge is to imagine what you might be at your best. The stories we tell ourselves may either help or hinder our self-realization. (Yes, I know_ whole blogs could be written on this subject alone; but I’ll stop there, for now).
One of the prime venues in which stories arise is in our experiences of Earth & Cosmos. While out on the hoof, things happen; we see animals and plants that fascinate and amuse and inspire us, we experience natural phenomena – waterfalls, creeks, rivers, clouds, trees, groves, fields, storms, wind, fragrances and magnificently colored scenes – that lift us out of the ordinary rounds of our daily experiences; even our experiences out in the woods and fields – and that may propel us toward the very thresholds of self-transcendence. We occasionally have epiphanies; the beauty and awe of which we may recount to ourselves and others for years to come (I still tell the story of a strange experience a friend and I had one October night on a country road in 1982 _Ask me about it, sometime.). We awaken to the Earth aesthetically, and then we want to communicate what we have experienced, whether to ourselves alone or to others as well.
It has always interested me that all of the stories of our hikes and saunters, all of our time spent dwelling in Nature and sojourning at fascinating, intriguing, inspiring vistas, are set within the wider framework of the story of the walk itself. A walk is structured like a story; it has a beginning, a middle and an end. In fact, a story – however ordinary – could be told about every single hike we have ever taken. (My journals are suffuse with accounts of hundreds of walks I’ve been on, in which I record whatever I experienced that characterized or was peculiar to that particular walk). The aesthetic experiences we have and the natural wonders we witness, as well as the epiphanies we occasionally have while out on walking, form the incidents in the plot of our story of going “there and back again.”
But we must learn to tell stories about our experience. Recounting events and experiences comes naturally to our species, yet there are good and bad ways to weave tales, as well as good and bad stories. If we are going to grow toward Wisdom’s Henge, we must learn to discern which stories are best told, and which ones, while acknowledged, should perhaps not be over emphasized. _Or maybe they need to be related in a particular way; a certain context, or told under a specific tone. There are stories that kill the spirit and the deaden the soul, as well as stories that uplift and encourage. While we must not deceive ourselves about the nature of life as lived in this world, and so stories of tragedies and corruption, greed and violence must be acknowledged and told in the right settings and for the best of reasons. Ultimately, a spiritual praxis requires that we develop a ‘hermeneutic’ – that is, an interpretive theory – by which to cull out the stories that edify while not neglecting the stories that reveal the ways in which life is broken and lives ruined, potential lost and gifts squandered.
Most of the stories of things that happen to us while out on the hoof, hiking in whatever natural vistas are available to us, will be of the uplifting and edifying kind; though terrible things can happen on a hike. Spiritually considered, the purpose of hiking should be to experience Nature and learn about it, seeking those touchstones that will inspire us and help us to keep on living toward the goal of self-realization; i.e., flourishment. Nature is a reservoir of awe-inspiring and mysterious phenomena, and by immersing ourselves in Nature we hope to discover vibrant sources of self-revelation. Yet make no mistake about Nature; it is not ‘there’ for our edification, and ‘cares’ nothing for us! Hikers can and have been injured and maimed and have even died while out in Nature. So care must be taken; yet the experiences we glean from our hikes and sojourns are fecund with the seeds of meaning.
I have found that spiritual storytelling in response to hiking and sauntering, sojourning and dwelling in Nature has three main thrusts. First, we may use stories to help us understand a natural phenomenon, as when observing some insect or bird or plant closely, attempting to understand its behavior or markings, its place in the ecosystem or its relationship to other creatures, etc. This is naturalism at its best, and is a doorway to scientific engagement with Nature. Second, we may generate stories out of our experience in Nature that illumine our life situation; helping us discern our character and understand our behavior, our hopes and beliefs. Getting out in Nature – away from town and people; crowds and noise – can be a denuding experience as well as a refreshing and recreating one. Insights sometimes arise out of the silence and solitude of a walk unbidden. This is personal illumination. Third, spiritual storytelling helps us discern and keep to our path through life. Life is a journey; metaphorically – an extended ‘walk.’ I find the metaphor of a walk to be closely related to the question of the life I am leading. And so my experiences in Nature are often a primary locus wherein I may gain insight into where I am going, not just who I am. After a potent walk, I may see the next few steps along the path I am traveling more clearly than I did before going out on the hoof.
It is enough to get out into the woods and experience Nature at first-hand. You must go responsibly and take care in your going and coming home again. The experience of walking is refreshing to both body and spirit; just being out on the hoof will often help release stress, as it exercises muscles that need to be freed of their torpor. Walking enhances your breathing. But then, once you have been out walking for a while, reflecting on what you have experienced, others benefits may come. I find that these stem directly from being out of my daily rounds; out of the patterns of my ordinary responsibilities. After being in the woods for an hour or so, moving ever forward, breathing more deeply than I often do while sitting at this screen or doing what I do at work, my whole body sometimes tingles_ coming awake. My shoulders un-stress and I begin to sweat more freely. There is a sense of liberation; followed by a quieting of the senses and the mind—I find myself in a state of walking meditation.
Sometimes it is harder to get to this point; perhaps too much is going on in life’s rounds, and the body is ‘clenched’ and so the spirit is stifled. On days like this, it sometimes takes the experience of a beautiful scene or a specific encounter with some phenomenon to bring on the release that leads to full openness and physical refreshment. The sudden sighting of a deer or the hearing of a certain bird, or the coming upon a field of vividly colored flowers or a patch of ferns, or perhaps coming up to a cliff or steep hillside that allows a broadened view of rolling hills or a valley below – these then become the vehicles of the release and genuine refreshment I crave and need. It is a health-inducing experience.
Beyond the act of hiking out in the natural world, reflecting on and sharing the narratives of our walks and experiences extends and deepens their impact. Learning how to tell stories in a way that is spiritually edifying and that increases our store of knowledge, as well as revealing who we are to ourselves and others, is an art that must be nurtured with great patience and an acquired discernment that grows as we move along a spiritual path consciously taken. Telling tales from the seasons as the years pass becomes a way of remembering our experiences and re-connecting with the impact that particular experiences have had on us. Telling tales from the seasons also helps us stay our course; through them we direction ourselves in Earth & Spirit toward Wisdom’s Henges.
I’ve been adventuring though the seasons for 40 + years, now, and the stories I have gathered have filled books (literally; each of my published books represents a cache of stories and ideas grounded in if not more directly gleaned from my walks in the woods). My book, Tales from the Seasons (2008) came out of the same era in my life as WellSprings of the Deer (2002) and The Fires of Yule (2001), and is composed of stories and poems that I long used in spiritual instruction and direction. It is constructed as a series of cycles through the seasons, with stories and poems set at particular dates. The stories and poems represent moments in time and experience that resonate with some sensed meaning connected to Earth & Spirit.