“To assign attributes to Mystery is to disenchant it, to take away its luminance.” (12)
“Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe.” (13)
“Life can be explained by its underlying chemistry, just as chemistry can be explained by its underlying physics.” (28)
- Ursula Goodenough The Sacred Depths of Nature (1998)
I have been out in the woods this afternoon, walking up trails and down in the multi-coloured, multi-faceted world of Autumn, taking a break after work before coming home. Sojourning at a bird blind near a local lake, I fell into meditation, struck – nearly stunned – by the sudden beauty of the broad scenes and vivid particular scenarios all around me that had impressed themselves on me as I sauntered, paganing along in mused mind.
At the blind, listening to the geese and ducks landing and taking off, skimming; virtually 'skiing' – across the mist covered lake, I fell into meditation and found myself reflecting intensely on the poetics of Nature; thinking about how our meaning-generating consciousness facilitates our engagement with the natural world, as well as how our imagination enhances and deepens our experiences, aiding in our interpretation of the natural world.
The bird blind – a small single room on stilts at the edge of the lake, intended to aid in bird-watching – is like a nemeton to me; a 'scenario' with spiritual and philosophical implications, where I stop and meditate, center myself, and then think in devout ways—along paths of the mind tending toward potentially revelatory vistas. Sitting there this afternoon, secluded yet out in the openness of the woods, hearing the sound of the lake grasses rustling just outside the little structure, I felt myself to be at the center of a vista that spoke clearly of the relationship between poetics and Nature, between the imagined and the empirical; the 'Given.'
We are meaning generating animals, as I have said before_
Much of the content of what is called spirituality is concerned with assembling the icons, symbols, stories, metaphors and insights that will allow the spiritual practitioner to experience meaning in the context where they 'wake up' and find themselves. ['Awakening' seems to me one of the primal themes of any genuine spirituality] As a naturalist and a poet who is attempting to live a 'spiritual' life, I experience myself as a part of the universe, a resident of a particular planet, and as dwelling—sojourning—living in a specific ecosystem; i.e., western Pennsylvania, on the Allegheny Plateau. As such, it is here that I gather my symbols, icons, and so forth—bringing them together into a pattern that suggests a humane practice of life; living life to the fullest—taking life by the shanks and giving it a good shake (as one of my characters once put it).
Nature is the house of dwelling. All human culture subsists within Nature and requires Nature for its continuance. _This is a basic truth that is substantiated by science. As Goodenough says, Nature is “a strange, but wondrous given.” (12). We know that if the natural world perishes, so will we; for we are part of it, and there is no way to live "outside of Nature," as so many 'un-earthing' religions have convinced their adherents to believe. Rather, we subsist and thrive to the extent that the planetary ecosystems in which our species has evolved continue to exist. If the Earth changes too much, we may find ourselves living much less well, struggling much more for basic subsistence, and possibly even going extinct.
It is always with this in mind that I attempt to wax poetic about Nature and natural vistas, scenes and experiences; especially those that drive me toward joy, ecstasy and self-transcendence. As the Earth's climate changes and as our population continues to grow, putting even more pressure on the ecosystems on which we depend, our environments will no doubt become less 'friendly.' Thus, when I find myself basking in the warmth of the day or reveling in the beauteous views that I imbibe as I walk, meditatively and with a passion for discovery and understanding, through the woods—I am both thankful that we are still living well enough and also saddened that this "comfort zone" in which we have thrived for the last few tens of thousands of years may be disappearing.
It is at a place like the bird blind – a Naturalist's Nemeton – that I can reflect most powerfully on this conundrum. There, I sit in a structure created by human hands and craft, hidden – by the color of its exterior walls – in amongst honeysuckle bushes and cattails, experiencing both an interface with the natural environment as well as a modest comfort zone in which I am somewhat shielded from the elements. I can go there in rain and snow and wind, as well as on more 'pleasant' days (though, for a naturalist, rain and snow and wind, etc., are not deterrents to a walk in the woods; we are not fair-weather lovers of Nature).
The bird blind as a nemeton makes me wonder_
Is it possible that we in the West can pull back, and dwell less intrusively in Nature—before it’s too late? Can we think of Nature more as our Home, than as someplace to 'colonize,' 'take over,' 'develop,' and thus 'eradicate?' Can we develop a spirituality – a naturalistic, earthen praxis – in which Nature is the source of our awe and the touchstone of our sensed meaning? If we can't, perhaps our species is more or less doomed; we will so ruin our environment – if we haven't already done so – that our survival in the future will become much more harsh if not impossible to maintain. But if we can, then perhaps we will leave room for those in the world who are still living in poverty to establish a standard of living that will be sustainable for centuries to come—and life, for us all, might get better over time. If it's not already too late already.
We need a sustainable way of life on this planet; for everyone and not just for those of us in the West. Meditating at Natural Nemetons like the bird blind is helping me to reflect on what that lifestyle might be like. Perhaps finding a place like this might help you, too, to reflect on our place in Nature.
"Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature?"
- Henry David Thoreau Walden (1854)