“[T]he Earth can be wonderfully thought of as a planet shimmering with awareness. Perhaps there are other planets that so shimmer, or perhaps this is the only one. In any case, awareness is integral to life, and integral as well to our religious lives.” (89)
“For me, the existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty, and my ability to comprehend it, serves as the ultimate meaning and the ultimate value.” (171)
- Ursula Goodenough The Sacred Depths of Nature (1998)
I've been to the woods twice in the last week and a half, and have experienced the changing of the season in my whole being. I can taste the changing season as I breathe in the damp air, laced with molecules flung from soil, reviving grass and trees. I can smell the moist branches and foliage as it emerges from its winter stasis in ice and under snow. I can see the water dripping from branches with new buds starting to unfurl on their stems. Two weeks ago I saw the first of the flowers – the crocuses and then the daffodils – beginning to push up through the leaf-covered flowerbeds. I have heard the birds in ever greater number as they have returned to our feeders, and I have felt the warmth of the sun on my face! In all of this I meditate on our emergence from Winter’s epilogues.
As I walk out onto paths that I’ve not travelled for a couple of months, my body responds to the exercise; I am warmed by the exertion. With each walk I have travelled more and more vigorously on the hoof! Weekend before last I was walking in chilled mist and occasional rain that wet me down and allowed me the pleasure of feeling 'damp;' not just 'externally' but also 'internally'—in my inward being; my nephesh – where poetic and philosophical inspirations came like seeds ready to germinate.
Last week I went walking down the trail I hiked in January; venturing out to imagination’s landscapes—the bridge over ‘Willow Creek’ where I often ‘meet’ the Whittiers in poetic presencing. There, standing on the boards of the bridge, I reflected on the difference between my experience this month and my experience back in January. Nothing speaks of a change-of-season as does the contrast in experience at one time of the year and another at the same location in earthen spacetime. It was over 60° last week when I was at the bridge, and I wore no coat or boots or ear muffs; only a gray hoodie; which was actually a bit too much for the day.
Yesterday I went wandering in sun drenched (yet once again chilled) sylvan places that I haven't frequented since mid-December; since before the snow and ice and sub-zero temperatures that induced enclosure; my confinement to the house and restriction of movement—that lasted through the whole of February and into mid-March. In that enclosure was to be found several touchstones where the joys of contemplation became manifest! Now, in the aftermath of the thaw comes the refreshment of release; the energizing of the self and the re-connection with Nature that can be called 'emergence.'
Yesterday, out on an old woodland trail, I reflected on the old rune that Spring, like any season, is a spiritual as well as a naturalistic season. It never ceases to amaze me how well the seasons of earth metaphor the seasons of the spiritual life (or, rather, is it the other way around?); the constant turning and re-turning that we go through, awakening, planting, growing, exploring, harvesting, going to sleep_ and then starting all over again with a new or deeper sense of the meaning of it all—in this our spiritual life is mirrored in the phase-shifts of Nature. If you want a metaphor for something you are going through, just search the natural world in all of its wondrous seasonal transfigurations, and therein some appropriate motif is bound to occur to you.
Following the seasons from year on to year as our lives unfold is a rewarding way to map our own changes and germinations, spiritual ‘deaths’ and ‘rebirths,’ flowerings and goings to seed.
Ever in the vernal tides, the idea of emergence speaks deeply to me. It describes both what is happening around me in the natural world as well as what I am experiencing in my own earthen soul-house. The Passages of Winter inevitably draw me inward; to the very center of dwelling; both external and internal. The weather often facilitates a kind of 'house arrest;’ figurative as well as literal. Not being able to get out to the woods or to a favorite trail when the snow is deep and ice is forbidding turns an earthen-spirited journeyer into a home-bound contemplative. You may walk short distances; a walk to work and back home again, perhaps. You go to get food at local stores. But, most winters, one's range of wandering is limited. If you can manage to respond to this in positive spiritual ways, it brings one to the Hut of the Self; a place 'within' where you may become the earthen 'monk' that you are (capable of becoming).
But then the snow & ice melt and a veritable ‘liberation’ happens—little by little or sometimes all at once—after which the contemplative naturalist can once again venture forth! The cry is heard from the depth of the self:
“Into the Woods! Out to the Wooded Places!”
The thrill and refreshment that come with those first walks out-of-doors, beyond the bounds of winter's more imaginative rambles and ambles, is characteristic of what I experience as 'emergence.' It happens in Nature; i.e., as the snow and ice retreat, the 'land' is revealed beneath it—wet, muddy, brown and primed for the rebirth of the green grass, leaves and the many-colored flora. It oft happens in us, too, as Spring comes on; if we've embraced our wintry hibernation—that we experience a liberating release as vernal forces swell.
To roll and flow with the flux of the seasons is the desire of the earthen mystic; to ride out and dwell deeply in their phenomena—their colors, textures, events, moods and iconic moments. From the experience of Nature comes the desire to understand; through science and poetics, story and history. There is always an excitement at the boundaries between one season and the next; just as there is at the edges of day and night. Things begin changing, and what has seemed the 'norm' fades away, giving way to a new 'norm' – a verve and a 'language' that will hold sway for a month or two, perhaps, until the transition into the next season begins.
There is a beauty and a satisfaction in riding the crests and rolling through the troughs of the natural year; time after time, year to year—pilgriming through the phases of the seasons. One-ing with Nature, the earthen mystic connects with what makes us most what we are; to be human is to recognize that we are but an extension of Nature—we are a moment of the Universe becoming aware of itself. How much spiritual progress could we make if we could realize this, however imperfectly? We might finally outgrow our superstitions and ideologies and reinterpret all of our old myths – religious and secular – setting the old touchstones of wisdom in a new paradigm (one defined by the revelations of science), forging therein a new praxis for being and becoming human.
In the emergence that I experience in the coming of the vernaltides each year, I find myself looking forward to experiencing, once again, the en-fecundating powers of Nature; the re-greening of the world leading on to fruition and harvest. What wonders might await the patient earthen mystic this year? Only devout pathing through the seasons will tell. And so—
_OFF TO THE WOODS!
“I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by Nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.” (xii)
- Robert Sopolsky
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (1998)