I love this planet. Passionately. I cannot remember a time that nature wasn’t the foundation of my being. Some of that is no doubt due to being part of a generation that was expected to be outside if it wasn’t raining, every day, all year long. Nature was playground, toy store and theater,
providing both the backdrop and the resources for much of my youth. I built elaborate leaf forts with a frame of sticks tied with coarse grass, I stomped in puddles, and I bet took a few too many risks riding my bike down the dirt hills behind Beaumont Hospital. Nature gave me something good to do every single day.
Nature was backdrop, and also peace. I spent much of my childhood outdoor time up a tree, climbing high enough on windy days to sway with the branches, and spending long summer afternoons nestled in the elbow of a favorite maple, my back against the trunk, either reading or writing. It was the antidote to a home life that was much less peaceful; nature filled me up and eased the indoor tensions. A couple of years ago, I made sure that this means of connecting with nature remained viable, and am happy to report that I am still able to climb a tree. I seek vacation destinations that immerse me in nature—the more remote, the better—to get that peace for days at a time. I live on two acres and enjoy that peace in my yard each day with our dogs.
Nature is peace, and also beauty. I still feel the same childhood excitement when the leaves turn, when the pussy willow blooms, and on that day—just this past Tuesday!—when the majority of the trees leaf out and the world turns green once more. Nature makes me need the vocabulary provided by the Crayola big box—all 64 crayons—to adequately capture the burnt sienna tones of fall leaves, the periwinkle blooms on chicory, and the violet of clouds bringing a summer storm. Its beautiful music is unparalleled—my apologies, Chalice Choir—the swell of birdsong greeting the dawn; the pianissimo of a snowfall; the low, resonant timpani of thunder. The beauty is in both the majesty and the fragility.
Nature is beauty, and also my primary source of awe. How do those little pine trees manage to grow out of a craggy nook in a canyon wall? How do the sweet summer fawns survive their first harsh winter? How do seemingly contradictory landscapes exist in such close proximity to one another, mountains rushing down to plunge into the sea? How does a flock of birds all stop chirping at once? How does it all unfold, thrive and perish with perfect precision, each life form per the dictates of its own species? I know there are scientific explanations for all of those questions, but that doesn’t make any of it less miraculous. This time of year especially, when lo, the earth awakes again, just brims with awe to me.
Nature is awe, and also the ultimate vehicle for expressing emotion. My mother was not a fan of much of the popular music of the 1970’s, but for what I did get to listen to, some of my favorite artists were those who evoked feeling with nature imagery. Seriously, how better to measure being in love than noting whether that special person fills up your senses like a walk in the rain? Surely “Here Comes the Sun” has transformed many a bad mood—it’s hard not to feel cheerful and hopeful singing “Here comes the sun”! Some of my best-loved authors and poets—Barbara Kingsolver, Marilynne Robinson, Mary Oliver, and Robert Frost—are favorites for the way they evoke and revere nature through their words.
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On a business trip to Germany in 1997, I realized how essential time in nature was to humanity in general. Along the train tracks outside of Frankfurt, I saw row after row of evidence. City residents had spent about $50,000 each for a parcel of grassy land about 60’ x 30’ where they put greenhouses and gardens, play sets and pools for their children—their own little piece of nature. The view from my window made me realize that time in nature, walking on earth rather than pavement, was a primal need, and one that people in some of the world’s larger cities probably cannot fulfill. If I’d ever been someone to yell at kids to get off my lawn, I would have complained no longer. We all need to connect to the earth.
That “Aha!” moment on the German train deepened my commitment to nature, to earth—I try to live every day as Earth Day. Because of all the ways nature is important to me, and because I know that we are at two minutes to midnight on the environmental clock, with an important election looming, it can be hard not to feel “despair for the world” growing in me as I note the weighty demands we make on the planet each day. Many of the songs I looked at while preparing this reflection were doom and gloom, and I get plenty of social action emails to that end as well. Of course good planetary stewards need a clear understanding of the issues at hand. But I believe that if we focus our attention on the negative, we will feel anger more than ambition, helplessness more than hope, and despair more than determination—and we will fail. The human race will fail the earth.
Instead, I try to focus on what I can do rather than risk being overwhelmed by all I can’t do or judging others for what they don’t do. The key is to remember that every small gesture contributes to healing, whether it’s writing a letter to a company to request environmentally sound packaging, driving those Styrofoam pieces to the recycle center, planting bee- and bird-friendly plants in your yard, supporting your local farmers’ market rather than commercial agriculture, or buying locally made products. And then, feel GOOD about what you’ve done and share that enthusiasm; you will inspire others to be part of the healing.
Finally, we can heal in simple, non-material ways that we may not think of as influential, as expressed in Terry Tempest Williams’ poem, “When Women Were Birds”:
Once upon a time
When women were birds,
There was the simple understanding
That to sing at dawn
And to sing at dusk
Was to heal the world through joy.
The birds still remember what we have forgotten,
That the world is meant to be celebrated.
May we joyously celebrate nature and the earth to our fullest capacity in all we do. It really does make a difference.
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