You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses
Come fill me again
~John Denver, Annie’s Song
Many of my generation, raised on the imminent nuclear threat of the Cold War and schooled by the horrors of the Vietnam War on TV, didn’t really connect with traditional Sunday School religions. Nixon, MLK, JFK, RFK and the social unrest of the ’60’s and ’70’s got us thinking that maybe the ‘adults’ had it all wrong. Looking for meaning, some turned to drugs, sex, rock and roll, or ancient religions. Some of us, though, found in nature what the omniscient, ever-present, old white guy in the sky couldn’t provide – peace, love and understanding.
We found that others had found the same comfort before us:
“Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”
~ Walt Whitman
“But alone in distant woods or fields … I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that the cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home … It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.”
~ Henry David Thoreau
Nature was a pervasive, eternal and integral part of everything. Like the god preached about, nature could be warm and loving to us, but also cruel and oblivious. We could find our peace with nature, and although sometimes harsh, it could open our hearts and minds in ways that religion, drugs or rock and roll hadn’t. (I’ll keep quiet about sex.)
We struggled to understand humanity’s blindness towards the impacts we had on nature, and found causes that actually did, at least for a while, change the world. We got the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental impact statements, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund and took many other steps to begin the process of caring for the environment — essentially giving nature a place at the table.
But this awareness also helped to legitimize the feelings many before us held — long before all our ‘hooting and hollering.’ Scientists and naturalists always knew the value, the spirituality, of nature, and people like Rachel Carson, Diane Fossey, Enos Mills, Farley Mowat, William Beebe, Jim Corbett, Robert Ruark, Wendell Berry and Jacques Cousteau worked to get the messages out. Not only did it (finally) work, but it gave (at least) my generation a legacy to rally around.
And, not surprisingly, today more and more churches are embracing nature as part of their doctrine. It is possible to see man as a part of nature, as well as nature a part of man. According to Maria Popova, “Thoreau reverenced trees as living incantations, wordless prayers, benedictions for the art of being. In their company, he found a counterpoint to the falsehoods of society.” In nature, he found spiritual companionship.
For some, nature provides what churches purport to — places of companionship, prayer and benediction, sanctuaries from the trials and tribulations of the world. The sounds of nature become the hymns that soothe and rejuvenate your soul. Robert Macfarlane observed “walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing.”
And, sometimes when you’re out in nature, you can listen to rock and roll. I personally think John Denver a better hiking companion that Jimi Hendrix, but it’s your call, maybe even your calling?
Calling today, calling today,
Why from the sunshine of love will you roam,
Farther and farther away?
~ Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home, Fanny Crosby and George Stebbins
Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways [2012, Viking Press]
Maria Popova, Thoreau on Nature as Prayer, 3/08/18, BrainPickings.org