We human beings have always singled ourselves out from the rest of the natural world. We classify other animals and living things as “nature”, a thing apart from us, and we act as if we are somehow separate from it. Then we ask “How should we deal with nature?”
(From The World We Have by Thich Nhat Hanh)
Last summer I was working at our farm on a warm sunny mid-morning. I was pulling weeds that threatened to choke out a towering rosebush just inside our fence. A young woman carrying her infant passed and stopped to examine the rosebush. She didn’t seem to notice that I was working just a couple of feet from her and before I could say hello, I heard her say to her baby in a soothing, sing-songy voice: “Yes, that’s nature.”
I looked up and could see the infant’s pudgy three-month-old arm outstretched to the rosebush, fingers reaching for the bright pink flowers as soft and delicate as the child’s own skin. The eyes were huge with all focus on the mystery of a flower. Maria Montessori understood this deep need for connection to nature at an early age, and because ours is a Montessori school, I feel obliged to include a quote from the great doctor herself:
Because he is in love with his environment and not indifferent to it, a child’s intelligence can see what is invisible to adults.
(from The Secret of Childhood)
However, just before making contact with the flower, the mother quickly redirected the child’s hand away from the bush and completed her lesson:
“That’s nature”, she repeated. And then added, “Isn’t it scary?” And with that she and her child were off.
Why is fear the force that often binds our psychological relationship with nature?
Our original reference point in the man vs. nature paradigm (at least those of us with some kind of personal experience in the Roman Catholic tradition), is found in the Fall of Man, in which the two original humans inhabited a very comfortable garden, naked as jaybirds, and generally felt good about themselves. Enter the meddling snake who tempted these two with the flesh of nature’s fruit, and they fell for it. Many have compared the book of Genesis’ snake of temptation to the snake of ancient kundalini yoga, which lays coiled at the base of the spine, waiting for the practitioner to awaken its “corporeal energy”. In a twist of east meets west, this snake of ancient Hinduism is what comprises the iconic staff of caduceus, the familiar symbol of western medicine. It’s no surprise then, that we are left so bamboozled by our relationship with nature. The snake is either a symbol of our separation from the source of all creation and a rebellion against the oneness of life, or it is a latent force within all of us that has the power to destroy or heal. Or, of course, it is both.
Whether or not you view nature as a threat to your right as a human to have power over it or as a boon of your creative energy within the spiritual context of the natural world depends on your perspective, right now in every moment of your waking life.
As a teacher, I find perspective in the writings of David Sobel, who has coined the term “place-based education” to describe a way of leading children to nature in the most muddy and immediately accessible way possible, so that they develop a physical, emotional and spiritual bond first and foremost, rather than front-loading children with abstract concepts and horror stories of extinction and ecological collapse. Sobel boldly compares the latter approach to physical and sexual abuse, wherein children respond with “distancing techniques”…
…ways to cut themselves off from the pain. My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum will end up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused, and they just don’t want to have to deal with it.
(from Beyond Ecophobia)
As a gardener, I find perspective in the seemingly opposing approaches of two Japanese traditions, the first being the tradition of zen gardens, in which the trees and shrubs are planted and manicured in such a way that when one views the garden from an interior through a window, it is framed just so, beautifully. Nature as composition.
Paradise is where we live so we clean it and keep it beautiful. This is the most important principal. That’s why we tend our gardens so carefully and treat them with artistry. We don’t divide things simply into good or bad, right or left. There is a vagueness, a sense of ma or space between things. That’s how the universe itself is constructed. When we meditate we can’t separate ourselves from nature. It’s very important. The entire universe is concentrated in a garden. The garden allows us to contemplate nature, to become part of nature. Our approach is based on these ideas.
Sobin Yamada, Abbot of Shinju-an Zen Buddhist temple (from the film Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden).
The second of the two Japanese traditions is a relatively recent one from the visionary farmer Massanobu Fukuoka whose classic manifesto One Straw Revolution adheres to his “do-nothing” approach to farming, so-called because the method involves no tilling or herbicide (not because it involves no labor). His methods, which in many ways became the blueprint for organic gardening and permaculture, allows nature to find its pre-determined way of growth and decay. If man helps nature along its way without compromising its destiny, man will reap her benefits even more.
As a spiritual person, I find perspective in art. Artists have the unique position to depict the menace and beauty of nature simultaneously, often with effects that can be felt rather than known. The composer John Luther Adams won the Nobel Prize for Music for his monumental piece Become Ocean, which is a listening experience that engulfs the listener in a projected future when the entire surface of our planet lies submerged in water. It is music not of melody and rhythm but rather of ebb and flow, swell and collapse, dappled sunlight and opaque darkness. Become Ocean isn’t posing as a piece about nature but rather embodies the weight of an endless expanse of water without a shore, and as listener I become a single particle caught in the undertow.
Good art can do that to us: tweak our perspective just enough to see the snake as only energy, to see a rose the way a newborn child sees a rose. If we truly “inter-are” with the natural world, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, then we have little to fear because the “we” in this case is only a construct that refers to human beings. When we start to see ourselves as the rose, the snake, and the ocean, we can find a way to inter-be. And what’s so scary about that?