A number of my blog articles have to do with nature, the care of the earth, and the relationship between our bodies and Earth’s body, especially in the articles dealing with the five elements. Here I pull together several ideas about the value of getting into nature and add a few more.
Bear with me while I do some autobiographical sharing before getting into the heart of this topic. Having just turned 75 I’m drawn toward a review of my life, especially of my younger life. But I think these reminiscences are relevant to the topic.
I grew up as an urban kid in Buffalo, NY in the 1950s. Scouting gave me an opportunity to get out of the city and into a natural environment. On weekend camping trips I enjoyed getting away from programmed activities and just exploring wild areas by myself. Walking and wading along creek beds was always fun.
(None of the photos in this article except one are of me. No iphones to carry with me in those days. The images were selected for illustrative purposes.)
The summer of my 15th year I spent a week in Zoar Valley south of Buffalo with three other Scout friends, using a cabin our Scout Troop had built on wilderness land that had been leased to our troop. Our fathers drove us down and picked us up at the end of the week. I think one or two fathers came down during the week to check on us. (No phones.) We explored the rapidly flowing South Branch of the Cattaraugus Creek. One day we walked farther upstream than we had gone previously and came to an area where the water poured through a chasm about five feet across into a pool.
(This is the actual site I found on Google. A number of swimming holes in New York State have now been identified on the internet.)
Such a pool invited shedding our clothes and taking a swim on a warm summer day and then sunning ourselves in our natural state on the rocks. We didn’t mind being naked in nature. No one was around and we were used to swimming nude with each other at Scout swim nights at the YMCA and in freshman high school PE swim class. (Swimming nude was mandated by the Y and in many schools in the U.S. in those days.)
It was not uncommon for boys to swim nude in secluded areas. I had a few more experiences of skinny dipping. One occurred five years later when I visited a friend in Virginia at the end of summer. We were walking along a river one warm evening and came to a sandy area that served as a little beach. My friend Mike suggested that we take a swim in the river. He began taking off his clothes, I followed his lead, and we enjoyed an evening of skinny dipping. (See Frank Answers About Swimming Naked.)
Back in the summer of 1958 our Explorer Post participated in the Buffalo Area Council North Star Canoe trip through Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. Our family always took our vacation in the Adirondacks at the end of the summer where I canoed on the lakes, often alone. I loved gliding quietly through the water of wilderness lakes in a canoe and often exploring marsh areas that were only accessible by canoe. Even when I was in college I would go to the Adirondacks for a few days after the spring term and before I began my summer job for some quiet canoeing, taking one or two friends along.
On my early June canoe trips with friends we had the lakes to ourselves because summer people didn’t begin arriving until the end of the June. We stayed in lean-tos on state forest land and in the stillness of dawn could go naked into the cold waters of the lake for a quick invigorating bath.
While in the Adirondacks on our family vacations I also enjoyed climbing the nearby mountains with a boy my age named Tom. Our family stayed on land his family owned.
As I reflect back on my youth I’m amazed at how much I enjoyed being in the natural world. I actually chose to attend Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY because of its natural setting on Oyaron Hill overlooking the town of Oneonta. It had a beautiful view of the Schoharie Valley to Mt. Utsayantha in the Catskills 27 miles away.
There were woods on the campus in the undeveloped part of Oyaron Hill farther up from the developed campus and I often hiked up to Table Rock to clear my head by communing with nature. I enjoyed hiking up other peaks in the Adirondacks and Catskills not just for the view but also to regain a sense of the more expansive world in which I lived.
At Hartwick I took a course in geology. I figured that as a liberal arts student interested in history I should include a study of the history of the earth. One of the popular writers on college campuses in the early 1960s was naturalist and anthropologist Loren Eiseley, author of The Immense Journey (Random House, 1957), which explored the history of the earth and the human presence in it. In The Firmament of Time (Atheneum, 1960), the series of lectures he delivered at the University of Cincinnatti as Visiting Professor of the Philosophy of Science to mark the centennial of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), Eiseley spoke of man as “both a pragmatist and a mystic” who believes in both “seen and unseen nature”. Humans have been like this since the beginning and, in Eiseley’s opinion, would continue to be this way in the future. Eiseley the fossil hunter could describe floating on his back down the Platte River in Nebraska and experiencing the evolution of the land as he flowed over it.
I also read in college Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane (Harper and Row, 1961). He spoke of certain trees and mountains becoming “hierophanies” because of a manifestation of the sacred in those natural phenomena. I could understand that. In my solo explorations of lakes, trails, and mountains in the Adirondacks I found certain places—a particular marsh or a particular glen or a particular rock—that had a mystical quality. This was not because I gave the site a sacred designation but because the sacredness of the site was impressed upon me and I was drawn back to it again and again. I wanted to connect to it.
I admit that when I was alone in the canoe or on a nature trail in the Adirondacks with no one around I enjoyed brief opportunities of going au naturel to experience the sense of bodily freedom it provided but also to connect with the natural world. What boy hasn’t secretly wanted to experience this?
Not surprisingly, I also turned to poets who could reflect theologically on the natural world, like the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins (“God’s Grandeur”, “Spring”, “Pied Beauty”, “Hurrahing in Harvest”, “In the Valley of the Elvy”). I discovered in an English literature class the 17th century Anglican divine and metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne. I later studied his poetry and Centuries of Meditation in the summer of 1968 in an international Graduate School in 17th Century English History and Literature at Exeter College, Oxford University. Traherne’s writing expresses an ardent, almost childlike love of God and nature, similar to that of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Writing in the age of Sir Isaac Newton, Traherne developed an appreciation for nature that was both scientific and mystical. One of my favorite poems of his was “On Leaping O’er the Moon.” The conceit was that “I saw new worlds beneath the water lie” when he looked into a puddle. He saw the earth from a different perspective, “Which taught me that under our feet there is,/ As o’re our heads, a place of bliss”. Earth itself could be “a place of bliss,” not just some distant heaven.
Another favorite writer of mine I discovered in college is G. K. Chesterton, whose Orthodoxy (1908) has remained one of my favorite books for its sheer audacity of thought and sense of joy in and gratitude for the things of life. As I was coming to a more “catholic” understanding of my own Lutheran heritage, I was interested in Chesterton’s own religious journey. Late in his life he wrote a little book discussing the reasons for his conversion to Roman Catholicism, The Catholic Church and Conversion (1925; Macmillan, 1961). He joked that if he were to abandon Catholicism “I would certainly not go to any of those little social sects which only express one idea at a time, because that idea happens to be fashionable at the moment. The best I could hope for would be to wander away into the woods and become, not a Pantheist (for that is also a limitation and a bore) but rather a pagan, in the mood to cry out that some particular mountain peak or flowering fruit tree was sacred and a thing to be worshipped” (pp. 88-89).
I could identify with this sentiment. But I did not wander naked into the woods to become a joyful pagan. With Chesterton, I concluded that “If it was reasonable to have a sacred tree it was not unreasonable to have a sacred crucifix; and if the god was to be found on one peak he may as reasonably be found under one spire” (Ibid., p. 89). So at the end of the summer after my college graduation, I joined my family for one last vacation in the Adirondacks and headed off for seminary in Chicago.
(View of Fourth Lake from Bald Mountain in the Central Adirondacks)
In seminary I got out of my body and into my head. I continued to enjoy opportunities to get out into the natural world, but those times became more limited. As a pastor and a family man I wasn’t about to cavort around naked in the woods. In fact, several of my pastoral calls were in urban contexts. As a family we did go on camping trips to state parks, which we all enjoyed very much. My two sons went into Scouting and I was an adult leader who also devoted some of my vacation time to being with the troop at summer camp. But the world in which I have lived is an urban world with urban open spaces rather than natural open spaces. Increasingly my time became devoted to electronic communication—in other words, sitting in front of a computer as a writer.
In all this, I’m sure I’m similar to most other Western and Westernized adults in the world today. We’re a long way removed from our hunter-gatherer ancestors who spent all of their days and nights in the natural world, and we’re only slightly less removed from our agricultural ancestors who moved into houses and established villages and got organized. But with the move from farms to cities most modern Western people have suffered from “Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
This term was coined by Richard Louv in his best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005, 2008). Louv directly links the lack of exposure to nature in the lives of today’s wired generation to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. These problems are linked more broadly to what health care experts call the “epidemic of inactivity,” and to a devaluing of independent free play in favor of organized games (usually under adult supervision). Of course, it is a disorder that can be easily cured by getting our children more regularly out into the natural world and just letting them explore on their own. (No lists of natural objects to check off, please!)
Louv’s 2011 book, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011, 2012), extended the conversation to include adults, and explored this key question: “What could our lives and our children’s lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?” Of course, it’s unlikely that that will happen for most of us. But we have not yet digested the consequences on our lives and health of the rapid social and technological changes of the past three or four decades.
When summer comes I like to get outside to cut the grass, walk in the parks, and ride my bike along bike paths. But here are three more things I hope to do this summer.
I would like to walk in the woods. Its a simple way of reconnecting with the natural world. It has also been shown to have health benefits. A concept developed in Japan in the 1980s, Shinrin-yoku Forest Therapy, is the healing of simply being in the forest. Shinrin-yoku is a term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” Studies have shown that going for a walk into the forest can increase brain cognition, boost our mood, engender empathy (for our fellow creatures), and promote creativity. (I often get good ideas while walking.)
Most of our yoga classes are in studios or gyms or health centers — all indoors. Yoga in India, its land of origin, is usually outdoors given the climate. But increasingly in various parts of the world yoga is offered on the beach or in parks. It is a good change from our usual environment of practice. The fresh air and breezes can be energizing. (Expose your skin to it!) Because there are sensations all around in nature we become more aware of our surroundings while also going within ourselves in our practice. If we take these sensations within ourselves, it is is a way of connecting with the world around us. Practicing outdoors can also be a way of preparing our minds for an earth meditation.
Yoga can be taken with you on vacation. I practiced yoga on the porch of our cabin early in the morning in Arizona several years ago. In the following photo the woman is a partner to the lone tree on the lake shore. Yoga outdoors could be fun by doing poses that copy natural phenomena. Many poses are named after plants and animals or natural terrain (e.g. lotus, cobra, mountain).
The natural world provides many good sites for meditation. A site like this one could prompt meditating on the earth, water, air (the wind), fire (the warmth of the sun), or ether (space) in the world around us and within our own bodies.
The Buddhist meditation teacher Reginald Ray, in Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body (Boulder, CO: SoundsTrue, 2008, 2014) has developed an earth meditation in which we experience the solidity of the earth in our own bodies. This meditation consists of visualizing ourselves dissolving into the earth beneath us, going down, down, down — five feet, ten feet, 20 feet, 50 feet, 100 feet, 1,000 feet, 5,000 feet, etc. In the sitting posture (padmasana), note that it is our perineum that is connecting with the earth. This is the most earthy part of the human anatomy—dealing with procreation, child birth, and elimination. Ray alerts us that there’s often a lot of tension in this part of the body since it includes the anus and sexual organs. So we also have to employ the breath to assist us in relaxing and letting go.
Perhaps I will also have an opportunity to do kayaking as I did with my wife Mary in Mexico on a jungle river at the end of January.
(Yes, this is really me now at age 75.)
We have a long way to go to reconnect with the natural world of which we are a part. Every element that makes up our biochemistry is found in the Earth, and ultimately in the Sun. The Earth is truly our mother. It’s really not so hard to reconnect with her. It’s just a matter of doing it. Invoke the youth who is still a part of you who enjoyed getting away from the urban environment into open natural spaces.