A number of my blog articles have to do with nature, the care of the earth, the relationship between our bodies and Earth’s body, and the yoga articles dealing with the five elements. Here I discuss several ideas about the value of getting back into nature.
But bear with me first while I engage in some autobiographical reflections before getting into the heart of this topic. “Getting back into nature” implies that I was once there. Having just turned 75 in 2018 I’m drawn toward reflections on my life, especially my younger life. I think these reminiscences are relevant to the topic.
I grew up as an urban kid in Buffalo, NY in the 1950s. But my father had friends who lived in the country whom he knew from when he worked on some farms in Western New York during the Great Depression and we used to visit them. One family named Sherman had moved from the farm into the town of Perry, NY. We visited them several summers in a row. Their older children were adults but their youngest child was a boy called Buster who was about a year older than me. It was from Buster that I experienced the joy of being naked and unashamed.
I slept with Buster in his bedroom in the back of the second floor of the Shermans’ large house. Before going to sleep we got naked and jumped up and down on the double bed and threw pillows at each other until a stern voice from downstairs issued a warning about coming up to tan some hides. We were warm by then and the room was warm so we just lay naked on the bed with the old rotation fan blowing on our bare bodies.
One day we were sent to a nearby field to pick raspberries and Buster surprised me by suggesting that we get naked in an area secluded by a grove of trees where we wouldn’t be seen from the road. I was probably about twelve or thirteen at the time. I felt an excitement about this risky venture. But it also felt good to be exposed outdoors.
I’ll use this vintage photo to represent Buster and me. Buster (dark hair) was actually a little chunkier than the boy on the left but the boy on the right (lighter hair) looks skinny enough to represent me.
On our way back to Buffalo that year on a Sunday afternoon we visited a family that lived in the country. They had a son who was about fifteen or sixteen. He invited me and my younger brother to go swimming in the nearby creek. We had no swim suits with us but he told us that if the girls didn’t go with us we could swim naked. We did. It was my first experience of skinny-dipping.
Vintage photo of three rural boys swimming naked. The boys look close in age, but at the time I was 12 or 13, the farm boy was about 15 or 16, and my younger brother would have been 8 or 9.
Boy Scouts 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. Our troop usually camped in Zoar Valley along the South Branch Cataraugus Creek, a swiftly flowing stream.
I liked spending time alone in the woods, exploring and sometimes fantasizing.
My best friend was Gary Hughes. We were in Scouting together from Cubs at age 8 into Explorers in high school. Sometimes we shared a tent on Troop camping trips and had quiet bonding time after messing around with other Scouts in the evening.
This scene from the German film Sommarsturm (Summer Storm), 2004, with actors Kostje Ullmann and Robert Stadlober, reminds me of our times of bonding with Gary on troop camping trips.
There were also troop weeks at summer camp. The following image is from a film about Scouting produced in the 1940s, but it’s not so different from the 1950s. Here the troop is making lunch at the troop camp site instead of eating lunch in the dining hall. Lots of white bread is being consumed.
In this vintage photo the boys are practicing First Aid skills after returning from swimming. They may have taken off their swimming trunks and are hanging out before putting on full uniforms for the flag ceremony before dinner. In the 1950s boys were not embarrassed to be naked with one another. They may have swum naked together at Scout swim nights at the YMCA. The older boys swam naked in freshman physical education swim class in high school.
In the summers of my 16th-18th years I served on the summer camp staff. I had an office job as camp clerk but was able to participate in Order of the Arrow Indian (i.e. Native American) ceremonies.
I’d get a break from the office every afternoon to hang out at the Trading Post or go to the staff swim in the lake (and in either case to be out of my uniform for a while).
A Week in Paradise
In the summer of my 15th year, I spent a week in Zoar Valley with Gary, Bob Kearney, and Jim Shields, 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. One or two fathers came down during the week to check on us. (No phones.) We explored the rapidly flowing South Branch Cataraugus Creek. There were no other humans in the gorge during the week (that we saw), so we could strip down and wash in it.
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 of our pool that I found on Google Images. A number of swimming holes in upper 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 think twice about swimming naked. We were used to being naked with one another in school showers, Scout swim nights at the YMCA (nude showers and nude swimming was required), and high school freshman swimming class, which in those days also required swimming nude. We had not the least hesitation to be nude with each other in the 1950s.
I had a few more experiences of skinny dipping with a friend. One occurred five years later when I visited a friend named Mike Fisher in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia at the end of summer. We were walking along a river one warm evening and 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. There was nothing unusual about this. If women weren’t around, boys swam naked in secluded places.
Family Vacations in the Adirondacks
Through Scouting and Camp Fire Girls our family became friends with a family named O’Dell. They had land on Sixth Lake in the Adirondacks near the town in Inlet. First they put a trailer on the property and then they built a cottage. Our family used to stay on their land in the trailer the last week in August. Eventually my sister and brother got summer jobs in the Adirondacks and took room and board in the O’Dell’s cabin. Tom O’Dell was my age. We had been in Scouts and attended Bennett High School together. Tom and I had adventures in the Adirondacks boating on the lakes and climbing mountains.
The nearest mountain to the O’Dell camp was Bear Mountain and several times I climbed it alone. I admit that once when I went up to the top no one was on the trail or could be seen from the top, I decided to shed my clothes and enjoy an opportunity of being au naturel. The skin not only contains the body but it also is the point of contact with the world beyond the body. Shedding the clothes that protect us from the world, we experience sensations of the world directly — the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the breeze, the feel of the earth beneath our feet. Since n o one was around I could enjoy the naked granite mountain top in a state of total nakedness. These sensations are extremely pleasant. What boy (or girl) hasn’t secretly wanted to experience this?
(Lest I romanticize too much, make sure the place isn’t infested with insects. Try to stay in open sunny areas.)
Even when I was in college I would go to the Adirondacks for a few days after the spring term before I began my summer job for some quiet canoeing, taking one or two college 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.
I will break from the fantasy photographs illustrative of my youthful engagements in the natural world by injecting one of the real me (in plaid swimming trunks) and my siblings on an anchored swimming raft in Sixth Lake near Inlet, NY on an end of the summer family vacation in the early 1960s before returning to college.
Off to College
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 Catskills and Adirondacks 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 cove or glen or 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 reconnect to it.
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.
My last canoe trip to the Adirondacks with a college friend was after my graduation from college when I took my girl friend as my canoe partner, It was bittersweet because we knew we were parting company. Our love of poetry, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, had drawn us together. But our life journeys were taking us in different directions.
(Not us, but the main characters in a 1976 East German film, Sieben Sommarsprossen (Seven Summer Freckles), that took place in a summer camp.
G. K. Chesterton, a writer I discovered in college who became one of my favorite authors, wrote in his little book on The Catholic Church and Conversion (1925), that if he had not found his way into the Catholic Church he would have begun worshiping natural objects, not as a boring pantheist but as a joyful pagan. I could identify with this sentiment. But I did not wander naked into the woods to become a joyful pagan. But, 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” (p. 89).
So at the end of the summer after my college graduation, I joined my family for my last family vacation in the Adirondacks and headed off for seminary in Chicago.
In Later Life
By the time I went to seminary I was out of my body and into my head. There wasn’t much nature around other than Chicago’s parkland along the shore of Lake Michigan. 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 closed urban spaces rather than open natural 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. 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. The antidote is to find ways to immerse ourselves in the natural world and sense it all around us, perhaps even in our natural state.
When summer comes I like to get outside to walk in the parks and ride my bike along bike paths. But here are five more things I hope to do this summer of 2018 to get back into nature.
I 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.)
Report: In the summer of 2018 hiking in the Catskills and Shenandoah National Park provided opportunities for forest bathing.
Practice Yoga Outdoors
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 our bodies with Earth’s body. If conditions allow, do yoga in nature in a natural state without clothing that represents the restrictions of human culture and society, to take into ourselves all that the senses invite.
It has become commonplace in our society for people to be unhappy with their bodies. Being naked can help us connect to our bodies, reduce shame, improve self-acceptance, and increase our sense of self-worth. The vulnerability of being naked with others can help unite people and create the realization that we all have our own insecurities but we’re all beautifully human.
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).
Report: In the summer of 2018 my yoga teacher provided a qigong practice on the shore of Lake Michigan.
The natural world provides many good sites for meditation. A site like this one could prompt meditating on the five elements in yoga cosmology: earth, water, air (the wind), fire (the warmth of the sun), or ether (space). How do we experience these elements 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.
Report: In the early summer of 2018 my yoga teacher provided an opportunity for earth meditation on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Relate to the Water Element
Relating to the water element is renewing because Earth has so much of it and there’s so much water in our bodies. I live on the shore of Lake Michigan, so being by the water, and occasionally getting into it, is easy to do. I had an opportunity to do kayaking with my wife Mary on a jungle river in Mexico at the end of January in 2018. Kayaking and canoeing is a form of boating that gets you close to the water.
There is no better way to get your feet (and sometimes your hands also) on terra firma than to climb a mountain. You form a bond with Earth and depend on it to hold you up (or you holding it) as you strive to reach new heights.
Well, I’m no longer strong enough to do this (if I ever was). But I had an opportunity to celebrate my 75th birthday at a family reunion in the Catskills by making it up to the Giant Ledge (photo below). The final 10% of the climb was pretty steep but I was determined to make it to the top. The exhilaration occasioned a warrior II pose. My wife and I also did some climbing in Shenandoah National Park later in the summer.
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. Earth is truly our mother and the Sun is truly our grandparent. It’s really not so hard to reconnect with nature. It’s just a matter of doing it. Invoke the youth who is still a part of you and who enjoys getting away from the urban environment into open natural spaces.