Sacred, Spiritual Nature

I do not really need experts telling me that being in nature contributes to a sense of well-being – but I’m happy to see that this concept is gaining traction and press. From the age of nine or 10, I regularly ran past the placid horses in the pasture, across the brook where red-winged blackbirds sang out their cheery “konkaree,” across the far field, and finally, panting, to the bar-gate into the woods.

Ah, the sheltering, mysterious woods! Refuge from family chaos, relief from long school days. My woods offered peace and possibility. I might startle a grouse – or rather it would startle me as it whirred into the air. Maybe deer would be feeding in the abandoned field beyond the woods. I knew I was in a magical territory, the domain of fairies and nature spirits, even if I couldn’t see them.

After a long woods ramble and a slow walk back home, taking time to chat with the horses, I always felt better than when I had left – calmer, happier – even though nothing at home had changed. Today, in an older age, I walk or snowshoe through the woods and I still feel happier and more balanced when I return – now to a calm home and peaceful pets.

Beyond Well-being

Since trees metabolize carbon dioxide from the air and send out oxygen, I’ve often wondered if the extra oxygen in forests contributes to this feeling of well-being. Or maybe it changes the way my brain functions, as one of the many articles I’ve seen recently suggests. “The Nature Cure” by Florence Williams in National Geographic hypothesizes that “being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s communication center, to rest and recover, like an overused muscle.”

Perhaps, as Stephen Buhner explains in Plant Intelligence, trees’ relationship to one another instils a sense of calm in the passerby. All plants, including trees, he remarks, “possess a spectrum of neural networks just as mammals do,” some larger, some smaller, meaning that “brain” size varies, as it does with mammals. “Plant brains,” Buhner says, “are located in their root systems, and trees have very large root systems…They are all self-aware. They all engage in highly interactive social transactions with their communities.” {For their neural networks to function, plants use virtually the same neurotransmitters as humans, including the two most important ones, glutamate, and GABA.} So maybe all this communication between trees – even though I can’t hear it – influences my mood when I walk in Wild Woods.

And yet there’s something more, something not easily described in a scientific way – something older, deeper, and wiser than science. Our earlier ancestors knew it and lived it. Indigenous people everywhere have known it and express deep distress when industrial factions attempt to take it away. The environmental and philosophical movement known as deep ecology refers to it in writings and in efforts to bring this wisdom to modern America. It’s the spiritual aspect of nature – the human relationship to the earth.

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Digging Into Deep Ecology {Sacred, Spiritual Nature}

This quest for more insight into the spiritual realm of nature led me to Discussion Course on Exploring Deep Ecology, published by the Northwest Earth Institute, as a kind of study guide.

The central motivation in the lives of most proponents of deep ecology is a spiritual connection with nature. John Muir, best known for his efforts to save the redwoods, describes his path toward this connection: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out until sundown –  for going out, I discovered, was actually going in.” The more he explored, the more he realized the interconnectivity of this relationship. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Rachael Carson, Silent Spring author, acknowledged the spiritual power in nature and maintained that humans have a moral obligation toward it. The careless destruction of mountains, forests, rivers, birds, and wildlife goes directly against this obligation, with no ethical justification behind it.

Naturalist Aldo Leopold, in writing of his native Wisconsin, perceived the world as an ecosystem like any other living beings, and not somehow more important. English scientist James Lovelock expanded on this theme with his own Gaian hypothesis {referring to the name Gaia, Goddess of the Earth}. According to him, the world is a living organism in which many species compose the whole. When humans live in harmony with the natural world, we all feel spiritually nourished. But when humans break this bond and exploit the planet’s natural resources, regardless of the long-term consequences, we lose that intimate connection with the Earth community, resulting in spiritual alienation.

Catholic priest and spiritual teacher Matthew Fox, in his book Resurgence, presents a quote from Meister Eckhart, German theologian from the Middle Ages: “You need a silent heart to listen to the wisdom of the wind and the wisdom of the trees and the wisdom of the waters and the soil. We have lost the sense of silence in our obsessively verbal culture.” And this was written in the early 1300’s. Fox also references quotes from Gregory Bateman’s book Steps to the Ecology of Mind, which allude to a consciousness of the Earth: “…the Earth has been keeping a ledger about the ozone layer, the pollution of the atmosphere, and the deforestation.” Bateson then analyzes the three main threats to human survival: technological progress, over-population, and errors in the values and attitudes of the Western culture.

Scientist and writer Fritjof Capra comment that deep ecological awareness recognizes the fundamental interdependence of everything.

All of us -individuals and cultures – are embedded in and dependent on the processes of nature.

Native Spirituality vs. Industrial Thinking {Sacred, Spiritual Nature}

Native American perceptions of the human relationship with nature coincide in many ways with deep ecology. Their relationship with the natural world was a livid reality prior to the incursion of white European cultural beliefs, and many tribes still honor these older beliefs on how humankind should participate with nature. Eunice Baumann-Nelson, a Penobscot elder from a reservation in Maine, explains that what we now think of as “Native spirituality” was not a religion as generally understood, but a way of life. That is to say, “it permeated their lives to such an extent as to be inseparable from everyday living. …

Manitou was not a supreme being but rather a way of referring to that cosmic, mysterious power existing everywhere in nature…”

American environmentalist and writer {and the first Native American woman to receive an electoral vote for Vice President} Winona LaDuke discusses nature from a Native American perspective, dividing the two approaches to our natural resources: indigenous thinking and industrial thinking. “… I believe the primary challenge, which we face collectively as people in North America, is the challenge between these two worldviews. …And I’m going to suggest that an industrial worldview is not sustainable. And that perhaps we should look at an indigenous worldview.”

A primary tenet of indigenous thinking, wherever one goes in indigenous communities, she says, is the central belief that natural law is the highest law, higher than any laws made by humans. We discern natural law over thousands of years by observing the natural processes and cycles of nature. Spiritual knowledge also informs natural law, and the freedom to practice this spirituality is central to indigenous people’s knowledge of how to live one’s life.

Industrial thinking, on the other hand, teaches human’s dominion over nature – the idea of a divine right to everything around for our own benefit. In this worldview, she points out, we define progress with indicators like economic growth and technological advancement, and this way of thinking finds ways to justify the exploitation our natural resources. Corporations tend to see timber, not forests, or as she puts it: “So while the Hopi will tell you that the Black Mesa coal field is the lungs of Mother Earth, what Arizona Public Service will tell you is it’s worth $20 a ton.” The essence of capitalism, LaDuke says, is taking more than you need, and not being mindful to leave anything for others.

Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth, makes note of Chief Seattle, a Suquamish and Dkhw’-Duw’Absh {Duwamish} chief, and his impassioned speech to President Washington regarding the purchase of tribal lands. “Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.”

The Concept of ‘Mother Nature’ {Sacred, Spiritual Nature}

Several writers have taken the exploration of the spirituality – Earth relationship further back to Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. In The Chalice and the Blade, cultural historian Riane Eisler weaves evidence from art, archaeology, history, religion, and social science {from data she had back in 1987 when she wrote her book}. Her research shows people living for long periods in harmony with each other and the environment.

It was not until after World War II, Eisler says, that archaeology as a system of inquiry into the life, thoughts, technology, and social organization of our forebears truly began to come into its own. We now know that the first signs of the agricultural revolution began to appear as far back as 10,000 years ago – or more. With a more dependable food supply, populations increased and towns grew. As agriculture freed some human energy and imagination, crafts such as pottery, weaving, wood, stone carvings, and painting flourished.

Artifacts from these types of excavations reveal “a rich array of symbols from nature,” indicating that early peoples believed the “same source from which human life springs” was also “the source of all vegetable and animal life.” As such, “our early ancestors recognized that we and our natural environment are integrally linked parts of the great mystery of life and death and that all of nature must, therefore, be treated with respect.”

Among these various artifacts, we find depictions of “the goddess” in one form or another. In fact, archaeological egalitarian society, with no marked distinction based on either class or sex. Eisler references the work of archaeological pioneer Marija Gimbutas, best known for her work in Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures who posited that prehistoric culture was largely female-centric. Eisler writes, Gimbutas “had the courage to stress what so many others prefer to ignore; that in those societies we see no signs of the sexual inequality we’ve all been taught is ‘human nature.'”

The many images of the goddess, Eisler expands, seem to express a view of the world in which the primary focus was cultivation rather than pillaging. These works of art expressed an interest in imbuing life with a spiritual purpose – and working with the earth to provide enough for a satisfying life.

The discovery of artifacts from the ancient ruins of Minoan Crete, a technologically advanced and socially complex culture, was “something of a bombshell,” Eisler writes. Scholars such as German Classicist Eduard Gerhard had posited in 1948 that certain sections of ancient Greece had worshipped a single female deity – a goddess he associated, as did many other classicists of the time, with the concept of a Mother Earth. Archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans disputed this idea – that is until 1901 when he excavated Knossos on Crete, the site of Minoan civilization. After discovering a number of female figurines, he came to the conclusion that this culture had, in fact, worshipped a single, chief female deity {who had a son that served by her side} who represented nature.

In general, women in early cultures were usually the gatherers of useful plants. As authors Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor describe in their book The Great Cosmic Mother, “Plant-gathering women would be involved in highly detailed tabulations of various plants and herbal properties – what is edible, what is poison, what is medicinal, what is hallucinogenic – and in transferring this information on to others; over generations an incredibly complex and replete botanic and pharmacopoeia catalog would be filed in each female mind.” Thus, an important part of women’s early language would have included a detailed observation and classification of their surrounding plant and mineral environment – “an experimental classification that was the origin of science.” These authors also make note that “women’s lunar-markings on painted pebbles and carved sticks” served as the first time measurements, the first calendars.

Today we may refer to Mother Nature as a casual comment, but the term’s origins go back thousands of years ago.

So that’s where my search for understanding of why many of us feel a sense of well-being and wholeness from immersion in nature has led me. Personally, when I feel more balanced and peaceful from being on my knees in the garden or from the woods walking, I believe I’m tapping into that energy of Gaia, Goddess of Earth. But nature speaks to us in mysterious ways. If you listen carefully and meaningfully, it speaks louder than the din of modern culture. To put it another way, there seems to be something innate in humans that feel a connection to nature.