Stop Missing the Trees for the Forest!
In an earlier post, I discussed sacred places in our past and “sensory flashbacks”–how our physical senses can open up a wormhole in time and space to take us (mentally speaking) to the places in our past that we cherish. I would like to focus here on the sacred places in our present lives–that is, to discuss the dire need for recognizing the sanctity of our surroundings and why these sacred places (recognized or not) are so crucial.
Anyone who cares enough about nature to become a card-carrying, tree-hugging, thump-stumping “environmentalist”–or even to bother going green at all nowadays–surely recognizes that nature has special sacred places. Places that somehow touch the heart and stir the spirit. Places that somehow capture and convey just what it means to be alive on Earth. Yes so many people recognize that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “There lives the deepest freshness deep down things.”1
When people think of “sacred places” in nature, though, I fear they most often think that these are also “wild places” exclusively. They believe that nature’s true majesty is found in the places where the human footprints are well buried beneath leaves or worn away by the winds of time. And, they believe, nature is found in the places where it is at its most “extreme,” most overwhelming, and most picturesque, where the sights and sounds and smells and schizophrenia of city life seem like a nightmare vision of some distant planet.
Mark Powell over at blogfish has written a characteristically thoughtful post on the need for getting and appreciating the “wilderness experience.” What he says is really great, especially since he emphasizes that we need “to save the wildness in people” in addition to the wildness in wilderness.
Like surely all environmentalists, I believe that we need to continue protecting the most inspiring, intimidating, and “wild” places in nature. Of course!
But we also need to focus just as much, if not more, on those sacred places whose “wildness” or “naturalness” is not prominent, pristine, or necessarily imperiled. We need to recognize and cherish, to sanctify, all those sacred places in our present lives where nature sneaks in and infuses in us the wild woolly wonder of Nature.
We need to sanctify not only the “extreme” wilderness experiences but also the “boring” nature experiences.”
So I think that recognizing the constant opportunities Nature gives us to have a nature experience is even more crucial than seeking out a wilderness experience in order to get a nature fix.
If we buy into that great myth of environmentalism that nature out in our yard is somehow different, and better than, the Nature located in extreme/pristine/remote locales, then we miss a way to have the most complete nature experiences possible.
Nature is everywhere: from a lone tree in a highway median to a flowerpot on your windowsill. Just put up a bird feeder, one of the ones you can stick to your window, and even an apartment in the middle of a megalopolis can become a “wild” place. Or plant a few irises; those little beauties are awe inspiring in their divine, delicate sublimity. Or go out and do some weeding in your flowerbeds, preferably without gloves; what you wash out from under your fingernails and scrub off the knees of your pants consists of nearly the same stuff lying under the leaves in the middle of a faraway forest. Or plant a sunflower seed in a cup of soil, water it, set it in the sunlight, and voila: the cosmic mystery of the life-force unfolds before your eyes, revealing the wonder of a seed.
Nature is everywhere: in the breeze rushing in and messing up your desk when you open your window, in the sunlight that gets your car’s insides all hot and stuffy, in the rain that turns rush-hour traffic into a parking lot, in the bird poop that you have to clean off your hood (or maybe even your head)….
Consequently, and luckily for us, the sacred natural places can be found, enjoyed, and revered without going to the top of a mountain or the bottom of the sea or the shadowy depths of the woods. If we compartmentalize Nature to those faraway places, the places where humanity is not at all, then we risk missing the sanctity and holiness of where we are and the Nature that is always with us. We risk missing how nature is and always can be our way to experience Nature.
The Need for Nature Here and Now
But why do we need to recognize the holiness of the here-and-now, the sacred Nature right where we are?
In our modern society, every place is getting pushed towards becoming what French anthropologist Marc Augé calls a “non-place.” Here, as Philip Sheldrake explains, “no organic social life is possible.”2 In this modern manic global culture (no longer cultures in so many ways), people either are forced to sever whatever roots they can establish or choose to live like a potted plant that cannot truly root itself in the Earth.
When people become disconnected from “organic” life, social and natural, the consequences are dire. If we strictly focus on environmental matters, a disconnect from the Earth, a lack of roots, makes it so much easier for us to treat the Earth as pure raw material, as a widget in a system seeking financial profit, as a distant place “out there” that has little relevance to or value in our lives.
And so it becomes so much easier for individuals and society as a whole to pollute, to destroy, to exploit, to consume, and to leave unprotected. It becomes easier to miss Nature and so not miss when Nature starts to die away, little bit by little bit.
Equally sad, when people buy into the myth that Nature is extreme and far away, then it becomes harder for people to try experiencing nature and so becoming sensitive to the value of protecting the environment. If people think they have to jump off of mountains or live off nuts and berries in the woods to have a nature experience, then they likely may not even bother doing anything “natural.”
As global temperatures rise, resources and species and habitats disappear, and nature dwindles to a virtual world on the flashing screen or outside the window, we need more than ever to recognize all those sacred places present that so easily slip under our modern-day personal radar.
Here and now, we need those sacred places present more than ever. We need to feel the sanctity of our here-and-now in order to connect and participate with Nature in every moment of our lives.
Oh yes, “we got to get ourselves back to the garden,” as Joni Mitchell sang to us so beautifully.3 But I add that the “garden” need not be the untainted primordial Garden of stardust and priceless gold. I say we got to get ourselves back to the garden right out in the backyard, too…and recognize just how it is a sacred Garden for us.
We got to get back to nature before we can truly get back to Nature.
We got to make ourselves aware of the sacred here-and-now of nature if we ever gonna win the fight to save Nature–and all of our sacred places past, present, and future.
Oh yes, we got to sanctify nature right here-and-now if we ever gonna save ourselves.
Original image credits: Rock climbing: Jabez at Wikimedia Commons; Flower pot: Immanuel Giel at Wikimedia Commons.
1. Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “God’s Grandeur.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. Vol. 2. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. 1651.
2. Sheldrake, Philip. “Human Identity and the Particularity of Place.” Spiritus 1 (2001): 47. Sheldrake has done fascinating work from the Christian spiritual perspective, in particular Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity (2001). For Marc Augé and “non-place,” see his book Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1997). There is a tremendous amount of material, from philosophical to theological to cultural, on “place” and humanity, which is worth exploring but far beyond the scope of this meager post.
3. Mitchell, Joni. “Woodstock.” Ladies of the Canyon. Warner Bros., 1970.