As I attempt to tackle this lofty topic, I have some reservations. Writing about how to love nature is dangerous territory. The risks of spiritual pomposity or airy-fairy Walden-esque prose gather all around, waiting for the first chance to jump onto the page and turn this article into utter fluff.
There is also the issue of wondering if I’m qualified. Qualified?? Thank you for the encouragement, internalized-evil-stepmother (a.k.a. my rather bitchy inner critic). Why would I not be qualified to write about how to be a nature lover? Oh, because I do not have a degree in botany. I do not teach wilderness survival. I don’t even have a dog.
Ah, but wait! I am extremely qualified, because I’m human. And humans are animals. And even though it doesn’t seem like it to most people, nature is not something out there—we are nature. So really I am Nature, writing about how to love Nature. (Eek! Dangerously close to vague holistic babble. Let’s step back from there, slowly, like you would from a rattlesnake on the trail.)
And this article is not about having a love affair with yourself. (That is a separate, and deep, topic for another day.)
It’s about how be a Nature lover in the way that the word is casually used now, as in: walks in the woods, smelling flowers, stars and sunsets, rivers and rocks, etc. Basically the green and dew-covered opposite of all things urban, including concrete, computers, phones, and anything “streaming” that is not a babbling brook.
And as for qualification, there is also the simple fact that I am an avid lover of nature. I feel completely enraptured in the company of rivers and rocks, wildflowers and trees. See, totally qualified. (Inner critic temporarily silenced but still scowling.)
As I child had some semblance of a relationship with nature, for a little girl growing up in suburbia in the 1980s. I collected my fair share of bugs and four-leaved clovers and ran around barefoot all summer. Nature stopped being cool sometime around high school, when the big cities sparkled from a distance promising endless excitement with their clubs and concerts and dizzying shopping opportunities such as hip thrift stores and Tower Records.
By the time I was 30 the urban excitement wore off, and the constant noise and bustle and limited view of the night sky started to irritate me. My husband and I moved to a small and picturesque mountain town where you can smell the pine trees after heavy rain. We walked, we gardened, we occasionally camped, and we even learned to hunt for wild edible mushrooms. But we also worked, had two children, and settled into the abyss of taking care of the house and kids.
Nature, all too often, was just the view out the window.
And something was haunting me. One day in late November, in a deep dive of self-inquiry, I asked:
How can I strengthen my connection with the natural world?
The question was like a seed planted in fall that would emerge months later into something splendid and nourishing. By just asking the question, without consciously realizing it, I had set an intention. And as my curiosity grew, I began to crave the answer. In a subtle way, just by wondering how I can develop a profound relationship with Nature, I had taken the first step: asking for permission.
Asking Nature for permission is a curious and rather esoteric concept. We see it hidden in old myths and fairy tales, but it is invisible in pop culture.
“Why should I give you the fire?” croons Baba Yaga.
“Because I ask.” replied the girl, which turned out to be the only answer that wouldn’t result in her death. *
The best way I can explain this ethereal concept will again take us to the cliff’s edge, where describing something unseen yet experienced can suddenly plummet us into a free fall of new-age nausea. But there is something uncanny about the effects of asking a question. The question itself becomes a key that opens doors. If we don’t dare to ask the question, the doors remain shut.
The question “How can I strengthen my connection with the natural world?” sat patiently in the pages of my notebook and also in the back of my mind. Even without an answer, it began to exert its effects. Questions are powerful in that way, like an injection that you cannot undo, they can be far more potent than advice from a friend or even a well-intended weekend workshop.
As the question ran through my veins, I embarked on a courageous effort at self-care to offset the demands of motherhood and the prosaic routines that had become my life. I started to spend bits of free time at the river. Lying on hot granite boulders in the blazing California summer, the constant roar of the river water carried all my thoughts downstream without me having to hear them. And something happened to me, I began to change.
The shift wasn’t subtle either. It was river-style change, infused with raging white waters and their unstoppable capacity to maneuver around any obstacle. At the river’s edge the four elements worked their alchemy, light and mist, stone and wind, and stories began to emerge.
Nature speaks clearly, if we just learn to listen.
To listen means to turn down the volume on our own thoughts. It means giving nature the gift of our attention. We do this by refusing to watch whatever movie our mind wants to entertain us with, the one about what we will do later that day, or the one about that situation at work, or the conversation we had yesterday. To listen means to step out of our head and into our body, and to fully experience the reality that is actually surrounding us at any given moment.
When we do this, we begin to see lessons in nature that speak to the world of human affairs. How a small stone placed exactly right can settle a huge boulder translates into how a small but precise action can stop a seemingly more powerful force. What clearing land for fire safety and chipping wood have in common with the vast and varied terrain of our psyche. What basket weaving and a tarantula can teach us about creating the life we desire, or how to harness Spider Medicine.
When we do not pay attention to the reality that surrounds us, our attention is split, and we are absorbed in our mind. We may “see” images or “hear” conversations, but those faculties are at the expense of seeing what is actually in our field of vision, or hearing the sounds that are really happening all around us.
So we must choose to exist in the present moment, and being present is indeed a choice, no matter how difficult it may feel if we aren’t used to it. It is choice we must make vigilantly, over and over again, 10,000 times a day, because the dream world of the mind is seductive and it is so easy to wander off back into the world of our thoughts.
Being present is a multi-sensory experience. When we are living in the present moment, we see the world that surrounds us. We hear the sounds of our immediate environment. We notice the scents on the breeze, and the way the breeze touches our skin. We feel which muscles are working as we sit a certain way, how hard or soft whatever we are sitting on is. We notice where we are holding tension, the taste in on our tongue, our thirst, our hunger. It is a vivid symphony of experience, constantly shifting and never the same. It is a stirring and refreshing change from our often repetitive and all too familiar thoughts.
When we practice being present in Nature, that’s where the entrance to the rabbit hole lies. Enter it and we suddenly find ourselves in awe of the gestalt of the natural world and our place in it, or mesmerized by the striking beauty of a flower that is smaller than a pea. And if being mesmerized by a flower doesn’t sound appealing to you, then you’ve never experienced it. We’ve all looked at flowers, but merely looking at a flower (while your attention is on the thoughts in your mind) is not the same as seeing the flower. I’m here to tell you that you’ve been missing out, all this time you’ve been having sex without ever having an orgasm.
When we give Nature your full attention, it will engage with us. It will speak to us in thoughts we didn’t expect to have. It will share morsels of uncanny insight and intoxicating inspiration. It will provide us with the strength and wisdom to solve problems. It will flood our days with wonder and raw unrestrained beauty.
This is somewhat dangerous territory . . . it is not a path for the meek. Like many other mind-altering substances, flirting with Nature is highly addictive. And like many other addictions, we may begin to neglect other aspects of life. Our unread emails may creep up to four figures. We may lose interest in our cell phone. We may become aware of the unrewarding relationships in our lives and suddenly have the courage to distance ourselves from them.
These are the natural consequences of boldly trading in day dreams for reality. Of having the humility to realize that our thoughts are not the entire universe. Becoming a Nature lover means waking up to the force of creation that is unfolding all around us and within us, and realizing that we are only as separate from this power as we choose to be.
Ready for a deep dive into nature connection? Check out the nature mentoring offerings at Wildcrafted Roots.
(*extracted from the Russian fairy tale of Vasalisa as retold in Women Who Run With Wolves, Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés)