“If you love it enough, anything will talk with you”
– George Washington Carver
Nature speaks to us with three voices. Her aesthetic voice , her spiritual voice , and her logical voice speak to me when I choose to deeply listen. In this essay, I wish to share with you the notion of Nature’s serene, pristine, and sacred voice and why engaging that voice is so important to humanity.
The Apache Indians used to say that: “Wisdom sits in places” The Irish noted that, in Nature, a “thin place” is a physical location where there is little or no separation between one’s soul and the soul of Nature. A place where there are no human distractions. A place where one can experience the flow of spiritual energy in total solitude.
With the spiritual “sense” that one acquires in a thin place, one is able to engage Nature at a much deeper level. To me, engaging Nature is seeking a resonance with Her and my innermost being. In a thin place, one is able to hold tangible and touch an experience. Thin places offer transformative experiences where we become our more essential selves. Thin places are places of presence where one is able to live only in the present moment – undisturbed by the past or the future. Thin places encourage us to separate the essential from the irrelevant. Thin places exist in Nature’s silence. That silence is essential to me because, as soundscape ecologist Gordon Hempton points out, silence and solitude form the think tank of the soul.
These kind of experiences always happen to me when I visit my “elders”. My elders live in a remote place in the Sonoran Desert. In their physical form, they are a pair of trees. One is an old Ironwood tree who can live 300 to 600 years. The tree is called a “Palo Fierro” (Iron Stick) in Spanish. The other elder is a large Saguaro Cactus who can live for 150 to 200 years. They live together in a fond embrace brought about because the Palo Fierro has protected the Saguaro since the time that the cactus was only a seed. To the botanists, the Palo Fierro served as a “nursery plant” that protected the Saguaro as its seed developed into a plant. That protective embrace is a visual metaphor, a togetherness, an interfolding of past dependency. It is symbolic of Nature’s interconnectedness.
Every day, Nature celebrates this pair of elders with two dynamic light shows . At night, Nature shines down upon the pair with a dazzing display from the Universe. At dawn, the sun’s golden glow kisses the pair with its life giving energy. To me, these experiences are visual celebrations of Nature’s glory. Watch this short video and see if you agree with me. Your viewing experience will be greatly enhanced if you watch the video in the full screen mode.
Photographer and essayist, Guy Tal, in his essay “Reentry”, beautifully describes his connection with the serene, the pristine, and the sacred. He says that:
“I come to wilderness places not only to be by myself, but to be myself – whole and separate, with nothing to prove or to explain, and so that I may face my challenges and inspirations without distraction, without being beholden to appearances and traditions, without the noise and clatter and prejudice of the human hives, without the constant tugging of matters trivial and mundane, and without concern or conjecture about what was and what is yet to come.
“I no longer visit wild places, I return to them; they are my home and my sanctuary, the source of my strengths and convictions and the wellspring of my inspiration and my support.”
Guy Tal points out that “spirituality is the meaning one derives from acknowledging one’s place within the grand tapestry of existence.”
If all of this sounds attractive, but yet unreachable for you, author Joseph Cornell describes the Indian way of engaging Nature called “Still Hunting” where you engage Nature by letting Nature come to you. Acquiring a quiet spirit, being aware only of the present moment, and patiently waiting for Nature to come to you can be a fascinating and rewarding activity. As Nature gradually comes alive before you, you will begin to sense and understand the connections between yourself and other members of our vast ecosystem.
While keeping all of your senses alert, comfortably sit motionless by a shore, in a forest, or any quiet place where Nature displays her majesty. Acquire a quiet spirit by keeping your relaxed hands folded in your lap. Focus on your breath as you slowly inhale. Again, focus on your breath as you slowly and quietly exhale. During the pauses between breaths, concentrate on the present moment as Nature surrounds and embraces you. Listen, watch, and feel. Carefully listen for stillness between the sounds.
At first, nothing will happen. But, with time, the impact of your intrusion will subside and Nature will return to its equilibrium. Birds and other small creatures will resume their chirping and other sounds. Very gradually they will move closer to you. In a forest, deer and other larger animals will also come closer. Listen to Nature’s sounds. Feel the movement of air around you. In his wonderful book, Listening to Nature, Joseph Cornell suggests:
“…free your mind from expectations, paying attention to what you see and hear: busy insects, singing birds, and breezes bringing the trees to life”
Keep a camera at your side. If you decide to take a picture, move very slowly. Carry a recorder to record the sounds.
While experiencing Nature in this way, listen to your own inner voice. How is your spirit responding to what is happening about you? How are you connecting to what is going on?
Joseph Cornell says:
“Ecology is the intellectual study of the interrelationships of all living things. Activities like Still Hunting complement the science of ecology by providing a way for us to consciously affirm and intuitively experience our oneness with Life. “
Consider Gregory Bateson’s contemplative questions:
- How are you related to the patterns you are observing?
- What pattern connects you to them?
- What is the pattern that connects all living creatures?
Live these questions. They help us in “knowing” Nature and Nature’s patterns.
Author Beth Rhines calls the places where she describes “Still Hunting” as “Sit Spots”. She says:
“The benefits of regular sit spots are immeasurable. Sit spots improve emotional, mental, and physical well being by reducing stress, providing inspiration, and promoting reflection. Awareness of our surroundings leads to increased knowledge and wisdom gained from animals, plants and the planet. Connection to Nature is also inevitable at a sit spot. You will see things you have never noticed. You will become part of the landscape, and as a result Nature will let you in on her secrets. Here’s how to make your sit spot work for you:
1) Slow Down. In the world of animals, people are predators. It takes at least 15 minutes for someone to be able to fully quiet themselves, so that animals see you as part of the background, instead of a potential predator. This slowing includes both the body and the mind. Let go of all of the thoughts of the day, and you will notice the animals around start acting more comfortable with your presence.
2) Any Spot is a Good Spot. The great thing about sit spots is that they can be found anywhere. Awe-inspiring landscapes are always great, but those ordinary places, like the corner of a backyard, often make the best sit spots.
3) Use Your Senses. Isolate your senses one at a time. Close your eyes and focus on sounds. Then use your hands to feel the objects around you. Take some time to breathe and notice any smells. A great vision tool is something I call ‘soft eyes’. Instead of focusing on a certain point, let your eyes go soft, like you are gazing far into the distance. You will notice much more movement in the periphery of your vision.
4) Bring A Journal. A journal is helpful to unload thoughts or feelings. It’s also great for sketches or to note interesting discoveries. A good sit spot journal collects baseline data including the time you visit, the weather conditions, and any observations. Reading over past journal entries allows you to appreciate patterns and seasonal changes.
5) Listen to Bird Language. Recently at my sit spot a group of crows suddenly flushed out of the trees above me, emitting short, sharp, loud alarm calls as they flew away. Those calls were the warning of an approaching predator. I waited, and about two minutes later, a bald eagle flew right overhead. From their vantage point, birds are often the first ones to see an approaching predator, and will often warn others.
The most important thing to keep in mind is to make your sit spot a positive experience. You don’t have to know the name of every animal that you see. It is far more important to know when it tends to come around and how it interacts with its surroundings. Do what you enjoy most at your sit spot, and let your child-like sense of wonder go wild. And most of all, enjoy the sit spot for what it is, a time to let go of the mundane world and enter into the reality of Nature’s magic.”
Spirituality is the quality of seeing everything as interconnected. Whether you choose to think about engaging Nature’s serene, pristine, and sacred voice in “thin places”, in “sit spots”, or by “still hunting”, the rewards are a profound sense that your life force, your very being, is an integral part of Nature’s energy. Your life force then transforms into acts of purpose as you become a steward of Nature.
As I write these words, it is sunrise. I am camped in the desert. The morning sun paints my elders, the mesquite bushes, and the nearby mountains with its glorious golden light. It is moments like these that bring me into a close connection with all of Nature where I am provided a profound sense of “being”.
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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.