While we may know some facts about nature, we do not really “know” nature.
Thomas Merton, the writer, poet, artist, and Trappist monk, once said in his essay entitled “A Search For Solitude”: “Man can know all about God’s creation by examining its phenomena, by dissecting and experimenting and this is all good. But it is misleading, because with this kind of knowledge you do not really know the beings you know. You only know about them”.
Most of our contact with nature is in passing. We drive by. We take a glimpse. We get a quick emotional “fix”. Nothing more. We are not connecting. There is no true immersion. We are not totally engaged in the moment. We are ready to move on rather than linger a while. We are preoccupied with “things” in our lives. We are not beholding nature.
A forest is entered, not viewed. We do not really engage or know a forest until we are well within it both physically, aesthetically, and spiritually. Engaging nature means “knowing” rather than just “knowing about”. “Knowing” means observing and understanding how nature is connected. It means knowing our interrelationships, our connections, with our surroundings. It means us being connected with those surroundings – those patterns in nature.
But, how are we connected? Let’s address this question by first looking at a simple plant or tree leaf which you have found and are holding in your hand. That leaf is a pattern in nature. In fact, it is at least three patterns. Now, a pattern in nature can simply be a form or structure – such as the shape of the leaf. But, a pattern can also be a process like a behavior or metabolism in our bodies. A pattern can also mean the relationship between two patterns – like the ecosystem or food chain in a pond or in a forest.
Back to our leaf. It is obviously a physical pattern as we can see from its shape. But, we quickly see a second pattern – the veins in the leaf. These veins are shaped in a tree-like structure we call a fractal pattern. They serve a purpose which is another pattern. They transport energy to the plant and transport waste gases to the leaf for release into the atmosphere. Another pattern is the cells of the leaf. These cells are directly or indirectly connected to the veins. They contain chloroplasts which convert the sun’s energy into useful energy for the plant. These cells also bring in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. They are all process patterns instead of structural patterns.
If we were to take our leaf and sit in a forest asking how we are connected to that forest and to nature, we might start by first looking at a plant’s connections as we just did. Ask the question: How am I connected to this leaf?
We humans have many of the same patterns as the leaf and the plant. First, we share some of the same genes. For example, mustard grass has 15% of the genes in the human genome. And, our lungs and kidneys have the same function and structure as the leaf veins – fractal patterns. Like the leaf, we inhale our atmosphere and exhale our waste products. And, of course, we have cells in our body. The fact is that there is a unity of pattern structures and functions between plants in our forest and us. There are connections on many levels. We know the forest because we know us. When you hold that leaf, you are holding a little bit of you.
“Among the many beautiful trees there is one tree, set beside the stream, which calls you. You sit down, your back against the trunk. You feel the strength of that tree as you rest against it. You gradually become absorbed into its life, aware of its roots reaching down to draw strength and sustenance from Mother Earth. Its branches lift toward the sun, absorbing the life force from the sun and the air. You become aware of the flow of life from earth to heaven, the inbreathing and outbreathing. You become the tree.”
— Paraphrased from The Still Voice
As we contemplate those features of our leaf that are similar to us, we may ask the following questions.
- How am I related to this forest?
- What patterns connect me to it and to Nature?
- What patterns connect me to you?
- What is the pattern that connects all of life and all that is not living?
As we sit in our forest, engaging Nature, and pondering these questions, we find ourselves considering the sacred. We find ourselves looking for the Creator in the Created as we ask: “What is the Pattern That Connects?”
In these questions about patterns and connections rests the core of “knowing” nature and nature’s patterns. We may never have complete answers, but we grow to “know” nature as we live the questions themselves.
Poet Alison Hawthorne Deming describes the connections between all things in her wonderfully profound poem “The Web”.
It is possible there is a certain
kind of beauty as large as the trees
that survive the five-hundred year fire,
the fifty-year flood, trees we can’t
comprehend even standing
beside them with outstretched arms
to gauge their span,
a certain kind of beauty
so strong, so deeply concealed
in relationship –black truffle
to red-backed vole to spotted owl
to Douglas fir, bats and gnats,
beetles and moss, flying squirrel
and the high-rise of a snag,
each needing and feeding the other—
a conversation so quiet
the human world can vanish into it?
A beauty moves in such a place
like snowmelt sieving through
the fungal mats that underlie and
interlace the giant firs, tunneling
under streams where cutthroat fry
live a meter deep in gravel, a beauty
fluming downstream over rocks
that have a hold on place
lasting longer than most nations,
sluicing under deadfall spanners
that rise and float to let floodwaters pass,
a beauty that fills the space of the forest
with music that can erupt as
varied thrush or warbler, calypso
orchid or stream violet, forest
a conversation not an argument,
a beauty gathering such clarity and force
it breaks the mind’s fearful hold on its
little moment steeping it in a more dense
Intelligibility, within which centuries
and distances answer each other
and speak at last with one and the same voice.
Why Do I Write These Essays?
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