Nature & Spirit

It is in nature that we feel connection. I remember my first spiritual experiences in nature, not in church. Church never had anything of the spirit for me (I was raised Catholic, and went to a Catholic school). But I remember lying on the grass looking at the sky and the sense of wonder at the stars. And I remember the stretch of marsh at the river’s edge, and the mysterious creatures that populate that space.

There is a special quality to the air in such places, and I am reminded that the “spirit” is, in its origin, just this same air, which we draw in, borrow for a time, and let go forth once more.

There is something about nature that escapes the instrumental. We have nothing to do there. Nothing to change or perfect. It is and grows as it always has. We clear it to build our Euclidean structures, but even before they are finished, nature colonizes them: insects and weeds, breaking the formalism of architectural geometry.

Why do we create forest monasteries? I don’t know, unless it has something to do with this connection. We are moved to contemplation, in the face of something so beyond us in time and space.

Yet for all this, we spend much of our lives battling nature. As soon as we see a cockroach, we want to get rid of it. Even the slightest, most harmless intrusion of nature’s apparent chaos prompts a swift response. Nature is an ideal for us, to be approached for a special experience, and otherwise kept at arm’s length.

And it is one of our practical problems that humans live most efficiently apart from nature, in cities. This has been pointed out by James Lovelock: ants solved the problem of high density housing of massive populations long ago. If we care about nature, we would live in massive tower blocks. We don’t need to save nature, just to get out of the way.

But of course, if we do so we cut ourselves off. City living creates alienation from nature. So the practical solution is spiritually deadening.

What to do? I have no answers. I live a twilight life, sometimes in the forest, sometimes in the city, not at home in either. Like the air that sweeps from the city to the forest, from the factory chimney to your lungs, I have no real home. I experience life as a guest, and try not to be intrusive about it.

It takes balance to live in between. To be like the breath, now part of the environment, now part of ourselves. Constantly dissolving the artificial distinctions between “self” and “other”, “artificial” and “natural”, “real” and “fake”.

People are crazy. They still argue about whether this bushfire was due to climate change, or whether that flood was. They monumentally don’t get it: everything is climate change.

Every breath you breathe in has been changed by human activity. It has less oxygen, more carbon dioxide; and it has a cocktail of substances that never existed before humans invented the factory. Every interchange in the vast surface area of your lungs is different because of climate change. Every cell in your body is different because of climate change. Every time you breathe out, you are adding more CO2 to the atmosphere. And when you die, your rotting corpse will add even more. Everything, forever, is different.

We can’t go back, and there may be no forward for us. There remains what is, and that is vanishing even as we watch. Our proud dreams of dominion will become nothing but dust. And the air will howl over the dust, but there will be no-one to listen.