Did you know there are 58 National Parks? This summer the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service are running a campaign to encourage you to #FindYourPark. I found mine in Maine. Where will you find yours? There’s likely one closer than you think. Take the quiz and find out.
Walking tends to be a means of getting from here to there. We generally don’t notice we’re doing it unless there is an ache or injury that makes it less pleasant to move about.
When you walk, you may prefer to wander in the past, but I’m usually several steps ahead of myself. I tend to project into the future or find myself engaging in conversation about imaginary scenarios with imaginary people. (Yeah, it’s like that in here.)
Last year, after a few months away from home, I returned to the cottage where I had lived for 7 years and the walk from the driveway to the house changed my life.
Ecologist Jerry Jenkins is working on a project that would send most reasonable people over the edge: a 9-volume atlas of Northern forests.
While his approach—an elaborate field guide that includes ecology—is fascinating and worth a nod for its ambition and integrated structure, it’s Jenkins’ practical philosophizing that captured my attention at a recent talk a the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.
A researcher who spent years observing and quantifying ecological changes in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, Jenkins authored two books he assumed would change people’s behavior and attitude toward climate change: Climate Change in the Adirondacks: The Path to Sustainability, and Acid Rain in the Adirondacks: An Environmental History.
But despite the books, things seem to be getting worse. Jenkins had laid out the worst possible future scenario for the Adirondacks, yet it was business as usual. No one seemed to be listening. Continue reading
I love it when you’re on a road trip, you need a break, and suddenly you drive by the trailhead to a gem of a place like Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp. This Nature Conservancy property in Antrim, New Hampshire, has been the site of Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) for more than 4,000 years.
One of the conundrums I often ponder is how, as humans, we can do what we are doing to the planet. Floating continents of trash in the oceans, flammable tap water, mountains laid low, ancient forests stripped bare. Why?
Why can’t we accept the world as it is and live in it, rather than breaking it and living among the shattered pieces, as fantasy writer Robin Hobb asks? What compels us to bite the very hand that feeds us? Why do we think it’s OK to shit where we eat?
Entitlement, greed, envy, jealousy, power, ignorance, and money are clearly motivating factors, but how, exactly, do these states or emotions overpower common sense?
Disengaging From the Universe
It seems this can only happen when we think we’re separate from everything and everyone else. When the world is limited to a focus on I/me/my/mine, then doing what it takes to ensure my own comfort and security is the only thing that “makes sense”—regardless of whether it’s at someone else’s expense.
Self-described “Earth Scholar” Thomas Berry wrote about this separation in The Great Work. He described how at one time we used nature and the universe as a way to put ourselves in context, to create an understanding of our identity in “the wonderful yet fearsome world about us.” But now,
“We no longer read the book of the universe. We have extensive contact with the natural world through photographs and television presentations. But as Saint Augustine remarked long ago, a picture of food does not nourish us. Our world of human meaning is no longer coordinated with the meaning of our surroundings. We have disengaged from that profound interaction with our environment that is inherent in our nature.”
This fundamental misunderstanding, this disengaging from the universe and acting as if we aren’t a part of it, leaves us without access to the “perks of membership,” so to speak. We perceive we have lost the benefits of connection, belonging, survival, healing, and a frame of reference for life.
We forget completely that we are dependent on something intangible, incredible, and inexplicable. Not dependent in a way that makes us weak, but in a way that makes us powerful beyond our imagining. We forget, as Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star-stuff.”
And in that forgetting we are cast adrift. We feel out of place, lost, ungrounded, and unsafe. We begin to act in ways we think will take care of us but lack a larger perspective. We expend huge amounts of effort and energy to arrange things for our benefit, destroying the infrastructure of life in the process.
Thomas Berry says,
“The difficulty is that with the rise of modern sciences we began to think of the universe as a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects […] We have not only controlled the planet in much of its basic functioning, we have, to an extensive degree, extinguished the life systems themselves. We have silenced too many of those wonderful voices of the universe that spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence.”
Begin With Yourself
Remarkably, the same process takes place on a micro level within each of us. As Zen teacher Cheri Huber (and others) have said, how you do anything is how you do everything.
Why do we do things that are harmful to us individually, like overeat, smoke, sabotage relationships, or physically harm others or ourselves? Why can’t we manage to do the things that take care of us, like keep the commitments to exercise and eat well?
When we are a house divided, we don’t connect our actions to their consequences, even when they’e in plain sight.
To act in ways that are life-sucking rather than life-giving, we have to leave ourselves. We have to forget who we are. Only then can we act compulsively, addictively, and harmfully, often in an attempt to ameliorate the feeling of unease we have from thinking of ourselves as separate. Only then do we override our own intuition with such ruthless ignorance.
How, then, do we end this illusion of separation? We begin with ourselves and work our way out from there. Albert Einstein suggests,
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Relearning Compassion From Nature
Embracing ourselves—and indeed everything—in compassion takes practice. We are not raised to think this way; we are not trained to do it. But we have an endless resource at our fingertips to help us learn: nature.
Our relationship status with nature right now would read: “It’s complicated.” We have not held up our end of the deal. We’ve made a bit of a mess of things. But the relationship can be salvaged if we commit to shifting our perspective from “me” as the center of the universe to “me” as a part of something much more grand.
To do this we must go outside. “One has to be alone, under the sky, before everything falls into place and one finds his or her own place in the midst of it all. We have to have the humility to realize ourselves as part of nature,” says Thomas Merton
Start rebuilding your relationship with nature today. Spend time in stillness or silence outdoors. Gaze at the clouds or the stars. Watch a particular tree in your yard or on your commute and note its changes throughout the year. Visit the reservoir where your water originates. Create small nature-centered celebrations. Pick up a pebble or a leaf every time you’re outside and hold it for a minute. Listen for the next birdcall you hear.
You will be surprised at how quickly you reconnect to nature. After all, you’re only recognizing something that already exists. And that something is waiting to welcome you home, as poet Mary Oliver says, to “your place in the family of things.”
“Silence is a source of great strength.” —Lao Tzu
I wouldn’t have thought you could get 400,000 people excitedly waiting to begin the largest climate march in history to stop, become still and silent, and raise their hands in solidarity. But it happened—and it was powerful.
As we lined the western edge of Central Park with a cushion of quiet, we had a moment to access that place beyond words, to get in touch with the bigger picture, to tap into the mystery that transcends but includes us all.
After filling up on the love, peace, joy, connection, or whatever each of us found in that moment of reflection, we brought forth that energy in a roll of sound that moved through the crowd like a wave in perpetual crest.
It was a roar of hope and frustration, of joy and anger, of optimism and sadness. It was a roar of love—the sound of a mother bear protecting her cubs and a parent whispering, “I love you” to their sleeping baby.
It was the sound of the Earth itself, saying, “I will not be denied.”
The People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014 was significant for many reasons, but for me the most important was its inclusiveness. The causes represented spanned everything from labor rights to veganism to water protection to nuclear disarmament. But underlying all the concerns is a love for our home, our precious planet, that is strong enough to get people off their couches and into the streets.
I have loved nature for as long as I can remember. I spent hours romping through the woods and exploring my dad’s vegetable garden when I was a kid, and our vacations happened in an 6-person Coleman tent that included cots and a 100-pound St. Bernard.
As an adult, I have struggled to find a place where I felt at home in the “environmental movement.” Who is my pack?
Some things are perfect en masse.
In fact, their sheer abundance is what stuns our senses and freezes our minds in a moment of wonder.
Swaths of flowers. A cascade of falling leaves. Herds of animals. Mounds of rolling clouds. Amber waves of grain. When it’s beyond what we can count, or even estimate, we find ourselves suspended in a pocket of stillness, beauty, and potential.
One flower alone may be remarkable, but combine it with thousands of others, and we’re in the presence of something far beyond the sum of the parts.
Our minds attempt to find the patterns, noticing subtle differences in color or shape that create vaguely detectable variations. It may be an ocean of blue flowers, but over there it’s darker, and under the tree it’s brighter, almost purple, but we’re not sure how.
We are humbled.
And sometimes we’re horrified.
What do you say when you meet a 4,000-year-old tree?
“You don’t look a day over 2,000!” Which, it turns out, might be a more accurate age for the Crowhurst Yew and many of the other gnarled specimens that dot the English countryside.
A visit to this stunning, understated giant at St. George’s Church in Crowhurst, Surrey, on a rare sunny English day, was like stepping back in time (except for the constant airplane traffic above).
Sitting at the door of this tree, and stepping into its hollow center with reverence, was an experience in slowing down. It required dialing back the forward momentum of life to just be with this venerable living thing that has been around for, well, a long time. But exactly how long? Four thousand years seems rather long.