To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of re-enchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little know organisms live within walking distance of where you sit.
Splendor awaits in minute proportions. -
E.O. Wilson

Saturday, July 31, 2010


A covenant of mutual regard and responsibility binds me together with the forest. We share in a common nurturing. Richard K. Nelson, The Island Within

Our summer outdoor service seems to be coming along nicely; so I wanted to take a few minutes this week to up the ante a little bit on this idea of re-connecting with nature. Because truth-be-told, this re-ligio about which I am speaking is something more than just going out and observing and enjoying nature – not that those things are not important! But they are not enough. I believe we need to have reciprocity with nature; there needs to be some sort of two-way interchange between the natural world and us. Now nature is always sending out messages to us, and this summer we are training ourselves to see, hear, touch, and even taste a bit more of what the natural world has to share with us. But how are we to reciprocate? To empathize?

What we are seeking this summer is an empathetic understanding of what UUs call "the web of existence." We are doing this, because if we can establish empathy with other-than-human life, we begin to experience the inherent worth of all that is – we can let down our psychological and intellectual defenses and momentarily see "other" as "kin."

In E. Marina Schauffler's Turning to Earth (see Books I Love) she describes an empathetic encounter with an African crane that the scientist and write Loren Eiseley experienced at the Philadelphia Zoo. "The bird – being 'under the impulse of spring' and recognizing in Eiseley a creature of appropriate vertical height –'made some intricate little steps' in his direction and extended it wings. Eiseley tried to match the bird's sophisticated courtship dance: 'I extended my arms, fluttered and flapped them. After looking carefully…to verify that we were alone, I executed what I hoped was the proper enticing shuffle and jigged about in a circle. So did my partner. We did this a couple of times with mounting enthusiasm when I happened to see a park policeman sauntering in our direction.' Reflecting back on the encounter decades later, Eiseley notes that his exchange with the crane 'supersedes in vividness years of graduate study.' That momentary meeting of unlikely partners in an ancient dance touched Eiseley's soul at a level beneath cognition."

Eiseley had an unusually deep experience of reciprocity. We are not likely to encounter an African crane in our circles in the woods, but we can awaken in ourselves what Stephen Keller and E.O. Wilson describe as "biophilia", an innate affinity that may actually be encoded in our human DNA. Biophilia is like a bridge of imagination and receptivity that enables us to empathize with nature.

Last week, the woods where I live were ripped by a very strong microburst storm that laid on the ground at least a dozen trees in the woods where I live. The intensity of the storm left me shaken, and when it passed, I went out to assess the damage. As I entered the woods, a deer, it seemed to me as shaken as I, stood looking at me as though together we might understand this instant destruction. After she left, I began to see all the trees that had fallen and to cry. I laid my cheek on one rare and precious butternut and then another. Truly, what I felt was the same grief that I have felt someone with great talents and gifts is felled in the prime of life. I think I could actually feel the suffering of the forest. I think this is reciprocity.

Our current empirical, scientific worldview doesn't leave much room for deep encounters with other species. Such mystical experiences of connection are usually dismissed as flights of imagination. As Schauffler writes, "Western culture encourages people to treat the natural world as an aesthetic realm, a gallery where on may look but not touch. Physical contact is deemed appropriate only for utilitarian purposes: gardening, pruning and harvesting plants, or rewarding domesticated animals. Any physical expression of caring that extends beyond these roles tends to be ridiculed, as evident in the common epithet "tree-hugger."

Eloquent nature writer Scott Russell Sanders challenges these taboos: "I do hug trees…I hum beside creeks, hoot back at owls, lick rocks, smell flowers, rub my hands over the grain of wood. I'm well aware that such behavior makes me seem weird in the eyes of people who've become disconnected from the Earth. But in the long evolutionary perspective, they're the anomaly."

Wherever your sacred circle on the land is, can you enter that circle in reciprocity or communion with what is there? Tomorrow, I will be asking those who are worshiping to enter into a dialogue with the land. I wonder what songs they will find to sing. I wonder what songs they will hear?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Do We Hear?

This coming week we are going to focus on how sound can help us to reconnect with Nature.  I am dazzled by how American composer Harold Shapero (born April 29, 1920) saw the connections of sound and nature:
" a great percentage of what is heard becomes submerged in the unconscious and is subject to literal recall.  If we in fact have a "tonal memory," what do the voices of our ancestors, our elders have to say to us now? What sounds do we hold in our bodies and retrieve when necessary? What sounds disturb and what sounds heal? Where do we store the tension of traffic, honking horns, or the hum of fluorescent lights? How do we receive birdsong, the leg rubbings of crickets, the water music of trout?

What do we know?  I wonder. To wonder takes time. I walk in the hills behind our home. The leaves have fallen, leaf litter, perfect for the shuffling of towhees. The supple grasses of summer have become knee-high rattles. Ridge winds shake the tiny seedheads like gourds. I hear my grandfather's voice. 
All sound requires patience; not just the ability to hear, but the capacity to listen, the awareness of mind to discern a story. A magpie flies toward me and disappears in the oak thicket. He is relentless in his cries. What does he know that I do not? What story is he telling? I love these birds, their long iridescent tail feathers, their undulations in flight. Two more magpies join him. I sit on a flat boulder to rest, pick up two stones and begin striking edges.
What I know in my bones is that I forget to take time to remember what I know. The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves. We are animals, living, breathing organisms engaged not only in our own evolution but the evolution of a species that has been gifted with nascence. Nascence--to come into existence; to be born; to bring forth; the process of emerging."  - from The Musical Mind

Sunday, July 25, 2010

On Seeing

"To see a wren in a bush, call it "wren," and go on walking is to have (self-importantly) seen nothing. To see a bird and stop, watch, feel, forget yourself for amoment, be in the bushy shadows, maybe then feel "wren" - that is to have joined in a larger moment with the world. " - Gary Snyder,Language Goes Two Ways, 1995

We are all on a journey together...
To the center of the universe...
Look deep
Into yourself, into another. 
It is to a center which is everywhere
That is the holy journey...
First you need only look:
Notice and honor the radiance of
Everything about you...
Play in this universe.  Tend
All these shining things around you:
The smallest plant, the creatures and
Objects in your care.
Be gentle and nurture.  Listen...
As we experience and accept
All that we really are...
We grow in care.
We begin to embrace others
As ourselves, and learn to live 
As one among many...
                               Anne Hillman 


Today in our circles, we tried to practice a different kind of seeing that we usually do.  We asked ourselves what we notice when we look at an object (fortunately our sacred apple tree is shedding some apples; so we had an object to hand!).  People listed shape, size, color, movement, and pattern.  Today in our circles we focused on shape, color and movement, and each person chose from the following activities: 
Seeing Shapes.  Look at big and small things and see if you can recognize different shapes.  Maybe you will want to use your watercolors to paint the shapes you see or maybe you will want to make a list of the things in your circle that suggest different shapes?  

Seeing Colors:   What colors do you see?  Are all the plants the same color of green?  Using the set of paint chip colors in your folder ( I definitely recommend this activity for children and adults.  Go to a paint store and pick out a few green and brown paint sample cards.  Cut the colors apart with no white borders. )  see if you can match any of the colors to things you find in your circle.  This is harder than it seems.  Look at both sides of things, look on the ground, on trees and on bushes.   see if you can match any of the colors to things you find in your circle.  This is harder than it seems.  Look at both sides of things, look on the ground, on trees and bushes.   Did you notice yourself seeing colors in a new way?  What did you learn?

Seeing what is hidden:  In or near your circle is there a log or stone or a pile of deep leaves that you can carefully lift?  Take some deep breaths and make your mind and heart very still.  Look and look and look.  Is anything moving?  What do you see?  Write your observations down in your journal or, if you wish, make a little drawings to help you remember.  Carefully replace the long or stone or leaves just as you found them.  Are you surprised by what you found? 

Seeing from a different perspective:  How would your circle look to a bird flying over?  To a deer walking through it?  To an ant on the ground?  Try lying on your belly.  What does you cricle look like from there?  Turn over on your back.  How do things look now?  

Close your eyes and imagine your circle.  What colors can you remember from today?  What sorts of shapes were there?  Was there sunlight?  Where was it dark?  How did you feel in your circle or place?  Were you happy, curious, a little afraid, bored, uncomfortable, relaxed?  What else did you notice about yourself today.  What colors best describe your inner landscape today?  Look inward.  What do you "see"?  Where is there light?  Dark?  Maybe you will want to journal or paint this interior landscape this week.  Maybe you will want to practice looking inward with the same kind of attention that you practiced observing the outer ecology of your circle.  Seeing inward is sometimes called "insight".  What would it take to "see" more in your daily life?  What do you need to make it happen?  Intention?  Time to slow down and stop?  Privacy?  What might you gain?

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
                                                                                                                           Marcel Proust
 (To think more about "seeing" and develop the spiritual dimensions of your experiences in your circle this week, please take a look at "On Seeing" by clicking the tab  For Further Reflection to your right.)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Importance of Place

 You can't know who you are
Until you know where you are.
                                                                                   Wendell Berry

Our first Sunday in the woods went well. We began by sitting together under our venerable apple tree at the Meeting House and lighting the chalice with a reading of Mary Oliver's poem, "Some Questions You Might Ask". 

The main idea we explored together today was that places are important in shaping who we are and how we respond to the world.  To be most wholly ourselves, both psychologically and spiritually, is to know ourselves in the context of the world we inhabit and share.  We experimented with this idea by re-membering, or putting together again images of ourselves in a childhood place that we still love.  You can do this, too:

Close your eyes.  Think of a place from your childhood that you really love and that is meaningful to you.  This can be anywhere that arises in your imagination.  It might be a room, or a place you visited on a trip.  It might be your backyard or your grandmother's house.  Try to really "see" that place, see the shapes and colors, the details.  Recall smells, textures, shapes, shadows, sounds.  Take a moment to consider how it makes you feel to recall this place.

Now using paper and crayons, pencils, pens, watercolors or whatever you have to hand, try to  map that place.  Take time to fill in details and important landmarks.  Don't worry about the drawing part, it's  the memories that are important! You can just use symbols to represent the physical objects and the recalled sensations (sights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes) that have special  meaning to you. 

Consider writing down something  about the place you have drawn.  Ask yourself (or your children),  "Why do you think you remember this place?  What meaning does it have for you today?  What do you think you learned from this place?  What do you think this place might be like now?"

Now consider choosing a natural place wherever you are with the same sense of opening to a place that you experienced in recalling a evocative childhood place. Is there a spot in your garden or a nearby park or just down the road that calls to you?  If you are away from home, is there a place that you can return to for even a day or two?  Find a place, even if it is your back step,  to which you can imagine returning and from which you can observe and learn.

If you wish, do as we did, and cut a piece of string as long as you are tall.  This is the radius of the intimate space you will circumscribe either in your mind's eyes or using found objects from your place.  Once you are located inside your circle,  sit quietly for a moment and ask yourself:  "What are my intentions for coming to this place?   What do you think this place might teach you?"  Write your answers down in a journal, if you wish.  Choose one fallen object from your place, a leaf or stone or stick and bring it home to sit on the kitchen window sill or beside your bed, or at the table where you eat to remind you that your "sacred" space awaits your next visit.

Remember, there is no gathering next Sunday, if you are joining us in person, but in the meanwhile, consider doing this week's activity and reading some of the resource materials posted to the right under July 11-25.  And check back for more on place between now and then.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Let the Adventures Begin

This coming Sunday, July 11, at 9 AM, we will gather at the UUCUV Meeting House begin our adventures. The Spirit in Nature boardwalk has been repaired enough to give us access to our land for this week and, hopefully, will be rebuilt (can you help?) before we meet again on July 25. Remember, July 18 the whole congregation is invited to the Stafford UU Fellowship worship service; so we will not meet on that date.

This Sunday we will begin by exploring the idea of the importance of a "Geography of Childhood", and each of you will be invited recall a place that is in some way "sacred" to you, a place that summons up special recollections or emotions or meaning. There will be suggestions for how to create a "map"of that place in a way that is meaningful to you. If you are attending with your children, depending on their ages, you will have a chance to hear from them about the places that are special to them and what makes them so.

Then each family group or individual adult will be invited to walk the land and find a place there that calls to you as a somewhere to return to and learn from for the next five services. This new "geography" is waiting for you right now!
I hope you will try exploring some of the other information on the blog or do the activity for this week. Post your comments about your goals or expectations for this rather unusual worship series.
See you Sunday!

You might want to bring along:
Casual, comfortable clothing you can get dirty
An umbrella or rain jacket if it seems reasonable
A small towel, blanket, cushion, or stool (if it is difficult for you to sit on the ground there are also benches along the path and you may want to choose to use those)
Water in reusable container
A SPECIAL NOTE ON INSECT REPELLENT AND SUNSCREEN: Some members of our congregation are extremely sensitive to some chemicals including those in these products. Please refrain from applying these to yourself or your children. I will have some effective and acceptable alternatives to share with you.