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?