Lion’s Roar magazine’s associate art director Andrew Glencross explores our relationship with the natural world.
We humans seem to have complex feelings about the natural world from which we’ve sprung. As much as we crave communion with nature, we often desire to be free of it, which can make for a bit of a fraught relationship.
I recently went camping in the woods and directly experienced this contradiction. On one hand, my mind was relaxed by the quiet wisdom of the trees and the usually unnoticed conversations between distant birds. I was filled with the ancient joy of simple forest living, astonished by the beauty and complexity of running streams and tiny insects.
On the other hand, that simple life among complex surroundings was kind of a pain in the ass.
There was shelter to build, water and wood to carry, fire to tend, and meals to prepare in a less-than-ideal kitchen. It was cold at night, and I found alarming quantities of black bear poop. And those beautiful insects were out for blood. How could something that felt so nourishing be so difficult?
I suppose, as in intimate human relationships, the things that make a close connection with nature hard can be the things that make it so valuable — but only if we can get beyond the difficulties as excuses not to make an effort.
Fortunately, there are many compelling reasons and ways to overcome our less noble instincts and give old nature a try. All of the writers in this Weekend Reader present plenty.
Diane Ackerman describes how nature allows her to apprehend such Buddhist qualities as impermanence, interconnectedness, and ultimately emptiness. The world will enchant us, she says, if only we let it. Gary Snyder, conversely, sees spiritual and artistic practices as ways into healthy relationship with nature. He thinks our mistrust of our own wild minds is killing us. If our cultural gifts to the natural world are to survive, we will have to practice loving the wilderness through them.
Gretel Ehrlich, profiled here by Stephen Foehr, takes that necessary love even further, seeing it as visceral and primal. “It’s really like the act of taking off your clothes and pressing yourself against a dirt road,” she says. “You cover yourself with the living world.”
At that point, the apparent dichotomies break down. Our spiritual practice then enriches our appreciation of nature and vice versa. Eventually it’s all one practice, developing a tenderness toward the world and ourselves. And maybe even insects.
—Andrew Glencross, associate art director, Lion’s Roar magazine
Diane Ackerman, best-selling author of A Natural History of the Senses, offers a series of meditations on dawn and decay, koans and creation.
We can’t enchant the world, which makes its own magic, but we can enchant ourselves by paying deep attention. My life has been changing; I’ve been near death several times, experienced the illness and death of loved ones, and the simple details of being have become precious. But I also relish life’s sensory festival and the depot where nature and human nature meet. Everything that happens to us — from choosing the day’s shoes to warfare — shines at that crossroads.
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Writers and the War Against Nature
Buddhism, art, and environmentalism — all honor the beauty and magic of the natural world. In a powerful autobiographical essay, the poet, sage, and Zen practitioner Gary Snyder traces his lifelong commitment to the environment and calls on all creative people to rise in its defense.
For a writer or an artist to become an advocate for nature, he or she must first stumble into some connection to that vast world of energies and ecologies. Because I was brought up in a remote rural district, instead of having kids to play with, I had to entertain myself by exploring the forest surrounding our farm, observing the dozens of bird species and occasional deer, fox, or bobcat; sometimes hunting, sometimes gathering plants that I could sell to herb buyers for a few pennies, and camping out alone for several days at a time. Heavy logging was going on in the nearby hills. Even as a boy I was deeply troubled by the destruction of the forests and the careless way that hunting, both of waterfowl and deer, was conducted.
Gretel Ehrlich: Struck by Nature
Gretel Ehrlich writes about nature with passion and awareness, but twice her love affair with nature turned deadly. In this 1994 profile, Stephen Foehr talks to the author of A Match to the Heart.
A dynamic tension exists between humans and the natural. It is a cord of connection, but we keep cutting the cord. To keep her hand on, and ear to, the cord, Ehrlich goes into the natural world, lays her heart on a rock and lets things pummel her: eagle feathers, sea shells, horses, smiles, heavy empty spaces, snow storms, people. She wants her heart cracked open, made raw, so she can see acutely.
By peering through the cracks of illusions, of masks, of broken hearts, of the seasons, Ehrlich gains insights into whatever she is investigating, be it a laconic sheep-herder’s shyness or the illusions of her own self.