The Subtle Extravagance of Nature

I was woefully unprepared to become a father. The youngest of four boys, nurturing didn’t come natural to me. My daughter’s entrance into the world five years ago was dramatic and powerfully enduring. She was a fussy baby. My wife and I were always jealous of parents who could leave their child in the car seat for hours on end. Our nightly routine included three hours of bouncing and singing in a tireless rotation until the crescendo of crying finally dropped off and we all fell in the bed exhausted.  Everyday we’d try new methods of soothing our little one, but nothing seemed to work consistently. As I became less embarrassed about my lack of parenting skills and my daughter’s screaming, I began to strap her in the baby carrier and stroll to a park in the neighborhood, baby sirens blaring. It was then that I noticed a pattern. Almost always, soon after we stepped outside, the crying would stop.

She was mesmerized.

I suspect this doesn’t happen with every child, and I know a lot of adults that are happy sitting in a climate-controlled room. This experience with Anya, though, reaffirmed something that I had intuited many years earlier. Something about nature, the outdoors, is inherently fascinating. Moving from a built environment into a natural environment invokes the senses. The air is warm or cold, it’s too bright or too dark, the trees sway in endless motion, leaves rustling, birds singing, all in some kind of abstract harmony. Nature doesn’t bombard the senses, like an action movie or rock concert. It beckons you with subtle extravagance.

Drawn to the outdoors at an early age, I spent countless hours exploring the woods in my little subdivision in VA. My group of friends would meet at “big rock” (creative, I know) right after exiting the bus and we’d adventure until a mother’s voice rang through the trees, dragging us back to reality with a call to dinner. Until recently, I assumed that I was just an “outdoorsy” person that preferred to play in the dirt while others watched TV or read books. It wasn’t some kind of affinity for STEM education or scientific inquiry that drew me out. The world just seemed endless, adventurous, and alive out there. I figured Anya inherited her fascination of the outdoors from me, and I was glad of it. Now, I’m not so sure.

Men need wilderness as well as bread. Places to play and places to pray in…” —John Muir

I have always deemed my love for nature a type of worship. Perhaps nowhere else do I see the mark of divinity more than in the natural world- sustaining love, beauty, awe, fear, providence, judgment. The old testament poets seemed to agree. As a college professor, I constantly straddle the uncomfortable division between faith and science. In the case of nature, both perspectives converge. Our minds and bodies aren’t designed to sit in one position, in sufficient (but drab) office spaces created to filter out any kind of distraction. Climate-control, fluorescent lighting, and undressed walls help us remain “productive” by effectively neutralizing our senses. They make us less than fully human.

Numerous studies have shown that those who frequent the outdoors are physically and mentally healthier, less anxious and depressed, and are generally happier than those who remain inside. Neuroscientists have tracked brain activity demonstrating that, as soon as a person walks away from a busy street and through a park, the brain enters a more meditative state. The same is true for those who only view pictures of nature, even if they can’t venture out. Just like with my little Anya, anxiety and frustration diminished with outdoor experience. These are not “outdoorsy” people, they are children of God in need of awe, beauty, connection, and inspiration. An affinity for God’s creation is in us all, calling us out to witness things we can’t comprehend, to interact with a life-renewing process that no man could ever design, to awaken our minds and bodies by interacting with the things of God instead of dumbing them down with the comforts of man.

Now five, Anya accompanies me on longer walks through the woods, providing space to talk and reflect. Watching her discover the world and consider its purpose has been one of the great joys of my life. “Dada” she asks, “why do you think God made ticks?” “I don’t know, Beba, what do you think?” There are a lot of things I’ll never know. At least she’s in a place that beckons her to ponder those questions.

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. —Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”
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