There is a vital energy within each of us that connects us to the earth. Sometimes this connection is so fundamental that we easily forget: I breathe; the tree breathes. Sometimes, our connection to nature is so surprising that we laugh out loud: I eat a pizza; the crow demands pizza crust. Spending mindful time with nature helps us understand the natural world. Reading nature writing also leads us into a deeper personal experience of the earth.
In her collection of poems and essays entitled OWLS AND OTHER FANTASIES, the renowned American poet, Mary Oliver, instructs us how we can experience life as a part of the earth, not separate from it. In the poem “Such Singing in the Wild Branches”, Oliver pulls us along as she listens to birds singing in the canopy. She has saved this moment for us and writes:
“First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness –
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree-
and I began to understand
It’s one of those magical wild places wise people
like to talk about.“
Here, Oliver invites nature into her very being. She becomes the song and the singing and we do, too, because her poem reveals the secret entrance to “magical wild places.” The poem discloses what the wise people know: stand still under a tree, on a mountain, or by the sea; think of nothing; listen; and be filled with the song of a wild place, be filled with the glory of our earth.
Wild places are very often just outside our own doors. An American White Oak lives right outside my kitchen door. I think the oak is not one hundred years old — but almost. I believe it is not seventy feet high — but almost.
When my Grammy passed away a few years ago, I spent many weeks working in the garden, moving through my sorrow, with help from the white oak. I’d set my glass of water down beneath it, pile up my gardening tools, there, on its thick roots, and come into the shade to lean on the oak’s trunk and cry. Our old dog, Blackberry, would rest under the oak while I worked and grieved. After we put Blackberry down, the oak remained, still and breathing with me.
Lately, my family likes to gather beneath our tree to play with our new puppy, Biscuit.
I hide behind the oak; Biscuit finds me. My daughter runs around the trunk; Biscuit chases her with those hound dog ears flapping. My husband stands at the tree base and tosses a ball way out into the azaleas. Biscuit never brings it back, but teases that one day she just might. A wise and wild duo, the oak tree and the hound puppy have transformed sorrow into joy.
How can one tree and one dog bring such change to a heart?
Reading nature writing can help us make sense of daily encounters with creation by recording and revealing our natural heritage of belonging with the earth. In her book LIVES OF THE TREES: An Uncommon History, Diana Wells writes, “In many of the places where humans have lived, and prayed, there have been oak trees. A large oak has often been a center for meetings and worship.” With her simple historical observation of people gathering around oak trees, I now see my family and our oak tree as part of a long tradition of gathering, praying, and playing beneath the oaks.
Occasionally in the morning when the early sunlight filtered just-so through the nearby hickory and poplar strikes the oak just right, the puppy and I watch our tree breathe. I’m sure there is a scientific explanation for what looks like winter breath roaring from its bark. When this happens, the only thing I can do is stand still, think nothing, listen, and let the white oak fill me up with gladness.
Why I am so moved by the sight of water evaporating off my tree?
Nature writing can explain the power of such experiences. Silas House’s tender young adult novel, ELI THE GOOD, celebrates friendship and family and creation. ELI also illuminates the mysterious, spiritual nature of our relationship with the natural world. In a scene where the protagonist, Eli Book, and his best friend, Edie, are on a morning bike ride, Edie tells Eli a secret: “I’ve been getting up every morning and sitting against the tree,” she said, with her eyes closed. “It has a good soul.” This single line explains what happens when Biscuit and I stand still by our tree — the wild places in the white oak, the puppy, and me unite. Through fiction, Silas House brings us into a soul-to-soul conversation with God’s creation, our planet.
Mindful living in the natural world can humble and change us. Reading about nature teaches us how to cross over into earth’s magical places. Reading about the natural world also grounds our personal nature experiences within the greater story of our Earth family. Whether found in fiction, non-fiction, essay, memoir, or poetry, nature writing helps us deepen our personal relationship with the planet Earth and our Creator.
[I first wrote this as a guest post at TeenReads.Com for Earth Day 2010.]