Just now, in Bulverhythe, East Sussex, the pungent aroma of sea kale (Crambe maritima) wafts strongly and sweetly over each passer-by on this secluded beach.
As I walk through this wildlife haven, the aroma draws my attention to the clumps of flowers dotted around the beach, which remind me (for some reason) of balls of tumbleweed in a spaghetti western desert.
Maybe one day we’ll be able to reproduce smells online. But for now we’ll have to suffice with these words and pictures. Which is fine, because there’s so much to love visually about these plants…..
Not only their effervescent yellow-white florets – the source of that sweet aroma…
But also the way rain drops gather into silvery globules like pearls on their succulent leaves – providing watering holes for little creatures….
And then there’s the striking purple stems….
Sea kale is a popular plant not only with human foragers, but also with tinier diners. Soon, as in previous years, we’ll no doubt see Large White butterfly caterpillars on these nourishing plants.
At the beginning of May, however, before the flowers had unfurled, I was overjoyed to find a more special, less commonly seen larva on the sea kale at Bulverhythe – this very handsome Garden Tiger Moth caterpillar (also known as a Woolly Bear):
Thank you, sea kale, for giving so much to this area, both nutritionally and aesthetically. And thank you to the Ultimate Source who feeds the birds (and insects) and clothes the fields (and beaches).*
I’ve also written a book, Coming Home for Good(available on Amazon). Autobiographical, it’s more about homelessness than nature, but do take a look if you think it may be of interest. You never know!
Like a lot of people, we suffered some storm damage at home. Nothing too dramatic – our next door neighbour’s cherry tree fell on our fence. That is, one major bough toppled on to a fence that was already in need of some repair.
My neighbour and I chopped and sawed the fallen tree, and we’re getting the fence fixed. No lasting harm done.
(I didn’t think to get a picture of the tree first. Sorry for that missing bit of the story!)
Not one to waste an opportunity to delight in the gifts that Nature brings my way, I picked up a few of the snowy blossom-laden twigs to brighten up the kitchen.
Janine and I have enjoyed their presence the last few days as they’ve slowly shed their tiny, white petals over the worktop.
I started this post with my own version of the old “When life gives you lemons…” platitude*:
“When Life brings storms, pick up the flowers.”
I’m not much of a fan of far-too-easy platitudes, but sometimes they do resonate.
I’ve experienced a storm of stress and anxiety with physical symptoms recently, which is all calming down now, and I’m beginning to glean some bright fragments of blessing from the debris: things I’ve learned that will carry me through into a better future.
The Divine often has a way of speaking to us through Nature.
Whatever the weather, whatever the season, there’s always something to be received, to connect with, to draw us closer to Divine Reality and therefore closer also to ourselves and others.
(All photos mine, but I’m not precious about copyright, so feel free to use any of them if you wish, with my blessing.)
*For an “alternative”, less platitudinous version of “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, check out Kaitlin Shetler’s version. It’s brilliant.
“Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes”, according to Vincent van Gogh in the Doctor Who episode, Vincent and the Doctor.
A wealth of artists, from poets and singers such as Van Morrison, Mary Oliver and The Unthanks, to writers Richard Mabey, Brian McLaren and Mackenzie Crook, to the genius Vincent van Gogh himself, have helped and inspired me to delve further into the ‘magic of nature’ – to dive deeper into its divine depths.
Maybe it’s me but I feel that both science and theology sometimes reduce the world around us to a utilitarian thing. An ‘it’. Call me picky (and I have been known to be picky about words), but the religious use of the word ‘creation’ for ‘Nature’ slightly jars with me….
…like Nature is seen as an inanimate object – there simply to ‘give glory to God’….
….rather than being a living, breathing entity given to us, to enjoy and love for her own sake, in her own right….
… to dance with, sing with….
enjoy being a part of.
Be family with.
I think this delights God’s heart.
Like tree-hugging: an exchange of vital gases, of complementary textures. A sharing of lives, of life. Of the Love that flows through all things.
Religion can sometimes be so intent on trying to worship God that it misses the wood for the trees – literally.
Likewise, science can be known to scrutinise, compartmentalise, to explain away in binary detail, until all awe and wonder have evaporated in the heat of cold analysis (I do like a paradox!).
Of course, it needn’t be – and isn’t always – like this. We need science and religion, both of which have the potential to lead us into the sheer, incredulous amazement that our souls were born for. Brian McLaren’s book, God Unbound: Theology in the Wild, is a great example of this.
As for me, my ever-deepening immersion into Nature, and my habit of talking to birds and trees, has led me to question whether I’m straying from my Christian faith into something more pagan. Fearing that my love for the created world exceeds my love for her Creator.
It’s good and healthy to question ourselves, and my self-query led to self-reassurance.
I find myself walking in the steps of St Francis, who acknowledged the consciousness and unique personality of each wild animal and addressed them as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.
…St Francis, who in turn walked in the steps of Jesus, who in turn followed the pattern of thousands of years of wisdom teachers and prophets, who walked in and with Nature, learned and taught from Nature, found God in the everyday and not-so-everyday miracles of the wild.
And, as one of Jesus’ own best friends, John, made clear, our love for other human beings – and by extension all our fellow creatures – is a good barometer of our love for God.
Rather than drawing us away from God, our deepening love for people and Nature is in fact an accurate expression of our love for God. And this is true even for those who profess no religious faith!
Our Western society and, sadly, Christendom, have a poor record of respect for the Earth, preferring largely to conquer rather than acknowledge and celebrate our oneness with her.
And the more industrialised, commercialised and technologised we become, the more we lose touch with Nature, with the Earth – and in the process lose something of ourselves and our experience of the God who lives and shines humbly and vulnerably from the natural world: incarnate through every creature, as well as in the infant Jesus.
As we desperately try and reverse our tragic destruction of our home planet (and therefore our self-destruction), it’s surely more vital than ever that we as a human race recapture our oneness with Nature.
I rather like this quote that I recently came across: “Prayer is the act of resacralizing the desacralized world.” I think that a prayerful approach to any situation enables us and those around us to (re)discover the inherent sacredness of anything and everything.
And I realised that when I enjoy my contemplative walks through woods and wilderness, I’m simply enjoying the sacredness, the magic, the holy wonder of Nature (of Creation, if you like!).
Although I do sometimes pray with words during these walks, I often try and avoid using words, even in thought, because words can be so superficial, so one-sided, and a hindrance to the experience of God in the presence of stillness, silence and songs of Nature.
Photos all mine and taken in glorious East Sussex.
“I will be yours, you will be mine, together in eternity
Our hearts of love will be entwined, together in eternity, forever in eternity.”
My wife Janine and I sang these words from Brian Doerksen’s Eternity at our wedding 25 years ago today, on 21st December 1996, as a celebration of our union both with God and with each other.
I was reminded of the song recently when I came across these two chestnut branches wrapped round each other in Newgate Woods, the quiet woodland where I walk the dog most mornings.
I wondered if they were branches of the same tree….
…..so I stepped back…and back…
…until I could see that they were reaching across from two separate trees, fusing together at this point in the arboreal canopy (top left in the photo below).
It’s been said that the goal of all religion is the union or reconciliation of all things. For example, according to Paul, the end result of Jesus’ death, is that: “all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies” (Colossians 1, The Message version).
I think that’s rather wonderful.
The entwining of branches is, of course, just a picture, an analogy, but one that beautifully illustrates the highest goal of humanity: our union with each other, with Nature, and with God, our Source.
Reconciliation between individuals and between people groups; increasing respect and care for our environment; appreciation for Nature; the growth of faithful love between people; and the emergence of peace-giving faith all point towards a brighter, unified future.
Over our 25 years of marriage, our mutually supportive relationship with each other, with God and with Nature has evolved and grown. I hope that the entwining of our hearts and lives reveals something of that ultimate universal union.
In recent years, our – and especially Janine’s – love for and appreciation of trees has steadily grown. I dedicate this blog to her, with love.
I’ve always tended to think of this time of year as as a season of dying back.
I’m increasingly discovering that that’s not the whole story, as many examples of wintry life become apparent, from tiny insects to fungi to migrating birds, as well as the endless regeneration happening beneath the surface of trees and soil.
The very colours of nature tell us that, even in the winter of our discontent, in the ‘valleys’ and ‘deserts’ of our lives, in the challenges and difficulties, when all hope seems lost and it feels like dying in our souls, something vibrant and luminous may be happening at a deeper level.
…as these winter leaves teach us.
Something seen only by the One who creates and shapes us.
It’s right up there in my top four favourite seasons – as I often joke – in the same way that each of my children is one of my favourites.
In other words, each season has its own special qualities.
In late August, as summer slips away, selfishly taking her warmth and wealth of wildlife away with her, I grieve as for a departing friend.
But when Autumn gets into full swing, I revel in her kaleidoscope of colours….
crunching through the crackle of fallen leaves as I walk Gorka, our dog, through our local woods…
…her juxtaposing shades of dark and light…
And running off-road through Autumn’s extravagant finery in these cooler conditions is the perfect cathartic activity for my work-stressed mind and body.
“Keep close to Nature’s heart and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” (John Muir, adapted)
Even driving is a pleasure as ornate leaves dance to the beat of seasonal winds in front of my car wheels.
Countless poets and writers have been inspired by this time of year to produce breathtaking pieces of literature.
I can’t possibly do justice to them or to Autumn herself, but I leave you with these photos (all taken in recent weeks) and these stumbling words of mine.
…and this final quote from John Muir:
“Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.”
(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)