The Eternal Resilience of Nature

It takes more than the destructive wake of extreme weather like Storm Eunice to stop Spring life from displaying her finest robes.

Tree in Alexandra Park, Hastings, brought down by Storm Eunice

Even if it means growing horizontally!

Crocuses and daffodils, still emerging from the base of the fallen tree

I can think of ordinary people in the news today, and many others closer to home, whose lives reflect the same kind of inspiring resilience. Downtrodden but not defeated. Rising up, proud and strong.

When Life Brings Storms…

…pick up the flowers.

Seaspray in 60mph+ winds at Hastings Pier

Last Friday, when Storm Eunice hit, they advised to avoid the seafront here in Hastings, where I live.

Horizontal waves at Harbour Arm, Hastings

Well, that was an invitation for some photography if ever I heard one!

Harbour Arm, Hastings

I had to get down there with my camera.

It was definitely a walk on the wild side, but so worth it!

Not only was I pleased with these results, but our local press used some of the pics as well.

Wave being whipped up vertically, then horizontally, by the wind
Gulls somehow managing to fly against the wind

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.

The Magic of Nature

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.

Dragonfly in Newgate Woods, where I walk my dog, Gorka, most mornings

A wealth of artists, from poets and singers such as Van Morrison[1], Mary Oliver and The Unthanks[2], to writers Richard Mabey[3], Brian McLaren[4] and Mackenzie Crook[5], 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.

Combe Valley

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.

My daughter with an exquisite male Orange-tip butterfly

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.

Highwoods

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.

My dog, Gorka, bedraggled and yellow-spangled, after running through a rape field!

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.[6]

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.

Little Egret, at Cuckmere Haven

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.”[7] 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!).

Trees – the Earth’s ‘lungs’

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.

My wife and daughter on Bulverhythe beach

Photos all mine and taken in glorious East Sussex.


[1] E.g. Sense of Wonder; In the Garden.

[2] Folk group featured in Detectorists and Worzel Gummidge

[3] Author of Nature Cure

[4] Author of God Unbound: Theology in the Wild

[5] Writer and star of Detectorists and Worzel Gummidge

[6] 1 John 4:20

[7] Andy Squyres

Hearts and Trees Entwined

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.

“The Naturalist too often loses sight of the essential oneness of all living beings, in seeking to classify them into kingdoms, orders, families, genera, species, etc…. while the eye of the Poet, the Seer, never closes on the kinship of all God’s creatures, and his heart ever beats in sympathy with great and small alike as ‘earth-born companions and fellow mortals, equally dependent on Heaven’s eternal love’.”

John Muir

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.

Ivy supported by birch.
“Ivy uses trees and walls for support, allowing it to reach upwards to better levels of sunlight. It is not a parasitic plant and has a separate root system in the soil and so absorbs its own nutrients and water as needed. Ivy does not damage trees and its presence doesn’t indicate that a tree is unhealthy, and it doesn’t create a tree-safety issue.” (Woodland Trust)

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.

Happy Silver Wedding Anniversary, sweetheart! x

The Colours of Winter

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.

I’m full of colour when You’re with me

You are the artist and You set me free

I’m still unfinished, You’re shaping my heart

You carve every detail, I’m Your work of art

Bright City – Colour

(Photos taken in my back garden)

Look at the trees!

It rained.

And rained.

And rained.

And the rain soaked up the colours of the trees,

and the colours of the trees soaked up the rain.

And the trees said, “Look at us!”

But all the people stayed at home, where it was dry.

Then the rain stopped and the people ventured out.

And even the sun stepped out for a moment,

beaming a spotlight on the rain-soaked colours,

and said, “Look at the trees!”

And so we did.

Tree soul

The other evening, my arms warmly wrapped around a young oak in a local woodland, I was enjoying fleeting thoughts about the symbiotic relationship between trees and people, reciprocal exchanges of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and the new-ish discoveries of how trees communicate and experience sensations…when a man passed by with his dog.

SHW
The scene of the crime: where I was caught tree-hugging (pic taken the same evening)

“Oops, that was embarrassing, being caught tree-hugging!” I quipped.

“It’s OK – I get it,” the man replied briefly but reassuringly as he quickly carried on.

To be honest, I think many of us get it – the importance not only of our relationship with nature and the benefits of that relationship, but also of the realisation that we are part of (although also separate from) nature.

Wild rose

Even if we don’t all go around hugging trees as an expression of that unity.

Over the years I’ve received some heart-warming compliments for my (very) amateur nature photography on social media. One friend said, “Your pictures bring me joy.”

Brown argus
Brown Argus

I guess I hope that in some way, my photos, such as the ones included here, are not simply pretty pictures – or even photos that inspire a love for nature. Although that would be enough. But also that they somehow convey something of my own – and your – relationship with nature.

Iron Prom
Iron Prominent moth on my hand

One thing that I’ve learned, through meditating on creation and its Creator (and reading Richard Rohr!), is that God is not only expressed in every thing, but, being Trinity (i.e. ‘Relationship’), God is somehow even more present in the loving, reciprocal relationships between those things, between us, and in those relationships that we have with the world around us.

Tortoiseshell on mallow
Small Tortoiseshell and mallow

Rohr puts it like this:

When we love something, we grant it soul, we see its soul, and we let its soul touch ours. We must love something deeply to know its soul (anima). Before the resonance of love, we are largely blind to the meaning, value, and power of ordinary things to “save” us and help us live in union with the source of all being. In fact, until we can appreciate and even delight in the soul of other things, even trees and animals, we probably haven’t discovered our own souls either. Soul knows soul through love, which is why it’s the great commandment (Matthew 22:36).

Hannah poppies

Now, to me, that sounds like a great reason to keep on tree-hugging.


(All photos mine. All taken recently except the one of my daughter with the poppies, taken in 2014. And all say something about reciprocal relationships.)

The Leaves of the Trees

The case for re-connecting with nature seems to never stop mounting.

Whether it’s advocates of forest school, to promote the healthy emotional and social development of children.

Or charities organising outdoor activities and mindfulness walks, for the mental health and wellbeing of adults.

These things need to be said and done, as ‘civilised’ society, without active efforts to stop itself, tends to slip further and further away from nature, to its own detriment and self-destruction.

“At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.” Carl Jung

It’s good to be reminded that humankind and nature are not two distinct things, but that humankind is part of nature. And that any mending of that artificial fracture brings us back to who we are. Back to the Source of our being.

A walk in the woods, as we know, is of utmost therapeutic benefit.

Interesting, then, that the last chapter of the Bible, looking forward to the renewed earth of a future age, describes a “tree of life” whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations”. In fact, the Greek word translated “healing” in this verse is therapeia, from which we have the English word therapy.

Trees and their leaves are indeed therapeutic.

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.” Oliver Sacks (neurologist and author).

There’s a silver stream of wisdom running through the ages, from ancient prophets to the climate activists, tree-huggers, nature conservationists, doctors and ordinary people of today, enticing communities back to our roots (pardon the pun) for individual and collective health and wholeness.

Simon & Garfunkel, mourning the unstoppable progress of change, sang that “the leaves that are green turn to brown.” But they often turn to red, yellow and gold, too.

This autumn, I hope that you, like me, will enjoy watching the leaves change and find breaths of new life as we walk among them.

And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 21:2

(all photos taken by me in Newgate Woods, Hastings)