11. Nature and spirituality



Ted Grimsrud

Bless the Lord, O my soul.  O Lord my God, you are very great.  You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment….You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken….You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst.  By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches.  From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.  You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart….O Lord, how manifold are your works!  In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.  Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.  There go the ships, and Leviathon that you formed to sport in it.  These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.  When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.  When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.  May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in the Lord’s works – who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.  I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. – Psalm 104

            When I first outlined these reflections on spirituality, I knew that I had to spend some time reflecting on the connection between nature and spiritual encouragement in my life.  However, as I thought about it more, I was not particularly clear how it has been that nature has been important for me.  How has my experience of nature been a source of spiritual encouragement?

            This is pretty difficult for me to answer, actually, because essentially, I am pretty much an indoor kind of person.  I like to read, sit around and talk, listen to music, cook and eat, watch sports on TV.  These are some of my main activities.  It is also true, certainly, that I do like to be outside.  I like to bike, to go for drives in the country.  I like walks – since we got our dog I enjoy taking her out in the morning.  I used to love to jog before sore knees and spare tires slowed me down.  Nonetheless, I certainly do not live to be outside.

            Growing up in Elkton, Oregon, way out in the country, people whose lives’ highlights were hunting and fishing surrounded me.  Neither of these activities ever interested me much – though I fished enough to get a bit of sense of the appeal.  Maybe if I had caught something now and then I would have liked it better.  I also never got into camping, backpacking or skiing.  It is a shame, I suppose, to grow up in this area with its ocean, mountains – the great outdoors – and be an indoor kind of person.  Maybe the genes of my parents are more significant than my environment.

            Nevertheless, when I look inside, when I think and reflect, I do feel that for me nature and spirituality connect closely tied together.  An awareness of, an experience of nature is important for my spiritual wellbeing.  My soul needs some sort of contact with nature.

            As I have reflected more self-consciously about this, I see at least two ways in which this is the case for me.  First, I need a sense of nature as “background.”  I find encouragement in seeing trees, fields, hills, rivers, mountains, birds, squirrels, an occasional deer or raccoon.  There is something alive here, something vital, something beautiful.  I do not have to immerse myself totally in nature to experience it as life enhancing.  Simply to sit at my desk and look out and see the trees and watch the squirrels and birds is encouraging to my soul.  The few times I have lived in more urban settings I have felt a bit of alienation from being farther from nature.

            More specific – and maybe more important – the second way nature is important to me has to do with “the river.”  I believe the connection I feel with rivers, especially “my” river, the Umpqua, is a major source of life for me.  After thinking this through, I feel this even more.  The connection goes very deep, and continues even though it has been many years since I spent time on the Umpqua.  I have this feeling recharged each time I get to be by a river, biking or walking.

            When I was growing up, my family lived in a house right next to the river.  My earliest memories include the river by the back yard.  Every spring when the water went down, we had to build a new trail down to the river-bank.  We would do that as soon as we could and from then on I was down there as often as I could be.

            We would swim in what we called the Duck Pond below our house.  My mother says I never showed any fear of the water.  They had to watch me closely when I was little.  If they did not, I would wade out and keep going until I was over my head.  A little farther out, across a shelf of bedrock, was the deep water.  We called this the Channel.  This is where the older kids would swim.  When I was in my teens, virtually every day during the summer, in the afternoon I would go down to the river and over to the Channel.  There I would find several friends and we would swim for hours.  The most fun was swimming in the rapids a little ways up river.

            The river was a great place to go to be alone, too.  We were on the edge of town, so hardly anyone ever came as far as our place.  Plus, the brush on the bank worked well for secret forts.  I did a few things there I did not tell my parents about.  Another exciting characteristic of the river was that almost every year it flooded.  Only twice that I remember did the flood get high enough to hurt anything.  Usually it did get up in the field below our house and leave driftwood.  These piles of driftwood also worked well for forts.

            I have many such memories.  Every day I would pay attention to the river as I walked along it to school.  Many days I would visit it.  The part of it that runs deepest, though, is the sound.  My bedroom was upstairs directly above the river and I always heard it flowing by.  Of course, the times I heard it the most were summer nights with my window open.  I could hear the river and the crickets kind of harmonizing.

            I am sure that the reason I have felt so readily the connection between nature and spirituality is because of my river.  It, in some sense, has made an indelible stamp on my soul.  It is almost like what they say about a newborn baby listening to a sound like its mother’s heartbeat.  That connects with something primal in the baby’s soul.  Maybe a river sound is like that for me.  I know that whenever I am by a river I feel something nourishing from just listening to it – and I am always reluctant to leave.

            I hesitate to make generalities from my feelings about rivers.  However, I believe I can speak of what I have learned about myself, about nature, and even about God from how I have experienced the river.  I would like to mention several.

            I have learned something about tranquility.  The sound of the river soothes my soul.  A number of years ago while living in Eugene, Oregon, I faced a major trauma in my life.  During that time, I went out many mornings for a ten-mile bike ride up one side of the Willamette River and down the other.  It is a beautiful ride, mostly on bike paths.  Sometimes I would be especially agitated, and after awhile I would start relaxing – especially when I consciously listened to the river.

            I think part of what I have always felt from what the river says is a sense of permanence.  No matter what hassles and changes and upsets are going on, the river song keeps playing.  Now the course of the Umpqua changes gradually, even in my few years I noticed changes.  Still, the river keeps flowing.  When we lost the big game in sports I would walk home afterwards, weary, discouraged.  The river remained.  I knew it would always be there.  It was a major constant.  It spoke of life going on.  It spoke of keeping things in perspective.  It spoke of constancy amidst motion.

            When I have gone back to Elkton, I drive along our old road, by the river.  I think how it just keeps on going even after I have moved away.  It will continue doing so.  We buried my parents in the town graveyard that also overlooks the river.  Somehow it comforts me to think of them by that ever-flowing river.  It helps me realize that earth survives our passing – that I don’t hold the world on my shoulders.

            Along with permanence, though, the river also speaks of constant change.  Life keeps going.  Time never stands still.  Just the flowing water shows this.  I remember being fascinated during high water with watching different objects float by, often pieces of driftwood.  I used to love to watch them and wonder where they had come from and where they would end up.  The river never stops.

            Life never stops.  Sometimes this characteristic of life overwhelms.  A video game I used to like to play was Tetris.  In Tetris, different shapes drop from the top of the TV screen.  Your job is to move them around so they fit together to make a solid line across.  When you have a solid line it disappears.  The shapes never stop falling down.  As long as you make solid lines you have room for the shapes.  Eventually, though, you mess up and the shapes reach to the top.  Then, boom!, the game is over.  The shapes never stop falling down.  Life is like that sometimes.  Things never stop.  Each day drops on us without ceasing.

            Even when this continuous motion of life moving relentlessly along, even when this is manageable, change is often sad.  With change, some pieces are lost.  That is the way the river is too.  The constant motion of water, especially on a so-called “wild river” with no dams on it, changes the course of the river.  I mentioned the swimming hole we called the Duck Pond.  By the time I was in junior high, the river had shifted enough that the water did not flow through that section any more at all during the summer.  The pond would get very stagnant and was unswimmable.  So we could not use what had been a great swimming hole.

            The river speaks of the permanence of life in nature, the permanence of nature, at least way beyond our own transience.  It also speaks of change, even of loss and sadness.  We get in trouble when we forget one side of this.  We may want life to stay exactly the same, forgetting that to live at all is to change.  We can never simply stand still and build a shrine which will make a moment of transcendence last forever.  On the other hand, sometimes all we live for is change.  We forget that we are part of an ongoing story which began long before us and will keep going after we are gone.  As we contribute to that story, we perhaps contribute most significantly when we simply accept that we play only a small part.  By trying to take too much onto ourselves we will likely cause greater disruption than accomplishment.

            The river reminds us that so much of what life is about is relinquishment of desire for control.  The tranquility of its ongoing song evokes a sense of trust.  There are elements of life that we can count on.  These need our respect more than our innovation.  The biblical confessions about creation tell us that creation witnesses to the creator’s loving kindness and immense vitality and life-giving power.  The biblical confessions make clear that part of the river’s song, in its permanence, tells of the trustworthiness of God’s loving-kindness.

            I have also learned from the river of shear beauty.  Nothing in nature touches my soul quite so deeply as the beauty of a river.  Many other places are beautiful.  Rocky Mountain Park in Colorado, the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia and Alberta, up and down the Pacific Coast, Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, the Arizona desert in spring, are all beautiful.  However, nothing touches me like the beauty of a river.  The light reflecting on the water in the evening, the birds, the various trees crowding the riverbank, rocks, wild flowers, the changing seasons – on and on.

            My point is not that rivers are more beautiful than anything else.  Rather, I want simply to speak of something profound that I have experienced.  Many elements go into our basic orientation toward life.  One of the main issues is – is life fundamentally good or not?  Is God our friend, or playing games with us?  Can we trust or must we always fear?  How we answer these questions goes very deep into our soul.  Experiencing beauty in nature is not in itself enough to prove that God is love.  Some people who are out in nature the most are not very kind or loving.  However, I believe growing up next to the beauty of the Umpqua River helped sensitize me to the notion that creation is good.  The creator is good.  The world, ultimately, is a place in which I feel at home.

            Along with beauty, I would also like to mention enjoyment.  I experienced much joy in relation to the river.  For shear pleasure, I doubt if I will often match the feeling after working outside on a summer day.  I might be hauling hay or working in the woods, getting dirty, sweaty, miserably hot.  Finally, the working day is over.  We head for the river.  That water is so cool.  You feel like you would almost choose to get so hot and dusty for free, since it feels so good finally to dive in the river.

            Probably the funnest activity for me, though, was swimming down the rapids.  It was kind of dangerous – though none of us ever got hurt.  It was a difficult trek upstream walking on rocks and gradually treading your way.  It was worth it when we got in that white water, with or without an inner tube, and raced down.  You needed to do it with friends.  It wasn’t that much fun (or safe) to go by yourself.  You had to have someone to wrestle with, to race, or at least to laugh at.   There were some guys I was not that fond of most the time, but when we were on the river we relaxed and had fun together.

            The last point I want to mention is of a quite different sort.  Along with beauty and joy, I also experienced fear from the river.  This is something I appreciate more now, and I think it is a key part of the wisdom of nature.  I have mentioned the floods.  Usually they were just interesting and fun to observe.  One year, though, we had the proverbial “hundred year flood,” that supposedly hits every century or so.  Our house was on a hill at the edge of a tiny valley.  We looked down at the river.  In December 1964, when I was ten, the river entered our house, about five feet deep in the basement.  If you saw the house under normal conditions, you would never guess the river could get so high.

            We actually came out of it okay, better than many people.  The flood did not damage the house.  We lost our garage and small apple, peach, and cherry orchards.  Worst of all, my bedroom was in the basement, and I lost my comic books and games.  The night of the worst flooding, I felt terrified.  We were going to be evacuated, but we had to wait for the crew of volunteers to get to our house and help us move.  My parents sent me to stay with a friend and said they would be joining me in a couple of hours.  They did not come and did not come.  I began to fear that something had happened.  I have probably never been so scared.  They finally made it, safe and sound.  I went with my father the next day to see the current of floodwater flowing through my bedroom.  That was quite a sight.

            The river took its toll in other ways.  Almost once a year, someone drowned, almost always someone from out of town who did not know the river.  One year, the high school football team drank stagnant water from the Duck Pond after practice.  Many of them came down with encephalitis from the bacteria in the water.  They all recovered, but had to cancel two games.

            It is not a tame river.  We loved it.  We benefited from it in many ways.  Maybe we took it for granted.  However, we did not own it.  We did not control it.  It could take a nip out of us every now and then.  I have been learning quite a bit lately about the idea of accepting the so-called shadow-side or dark side of who we are.  This idea of the dark side goes counter to any type of sentimental or perfectionist spirituality.  We are also “evil, wicked, mean and bad and nasty” along with being loveable and capable of much good and creativity.  Both sides go into the whole.  We will not experience sustained growth and encouragement until we come to terms with all of what we are as human beings.  Thinking back, my river helped prepare to understand this a little better.

            I find now that my understanding of the Bible helps me to make more sense out of my experience of the river, of nature.  The Bible contains numerous texts that speak of creation, of nature, of a creator.  Genesis one tells us that God created what is and called it good – the waters, the fishes, the birds, trees, and all other living creatures.  God called it good.  John one adds to the theme by tying the good creation with christology.  The Word was with God.  God infused the same reality of life and love and creativity you see in Jesus in the very creation itself.  The Word was life – and the darkness did not overcome it.

            Psalm 104 goes into some detail about the creator and creation.  God sets the earth on its foundations and it shall never be shaken.  God gives the water that sustains life.  The earth is satisfied with the fruit of God’s work. In wisdom God made all of the earth’s creatures.

            Texts like these help to understand the significance of my experience of the river.  I derived life from that experience, the kind of life that is foundationally a part of creation.  These texts point toward a loving creator, apprehensible in creation.  The tranquility, the sense of change, the beauty, the joy, I have experienced all also point to a loving creator, apprehensible in creation.  Even the fearfulness points to a loving creator.  This creation, like the creator, isn’t just for my purposes.  Trust does emerge from finding the creation witnessing to the creator’s loving-kindness.  However, this trust is not faith that all will always go well.  It is not faith that creation is always nice, nor that I will always be nice.

            It is something much more subtle.  Ultimately, the nourishment my soul gets from my experience of nature has to do with finding that life, all in all, is good.  In ways I can’t fully understand, love does exist.  Creativity does exist.  Beauty and joy do exist.  My experience of them all is partial.  To trust in their reality, though, all I have to have is some awareness that they are.  This awareness comes in various ways.  One key way for me is becoming aware of love, creativity, beauty, and joy – and fearfulness – in nature.  I am thankful for my river for helping that to happen.

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