to Nature's Spirit
Article and photographs by Sylvie Shaw
Every time we look up and see a cloud and understand it, we are closer
to understanding ourselves. When we pick up a rock and admire it instead
of heaving it at something, we are closer to some ultimate truth. When
we hear a bird and stop for the sheer pleasure of that sound, we are
nearer to real life than we were before. When we acknowledge beauty,
we benefit from it most. (Caras, 1977 quoted in Swanson, 2000).
of years ago I did an earth education workshop with Steve Van Matre. The
exercise we did at the beginning of the workshop was deeply moving. It
was a simple exercise about the inspiration that flows from nature.
Steve divided the group into three the actors, the poets and the
witnesses. He then asked the actors to place themselves at various vantage
points around a magnificent gum tree from standing at a distance
from the tree and admiring it from afar to close up and personal, lying
on the ground looking up at the sky through the leaves, touching the bark
and smelling the leaves.
He then asked each person to suggest two qualities, attributes or characteristics
of the tree which reflected their experience and asked the poets to write
each of the qualities down. Their task was to write an ode to the tree
using only these expressions with minimal linking words. The final result
was then performed for the whole group. It was a way of seeing nature
in a different light, a simple exercise that changed the way we saw that
tree. It also made us more aware of the importance of trees in our lives
in terms of processing carbon dioxide into oxygen and generating rain.
Simple things that are easy to forget in the modern nature disconnected
Steves exercise opens up the senses. It shifts our perception about
elements in the natural world. From my research, it is this kind of direct
sensory experience with nature from childhood onwards that appears to
make the difference about caring for the environment. Having knowledge
and information about environmental destruction does not necessarily galvanize
people into action. Instead it can lead to indifference, to a kind of
psychic numbing, because of the enormity of the issue (Macy, 1995). What
makes the difference is frequent, meaningful encounters with the natural
These encounters take on the meaning of the sacred, or of the spiritual
through the process of creating relationship with nature.
Sacred in Nature
I define spirituality as the process of creating relationship with what
we hold to be sacred. By sacred I do not mean something set
apart but something inclusive of and interactive with the everyday; something
held dear; something to be respected, revered, treasured and protected.
In this definition the sacred winds through the ordinary and the everyday
as an animating vital lifeforce or spirit.
But I wonder if there are perhaps two sources of sacredness. One is reflected
in the notion that the earth is sacred through the animating lifeforce
connecting the mysterious and infinite complexities
of the natural word (Metzner, 1995:61). In this picture nature itself
is the expression of the holy (Mills, 1994). An example of this understanding
of the sacred is apparent in the observation from nature writer Barry
Lopez (1986:228) who writes that the land retains an identity of
its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can ever know.
Then there is the more human-centred position, where special places and
symbolic objects become sanctified by creating relationship with them.
Here Lopez offers an evocative image of relationship building. On his
evening walks while camped in the Arctic regions of Alaska, he would bow
in homage to the intense and concentrated beauty, to the birds
and animals who revelled in the freezing conditions, and to the
serene Arctic light that came over the land like breath, like breathing
(ibid., xx). Here the outer landscape merges with the inner terrain and
takes our breath away.
As Lopez describes, experiences of the sacred in nature can be deeply
felt in wild places. Studies of spiritual experience in such places have
found that people share a number of common elements in the way they experience
their spiritual connection (Stringer & McEvoy, 1992; Fox, 1999). Being
in wild nature engenders a sense of mystery about the world; a sense of
awe or wonderment about the earth or particular naturescape; a sense of
connectedness or oneness with the natural world; a profound feeling of
transcendence (within and without); a belief in a power greater than oneself;
and an appreciation of the beauty in nature. It sparks feelings of inner
peace, hope, joy and empowerment; promotes physical and emotional well-being,
and brings about significant changes in attitude and behaviour
(Fox, 1999:459. See also Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Hartig et al., 1991;
Wild Nature Encounters
My research (Shaw, 2001) has focused on the connection between nature
connecting, spiritual practice and environmental activism. I spoke with
a number of people about their nature connecting experiences in order
to find out what makes them care for nature so much, they want to take
action to protect it. I found that the foundation of their activism was
spawned through their childhood adventures in nature, particularly experiences
which were somewhat risky, adventuresome and often undertaken alone. So
how is that experience channelled into their lives now?
Kirk is a landscape designer. His aim is to create sacred gardens and
he ensures that every garden he constructs includes an area for compost
and vegetables so the clients will go outside and interact with
nature like they havent done before. He also pursues his activism
through Spiral Connection, a group which organizes regular drug and alcohol
free dance parties where sacred ritual and flashy drumming are an integral
part of the celebration. He also teaches yoga, studies Buddhism and is
passionate about surfing.
I go surfing I enjoy the interaction with the environment. I enjoy the
kind of primordial excitement, the sense that great big black shadow
under the board could go 'boom boom' which reminds me how fragile I
am as a human being. It is also the exquisiteness of nature. You sit
there and watch a piece of water about a foot square, and the changes
in the colour and the patterns and the textures. It's constantly moving
and changing like some incredible science fiction ball that you'd get
in a novelty shop, except it's happening right there, while at the same
time, the board is rocking, and you're feeling the temperature of the
water, and then you feel the wave and you paddle, paddle, paddle, and
the board picks you up and it's total zen. Youre not thinking
about your shopping, or your girlfriend or where you'll be going next
week. Youre 100 percent focussed in that moment. There's no future,
no past, it's right now. And I can't think of anything else that gives
you that feeling. It's playing with something so much greater than myself
in many ways. So much more powerful and extremely pleasurable and sensuous
- it's wildly sensuous. It's warm and sensuous in summer, but in winter,
it's ice-cream head cold. But Im not thinking spiritually necessarily
when I'm on the board. Oftentimes Im going through a whole range
of emotions - it's exciting but it's in awe of the beauty of nature.
Kirk describes surfing in religious terms as total zen where
he is playing with something so much greater, and losing himself
in that moment between life and possible death. Other outdoor
activists like climbers and white-water kayakers talk about their experience
in similar ways. The sense of being totally immersed in the task, so much
so that you lose your own sense of self and become totally at one
with whatever you are doing, is what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) refers
to as flow experience. La Chappelle (1988:56) illustrates
just how this process works for her when rock climbing.
bliss takes over. Its extremely difficult to explain this to non-climbers.
Its a state of total relaxation, total joy and incredible thankfulness
that the mountain is allowing you to do this - to proceed so gracefully,
beautifully down the vertical rock, always giving you something to hold
onto in passing. Its being "at home", totally completely
"at home" like no where else. ... Theres no adrenalin
when you feel so safe, so good, so flowing. Its total relaxation
(La Chapelle, 1988:56).
For me, rock climbing is like dancing with the rock. Some days it flows
wonderfully as La Chapelle describes, but at other times, if I am stressed
or anxious, I become glued to the rock, unable to move, fighting my own
demons and my fear. On one occasion, I remember standing on a tiny ledge
of a slab climb called Brolga at Mt. Arapiles; stuck about thirty meters
above the ground, unable to move up or down. The handhold above me was
way out of reach. I tried the move repeatedly without success and just
as I was about to give up, I suddenly felt my fingers lock into the elusive
handhold above. And I was there. I have no idea how I managed to do it.
It was as if the rock itself had stretched my hands upwards and placed
my fingers on the hold. As if the rock was climbing me. Outdoor educator
Peter Martin (1993:12) also loves Arapiles and confirms my feeling that
the rock lives.
find words to describe how Arapiles lives. I lack the language to describe
the deeply personal knowledge I have of Arapiles. Its missing
because I grew up in a culture that treats humans as separate from all
But I do know Arapiles "lives", just as
I know my partners face in a crowd of a thousand others but cant
explain why. Polyani (1966, p.6) has called this knowing "tacit
knowledge". I think it is important to recognize we can know and
learn more than we are able to articulate (Martin, 1993:12).
Most people I spoke to who are involved with outdoor pursuits experience
similar feelings. They have a tacit knowing about the aliveness of the
nature that moves them toward feelings of self-transcendence, describing
them as epiphanies or peak experiences - revelatory
episodes of a transcendent or mystical nature (Maslow, 1964; Coxhead,
1985). Marcus, for example, began surfing when he was 37 years old and
after catching his first wave, he was hooked.
There are times when you go into the water, you stretch your arms
out and you let the wave hit you straight in the full body and you go
This is it! It is such an unbelievable experience, such
a blissful experience. And a spiritual experience, yes. Its like
an incredible love. Its simply being in the wave, and riding the
board is secondary. Its cleansing you, washing all the cares and
worries away. You come back absolutely cleansed.
For Marcus, there is a sense of well-being in nature not simply a sense
of being at one with nature. This fits in more with the notion of transcendent
experience, as do the words he uses unbelievable, blissful,
spiritual and incredible love - to describe his
experience. Coxhead (1985:48) comments that these spontaneous mystic
experiences of oneness with nature are so common they have spawned
a classification of their own - nature mysticism. It is chactacterized
by flashes of illumination, a feeling of unity, a sense of joy, bliss
and peace, a transcendence of time and space, a sense of the numinous,
and a change in attitude and behaviour. Bound up in these experiences
is a sense of the magic of the unknown, humility in the face of something
bigger than ourselves and a spiritual intimacy which Coxhead (1985) defines
as grace. Birth educator and counsellor Rhea describes such an experience
while out running one day. Her calling to that profession was stimulated
by what happened on this occasion.
One day, while I was out running, and it was in the springtime,
a gorgeous spring day and I was feeling that fantastic feeling when
your body is doing what it is designed to do and its doing it
well. Like the body is singing. I was going through a field where there
were a lot of sheep and I came across the moment when a ewe was giving
birth to a lamb. And at that point I saw a halo spread right around
this scene, around this mother and this baby. At first I could see this
shimmering, a palpable energy that was around the ewe and her lamb.
I felt a bit like an intruder but I could also feel this strong, strong
vibration. This happened long before I had made contact with the spiritual
group that I belong to, and well before my vocation came. When I came
out of that experience, it was like a transcendent experience, I just
burst into tears, tears of wonder and release. I was not really conscious
of working out what it was. I had the experience and kept running. But
then, later on, and again before I had my first child, when I first
came into this spiritual energy that now sustains me in my life, I changed
my name to Rhea. Now here I am doing this work and I think Rhea probably
describes the essence well. Rhea was one of the Greek goddesses, she
was the mother.
This transformative experience happened well before Rhea became
a home birther as if it was some sort of calling and an honouring
of what the calling is about. But the element of Christian religious
imagery is also strong - the shimmering halo and the strong feeling of
vibration and palpable energy. It was an encounter which changed her life.
The common theme among all of these examples is an expression the sacred
in the outdoors. These spiritual experiences emerge through creating relationship
with place or with elements in nature. They came about spontaneously but
have a lasting impact, at least this is what Vivianne found when she encountered
the other in the wilderness. Vivianne teaches people about
nature spirituality based on the teaching of the theologian Thomas Berry.
In the following story, she was taught an important lesson about how to
walk lightly in nature.
It was in one of Tasmanias wonderful national parks. Id
gone on a five day hike with my kids and I thought I'd die on the first
day. Here I am, over fifty years old and with a bad back, and you have
to carry all your food up this very steep mountain. When we finally
got there, I was exhausted. But by the second day I had recovered enough
to go walking through an old pencil pine forest, a wonderful old growth
forest, and this is where my pride comes in. I found a really old tree
that looked so amazing with branches hanging down to the ground, that
I decided to sit under it. But as I sat down the tree rebuked me. It
was so humbling. The tree said, "How dare you just blunder in and
sit down without asking permission! Don't you realise there is a whole
community of beings you've just sat on?" It was the most extraordinary
rebuke for someone whos supposed to be pretty ecologically aware.
It was really powerful and immediately I jumped up and apologised to
the tree and approached it again, this time properly. Then, very chastened,
I went on with my walk. When I came back a few hours later, there was
a hawk feather right there where I had sat. It was such a stunning lesson.
Now I always ask permission. It was a sacred place, but in my delirium
I just assumed I could go in there and be blessed.
Wild spirituality, as Vivianne discovered, can be humbling as well as
healing. Despite her awareness, she had to learn to be more respectful
of the land. Asking permission of the naturespace becomes an important
part of the outdoor experience. Building relationship with the natural
world goes hand in hand with the outdoor challenge. The aim is to try
to create an awareness of the friendship and partnership between people
Steps Towards Experience
While nature is the teacher, healer and inspiration, the role of the outdoor
educator can be to help manifest these experiences to guide the
students along a pathway towards the possibility of touching the sacred.
Several books list a number of exercises for building relationship with
nature - James Swans Nature as Teacher and Healer; Ruth Baetzs
Wild Communion. Experiencing Peace in Nature.; the marvellous autobiography
by Paul Rezendes entitled The Wild Within; and the on-line nature connecting
courses of Michael Cohen www.
pacificrim.com; www. ecopsychology.com;
Most begin with simple physical exercises - something as basic as standing
still and breathing. Beginning loose body movements and warm up exercises.
Getting people to connect with their bodies in some way.
How do we feel in different naturescapes and ecosystems is there
a difference between how we feel in a dark rainforest or open desert,
a cave or mountain top, an ocean or city park, a sunny or rainy day, the
The next step is to explore the senses further to awaken the smells,
sounds, feelings, by touching, sniffing, looking (really looking!), listening
(even to the silence and the sounds of your own body), tasting (if appropriate).
Find a special place in nature and spend time there. A place that calls
you. Take a notepad and paper if you like. Write feelings, ideas, poetry.
Be aware of the movements in nature wind, spiders climbing, bees
flying, waves lapping etc. What attracts you? What seems to call you?
Reflect on the experience.
Find an object in nature. Describe that object in objective terms
its characteristics, colour, shape, smell. Bring the object into awareness
and try to get inside the object. Reflect on what its characteristics,
particularly the words you use to describe it, mean for you. Does the
butterfly have a symbolic meaning for you about transformation? Or the
surging waves about the need to go with the flow? Attributes
of ourselves are highlighted in the characteristics of the objects we
are attracted to. What they tell us. What metaphors and messages they
suggest may pave the way for personal transformation.
Watch the night sky. And reflect on your place in the universe. Look at
the patterns in clouds. Watch the sunrise or sunset and notice the colours,
the patterns of shadows, the sounds, the intensity of the light, how does
it affect you?
Look at a tree. Then ask permission of the tree, asking the tree if it
has a message for you? Do any words or feelings come to you? Is there
a difference between the experiences? Ask permission of the place where
you are going to climb, kayak, surf etc.
Devise a ritual of thanks to the place for allowing you to do the outdoor
activity. Select an object that attracts you in nature asking permission
if you can bring it to a central altar. Swanson (2000) says
rituals are formed by weaving together words, sounds, gestures, movements.
The focus of the ritual could be the creation of a sculpture in nature,
a sand painting or mandala using the objects from the local terrain; you
can read from poems or something youve written; tell stories; sing;
dance; chat; drum and make other forms of music or stand silently.
Nature connecting for some people comes naturally. For others it requires
practice. Enjoy them and dont forget to have fun and play too.
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Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden.
Coxhead, Nora (1985) The Relevance of Bliss. A Contemporary Exploration
Experience. Hounslow, Middlesex: Wildwood House.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990) Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
New York: Harper & Row.
Fox, Rebecca (1999), "Enhancing Spiritual Experience in Adventure
Programs", in John C. Miles & Simon Priest (eds.) Adventure
Programming. State College, PA: Venture Publishing, Inc.
Kaplan, Stephen & Jane F. Talbot (1983), "Psychological Benefits
of Wilderness Experience", in Altman, Irwin & Joachim F. Wohlwill
(eds.) Behaviour and the Environment. New York: Plenum Press.
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Concerning Deep Ecology and Celebrating Life. Silverton, CO: Finn
Lopez, Barry (1986) Artic Dreams. Imagination and Desire in a Northern
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Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club.
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Teachings. New York: Berkley Books.
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in B. L. Driver et al. (eds.) Nature and the Human Spirit. Toward an
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