AN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE
by Gerry McCarthy
On a recent Sunday night, my 13-year-old son and I looked across the southern waters of Georgian Bay in Ontario. It was a windy, cloudy, but unusually warm autumn evening. Sitting on top of an old aluminum boat that was resting on a beach, I mentioned to my son how small the earth seemed within the vastness of the universe.
My son connected with my thoughts that evening. He replied by saying that Jupiter is 318 times the mass of the earth. It was astonishing to behold.
At the risk of sounding sentimental, I think my son and I were intimately present to the natural world that evening. We both experienced a profound sense of awe at the mystery of God’s creation.
As our conversation continued, we dwelled on the impending drive home (and the start of another week of routine tasks, school, and homework). Then my son mentioned that one day he wanted to build a house on Brebeuf Island, which is located on the waters of Georgian Bay. He said he liked the idea of building from scratch, and being close to nature. The thought of isolation didn’t disturb him.
As a parent, I worry about my son embarking on such a plan when he’s older. How would he support himself? What about his security? Wouldn’t he be lonely? But then I was filled with a sense of hope when I considered the idea further. Despite the way our prevailing culture tries to murder unorthodox dreams and possibilities, my son had witnessed something in nature that excited him. Systems, ideologies, codes, conventions, and routines often constrain our most intimate hopes, dreams, and desires. But nature tells us things can be different.
Being present to the natural world that evening was particularly striking for me, because the previous afternoon I had visited downtown Toronto. Although I love the vibrancy of the city, I realized how easy it is to be alienated from nature among concrete buildings, subways, streetcars, and brutish traffic.
For most of my life, I’ve found myself attracted to the city as opposed to rural or natural settings. I’m afraid I’m a bit like American writer Fran Lebowitz who once
wrote: "To put it rather bluntly, I am not the type who wants to go
back to the land — I am the type who wants to go back to the hotel."
But I’ve come to understand nature differently. And I believe Catholic priest and theologian Thomas Berry is right when he says we must have a transformed relationship with nature.
A transformed relationship with nature can replenish the spirit, provide us with greater meaning in our lives, and strengthen our resolve to walk humbly and do justice.
A peculiar thing happened that Sunday evening when I looked upon the dark waters of Georgian Bay. As storm clouds grew, I didn’t fixate on the nasty weather that was likely to follow. Instead, in the midst of swirling winds and darkness, I witnessed a calmness and purposefulness. Something felt right.
Thomas Berry says the natural world is subject as well as object. "The natural world is the maternal source of our being as earthlings and the life-giving nourishment of our physical, emotional, aesthetic, moral, and religious existence," he explains. "The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human."
The life-giving nourishment we experience from nature isn’t about bolstering egos, acquiring a competitive edge, or surviving in a tough world. It’s more like recognizing the awesome gift of possibility, and the enduring hope that comes from God’s creation.
Gerry McCarthy is Editor of The Social Edge