I recently found myself standing in the midst of a forest full of redwoods and feeling oddly uncomfortable. Surrounded by rare giants, some of whom had fallen and some whom were still proudly displaying their two-thousand-year-old glory, I didn’t feel quite as I ought to have. At another time of life not so long ago, I might have been backpacking through a wilderness with trees like this, and would have felt a sense of fulfillment like no other that I’d ever known. I had previously been accustomed to feeling the strongest relief, refreshment, and enjoyment in the wilderness. But suddenly, in the midst of natural beauty, I felt a strange loneliness, a deep longing for more than just redwoods.
Nature – and I mean “nature” not in the philosophical sense, but rather the simple understanding of nature that we all grew up with (trees and such) – is incomplete. While this may sound heretical coming from a WCC grad, who for four years was immersed in nature and saw it as God’s first book, there is a reason that our entire education did not merely consist of outdoor excursions. Nature can jostle something in the soul – wake it up, help it realize that their is a deep longing for something greater – but it lacks something. A few moments ago I read a very simple sentence which revealed what this something is.
“Nature does not love one back.”
In her conversion story which she wrote for the book Chosen, Vivian Dudro (senior editor at Ignatius Press) reflects on the time she spent in an “eco-utopian” community in Oregon. Since childhood, Dudro had had a pagan fondness for nature; but in her college years, when she lived in a community devoted to sustainable living, her solitary moments in nature began to leave her wanting something.
“Ideologies aside, my childhood paganism awoke from its slumber that summer. Often I would steal away by myself to a picturesque spot in the forest and adore the beauty before me. These moments, however, left me gripped by loneliness and uncertainty, for nature does not love one back. Living outdoors as crudely as I was, I had no illusions that the trees, insects, and animals were friendly toward me…For all I knew, if there was a God, He might be only an impersonal clockmaker, who created the cosmos and all of its amazing mechanics but who is as indifferent to the sufferings of men as He is to a mudslide.”
While natural phenomena may spark thoughts of the divine, and for ages may have led people to think they are even divinities, you cannot commune with them as you wish. If you draw your idea of divinity solely from the natural world, you are left to believe that whatever higher being is in charge doesn’t care too much about you. No matter how much you may admire a meadow or a mountain, these things will always be indifferent to you. Lightning strikes willy nilly, and it has no reason not to strike you. You have no reason to believe that the provoked mama bear will have mercy on you, and every reason to believe that she will tear you apart. Mosquitoes will bite you and squirrels will try to steal your food. Nature, on its own, leaves us feeling lonely because we know deep down that it cannot reciprocate the wonderment we feel when we admire it.
But I think once someone recognizes this, they can return to nature fully aware of its indifference, and love it in a new way. I think this requires communion with one’s neighbors and with a God who is loving and actively involved in one’s life. For I know now that it was not nature alone that gave me such joy in my college years, but rather the combination of nature’s raw, unpredictable beauty and the companionship of people whom I cared about and whom I knew cared about me. And in those solitary moments outside of my cooking group, I could rely on an even firmer foundation – the knowledge that God does not strike people willy nilly, and can even prevent the natural processes He created from doing so, for the sake of those He loves.