(Wherein your editor violates the convention of politeness against speaking of politics, money or religion, and dares to risk offense by addressing that last subject.)
As a teenager I attended for two Summers a Methodist youth leadership training camp in the redwoods near Aptos. I don’t remember learning much about leadership, although perhaps I did. The main de facto emphasis was on structured socializing in a situation where the ratio was two boys to three girls. My greatest accomplishment in that realm the second year was to return home with two boyfriends. Beating the odds was very important. But the really important consequence, the one that stayed with me — unlike the boys — was an experience I had there in a circle of redwoods where I had what I thought of to myself at the time as a religious experience. It was only the first of many such experiences.
The way I remember it now: We were sitting on logs around a bonfire, singing and listening to someone talk to us. Along in the middle somewhere I tuned out. My awareness moved away from my body and rose into the darkness above the fire, where I heard the sweet voices and gained a broader perspective of the whole setting. The next thing I knew, I understood myself to be, thrillingly, awesomely, a part of everything, connected not only with all I could perceive here but also with a greater, unlimited wholeness of which this scene was just a small part. For the first time in my life, I experienced ecstasy.
The next thing I knew, I was back in my body, someone was throwing water on the fire and the gathering was breaking up for the evening. I walked back to the dorms alone, totally preoccupied with my experience, where I went quickly to sleep and blissful dreams. Given the circumstance, I forgive myself for misunderstanding for many years the real meaning of the event. That is, the context was Christian so I thought the connection I’d made was with Jesus. I somehow missed the more obvious perception — that the connection was with the redwoods and the natural world. I had no prior context for such a simple insight.
Forty years later our culture still has little context for such spiritual experiences. American society “allows” Native Americans their Earth-based spiritual life, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enviously. It frowns sternly on hallucinogenic drug attempts to generate a simulacrum. Further, it labels all others as beyond the pale: New Age flakiness. Even the new movement within some parts of Christianity, based upon Earth stewardship instead of Earth domination, tiptoes carefully around the idea of a profound bond with the planet. Intellectual or spiritual convictions, rationally arrived at, are acceptable; actual experiences raise questions of mental soundness.
But even denied an acceptable context, some people are finding their way to experiences of connection. They just don’t talk about it. Not wanting to be branded as New Age flakes, still they know that what they have is something vitally significant, a crucial foundation of their lives.
I am privileged to hear from many of you what you are doing and what you get out of it. The replies you gave to the reader survey question about that latter, some of which were published in the last issue, gave me the inspiration and courage to raise this subject now.
It doesn’t help that the experiences are so ineffable as to be extremely hard to verbalize, although people do try to explain. Their perspective has been transformed, and there are few avenues available where discussion about it is appropriate.
I wouldn’t presume to guess the percentage, but I know that a significant number of you are getting a spiritual benefit from your association with native plants. Those who confess this to me approach the matter very tentatively, and invariably make sure first to extract a promise not to publish what they have to say about it. It is too personal, makes them feel too naked, to go public.
They are willing to be quoted on more generally acceptable facets of the issue, things like, “We know that the natural world has the power to heal.” And “Studies prove gardeners live longer, with greater peace of mind, you know.” Or “The whole process [of growing natives] is very mysterious.”
Speaking for myself: One unexpected perquisite I gained with my change of perspective was an alteration in the way Nature’s other creatures perceive — and so relate to — me. Because I am, instead of being apart from, rather now a part of, the whole, and am not seen as a predator, critters treat me with a casual indifference and are comfortable being close. That’s the only way I can understand why a doe would bring me her newborns to keep safe and a squirrel deliver the single walnut I’d asked for.
Before all this, whenever I heard about people to whom creatures were close, I assumed they must be of saintlike character: Saint Francis, or a child of great purity. Now I know better. I am not known by my intimates as one of saintly character. I’m not even nice. If Nature’s creatures will cross the species boundary to get close to me, they’ll accept anybody.
Still, my experiences have made me a better person than I would be if I hadn’t had them. They started me on the path to a much larger vision, and have given me my life’s work.
While I do feel both lucky and honored, there is no sentimentality in my perspective. In fact, I may be more consciously ruthless than I was. I see and think now from the point of view of the health of the planet as a whole, and this results in opinions that, expressed, sometimes get me in trouble.
I have a firm conviction that the Earth is alive and intelligent, and that she has purpose. (I think she has memory, too, but that’s another story for another time.) When I choose a place to put a seed or plant in my garden, and it grows well there, I am elated to have divined a small aspect of Nature’s purpose, to have worked in partnership with her in an act of co-creation — with myself as the very junior partner. It is an accomplishment based more on intuition than on facts, but I get better at it the more I do it.
And because I have a native plant garden, now I don’t have to go to some remote place in the “wilderness” to obtain the spiritual refreshment that is Nature’s boon to all humans. I’m not going to hide anymore that my spiritual life derives from Nature. The connection makes my heart and spirit soar, and I am filled with joy. I can’t imagine living any other way.
I hope you’ll come out, too. Ollie, Ollie, oxen free.
If you enjoyed this piece you will find more like it in the segment Wildlife and Inspiration.
Copyright 1996 by Louise Lacey. All rights reserved.