Nature as a Source of Health? Nature as opposed to . . . in contrast to . . . as an alternative to . . . what? Which “Nature” are we talking about?
“This is my Father’s World . . . All Nature Sings and ‘round me rings the music of the spheres”? In the singing nature of the familiar hymn the Great Chain of Being ordered the hierarchical motion of stars and planets, cherubim and seraphim, humans over animals, Lords over serfs, and health was likely associated with knowing and keeping one’s place. How different from Thomas Jefferson’s Nature, the lawful pattern of the starry skies and source of the natural “inalienable” rights he wrote of in the American Declaration of Independence.
How different from both of these was the Nature of Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau and that of their late nineteenth-century spiritual heir, John Muir. Transcendentalist Nature was a creative confusion, a combination of two inconsistent ideas: visible material Nature as an emblem or even sacrament of a divine reality versus matter as mere appearance, a veiling an Absolute Mind that lay behind. The first, sacramental view of Nature called for an ethic of harmony and identification with Nature and an appreciation of Her sublime beauty and power. The second view of Nature as veil and illusion motivated an ethic of mastery over nature by the power of the mind.
Hints of these Transcendentalist views lie behind Lesson 12 in the SDA Adult Bible Study Guide, but in the foreground, inevitably, is Ellen White (MH 261-68; PP 49-50). Ellen White’s Nature is God’s Physician and she has a clear and decided answer to my query about “Nature as opposed to what.” Nature as opposed to the City, of course, the City as Humanity’s disease. Ellen White’s city has streets full of noise, excitement, confusion as people anxiously pursue luxuries and live constrained, artificial lives of fashionable excess. It is a place of smoke, dust, poisonous gases and full of temptations for people of unnatural appetites. Her Nature, in stark contrast, is a place of pure air, glad sunshine, flowers and trees, orchards and vineyards, outdoor exercise and gardening. Ultimately, it is a contrast between Eden and the Fallen World. Thus says the lesson author, paraphrasing Mrs. White: “After all, God put our first parents in a garden, not in a city square. Something in us resonates better with a field of lilies than it does with an asphalt parking lot.”
I ran these ideas past a live Sabbath School class some weeks ago and Mrs. White’s binary of Nature versus City came in for some severe deconstruction. Adventists had done a lot of evil with their rejection of the city, asserted one member. Clinging to an outdated reaction against nineteenth-century urban growing pains, they had ignored the many well-developed efforts to make cities liveable with parks and open space, sanitation and housing codes, mixed income residential developments and the like. They remained ignorant of and/or hostile to the vibrant diversity and cultural richness of urban life. The implication was that Ellen White, or rather the misuse of Ellen White had perpetrated this evil. Another member offered a more specific cautionary tale of a relative in Africa who had established a mission hospital in a city, directly defying church administrators who insisted on Mrs. White’s counsel to establish healing centers in the country. What the medical missionary knew that the church leaders were blind to was that in Africa “Nature” meant the bush, the realm of predators and parasites where human life was likely to be nasty, brutish, and short. The City, on the other hand, was the place where human artifice could create an environment friendly to human life. To locate a center for healing and health in the bush was, for Africans, a dangerous absurdity.
Another member, a biologist, pointed out that when we idealize Nature, we have to be pretty selective. The Black Death that cut European population by a third in the late middle ages was, after all, a natural process. The Quarterly’s Lesson 12 chimes in that Nature, after the Fall, is full of violence and terrors. As I write, Japanese authorities are responding to a deadly tsunami triggered by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake just off their northeastern shores. That too, is nature.
When Nature, then, becomes for us a source of health and healing or of inspiration and revelation, we must recognize it as a Nature we ourselves have constructed. Of course we do not construct our Nature out of thin air or free parts. Rather, we select the portions that are meaningful to us for our particular purposes. Mrs. White’s Nature-as-Physician and refuge from the City is one such construction. Like every other item in our religions, it is an earthen vessel that held God’s treasure of light for a time, still holds it for some, in some places.
Nevertheless, despite all this relativizing of the idea of Nature, and recognizing all the violence and danger and death we find in natural processes, no one in the class I led were prepared to dismiss entirely the idea that there was something restorative, something life-giving in whatever it is we try to grasp when we speak of Nature. A long-time colleague who has rendered long, varied, and distinguished service to our community remarked, with great understatement, that he does a lot in and around PUC and the church, and loves what he does. Nevertheless, he finds the long walks he takes in the mountains east of Calistoga, California, an essential contrast and respite to this work he loves. Even the member who loves the city recognized the importance of parks and open space for a liveable urban environment--Nature preserved and cultivated by human artifice in the midst of the city. And of course my Calistoga colleague’s favored trails are preserved as Nature for his use by a state park. For Nature to be restorative and healing it appears to require a good deal of taming and protecting by the human beings it heals.
And so, tomorrow morning according to habit, I will take my own Sabbath “nature hike” by way of a kayak on Lake Hennesey, a small reservoir created by an earthen dam across Conn Creek, the stream that flows through Angwin, California, my home town. As the sun has risen on this small gem of “Nature” created by the City of Napa for its water supply, I have watched Eagles and Osprey fight it out in the air for fishing rights in the water. I have seen and photographed Western Grebes nesting in the reeds and then later carrying their chicks on their backs as they swim and dive. I have watched river otters munch on crayfish. All this is a delight, although not for the crayfish. I get good exercise in the pure air and rising sunlight, amongst the flowers and trees that Ellen White seems to have had in mind when she spoke of Nature.
And then there are rare moments like the piercing, sweet, and startlingly loud exchange between two Common Loons I witnessed last April. They raised the echoes, creating sonic shadows of a multitude when they were still only two who, so far as I know, never did come together. I caught a glimpse of one of them as I paddled, a massive formidable creature rocking placidly on the wavelets. He dived without calling out again, but the prior “conversation” was unforgettable. It was like all the sadness, all the yearning, and all the joy in that small spread of creation had been rolled up together and distilled into those cries. Maybe it’s just hormones and mating to them; to me it was touching the timeless. I don’t have a theology that can encompass and make sense of all that I experience on the lake. But I can witness that Nature in that moment was sublime and inspiring and a source of health. For that I thank the God Whose Kingdom I yearn for as those Loons yearned for each other.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3043