People are drawn to nature. This won’t be news to you. City dwellers pine for the countryside, TV watchers gobble up wildlife documentaries like whales sifting through krill. But what is it about nature that is so compelling?
I’m fascinated by this question. Answers from many a late-night conversation include: because we come from the forest and want to get back there; because nature is beautiful and people need beauty; because it doesn’t demand anything from us; because it’s been made into a consumer product like everything else in our messed up culture.
Like ruby red cherries hanging just out of reach, I find all these explanations irresistible.
Let’s start with the poet and teacher, David Whyte. He says: “We go into the natural world because we want an intuition of rested simplicity where we feel it might be possible just to be yourself.”
Nature does this so well. In Whyte’s poem ‘ Everything is Waiting for You’ he writes: “All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves.” And likewise plants. A birch tree is just as it is; it doesn’t imagine what it would be like to be an oak or how it would be to live out its life in an open field rather than this dense wood.
This ability to imagine alternative scenarios is a uniquely human competency. But with it comes disappointment.
We think it should be different somehow. That we have got it wrong somewhere. That we shouldn’t feel sad, that if we do things a certain way we’ll feel happy and life will go smoothly from now on. But doesn’t nature show us the reality all the time? I mean right now looking out over my laptop and into the garden, I can see the neighbour’s cat taunting a frog near the pond while the overhanging hazel reveals its new lemony green leaves. It’s all there in front of our eyes: birth, death and everything in between. All the time. Over and over again.
So what does ‘being yourself’ mean to us humans? It can mean the same as it does for the birch tree: being just as we are.
When we stop trying to be something we are not, we can rest in the simplicity of being how we actually are. And that feels like a relief, a massive unburdening. We can take our kaleidoscope of human emotions – our doubt, our anger, our loneliness, our joy, our grief, our excitement, our jealousy, our numbness – into the woods, onto the mountain top, down to the river and just let them be as they are, witnessed without judgement by the plants and animals that surrounds us. Nature can be the container that holds us in all our complexity. It’s perhaps this experience of unconditional acceptance that we so long for.
Psychotherapist, Steve Thorp, certainly thinks so: “Nature meets an internal want in the psyche. Like a baby who turns to her parents to comfort her, we reach out to nature for the deep embrace we know we were born to have.”
And the best thing about it is that we don’t necessarily have to do anything to feel this embrace. Just turn off the forest path and begin to pick your way through the tangle of trees. Let your thoughts flutter down to your mind’s leaf litter and your senses guide you gently to whatever awaits…