Why is nature so compelling?

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.

Invierno en Andalucia – Emilio Sanchez-Perrier

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…

 

The birth of earthwhisperer

It’s March 2012. I’m in an old fisherman’s cottage on a remote peninsula: Lamb’s Head in Kerry, Ireland.

Something needs to give. I’ve just left my office job – said goodbye to air con and neat desk rows. I want to be out there somewhere helping others experience the depth of connection I feel with the natural world.

But I’m stuck. Thoughts like “you don’t know anything!” plague my mind. I sit on an old sofa watching movie after movie, biting my nails, fidgeting.

Walking on the Head every day, I’m tormented. My conflict mirrored by heavy awkward strides. Today, I am nestled in a craggy dip, shielded from the wind as I look out at the scene below.

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My gaze settles on the space in the centre of the photo, between two rocky outcrops. The sea swells as though inhaling deeply and water pours through the gap. It draws me in and in and in.

The more I look at this process, the more I see. I see that in this calm sea when water encounters a solid mass it always finds a way past. It cleaves round the rocks, staying close and meeting again on the other side. Or it pushes up and over their bulk smoothing their rough surfaces over millenia.

This ceaseless motion of the Atlantic sets my heart pounding. I can feel a commitment to forge ahead with my own vision begin to take root. A torrent of self-belief washes through me.

As I carry on looking, I realise that the actual water passing between the rocks at any given time is propelled through by the momentum of the vast ocean. It couldn’t be any other way. Ditto. I sense – not ‘think’ but sense from deep within me – that I too am not alone in my endeavours; there is a vastness holding me. The truth of this makes my eyes well up with relief and gratitude.

I thank the water and the rocks for their revelations and head back to the cottage, my steps now smooth and purposeful. Once through the door, ‘Earthwhisperer’ pours out of me onto huge paper sheets: colourful mind maps full of ideas and plans for offering ways to connect with our beautiful world.

♦♦♦

As we immerse ourselves ever deeper into the nature that surrounds us, our surface thoughts loosen and the intuition that dwells in the body begins to awaken and guide us. It is this that leads us into a dynamic dance with our surroundings, where other beings – be they water, rock, earth-born creature – may reveal gifts rich with symbolic meaning for us.

Aerial encounters at Rainham

Rainham Marshes – a RSPB nature reserve on the Thames estuary. I have never been there. In fact, the image of a flat watery landscape with distant wading birds doesn’t hold much appeal. But it is easily accessible from my East London habitat and I am longing for the wild on this short afternoon.

The sun is shining unencumbered and the air is still and cold. I cycle the last few miles along the Thames feasting on the contrasts of industry monoliths and wide river, smelly strewn waste and gull-rich piers. There is something enlivening about this urban borderland.

Thames estuary

I drop down from the river wall into the reserve, a vast stretch of marsh flanked by the Thames and the thrumming A13. People in khaki are dotted about everywhere, wielding giant lensed cameras, binoculars and tripods. A new species for me.

I turn to look in the direction of someone’s telescope and am transfixed by a short-eared owl gliding and swooping over the marsh. As I watch it hunt, my muscles twitch and flex in resonance. I wonder if this intense awareness is how the shapeshifters of indigineous cultures begin their transformations…

owl in flight

Mostly I approach life with a grasping mentality. I’m looking to accumulate as many pleasurable experiences as I can and the natural world is one of my go-to treasure chests. Yet, the encounter with the owl is so satisfying that I relax deeply and decide that any more good stuff this afternoon would be a bonus.

I slow my steps. No agenda, just a willingness to be with whatever presents itself. I soak up the soundscape of hundreds of lapwings and starlings whirling in the huge skies. Esconsed in the reedbeds, I call back my own song in homage.

Dusk ushers in and the cold deepens. A kestrel hovers suspended above me, the sun glowing red through its fanned tail feathers. It’s time to go home.