When the horrific news of the fall of the Twin Towers saturated the American media on September 11 2001, Richard Louv bundled his then 13 year old son into their VW van and travelled to a favourite nature haunt on the beautiful Owens River which runs through the Sierra Mountains.
We fled from the great pain that would lead to greater pain, and drove the six hours from San Diego to the Owens, and parked next to the current that washed out all the sound and all the fury. That night, inside the van, we flipped down the table and ate granola bars and drank hot chocolate and watched the window screens grow opaque with a late hatch of insects.
And all the next day and the day after that, we cut the electrical cord to the outside world, and found a sense of equilibrium.
As people have always done, Louv and his son turned to nature for escape, solace and restoration at a time of emotional turmoil. The place they chose had happy associations for them as well as being one that comforted them directly through its naturalness, beauty and serenity.
The TV journalist, Geoff McMullen is someone else who has turned to nature in search of equilibrium or “balance” in emotionally difficult times. As a foreign correspondent for many years, he covered a number of horrifically violent events, including the civil war in Rwanda. Asked in a TV interview how he coped with the horrors he had witnessed, he replied:
You’ve got to go looking for the wonder and the beauty. If you see a lot of horror, and you want to stay balanced, you’ve really got to seek out the beauty. So I went to great extremes to find the naturalness in the Galapagos Islands, or in particular for me, Antarctica. And I came out of that unearthly kind of beauty thinking, “God, it’s good to be alive,” and in love with every minute, every day. That’s what extremes do to you, they make you relish the now. The everyday, the opportunity of, “Don’t waste it,” you know, “Use every breath.” That’s what the beauty does to you as well.
Jeff McMullen’s testimony to the balancing and healing power of natural beauty echoes a theme found in reflective writings through the centuries. John Muir, 19th century pioneer conservationist, naturalist and writer declared that Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul. Rachel Carson, one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, agreed. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. This is so, she said, because the affinity of the human spirit for the earth and its beauties is deeply rooted. This affinity is a bond that unites all of us with the rest of nature. This is the bond forged by biophilia, the trait in all of us that makes other creatures our kin and the environments they inhabit places to which we are drawn.
I have heard and read a number of similar testimonies and comments – as I suspect we all have. Even the crushing burden of loss and grief is not beyond nature’s comfort and healing. In 2006, Maureen Hunter, then a nurse working in a small country town in Western Australia, lost her youngest son in a car accident. As she journeyed through her grief, she realised she could draw on her experience to help others. She does this through her website and blog. She found spending time outdoors one of the things that particularly helped her.
I went outside every day. I listened to birds, held out my hands to the fury of the wind and sat on the veranda and felt the rain come in. Nature connected me to life, to renewal and to simple pleasures again. I also looked for signs. I saw messages in clouds, picked up butterflies with a smile and rejoiced when I saw an eagle soaring, taking strength from something greater than myself.
Of course, not everyone has the opportunity or ability to seek out nature in difficult times. That’s a fact of life as is the reality that nature itself is often an agent of destruction, loss, death and the consequent fear, anguish and grief.
But, as Richard Louv reminds us – in dark times, one human impulse is to find kinship with other species and connection to elements beyond the headlines, where we feel larger forces at work, and know that all things must pass.