I’d rather be in the mountains thinking of God, than in church thinking about the mountains.
– John Muir.
I never outgrow my need for nature. Periodically, I need to remove myself from the city environment and travel out to the wild places to refresh my connection to the source of life. Thoreau talked about the “tonic of wildness.” It renews you. The beauty of nature is a message that goes beyond words, a direct connection to the divine.
Recently a young man half my age, whom I see regularly because our dogs play together, asked me a question that came down with a powerful thud: “Do you see yourself as a religious person?”
It was an intriguing phrasing of the question. I was very judicious in formulating my reply. I didn’t want to foul the waters of our new friendship based on some misunderstanding over religious doctrine.
“Well, maybe not in the conventional sense,” I said. “But I see something of value in all religions. And I see some common ground among them as well.”
Seeing that my answer did not seem to bother him, I took the chance of elaborating further by telling him about a travel experience. It was just one example of the way nature elevates us by introducing awe into our lives.
I visited the Drakensberg Boys Choir School in KwaZulu Natal province in South Africa. Typically of how poorly our preconceptions prepare us for a travel experience, the itinerary only said that we were going to a school to see a boys choir. Before arriving, I was imagining it only within the terms outlined in the itinerary, “a performance of a boys choir.”
I was in no way prepared for the actual experience. When we arrived and rolled out of our van, we found ourselves in the middle of a setting that just made the mind reel. The boys school was located among the Drakensberg Mountains, and right there on the school grounds I found myself looking up toward a gargantuan, steep mountainside that overlooked the school.
It was a scene of indescribable power and glory. The jagged top of the mountain range seemed to cut into the fabric of the sky itself. It shot so high that it was dizzying to see it in its great mass, the mountain face lit up in glowing orange in the late afternoon sun. And there on the grounds I was surrounded by a rich growth of green emerging from a soil that seemed the most fertile in the world.
Words fail utterly to evoke the experience. It was a kind of beauty and majesty that renders one speechless. The Drakensberg Boys Choir performance, by the way, was great. That too was far beyond my paltry expectations. There was much more going on with it than I could have imagined within the range of my previous experience. They took us through a series of amazing performances, demonstrating practically all the good things the human voice is capable of, melody, harmony, emotion, even sound effects that evoked the aural impression of a rainstorm. It was powerful and moving, and it primed me for what followed. After it ended, the crowd moved outside.
When I stood on the grounds and had some time to just stand and take in the beauty of the mountains and the surroundings, I was overcome by a state of awe. The beauty of the mountains was staggering – and mysterious. Even my own reaction was astonishing to me. What is beauty, and why do I have the capacity to appreciate it? Why does it move me this way? These are questions without answers.
Just the fact that I could be so moved by observing one of nature’s most magnificent creations is in itself a great gift. It’s not only that it is beautiful, but that somehow I have the capacity to appreciate and enjoy that beauty. Not to understand it, or define it, or to penetrate the mystery of it. But just to enjoy life on that level of pleasure. That is, to me, a great gift that I receive, though I know of no reason why I should deserve such a gift. At such a moment, a great wave of gratitude sweeps over me.
Joseph Campbell, whose interviews by Bill Moyers back in the ‘80s were cherished by a wide audience through the program The Power of Myth, said, “God” is a word, but its reference is to something that cannot be spoken.”
Many ancient religions refer to that idea. These are realities that cannot be contained by words. Attempts to put these kinds of things into words and principles often lead to arguments and conflicts. But when I am looking directly at the greatest wonders of nature, there are no words necessary. No need for concepts. It is right there. I am experiencing the divine directly.
Our words sometimes go wrong, our logic gets jumbled up, our systems break down. But nature speaks to us directly, without words. Returning to the source, nature, is a reliable way to reconnect with the engine of the universe.
I find it periodically necessary to have those refresher courses in the experience of awe. I tend to get so immersed in my business-like human concerns that I lose my connection to the greater natural world that I am a part of. Then I need to be reminded.
Faced with the magnificent spectacle of the Drakensbergs, I asked myself: How can I experience this and not recognize that there are greater forms of intelligence than mine, higher creative forces than those of human beings?
It is only one of many places where I have been spiritually uplifted by encounters with nature. Fortunately, nature provides us with a great abundance of beauty, constantly, when we tune into it. But there are some places of such overwhelming power that they really drive the point home.
I recall Victoria Falls, which the native people called “the smoke that thunders,” countless millions of gallons of water crashing by, a demonstration of gigantic, raw power that could probably run all the cities of the world. The Grand Canyon, that massive chasm where a thousand ages of the earth are laid bare. The gracefully draped blankets of snow on the mountains of the Arctic. The great sea of sand that is the Sahara Desert.
These kinds of places tear away the veil I often maintain between myself and the world. Each of those experiences helps me to see nature in smaller things in my own familiar environment when I return home.
When I am swept over with gratitude for the fact that I live in a world that can provide me with such elevated experiences, I wonder: to whom or what am I grateful? Where am I directing the gratitude that flows out of me? Whom do I have to thank for the great gift of life?
That would be what the great mystics refer to as that thing that cannot be named. And that’s the best way I can sum up my religious beliefs. Gratitude is at the core of my spiritual existence. It is my fundamental spiritual act. And that connection comes to me directly through nature.
I do believe that all the religions have something to offer in their principles, and they are all worth paying attention to for what they have to teach. And they do all seem to be getting at some of the same things. Ultimately, those things can only be imperfectly spoken about. But the fact that all those religious teachings tend to point to some of the same things gives me a sense that those things are real. They are universal.
And they are all there, observable in the world, waiting to be discovered.
Your humble reporter,
A. Colin Treadwell