American nature writer, Joseph Wood Krutch, has insisted that caring about nature is mystical in origin; and Arne Naess, an influential Norwegian philosopher, who champions nature for nature’s sake, once spoke of a compelling emotional experience that seems to be the driving force for passionate environmentalism. It is the experience many people have in nature of being connected to something greater than their ego — it is a sort of oceanic feeling. This mystical experience is the burning bush, which gives champions of wilderness and animal rights a sense of mission, rightness and purpose.
In The Gentle Art of Tramping, Stephen Graham said, “As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.” Annie Dillard, writing about her solitary nature experiences in the southern Appalachians, said this: “Experiencing the present purely is being empty and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall”. She wrote of a nature experience where she felt like an immense bell that was being struck. In a letter to his brother, Theo, Van Gogh once confessed that he had “a terrible need of–shall I say the word–religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.” Christianity’s greatest mystic, Meister Eckhart, spoke of the sublime moment when “all blades of grass, wood, and stone, all things are One.” The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, once said God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, “Ah!”
The Centuries of Meditations of Thomas Traherne, written in the seventeenth century, but not published until the early twen tieth century, rhapsodized about the divine presence in the beauties of the earth. “You never enjoy the world aright,” he wrote, “’till the sea itself floweth in your veins, ’till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.”
Charlene Spretnak wrote the following:
There are sacred moments in life when we experience in rational and very direct ways that separation, the boundary between ourselves and other people and between ourselves and Nature, is illusion. Oneness is reality. We can experience that stasis is illusory and that reality is continual flux and change on very subtle and also on gross levels of perception . .
She says a prime way for experiencing these sublime moments is to go into wilderness, approaching it with silence and alertness, while carefully observing the flow of inner and outer events.
Anyone who does this, she says, will eventually come to perceive “a deep, deep silence and a oneness that is almost palpable.” Spretnak says at such moments the distinction between inner and outer mind dissipates.
The mystical feeling in nature is most often described as a feeling of oneness. Rousseau wrote this about his experiences on Peter Island on the Lake of Bienne:
As evening approached, I came down from the heights of the island, and I liked then to go and sit on the shingle in some secluded spot by the lake; there the noise of the waves and the movement of the water, taking hold of my senses and driving all other agitation from my soul, would plunge me into delicious reverie in which night often stole upon me unawares.
The words of Byron express the oneness with nature, which has, since Rousseau, been the obsession of nature mystics: “I live not in myself, but I became a portion of all around me, and to me high mountains are a feeling . . .” Byron also wrote: “Are not the mountains, waves and skies a part of me and of my soul, as I of them?”
Nature mysticism often sounds like pantheism. Consider these fragments from a poem by the Asian poet, Rumi:
I am the dust in the sunlight, I am the ball of the sun . . .
I am the mist of morning, the breath of evening . . . .
I am the spark in the stone, the gleam of gold in the
metal . . . .
The rose and the nightingale drunk with its fragrance.
I am the chain of being, the circle of the spheres,
The scale of creation, the rise and the fall.
I am what is and is not . . .
I am the soul in all.
In her book called Ecstasy, Laski reports research findings indicating that the most frequent trigger for mystical experi ences is nature, with nature art being the second most frequent trigger. Another national survey found that almost half of all the people who have had mystical experiences consider the beauties of nature to be the primary inspiration.
Rudolf Otto defined nature mysticism as “the sense of being immersed in the oneness of nature, so that man feels all the individuality, all the peculiarities of natural things in himself. He dances with the motes of dust and radiates with the sun; he rises with the dawn, surges with the wave, is fragrant with the rose, rapt with the nightingale: he knows and is all being, all strength, all joy, all desire, all pain in all things inseparably.” Aldous Huxley called mystical oneness with nature “the perennial philosophy”.
Stace suggested that mystical experiences can be classified as either extraverted or introverted. In introverted mysticism, the environment is lost. This occurs to those who, like St. Augustine, reject the sensuousness of natural phenomena and enter into a world of pure spirit. Augustine believed we should aban don the world and its beauty. The beauties of nature, he believed, are vain and transitory. To love nature is to become a slave to nature and to turn away from spiritual abstractions which are embedded in the eternal.
It is the second type, extraverted mysticism, which is a nature experience. In extraverted mysticism, the surroundings are “lit up” and the world appears to us as it did in all its numinous glory to Adam on the day of creation. A good example of extraverted mysticism is in the verse of Kabir, a fifteenth century poet from India, which Robert Bly has translated and paraphrased:
Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive . . . .
If you do not break your ropes while you’re alive,
do you think
Ghosts will do it after?
Aldous Huxley aided by mescaline said, “I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of creation — the miracle, moment by moment of naked existence.” Gazing at flowers he reported experiencing “a transcendence that was yet eternal life, a per petual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox was to be seen the divine source of all existence.” Meister Eckhart spoke of this Adamic seeing when he wrote, “If you want to discover nature’s nakedness, you must destroy its symbols.”
Some Freudian psychologists have equateded the “oneness” feeling in nature and religion with regressive fantasies of being one with one’s Mother. We were one with her in the womb, and as infants we experienced oneness at her breast. Jung, in Symbols of Transformation, carefully described how the imagery of nature mysticism tends to use maternal symbols.
Nature mysticism can be — but is not necessarily — experienced as a sense of being in the presence of the divine. Seneca wrote: “When you enter a grove peopled with ancient trees, higher than the ordinary, and shutting out the sky with their thickly inter-twined branches, do not the stately shadows of the wood, the stillness of the place, and the awful gloom of this doomed cavern then strike you with the presence of a deity?” There is something about woodlands, mountains and deserts that evokes awe and religious sentiments. Large stands of ancient trees give us a sense of the vast, the holy, the unspeakable. We sense being a part of something far larger than our individual egos and feel connected to eternity. In the Celtic iron age the Druids worshiped in sacred oak-groves. Novelist, John Fowles once said all sacred places derive their aura from forest settings.
English writer and nature lover W. H. Hudson wrote in The Purple Land :
For here the religion that languishes in crowded cities or steals shame-faced to hide itself in dim churches, flourishes greatly, filling the soul with a solemn joy. Face to face with Nature on the vast hills at eventide, who does not feel himself near to the Unseen?
According to historian, Arnold Toynbee, the relationship between religion and nature is an irreducible fact.
MYSTICISM IN WESTERN RELIGIOUS TRADITION
In his Confessions, St. Augustine told of his attempts to seek God in the world of Nature, but argues that it was a mistake or it leads one to concentrate on the wrong things: “Not us, not us,” he insisted, “but Him who made us.” Augustine’s words did not stop other Christian mystic from attempting to seek God through nature. Meister Eckhart spoke of the experience when “all blades of grass, wood, and stone, all things are One.” [repeat] Jacob Boehme wrote, “In this light, my spirit saw through all things and into all creatures, and I recognized God in grass and plants.” Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Traveling through the creation, the virtuous man is led to the apprehension of the Master of the Creation.” And Suso wrote, “O tender God, if Thou art so living in Thy creatures, how fair and lovely must Thou be in Thyself.” Francis of Asissi considered all created things–birds, beasts, flowers, sun, moon, even death–to be children of God and his brothers and sisters in Christ. John Smith wrote, “There is a twofold meaning in every creature, a literal and a mystical, and the one is but the ground of the other.”
MYSTICISM IN NON-WESTERN RELIGIOUS TRADITION
Nature mysticism is also prevalent in the literature of the East. A Zen Buddhist monk asks, for example, “How may I enter in the Way?” His master points to a mountain steam and says, “Do you hear the murmur of the stream? There you may enter.” The Zenrinkushu says the lines of the hills are the Pure Body of Buddha. There is an ancient Zen saying that the mountains, the rivers, the earth, everything that happens, is — without exception — your own mind. Dogon, a Zen masater who lived from 1200 to 1253 a.d.spoke of mountains and rivers as being an immediate and direct revelation of truth; he said they are perfect exactly as they are: “Mountains and rivers at this very moment are the actualization of the world of the ancient Buddhas. Each, abiding in its phenomenal expression, realizes completeness.”
The Mysticism of John Muir
In describing his first explorations of the Sierras, John Muir wrote, “Oh, these vast, calm measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light every thing seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.”21 It is probably safe to say that no American ever experienced wilderness as religious ecstasy more than Muir. He called the Sierras the Range of Light and — as Light in the sky — they evoked in him immense religious longings. Before the magnificence of nature, he found himself dumb with admiration, prostrate and humble before the power of the God who created it all. Muir declared himself willing to endure self-denial if that was the price of learning to read from the divine manuscript which was the rocks and the trees. All wilderness, he wrote, seems full of tricks and hidden plans to drive us up into God’s light. Of the Sierras he declared:
These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be . . . . the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure-glow not explainable. One’s body then seems homogeneous throughout, sound as a crystal.
While sauntering through the mountains, he said he knew complete freedom. He had experiences that seemed timeles and spaceless. Occasionally, he felt his body had no weight. “Life seems neither long nor short,” he once wrote, “and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars.” He experienced what he believed was God’s time, an immense perspective which made the quick transformations of the cloud-mountains and the slow transformations of the granite mountain roughly equivalent. He entered the eternal now and experienced days that seemed to have neither end nor beginning. Muir claimed that in the Sierras he found a practical sort of immortality, and he at times experienced himself as dissolved into the landscape. The mountains, he said, are fountains, places where the transcendent spews out of the earth.
In the Range of Light, Muir experienced the interrelated of all things, the union of rocks and clouds, the humanness of the landscape, the wilderness in the human soul. He declared a kinship with the wild Nature he loved, a oneness.
Muir repeatedly compared Yosemite Valley and the mountain peaks around it to a church or a cathedral. After many awe- struck moments gazing at Cathedral Rock through openings in the trees, he decided to climb to the top. Writing of this experience, he said it was the first time since he had come to California that he had been to church. Atop this giant monolith, he had the sensation of doors opening, revealing the transcendent realm. On this mountain alter he found cassiope — a species of flower for which he had been searching. The bells of the flowers, he wrote, were ringing with the sweetest church music he had ever heard.
It puzzled Muir that many of his fellow humans did not appreciate God’s grandeur as it manifested itself in the wilderness. His companion on his first summer in the Sierra, a shepherd named Billy — who, in Muir’s descriptions, seems something of a Sancho Panza figure — called Yosemite Valley “a lot of rocks — a hole in the ground.” Muir witnessed other tourists who seemed unimpresssed by the majesty of Yosemite: he saw fishermen baiting their hooks “in the holiest of temples ignoring God himself as he preaches sublime water and stone sermons.”
All Muir’s books seem to say the same thing over and over: “Look! Nature is overflowing with the grandeur of God!” To Muir religious feelings were as natural as breathing. Nature herself seemed constantly engaged in worship. Even trees bowing in the wind were celebrants of a primordial religion.
A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.
Though Muir didn’t worship the trees, he did seem to worship with the trees and through the trees. In his idiosyncratic and exuberant way he celebrated the mysteries. Just who the God was he celebrated is unclear. Much of the language sounds Christian and orthodox, but there is a Dionysian or pagan element that spills through it all. His strivings and his imagery are always upward towards what could, I think, be characterized as a Pure Land — an ideal world that lies in the clouds. “The region above our camp,” he writes in My First Summer in the Sierra, “is still wild, and higher lies the snow about as trackless as the sky.” As a hummingbird finds itself drawn to the flowers, so did John Muir find himself drawn to this Pure Land in the sky. Of one of his first ascents into the Sierras, he wrote, “Now away we go toward the topmost mountains. Many still, small voices, as well as the noon thunder, are calling, ‘Come higher.'”
On coming to a high mountain meadow, he once remarked that not a single leaf or petal seems to be misplaced. This passage brings to mind the Zen aphorism that no snowflake ever falls in the wrong place. As far as Muir was concerned the deer walking through this meadow or the bears rolling around in it in no way spoiled it — their trampling was to him a gentle cultivation. On more than one occasion, Muir wrote of being struck by how clean nature is. All plants are clean; all animals are clean. Of all the living things on the planet, mankind alone seems dirty. Even the occasional Indians he passed in the wilderness struck him as being dirty. Muir considered the high mountains to be a mirror that reflects the Creator. When he was in the wilderness he sensed the entire world glowing with God’s radiance.
Muir said the wildflowers he found at the top of one Sierra peak were “a cloud of witness to Nature’s love in what we in our timid ignorance and unbelief call howling desert.” Though the surface of the ground seemed, at first glance, to be dull and foreboding, a close inspection showed that it shined and sparkled with crystals: mica, hornblende, feldspars, quartz, tourmaline. This gave the mountaintop a radiance, which in some places was dazzling. To him every crystal and every flower was “a window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.”
To Muir all human beings have spiritual strivings, and the wilderness is a natural place to consummate the longings of the soul. In the Sierras, Muir attained a wider existence:
We are now in the mountains and they arein us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun, — a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal. Just now I can hardly conceive of any bodily condition dependent on food or breath any more than the ground or the sky. How glorious a conversion, so complete and wholesome it is.
Muir called the mountains love-monuments. He elected to follow God in the way that came natural — by drifting across the mountains and down into the canyons like the shadow of a cloud, like a faithful servant to the divine winds.
© 1998 Larry Gates