“To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness – especially in the wilderness – you shall love Him.”
― Frederick Buechner
Nature recharges the soul. It is no coincidence that the earliest monasteries in Egypt, the Levant, and Ireland were created in wild, out of the way places; the desert, and the wild islands in the sea. Nature reminds us of the Eden where we came from…and of the Kingdom yet to come. Many saints, especially hermit-style mystics, have had close relations with the natural world. St. Seraphim of Sarov, for example, ended up as friends with the Russian Brown bears in the Siberian wilderness, while the Prophet Elijah was fed by ravens in the wilderness of Judea. St. Cuthbert was also prone to hanging out with sea ducks as he prayed neck-deep in the frigid North Sea. Christ himself retreated into the wilderness.
This is why nature is important, and this is why the gentleman should cultivate at least a love of nature, if not of wilderness. Cultivate a love of nature, for by loving nature, we find ourselves loving God’s creation. Yes, the world may be a fallen place, but the fact of the matter is, it’s still a beautiful one.
Learn some wild plants that are edible, learn the names of wildflowers and sit by a stream and listen to the water. Walk along a seashore in the morning, and identify the shells and seaweeds that have washed up the night before. Climb a pillar of rock in the desert and watch the sun rise, and listen to the dawn chorus.
As for myself, one of my favorite places is to sit is amongst a grove of aspen trees in the mountains north of Flagstaff, listening to the warbling vireos sing, and listening to the leaves rustle in the slightest of breezes, watching House wrens bubble to and fro in the undergrowth.
You see, I came to Orthodoxy partly through a love of nature. Believe it or not, I was originally a pagan. When I began my process of finding Truth, and leaving those beliefs behind, I set out with the idea that I would know what religion was “right” because I would feel the same was as I did within their structure of worship as I did on the top of a mountain, or as I felt deep in the woods. After exploring everywhere else, the only place I found where that same feeling existed was in an Orthodox church. On my days off when I can’t get to church because there are no services (I have a weird schedule at my job) I at least try to spend some time in the woods, or in the desert, as a proxy for liturgy, and do my prayers there, amidst God’s creation.
My recommendation is to at least once a week, go to a place where you can be “in nature”. It doesn’t have to be a three day hike. It can be as short as 20 minutes. Be silent. No headphones, no music; just the sounds of the natural world. See what you notice. Do the rocks have fossils? Examine them. Look at wildflowers. Examine a stalk of grass. Sit in front of a hummingbird feeder and watch them fight. Teach yourself to tell time by the position of shadows on the ground, or the position of the stars in the heavens. (It’s a really cool trick, actually.) If you can, go camping for a weekend in the woods/desert/by the seashore. Just be sure to prepare properly for the excursion.
Granted, not all of us have easy access to wilderness. I admit, I have it almost too easy here in Arizona: I can drive 20 minutes and find hiking trails that lead into some wild areas that rarely see people. Others of us are not as lucky, but there’s an easy way to fix that. But nature is not only found in the wilderness. Nature is everywhere, even within the city park, and there’s also a very easy way to discover nature, and to train yourself to notice it:
Birdwatching. (Or, if you want to make it sound even cooler, Dinosaur-gazing.) It’s a hobby that you can start in an instant, and doesn’t require much money, and teaches a LOT of patience. All you need is a decent pair of binoculars (those start at 7x magnification, and you can find those at Walmart; anything higher than a 10 though is pretty much useless without a tripod, however), a notebook and pencil (for recording your observations or sketching), and you can often find field guide apps for bird identification for your Android or iPhone for cheaper than actual field guides at the bookstore. Write down what you see, or what you think you’re seeing. Try and figure out what you’re watching. Stop, and listen, and watch. Take notes. Make sketches.
It will teach you patience, and silence. Silence and patience, as we have mentioned before, are the keys to being a gentleman. (Generally speaking, birding is not a hyperactive activity with much shouting….usually.) Not only that, but most areas also have local chapters of the Audubon Society, or other Birding associations or clubs, which will allow you to meet fellow, like-minded people. You might not meet the love of your life, but you can make some new friends, and that is nothing to be sneezed at. Friends should always be considered a welcome addition to one’s life.
(When it comes for field guides, for many birders, it’s a more virulent topic than fasting rules and canon law. I have seen fist-fights break out over this topic. For what little it’s worth, I’m fond of the Sibley guides, at least here in the US and Canada. I don’t know enough about field guides in other places to discern what ones are best. What you need to decide is whether you find photos more useful for identification, or illustrations, as most guides are broken down upon those formats.)
P.S. I consider the patron saint of birding to be St. Cuthbert.