Restfully puttering around the house today (finally), and listening to some old Joni Mitchell music with my 11-year-old son Graham nearby, sort of listening-in.
On “Big Yellow Taxi“, he caught the brilliant line: “They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum, and made all the people pay a dollar-and-a-half just to see ’em.”
G chuckled at the absurd idea. Then I said, “What do you think the Chicago Botanic Garden is? It’s a tree museum they charge money for.”
I caught Graham off-guard (for once, he’s pretty sharp), and he got a bit defensive because he loves that place. And rightly so, as do I. It’s a sprawling, carefully curated oasis of international botanical wonders on the edge of one of the most populous, construction-clogged, concretely angular and architecturally unique cities on the planet. I used to be a member of the CBG, and I have an especially great affection for their Japanese gardens, the prairie area, and even the aggressively protective redwing blackbird papa I once saw clawing at several pedestrians…
“What did you expect, dude?! Your nest is RIGHT ABOVE one of the main pedestrian paths!”
But, there you go… a sure sign of one of the incongruities of post-modern life: we tolerate the commercialization of nature, because it beats becoming completely disconnected from the earth and the “life” it gives us. We want to encounter “the wild” in our lives, while at the same time we can’t resist the desire to tame it and put a pricy snack shop within walking distance. Or we at least do not want to have to drive two days away to encounter genuine quiet, peace, and undeveloped, unspoiled natural beauty.
Perhaps because I have always lived on the edge of this big city, for my entire adult life I’ve been a big fan of county, state, and national park efforts (and/or camping, retreats, and “lake living”) . When I have to feed my prodigious appetite for escape from visual or vocational “busy-ness”, it keeps me calm knowing I’m seldom more than half an hour from some muddy, lushly green, carefully defended patch of trees, brush, pond and/or wildlife habitat (even if it is sometimes only a few square miles in actual size).
I think this “nature hunger” coincided with the maturing of my “artist’s eye”, or my overall intellectual and head/heart-hybrid photographic, poetic or prosaic reflective tendencies. Even in my teen years, I had a basic disdain for my hometown’s visually bland housing developments plopped in former farm fields. Too many Beige-ville houses, often in just four basic architectural models, on streets with pretentious names stolen from pseudo-“high class” European sources.I lived on Cambridge Lane, for example, near a mall called Stratford Square– in a town where barely anyone actually knew or cared what important doings happen at Cambridge University in England, nor did they care that Shakespeare came from the original Stratford (on the Avon River, let us not forget). I not-so-secretly suspect Will Shakespeare would turn over in his grave upon seeing a Gap store or cheesy, sparkly accessories shop for teenage girls in this sanitized, fading-fast indoor strip mall bearing the name of his hometown. Meanwhile, houses on my street all sported the same carefully and competitively cropped Kentucky bluegrass lawn, and all featured a fairly narrow palette of tree and shrub options, none of which bore actual fruit or were allowed to get too “wild”. This is the visually vanilla world where I lived for all of my formative adolescent years.
Then I went off to college in “the big city”, at Northwestern –technically in Evanston, but it was “city” enough for me. The campus sits on the northern edge of Chicago, with huge oaks generously distributed throughout, and more importantly it sits on the edge of that great inland freshwater sea we call Lake Michigan. On a visit as a high schooler, I encountered the transplanted natural, architectural and academic sensibilities from the ACTUAL Cambridge and Oxford, plus the ivy-infused, spray-painted, funky mix of the ancient and the cutting-edge modern/American, all in that distinct physical landscape — and all with the lake (THE LAKE! ) literally a stone’s throw away. I was hooked. They even have a “Shakespeare Garden” on campus (technically at the seminary next door… makes perfect sense to me). So the authenticity of that nature-infused landscape –whether contrived or genuine (probably both)– presented itself to my dissatisfied, blank-slate young mind and I wanted to immerse myself in it. Luckily I had the grades to get in, and some grants to get us thru financially. If Graham wants to go to college where Mom and Dad went, I’ll still be paying off tuition bills when I’m 70 years old.
So for the above reasons and others, forests, lakes, marshes, gardens, wildflowers and the animals that come with them have occupied a large part of my psyche and spiritual life for many years. Other later examples:
- frequent canoe trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota when I was a bit younger (gotta get back… that hunger’s speaking up again)
- the Ken Burns documentary series on the National Parks — visually breathtaking, a great history lesson, and socially conscious, to boot
- an increasing appreciation for Prairie Style architecture and/or the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, who sought to immerse buildings within nature rather than plop them down on TOP of it and crush it
- the aforementioned Chicago Botanic Garden, their partner site at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, and other “nonprofit” efforts to blend conservation, education, and the arts
- several outdoor education facilities throughout the Midwest where I have taken students or worked, and ended up learning more than I could ever teach
Lately, to save my sanity, I’ve been doing a lot of short contemplative sits– and occasionally shooting some photos, and writing some poetry– alongside a few scattered smaller oasises (oasi? havens? islands of green in a gray, concrete-and-asphalt wasteland?). My oasis areas are generally ponds or small creeks in the midst of a handful of light industrial parks in the Chicago suburbs, near some of the drop-off or pick-up sites for my medical courier day job. Thus, I have images of Joni Mitchell’s “paved paradise” in front of me all day, every day, which makes me desperate to find a few minutes to get away, even if it is a getaway to a man-made retention pond right next door to a big parking lot.
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I mentioned retreats above, and I also happen to know of an upcoming opportunity to explore the deep connections between nature and spirituality.
Coming up fast is Nature Wandering As Spiritual Practice: A Retreat for Men, on Sept. 6-8 in Princeton, IL.
Below is some info, and the link to register:
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“Going out” into nature, as John Muir once said, is really a way of “going in” to the heart of things.
Date: September 6-8, 2013 – starts Friday evening at 6:00 pm for dinner and ends at 1:30 pm Sunday after lunch. Includes accomodations for 2 nights and 6 meals in the dining hall.
Our spiritual trail guide will be Belden Lane, a veteran of the outdoors and wisdom teacher of nature spirituality. Belden draws on a background as an academic, a minister and a seasoned backpacker (hiking with the saints along Missouri trails) to suggest the dimensions of a Wilderness Spirituality drawn from the teachings of the Desert Fathers.
“Wandering in nature may be the most essential soulcraft practice that any of us can have in a society like ours.” – Bill Plotkin.
Central retreat themes will include the importance of traveling light (with Dag Hammarskjold), mindfulness (with Thich Nhat Hanh), and making sufficient mistakes (with Martin Luther).
Cost: $225 . Click Here to Register Now
Location: Pilgrim Park, Princeton, IL
Belden Lane is a Professor of Theology Studies at St. Louis University and a Presbyterian Pastor. Belden has worked with Richard Rohr OFM for many years as a Weaver for M.A.L.E.s internationally, and was the “Weaver” for the 2012 Illinois/Midwest Men’s Rites of Passage (M.R.O.P.).
Books on Nature and Spirituality by Belden Lane:
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Pilgrim Park, Princeton, IL