My family and I live in the northwestern-most corner of the state of Washington. It is an area of stunning natural beauty; Mount Baker stands majestically to the east of us, the Canadian Rockies to the north, and to the south, the San Juan Islands lay scattered throughout the waters where the Straits of Georgia and Juan De Fuca converge. Each day we leave our home, we remind one another to look for “Nature Moments,” some beautiful glimpse of whatever nature has to offer as we walk, bike, or drive to wherever life is at that moment leading us. An example would be the 49 Great Blue Heron (I mean, 49!) my son and I saw scattered across the tide flats in nearby Drayton Harbor, each standing on a stone like some stoic sentinel guarding that approach to the land. The emotions stirred by such moments can be described as nothing less than mythic awe. As Spiritual Naturalists, we need to cultivate our Nature Moments.
A Nature Moment requires mindful contemplation; if we are driving, we need to pull over to fully appreciate it (if it is possible and safe to do so). Some involve wildlife (such as the heron example above), where others might just consist of allowing the senses to drink in a majestic blue, pink, and orange sunset or the rhythmic breath of the tides as they wash over sand, stone, and, when possible, feet. Nature Moments are everywhere and ever-present. The key to appreciating them is for us to be present when they offer themselves. By “present,” I do not mean just physically there to see and sense the moments, but to attend to them with conscious awareness, reverence, and thankfulness. Such moments can change your life and leave permanent imprints in your memories. It does not matter where you live; you have but to seek out whatever wonders your own environment has to offer, allowing them into your heart, mind, senses, and soul. Wherever you go, you can experience them. They can be simple, or border on the miraculous. You will know them when they present themselves to you, for they sink into the depths of your being, never to fade. Below are my attempts to describe some of the most sacred Nature Moments of my life to date, offered to you as gifts. They cannot replace your own, and I cannot replicate their impacts in the soul of another. I can only hope they inspire you to remember your own and continue to seek such moments for yourself, especially when your life is out of balance and in need of something to help bring you some sense of serenity, and hope.
It was Christmas Eve, and I was ten, give or take a year. My extended family had gone home once the eating, drinking, and present-opening had at last run its course. My parents had gone to bed, or were at least readying themselves to; I never really knew. It was at least 11 o’clock, maybe later. Snow had been falling all day in one never-ending flake cascade that blanketed the town in a white, glowing silence. Such silence. I gently opened the front door and went out onto the front porch to sit and listen, the only hint of sound the soft, rustling brush of the snow as it continued to layer itself gently over the visible world. That was how quiet it was…I could actually hear the snowflakes as they fell atop one another. Amazing.
A mist had descended, masking from view the homes and vehicles of our neighbors, even blotting out the bright red faces of the university clock tower across town. The streetlight alone managed to cast a feeble glow through the mist. I felt like I was sitting at the heart of my own private snow globe…and I wept for the beauty of it. Every year thereafter, snow or no, I would sit on that porch and listen for at least half an hour. I am 47 today, and live far from that place of sacred silence. I still go out on the porch on Christmas Eve, and though the silence is gone, I weep anyway—for what was, and how it shaped me.
There is something about Christmas Eve and the Nature Moment. Just this last Christmas Eve at around 10:00 pm, I was preparing to step out on the porch and pay homage to that moment from my youth that could never be replicated. I was rewarded with an experience that I will not be able to forget. My son said, “Dad, there’s an owl on the fence.” Yeah sure, I thought. Thought owls do live in the forested areas around our house and we have sometimes heard them calling out in the night, they rarely if ever come down for a visit. I walked out onto our back yard patio and stopped dead in my tracks, for there, perched on the fence not twenty feet away from me, was the largest and most beautiful owl I had ever seen (a barred owl I believe, though I cannot be sure). It fixed its eyes upon me and stared into my soul. “Look at you,” I whispered, admiring the bird’s noble, confident poise as it held me in place with its gaze. “So beautiful,” I continued, “what are you up to tonight?” That question got me a slow, focused blink of its eyes. We stood contemplating one another for what must have been five minutes before it remembered it had promises to keep on that (almost) darkest evening of the year, turned its head toward the field behind the fence, spread its wings, and noiselessly lifted off into the night. “Thank you,” I said, “and Merry Christmas.” In my family, Christmas is the time to bring light to the darkness of winter, marking the return of the sun (not so much “son”). That owl brought me sufficient light to banish any darkness, of world, mind, or soul—at least for a time. I can call on the memory when needed to help me do so again. That’s what Nature Moments do—they stick with you, and enrich you beyond the moments themselves. They are yours to keep.
That was not the first time I had had meaningful communion with a wild animal. When I was in middle school, my parents and I visited the Pacific Ocean for the first time. We camped at Ocean Shores, Washington, with a beach that extended for miles north to south. I remember walking along that beach for hours, simply absorbing the raw, humbling power of the waves thundering into the shore and washing over my feet. The weather the day of that walk was not very hospitable for those who like their beaches hot and sunny. For me, it was perfect. A storm was coming toward shore from across the Pacific, and its winds had already arrived. For party-seeking beachgoers, not good conditions; for somewhat introverted, meditative adolescents wishing to be alone with their own thoughts and the beauty of the ocean, it was ideal. The clouds rolling in from the west were dark and rain-laden, though there were two to three brilliant shafts of sunlight that pierced the clouds and fell into the sea several miles offshore. I sat on a large boulder and watched the storm move in, admiring the sun’s efforts to push back the clouds. Suddenly, something barked at me. At first I thought someone was walking his or her dog on the beach, and I looked around to see if I had a canine visitor. There was no dog, no dog owner; I was utterly alone. The bark came again, muffled by the wind but unmistakable. I focused my senses and worked to zero in on its source, and saw the small, dark head bobbing in the waves not fifteen feet off shore. It was a sea-lion. It barked at me again, and I did the first thing that came to my mind—I barked back. For the next two hours, we barked at one another, moving up and down the shore having quite the conversation. What it was exactly about is hard to pin down: “Quite the storm coming in, wouldn’t you say?” “Do you come to this beach often?” Those don’t capture it. I would say it was about celebrating the fact that we were both alive in a beautiful place and being present in a beautiful moment…a Nature Moment. I’ll never forget that.
Reflecting on these wildlife encounters, I am reminded of a passage from The Meaning of Shakespeare by Harold Goddard:
Imagination is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two—as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend—the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets (Goddard 10).
We need to cultivate our imaginations; we must imagine a world in which man and nature are once again closely attuned to one another. We need to imagine what the other species of this world are trying to tell us, and listen to them. We need to hold our Nature Moments in our imaginations and allow them to comfort us and connect us to the ecosystems to which we too belong. I can’t imagine a world without the Nature Moment. Each of us need to keep and build upon a bank of such experiences to remind us how the “natural” in Spiritual Naturalism is such a powerful and motivational force in our spiritual lives.
Each day, such a moment calls out to us. Turn off the computer or the TV. Turn off your cell phone. Head outside, not to do something like work in the garden or mow the yard, but to just be there and be open to what nature has to offer you. Slowly, patiently, quietly drink it in. Watch for the wonder. Be open to whatever shape in might take. Do this every day. Nature won’t disappoint you. It never has me. In fact, a juvenile bald eagle just landed in a tree two lots down from my house. No kidding. The Nature Moment calls. I’m off—and whatever you are doing now, take a break and go outside. You never know what you’ll see…if you look, and open your imagination.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, v0l. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 10.