Finding God in Wild Nature

Heaven knows that John the Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.

— John Muir

Wildness is a specific kind of moral value: less like the golden rule and more like astonishment, or awe, before God. The authors of one essay write:

People rightfully value the existence of a realm not significantly under human control — the weather, the seasons, the mountains, and the seas. This is one reason why the idea of humans as planetary managers is so objectionable to many. Consider a world in which human beings determine when it rains, when spring comes, how the tides run, and where mountains rise. The surprise and awe we feel at the workings of spontaneous nature would be replaced by appraisal of the decisions of these managers. Our wonder at the mystery of these phenomena would not survive such management. People value being a part of a world not of their own making. Valuing the wild acknowledges that limits to human mastery and domination of the world are imperative.

Humans also need to be able to confront, honor, and celebrate the “other.” In an increasingly secular society, “Nature” takes on the role of the other. Humans need to be able to feel small in comparison with something nonhuman which is of great value. Confronting the other helps humans to cultivate a proper sense of humility. Many people find the other powerfully in parts of nature that do not bend to our will and where the nonhuman carries on in relative autonomy, unfolding on its own.

In other words, wildness is an aesthetic, moral, and spiritual value, but it is first of all spiritual. And aesthetics, too, seems to derive its force from the Divine, or the Sublime, or the Numinous, or whatever one wishes to call it. Edmund Burke, for instance, writes:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature…is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Not long ago I had that word of prophets — “Lo!” — tattooed on my right hand, hoping one day I might be able to raise my arms in praise and shout to the decrepit and over-civilized, “Lo and behold, the beauty of the world beyond man.” I did not start out this way. I began rewilding with a singularly secular mindset, eschewing all concepts of spirit and spirituality. But in wild nature you cannot help yourself. You see “Lo!” in everything. Its beauty and grandeur shocks you into such a state of awe that you can do nothing but contemplate what is unfathomable and beyond you.

The feeling is comparable to the kind described by mystics. For example, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a Catholic mystic, explains that when he is trying to achieve “union” with the “unfathomable Divine,” he focuses on a single word until all meaning falls away and the mystic’s eyes are set only on God’s Glory — a glory that cannot be articulated. He writes:

Let me try to illustrate what I mean with an example from real life. A man or woman terrified by sudden disaster is forced by the circumstances to the limits of his personal resources, and marshals all his energy into one great cry for help. In extreme situations like this a person is not given to many words nor even to long ones. Instead, summoning all his strength, he expresses his desperate need in one loud cry: “Help!” And with this one little word he effectively arouses the attention and assistance of others.

In a similar way, we can understand the efficacy of one little interior word, not merely spoken or thought, but surging up from the depths of a man’s spirit, the expression of his whole being. …And so this simple prayer bursting from the depths of your spirit touches the heart of Almighty God more certainly than some long psalm mumbled mindlessly under your breath. This is the meaning of that saying in Scripture: “A short prayer pierces the heavens.”

These convictions are severely lacking in modern life, which is why modern man so desperately yearns for them. Of course, a city skyline, a skyscraper, a plane, a great landmark — all of these can inspire a kind of awe. But anyone who has experienced awe of man and awe of nature knows that they are thoroughly distinct experiences, and I have become addicted to the last one. It is, I submit, the one aspect of human flourishing that modern life will never be able to provide. I therefore shout — with religious conviction — “Lo and behold, the beauty of the world beyond man.”

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