Have you ever noticed the subtle green that begins like a misty breath in trees on the cusp of spring? Does your mood naturally begin to brighten with the lengthening of days?
Especially in winter, I’m not always attuned to these subtle changes of nature. I’m less inclined to venture outdoors, particularly on days filled with rain and snow. I’m more likely to enter virtual worlds than the world beyond my doorstep.
To orient my perspective toward the beauty that can be found in any season, I find spending time with nature writers to be immensely helpful. They revive in me attentiveness to the ever-changing landscape that is the natural world, and help me reconnect to it. If you’re also looking for ways to more meaningfully connect to the natural world, consider taking a stroll with one of these nature writers:
L.M. Montgomery: nature as healer
If you’re interested in exploring the daily life of Anne of Green Gables author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, a great place to start is The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery: The PEI Years, 1889-1900. So many of her journal entries detail the beautiful, rugged landscape of her beloved Prince Edward Island. In a passage dated “Monday, Aug. 21, 1893,” she writes,
This afternoon I took a walk back through dear old Lover’s Lane [a well-loved path on her grandparents’ property]. Surely, it is the prettiest spot in the world. Apart from its beauty I have a strange love for it. In those divine woodland solitudes one can hear the voice of one’s own soul—the voice of nature—the voice of God. I wish I might go there every day of my life—I always feel better after a stroll under those green arches where nature reveals herself in all her beauty.
Montgomery reminds me that time spent in nature offers healing, not only on the physical level, but on the psychological and spiritual levels. To this point, a 2020 article for Yale Environment 360 suggests that 120 minutes of outdoor time in green spaces each week is necessary for our mental and physical well-being. The article goes on to describe some of the positive effects of nature: “It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood.” No wonder Montgomery found so much solace in the outdoors!
Throughout her entries, Montgomery reveals herself to be a deep-feeling individual—easily moved by beauty and also prone to feelings of intense melancholy. Her journals suggest that nature shored up her low spirits, for example, in an entry from “Sunday, Sept. 9, 1894.” She has gone to a nearby town to visit friends, and writes, “Preserve me from a rainy Sunday. It is tolerable when there are a lot of folks in the house with you, but in a quiet place like this it is distractingly lonely.” The antidote for these heavy feelings: nature. She explores a nearby lane which reminds her of Lover’s Lane, and reflects,
As I tramped along my spirits rose—I felt fresh and free and energetic. The lane was green and grass-grown, with here and there along the fence an old gnarled spruce tree or a copse of young saplings. There was a sense of companionship in their dark green boughs. I love trees. I felt like a new creature, bodily and mentally when I got back.
Montgomery’s sensitivity to nature’s beauties and to its role as a balm to the spiritual, physical, and mental self inspires me to turn to nature, not only for fresh air, but as a source of inspiration. I’ve also found that writing about the nature I’ve encountered makes me better “see” it: a flower, an empty nest, a tree outlined in ice become subjects of meditation, feeding my inner world.
Mary Oliver: nature as a touchpoint of devotion
Mary Oliver’s poetry is full of nature-filled noticing. In her last collection of essays, Upstream, Oliver shares the crucial role that nature played in her life. Early in her childhood, Oliver discovered a world beyond herself in nature:
In the…natural world—I felt at ease; nature was full of beauty and interest and mystery, also good and bad luck, but never misuse….And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is an antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.
Oliver’s words reveal nature as refuge, as a place of witnessing to wholeness, beauty, a world populated with life in abundance. It also cultivates humility in Oliver: in nature, she is an observer of the beauty around her, and not its possessor. She says, “Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here [in her book of essays], and the sunflowers themselves are far more wonderful than any words about them.”
Focus on the natural leads Oliver into the spiritual: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” The aforementioned article from Yale Environment 360 also points out that time spent immersed in nature is beneficial to one’s attention; as researchers Rachel and Stephen Kaplan found, “In a natural environment…people paid attention more broadly and in a less effortful way, which leads to [a] far more relaxed body and mind.”
Perhaps this broad attention is what Mary Oliver means when she says “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Going into nature literally means entering a world wider than myself. In a 2018 TIME article, Qing Li, doctor and forest medicine expert, shares the concept of “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing,” which is “simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.” Forest bathing opens its practitioners to this broader attentiveness—to not only observing the natural world but experiencing it more fully.
Like forest bathing, Oliver’s poetry invites me to enter into a moment of encounter, meeting nature with all my senses. In a poem like “The Swan,” I’m invited not only to see a familiar animal, but a creature transformed into light (“An armful of white blossoms”), texture (“A perfect commotion of silk and linen”), and sound (“A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall / Knifing down the black ledges”). It becomes a touchpoint for meditation—moving me from exterior world to interior: “And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything? / And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for? / And have you changed your life?” Oliver reminds me that it is what I pay deep attention to that ultimately shapes my life. Nature can be the intersection connecting me to both the physical and the spiritual sides of reality.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: nature as teacher
In her lovely book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, professor of Environmental and Forest Biology Robin Wall Kimmerer invites the reader into a perspective of the natural world informed by her Potawatomi tribal roots. Key to understanding the natural world, Kimmerer suggests, is seeing ourselves in relationship to it. In the preface to the book, she says she’d like to give readers “a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.”
One story from this collection that really touches me is “The Gift of Strawberries,” where Kimmerer remembers the wild strawberries growing near her house as a girl: “Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet….Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery—as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source.” From watching these strawberries grow year after year, from picking them, eating them, and delighting in their abundance, Kimmerer learned that gifts carry with them responsibility, the care and cultivation of a relationship between giver and receiver: “Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, receive, and reciprocate….No person taught us this—the strawberries showed us. Because they had given us a gift, an ongoing relationship opened between us.”
Kimmerer also approaches nature with humility: “in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among other species for guidance.”
As an example, I’ve really been struck by what both Kimmerer and a recent New York Times article have to say about the interdependence of trees. In a Western world that highly values independence, professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard found that trees have much to teach us about interdependence: “Simard has discovered that fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones can pass from tree to tree through these subterranean circuits. Resources tend to flow from the oldest and biggest trees to the youngest and smallest.” The ways trees “tend” to the needs of fellow trees offers me an important lesson: namely, that my life is a similar web of connections, that I need both humans and nature in my life for healthy living, and that this need is reciprocal.
Until reading Kimmerer’s work, I didn’t realize that developing a relationship with the natural world was something I could do. There is an element of sharing abundance with others that makes whatever it is we are sharing more special, be that blueberries, a bunch of poppies, or a walk through the woods. As Kimmer says, “The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes.”
The works of nature writers convey the beauty and benefit of sharing the natural world through the written word. They’ve encouraged me to enter into this seasonal transition of winter into spring with my eyes open to the infinite value of my surroundings. The budding trees, the new grass, the early flowers are not merely a background for my individual life; nature writers remind me that nature is an invitation into relationship.