Sacred, Spiritual Nature

I do not really need experts telling me that being in nature contributes to a sense of well-being – but I’m happy to see that this concept is gaining traction and press. From the age of nine or 10, I regularly ran past the placid horses in the pasture, across the brook where red-winged blackbirds sang out their cheery “konkaree,” across the far field, and finally, panting, to the bar-gate into the woods.

Ah, the sheltering, mysterious woods! Refuge from family chaos, relief from long school days. My woods offered peace and possibility. I might startle a grouse – or rather it would startle me as it whirred into the air. Maybe deer would be feeding in the abandoned field beyond the woods. I knew I was in a magical territory, the domain of fairies and nature spirits, even if I couldn’t see them.

After a long woods ramble and a slow walk back home, taking time to chat with the horses, I always felt better than when I had left – calmer, happier – even though nothing at home had changed. Today, in an older age, I walk or snowshoe through the woods and I still feel happier and more balanced when I return – now to a calm home and peaceful pets.

Beyond Well-being

Since trees metabolize carbon dioxide from the air and send out oxygen, I’ve often wondered if the extra oxygen in forests contributes to this feeling of well-being. Or maybe it changes the way my brain functions, as one of the many articles I’ve seen recently suggests. “The Nature Cure” by Florence Williams in National Geographic hypothesizes that “being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s communication center, to rest and recover, like an overused muscle.”

Perhaps, as Stephen Buhner explains in Plant Intelligence, trees’ relationship to one another instills a sense of calm in the passerby. All plants, including trees, he remarks, “possess a spectrum of neural networks just as mammals do,” some larger, some smaller, meaning that “brain” size varies, as it does with mammals. “Plant brains,” Buhner says, “are located in their root systems, and trees have very large root systems…They are all self-aware. They all engage in highly interactive social transactions with their communities.” {For their neural networks to function, plants use virtually the same neurotransmitters as humans, including the two most important ones, glutamate, and GABA.} So maybe all this communication between trees – even though I can’t hear it – influences my mood when I walk in Wild Woods.

And yet there’s something more, something not easily described in a scientific way – something older, deeper, and wiser than science. Our earlier ancestors knew it and lived it. Indigenous people everywhere have known it and express deep distress when industrial factions attempt to take it away. The environmental and philosophical movement known as deep ecology refers to it in writings and in efforts to bring this wisdom to modern America. It’s the spiritual aspect of nature – the human relationship to the earth.


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