photo by Lynne Theophanis

This Earth, This Spirit

(Salvation in the Wilderness ’13)

Rev. Douglas Taylor

October 9, 2022

Sermon video:

William Cullen Bryant was an American romantic poet from the 1800’s; he has a poem “Green River” that begins, “When the breezes are soft and skies are fair, I steal an hour away from study and care, and hie me away to the woodland scene.” Me? I stole more than an hour; I had a whole day. Friday afternoon I did hie me and my family away to the wilderness for some soft breeze and woodland scene – for some relief of the kind only wild places can provide.

Yesterday I was up at Camp Unirondack, our Unitarian Universalist camp and conference center in the forever wild forests of the western Adirondack mountains. Unirondack is one of the sacred locations of my youth. I attended summer camp every year for many years leading up to the summer I was old enough to work up there as a counselor. I returned ten years after that summer to work two summers in a row as the camp chaplain while I was finishing seminary. That was when my older children first experienced Unirondack. They have also kept a close connection to the place ever since.

My family connection extends further. My mother attended Unirondack as a youth, indeed she was a camper the first year they opened in 1951. As an adult she offered programs and served on the Board. And stretching in the other generational direction, we brought our granddaughter up for her first visit this weekend just a little over half-a-year old.

Unirondack has been a sacred place for me not only during my youth but all my life. Do you have a place, perhaps a wilderness or a garden, some patch of nature upon which you can rely? Do you have a Quiet Place such as we heard about in the story this morning (Charlotte and the Quiet Place by Deborah Sosin)?

Bryant’s poem concludes with the lines, “I often come to this quiet place, to breathe the air that ruffles the face, and gaze upon thee in silent dream, for in thy lonely and lovely stream an image of that calm life appears that won my heart in greener years.”

Wilderness is significantly important for human beings because as natural creatures we need nature to help us stay balanced and in touch with our spiritual root. That is my experience of nature and wilderness. It is a touchstone back to balance for me, a taproot of spiritual health, and a resource of relief for my spirit. Wild places are necessary for if we do not seek out wild places in nature then we will not learn the gift they offer to the wild places in our hearts, and we will starve a sacred and necessary aspect of our lives for want of wilderness.

Attending Sunday morning worship is important, to be sure. I am never going to not say Sunday mornings are important. It helps us stay balanced in community. But we also need retreats such as up at a wilderness camp to have transformative, identity-shaping experiences. Hie yourselves to the woods from time to time and be renewed in spirit, that you may be whole.

There is a wonderful misquotation of Thoreau that says: In wildness is the salvation of the world. It comes from that great naturalist Aldo Leopold in his book A Sand County Almanac. In it he wrote, “Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world.” (P 133) The line comes in exactly my favorite section of that book, Leopold’s conversion story of killing a wolf and realizing the deep interconnectedness of the mountain and the wolf and the deer and the men. Leopold realized that to survive we would need to learn to think like a mountain. He realized that we humans must learn to see ourselves not as separate from the earth and the other animals. That the wild places need not be tamed, they are necessary and we can learn from them. “Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world.”

Except Thoreau never said that, at least not precisely that. The correct quotation comes from Thoreau’s essay, “Walking.” “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world.” He had not said ‘salvation,’ he’d said ‘preservation.’ “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” Preservation is different from salvation. They have similarities to be sure. They both carry the tone of being made whole. Salvation and preservation each signal a sense of a goal both secure and sound. But while salvation rescues and restores that which is unsound back to soundness, that which is broken back to wholeness; preservation maintains and safeguards the wholeness that exists already.

Sometimes I find myself agreeing with Thoreau and other times I agree with Leopold. I’m not always sure. Sometimes I think salvation is not what’s needed, there is nothing fallen or lost; it is all held in the beauty and we need only turn and notice the beauty that has always been there! But other times I think the world has gone mad and there is so much destruction and violence we pour out on each other and on the world that perhaps preservation is not enough. The major environmental issues are not wilderness conservation and the protection of endangered species. Today the issues are about climate crisis – a deep concern for harm that could well be irreparable for the world as we know it.

Whether wildness is the preservation or the salvation of the world perhaps depends on what you see going on in the world; but either way, it is still wildness that is needed. For if we do not have the experience of the wild places in nature then we will not learn the gift they offer to the wild places in our hearts. Those who cry out against climate crisis are invariably those who have felt the touch of nature, who have had their “hearts won” by nature, as Bryant put it.

In various religious scripture and poetry and folklore we find references to the natural world as a place to uncover lessons for living, sometimes explicitly as a place of testing. Nature is sometimes cast as the place of temptation or a place where we get lost. Nature is also presented in fairy tales as a dangerous place yet also a place where we must go to grow up. The mountain top, the desert, the woods and the wilderness each carry a metaphoric or mythic tone that the actual natural locations can truly convey.

There is a reading in our hymnal from Ralph Waldo Emerson that is about roses. The transcendentalists were generally quite skilled at recognizing in nature the lessons for living well. “These roses under my window,” Emerson wrote, “make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” This is so common a statement from naturalists and transcendentalists. It recurs in literature regularly. The world of nature: flowers, animals, waterfalls; these do not tax themselves with preoccupations and worries. One of the goals of Buddhist meditation is to become present to the moment. A task which is so simple for a dog or a bird or an infant, is so very difficult for you and me.

As Emerson says, the rose under his window is ‘perfect in every moment of its existence.’ “But we postpone or remember. We do not live in the present, but with reverted eye lament the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround us, stand on tiptoe to foresee the future. We cannot be happy or strong until we too live with nature in the present above time.” Think back to a time when you were fully happy. Where you watching the clock? Or was time flying while you were having fun? Think back to a time when you were fully happy. Were you multi-tasking? Or were you fully present and enjoying the moment, ‘perfect in every moment of your existence.’

Henry David Thoreau wrote,

Nature never makes haste; her systems revolve at an even pace. The buds swell imperceptibly, without hurry or confusion, as though the short spring days were an eternity. Why, then, should man hasten as if anything less than eternity were allotted for the least deed? The wise man is restful, never restless or impatient.

So many examples from nature lead us to the conclusion that single-minded attentiveness is highly valued. So often, however, we hear appreciation and praise of multi-tasking; as if multi-tasking is somehow better than being able to focus on one thing, as if having a fragmented attention is a good thing. Multitasking only gives the illusion of creating extra time. This and other behaviors like it work to divide our attention in too many directions. We are in danger of becoming fragmented.

There was a little study done in Scotland a few years back. It was reported in the New York Times with the title “Easing Brain Fatigue with a Walk in the Park.” (“Easing Brain Fatigue with a Walk in the Park” by Gretchen Reynolds; March 27, 2013, Primarily it was a test run for a portable EEG pack. Until these little devices, any study of brain activity had to take place within the confines of a lab where the Electroencephalogram machine could be used. Well, they invented a portable version that people can wear. The electrodes are hidden beneath an ordinary cap and the readings are sent wirelessly to a laptop carried in a small backpack. Thus configured, an individual can walk around town rather than sit in a lab.

So, one of the first experiments they did was to study the impact of different environments on a person’s brainwave activity. They had volunteers walk through three distinct neighborhoods in Edinburgh: first an historic shopping district with very little vehicle traffic but plenty of sidewalks, next a park-like setting, and finally a busy, high-traffic commercial district. It is no surprise I am sure that the findings showed people were more meditative in the park-like setting and more frustrated in the busy setting.

This is not a dramatic study. As I said, the primary goal seems to have been to test run the new portable EEGs. But still, I’ll point out that the busy, commercial and concrete setting was very demanding on the brain activity. Urban settings demand our attention, the commerce, the people, the traffic, we need to be paying attention. The more natural setting allowed the brain activity to settle into what psychology is calling ‘involuntary attention.’

This is using the word ‘involuntary’ in the automatic sense used biologically for breathing and the beating of our hearts. We don’t think each breath, it just happens naturally. Our brains also have a default setting. This study corroborated this understanding by showing that the volunteer’s brain wave activity went into the involuntary attention mode while in the park-like setting. In other words, they relaxed. The brain is still engaged, but the attention demanded is effortless. The natural world holds our attention but it also allows us the freedom for reflection and contemplation.

Another study, done a few decades back reaches much the same conclusion: we seek out nature because we find it good for our spirits. It was a study about how children use elementary school playgrounds. They replaced “an acre and a half of asphalt with a diverse group of traditional playground swings and bars; structures and sitting area; and a half-acre of fishing ponds, streams, woods, and meadows.” (from The Geography of Childhood by Gary Nabhan and Stephen Trimble, p 66) Then the researchers did the low-tech option, rather than hooking the people up to potable EEGs, they just watched the children to see where and how they played.

As you might guess, the kids spent more time with the ponds, streams, woods and meadows compared to the traditional playground equipment. But more than that, “the natural area of the playground saw wider ranges of activities and more mixing of the genders.” (Ibid) The researchers also talked to the kids about the spaces. This is how the children described the natural area: “It’s a very good place. Really quiet. Lots of kids just sit around there and talk.” “It’s just perfect.” (Ibid) Children make themselves at home in nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson speculated that adults don’t really see nature anymore. “The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child.” He claimed when we come back to the woods we come as children in wonder.

In his essay, “Nature” Emerson expands on this idea writing: “Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

Or to consider a different topography, my colleague, Marni Harmony, wrote in our meditation this morning, “I say it touches us that our blood is sea water and our tears are salt … I say we have to go down into the wave’s trough to find ourselves, and then ride her swell until we can see beyond ourselves into our neighbor’s eye.”

Our choir sang (“Children of the Earth” by Sharon Scholl) “We are children of the earth / nurtured in its hills and plains / fed by its sun warmed by its sun / our green home in the universe.”

John Muir wrote: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

Wild places are necessary for if we do not seek out wild places in nature then we will not learn the gift they offer to the wild places in our hearts, and we will starve a sacred and necessary aspect of our lives for want of wilderness. It is my balance, my taproot of spiritual health. Wilderness is the touchstone of my spirit. Go seek out the wild places in your life and in our world for there is the perseveration of all we hold dear.

In a world without end,

may it be so.