Monday, September 15, 2014

WHEN NATURE SPEAKS – Echoes of Eternity

When Nature speaks, it’s for a reason. She's sharing things we need to hear—invitations, affirmations, lessons about truth, beauty, love and life.

While the human animal’s obsessed with how to stretch and bend her to create our own realities, Nature reminds us of one eternal reality, that everything is connected. Everything. That what we might fear in her we actually fear in ourselves. And that what we do to her we do to ourselves and others. 

What a joy our place in her should be, a position that, miraculously, both humbles us when we’re arrogant and ennobles us when we’re feeling unimportant.

Nature’s voice surrounds us, fills us, every day. She speaks to our minds, showing us immutable truths of how things always grow and move and interact. At the same time, she refreshes those ancient instincts that have always advised us on how to apply those truths. She tries as she can to show us both the portals and the boundaries of our intimacy.

            Only if we love her back will we 
            care enough to protect her as if 
            she were our own flesh and blood.

Sometimes the message is for our bodies, calling us to work with her, run with her, bask in her. She fills us with contentment, with exhilaration, and then reminds us that, while she may seem indefatigable, we are not.

Finally, she speaks to our hearts and our spirits, reminding us of our deep belonging to her. It is an unconditional love, that of the tenderest of gods, yet utterly indifferent to the values we humans have devised for ourselves—and so often fail to exemplify. 
Don’t think for a moment that what Nature has to say to us has to be a monologue. In fact, there are many ways to hold up our end of the conversation. Perhaps the most obvious is through sound.

If we spot a beautiful bird—a cardinal, let’s say—we obviously can’t look like a cardinal; we can’t feel or taste or smell like one either. But we can sound like one. I do it all the time (and the cardinal nearly always comes closer).

When Nature calls us to our child side, we might answer her with playful cries and joyous laughter. Or we can welcome her accompaniment as we shuffle leaves, crunch acorns or splash water.

We can shout or clap our hands and listen as desert ignores, forest ponders or canyon mimics. Or we can offer Nature the one gift we have that might nearly rival birdsong and wolf call—our own voices in song.

                You know it's not really a 
                sound, but still you hear it.

Can we converse with Nature through silence? Have you ever experienced true, total silence? I’ve done so only a few times in my life. It leaves an impression. At first your brain doesn’t quite know what to do without the foundation of at least some ambient sound.

It’s kind of like being in total darkness. It makes you dizzy. You can almost feel your ears reaching out, expanding, cupping to detect something, anything, to get a bearing on.

Then, like the way we try to fill the awkward lull in a conversation with an “um-m-m” or an “ah-h-h-h,” Nature comes up with her own space filler, a sort of dull roar. You know it's not really a sound, but still you hear it.

How curious that, while total silence may disorient, near-silence—especially that infused with Nature’s whispers of wind through trees, water over rocks, the jabber and scurry of life—is where, more than any place, you will hear the sound of your own spirit, that reassuring voice that reminds you of your unique part in the oneness of everything.

This is an era in which too many of us humans seem to be getting it backwards in our attitude toward Nature. We've come to fear her more than we love her. We keep our young ones indoors where we can keep an eye on them. We discourage them from the kinds of adventures that defined our own childhood, but which we now somehow believe are too risky.

        In her voice are the echoes of everything 
        that ever lived...or ever will live.

If we truly listen, we know that the truth is a different matter. In fact it is Nature that should fear us. Once again, she’s telling us—and we should be listening—how we hurt her through our arrogance, our greed, our short-sightedness and, perhaps most tragically, through those poorly-informed fears.

Nature is as benevolent as she has ever been. And, in this era of virtual experiences and connections, her presence in our daily lives is needed more than ever. Depriving our children of her nurture, her teachings, her healing spirit, is hurting them—and us—in ways we are only now coming to document, and to a degree that far, far outweighs any actual risks.

So keep your ears peeled for Nature’s voice. It’s there, not just in the forest, but in the heart of the city. You can hear it in creatures’ voices, including our own. It comes from growth and movement—the raspy rattle of tree branches rubbing shoulders in the wind; water’s cheery chortle as it charms its way over and around hard rock. Some folks even hear the trees, the clouds, the land.

And only if we listen—truly listen with ears, hearts and souls open—will we learn about Nature and our belonging in her. For in her voice are the echoes of everything that ever lived...or ever will live. Then, only when we know and trust that eternal bond, will we be able to reciprocate her love. Only then will we know enough to protect her as if she were, indeed, our own flesh and blood.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


 TIP #12
Once in a while, look up.

You'd think this would be a no-brainer, wouldn't you? But, if you're at all like me, it's like breathing. You take it for granted; you forget that, occasionally, it needs your attention. Haven't you ever concentrated so much on something—you know, that body-and-soul concentration where you shut out everything around you?—that you realized you'd been forgetting to breathe?

Well, it's the same thing with looking up. We get so focused on what's right in front of our noses, or what's going on inside our heads, we forget that, of the 360-degree reach of our vision, about half of it—with all its wonders of wisp and wing, billow and beam—lies above eye level.

"A find is a terrible thing to waste."

Friday, August 29, 2014

LIFE AS A PALINDROME* – Why We Need Nature Both Coming and Going

My recent work as a hospice volunteer has me thinking more and more about life, and how wonderful it is, regardless of how quickly or slowly it may wind down, that the hospice movement focuses not on the process of dying, but on the process of living until one dies.

The difference may seem subtle, but for hospice patients it is not. One of the reasons I’ve always feared the idea of aging is that, nearly every time I’ve visited
a nursing home, no matter how nice the accoutrements, the residents seem so isolated, so stuck inside those cheesy-art-strewn walls with companions not of their choosing, so unplugged from Nature.

Have you heard this comedy shtick—attributed to several sources—about why life really should be lived backwards?
“I think the most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. What do you get at the end of it? A death! What’s that, a bonus?
I think the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you’re too young, you get a gold watch, you go to work. You work for forty years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement!
You go to college, you do drugs, alcohol, you party, you have sex, you get ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating…and you finish off as a gleam in somebody’s eye.” **
Isn’t that a wonderful notion? Why can’t life be more like that?

Of course, I can’t help but bring to this reflection my Nature-loving, quasi-pantheist point of view—that we come from Nature and, whether we’re smart enough to stay engaged with her throughout our lives or not, we inevitably go back to Nature.

  We’ve always been here and we always will be.

It's not exactly the scenario laid out in the comedy bit; there, even though that ideal life is reversed, it still has a beginning and an end. The advantage of my truth is that, far beyond our blink-of-an-eye, flesh-and-blood presence here on this blue-
green pinprick of light in the deep black fabric of the cosmos, we’ve always been here and we always will be.

As I suggest in my previous post here, The Stuff of Stars – What Every Human Wants—this amounts to nothing less than immortality. Not the fuzzy going-home-to-God-in-heaven version I was brought up with, but one that’s equally positive and, for me at least, considerably easier to believe.

These days, as the Children and Nature movement and its “Nature Deficit Disorder” diagnosis of screen-bound kids gain traction around the world, it’s easy to believe that Nature is most essential to human beings when they’re young. After all, they say it’s then—mostly before the age of five—that the essential building blocks of a healthy, happy life are laid down. And Nature is, indeed, a master mason.

In the U.S and many other cultures of the “developed” world, we then grow up, we tie ourselves to our work and our homes, and many of us forget what it was like to be one with Nature.

But if we could accept, for a minute, that the end of life is—or should be—the mirror image of its beginning, wouldn’t it make sense that Nature play as big a role in our health and happiness when we’re very old as when we were very young?

Take me outdoors...where Nature can replenish my soul with her perfect, timeless beauty and wisdom.

My hospice training urged us volunteers to bring with us to patient visits a “tool kit” of things to read, pictures to look at, music to listen to, perhaps a few games to play. And, depending on my patients’ particular likes, I will have those things.

But the most important device I will bring is the turning of a door knob. For it is only outdoors where all of one’s senses are brought to life at the same time, where a person whose horizon draws near is reassured, not just of being thoroughly in each moment, but of an essential sense of belonging—today, tomorrow, forever.

PHOTO: K. Nelson

I hope with all my heart that this will be the case for me, that when I’m too feeble to easily get out and use my precious abilities to walk and climb and paddle, someone will be kind enough to lend me those capacities. Take me outdoors, with the animals and plants and moving air, where Nature can replenish my soul with her perfect, timeless beauty and wisdom.

The end of my life may not be, as the quote imagines, the gleam in my parents’ eyes, but I’m convinced I’ll see a much deeper intent, that of a benevolent universe, welcoming home, after his briefest of visits to this earthly life, one of its own.

* The word “palindrome” comes from the Greek
palin dromo, which means “running back again.”

** This bit has been attributed to George Carlin, Woody Allen, and even Andy Rooney, but there’s a pretty convincing case for its actually having been written (and performed on the
Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the early ’80s) by lesser-known comedian Sean Morey. 

At any rate, I found this a particularly nice version of the life-backwards story, as it is audio-only—allowing one to conjure one’s own imagery. LIVING LIFE BACKWARDS

Sunday, August 3, 2014

THE STUFF OF STARS – What Every Human Wants

The other day one of my Facebook friends shared a video that’s got me thinking like very few social media posts do. It is astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s response to this question from a TIME Magazine reader: What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?*

In brief, what astounds Tyson most about the universe is that every single atom of everything that comprises life on earth—or anywhere else for that matter—originated in certain high-mass stars that exploded some fourteen billion years ago and blasted gas clouds through the galaxy. Every ingredient necessary for life was in those gas clouds, which eventually condensed, collapsed and formed the next generation of planets.

       We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more 
       important… the universe is in us. Many people feel small, because they’re 
       small and the universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from 
       those stars. ~ DR. NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON

At our very core, isn’t this what every human being wants most? To know where we came from; that we’re part of something bigger and more enduring than ourselves or our self-devised institutions; that, in fact, we’re connected—to each other, to all life, to the earth, to all of creation?

             At our very core, isn’t this what  
             every human being wants most?

I suggest that this is why we experience such profound joy, such awe, beholding the Grand Canyon, the birth of our child, or perhaps the rescue of a person or animal from grave harm. This is why I felt my spirit deepen and soar at the same time when a 50-foot Pacific gray whale cow, just twenty feet away from my dinghy, swam under her calf, lifted it gently and pushed it to my outstretched hand.

These wondrous moments are, necessarily, rare. But there are countless smaller, everyday wonders that surround us every day. We knew how to see them and let ourselves be affected by them when we were children, but too many of us have lost that ability. Too much other stuff competing for our attention—distractions, pressures, expectations.

It’s sad enough to see how many of us have lost that innate, childlike sense of wonder, that feeling of belonging, in its deepest, truest sense—to Nature, to each other, to life. But what’s sadder still is seeing how seldom we seem to realize it, or, if we do, how little that bothers us.

Still, the loss must hit home at some level, judging from how desperately we struggle to compensate.

      I’m afraid...we’ve come to actually think 
      that virtual reality is the best we can do.

I’m not about to say that this age of instant gratification, of crowd-sourced truths, of virtual connections, is entirely without redeeming value; that would make me a hypocrite. But the degree and the sheer amount of time consumed by these illusions of “reality” and “connectedness” is nothing short of astounding.

According to Nielsen's annual Social Media Report, in just one month, Americans spend 121 billion minutes on social media sites. That’s more than 230,000 person-years we spend “staring into the glaring screen of so-called sharing”—and remember, that’s just in the United States, and in just one month!

I’m a great believer in the notion that if something looks bizarre or over the top, it’s quite likely more than a fluke; there’s often a good reason for it. In this case, I’m afraid that reason may be that somehow we’ve come to actually think that virtual reality is the best we can do.

It isn’t.

This brings me back to Tyson’s inspiring words. When we hunger for something to inspire us, for a sense of belonging, for a purpose, there will never be a shortage of answers flying up at us from the ten-diagonal-inch screen sitting in our lap.

If all you want is an answer, that’s fine. But for those of us seeking THE answer, that can only be found by turning that thing off and looking up at the stars.
* MOST ASTOUNDING FACT - Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

THE WAY OF DECAY – The Eternal Cycle of Death and New Life

My favorite season is barely half done, and already the signs are there. A few impetuous leaves turn red and yellow. Potted plants grow weary, strangled by their own root-bound legs. Sumac's velvety cobs blush, eager for their time, their raison d'ĂȘtre. Summer, devoured slowly by moss and mold, nourishes a new kind of spring.
               Lives end; life endures.

As if to show its still-lustrous, vibrant kin the glory of the eternal cycle, a shed rhubarb leaf uses every device of color, texture, line and form to say There is beauty and fulfillment where I am going too.

Lives end; life endures.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


My son, Jeff, is 42. He lives about 1,200 miles away, and I haven’t seen him but
for our two or three brief visits a year since his mother and I divorced when he
was four.

Despite my considerable failings as a father, Jeff has grown up to be a smart, creative, principled, loving man. He’s had his share of disappointments and heartaches, but he’s carved out a life that works for him. And, while I may not agree with all the decisions he’s made, I respect them…and him.

          Suddenly, this big, six-foot-two, 42-
          year-old man shrank before my eyes.

When we’re together, as we were for a few days this past week, it’s hard to remember that Jeff is my son. Sure, we share memories from his childhood; I teach him whatever I know that he's still interested in learning; I ask about his life, and offer advice and support when he needs it.

But usually it seems we treat each other more as peers than as father and son. Lots of good-natured give and take—joking, challenging, comparing tastes, the occasional boast.

This visit has been an especially rewarding one. For a quiet man who generally keeps to himself, he seemed to truly appreciate me and all his aunts, uncles and cousins gathered to celebrate Independence Day as a family. And I enjoyed him…
a lot.

Yesterday, I drove Jeff to the airport. We hugged, exchanged I love yous and said good-bye. Then he turned and walked toward the terminal doors. Suddenly, this big, six-foot-two, 42-year-old man shrank before my eyes. All I could see was him as a three-year-old.

My throat tightened and the emotion welled up. At that moment, I saw in him all the beauty, innocence and vulnerability I find in my three-year-old grandson, but which I thought I’d long since lost with Jeff. To be honest, I’m not sure I ever felt quite that same chemistry of tenderness and awe, even when he was that little kid, when he—and I for that matter—needed it most.

      Isn’t that something we all dream of: 
      turning back the clock in every way 
      but for our knowledge?

We parents always seem to learn these lessons too late. During our kids’ tender youth, we’re so overwhelmed with the enormity of our responsibility and so underwhelmed with our own competence and emotional stability that we’re barely holding it together, much less exuding pure patience and love.

Sadly, none of us ever gets a do-over on those parts of parenting we botched as twenty-somethings. Or do we?

I realize Jeff will never again be three. But he will be forty-three, and, give or take a few decades, isn't that as good an age as any to start seeing anew that pure, precious, child-like heart and soul I know still reside at his core? And perhaps be more like the father I wish I’d been so long ago?

This is something I guess all parents—and eventually our progeny—learn: that at some deep, internal level we continue to see them as little children, no matter what their age.

After all, my son is still my son, and I am still his father. God willing, I have some time to know and appreciate him as if I were new to the game—but with the added perspective, patience and wisdom only 40 years can bring. (Isn’t that what we all dream of: being able to turn back the clock in every way but for our knowledge?)

        Try, if you can, picturing them as 
        small, sweet and innocent once again.

My little epiphany has been a blessing, even though it comes late, during the slow, certain ebb of my life. My guess is that many fathers who divorced when their kids were very young never get that chance; some may not recognize it when they do.

Has your relationship with a grown child—or anyone for that matter—grown old? Do you find yourself keeping just a little distance between you, or perhaps taking him or her for granted, because you're both adults? Try, if you can, picturing them as small, sweet and innocent once again. Because deep inside, under all those layers life's woes have heaped on them, they still are...we all still are.

It's not like your time together is suddenly going to transform to true magic. But the way you feel about them just might. If they notice something's different, let's just let the reason be our little secret.

Monday, July 7, 2014


Bless a stranger with your thoughts and deeds.

You know how it feels. Someone you don't know from Adam smiles and offers a kind word; perhaps sees your need, and helps.

Be that kind stranger today; wish a passerby well. Know they might walk in darkness today, but for the light of your being, shared.