The Call to Awaken
It is spring. In the world beyond your tightly closed windows and locked doors, the world around you is born into being, thus beginning the cycle of life anew. In a sudden pop, leaves burst forth upon the tree whose branches scrape noisily against your bedroom wall. These leaves are sheer and smooth and rather tender, the pale green of new life. Upon the branches of this tree, birds awaken you from slumber with the chorus of their voices, some raucous, some sweetly trilling, as they proclaim their territories for all to hear. Small, creeping things emerge from the earth, and crawl toward vernal pools to mate. Under cover of your shrubbery, wary- eyed rabbits copulate in the dusky gloom. Green shoots push forth from the darkness of the womb of earth into the brightness of the warming sun, transforming the landscape beneath your feet. Flowers abound, their brilliant colors and appealing aromas an invitation for insects to aid in their reproductive process. Each day, tiny newborn creatures are brought into being, drawing the hungry eyes of cunning predators who prowl unnoticed through your backyard, some of whom are too small to be seen.
The world around us, our world, is undergoing a profound transformation with the coming of the spring. We ourselves are not immune to the biochemical shift that occurs as winter’s snows begin to thaw. Something in us begins to awaken, too, as we stir from our state of sluggish torpor. Within our blood, we, too, feel the lustful, invigorating yearnings of spring. Yet many people, so wholly estranged from this world around us, so isolated, as it were, by concrete and wires and machinery, fail to notice the profound shift in the world of which we are still an integral part.
Many perfectly intelligent people admit to feeling so far removed from, and quite alienated by, the natural world. Perhaps in their youths, they felt a certain fascination with the nests of spittlebugs in tall grasses and knew the excitement of uncovering rocks to discover small, sleek salamanders beneath. Yet in today’s urbanized, fast- paced adult world, there seems to be little time to seek encounters with Nature. The majority of us spend the first hour of our mornings on commutes down long stretches of freeway or congested city streets to our jobs in climate- controlled offices, the blaring noise of our car stereos a substitute for companionship and conversation. We endure long hours under the fluorescent lights surrounded by the incessant clacking of keyboards and the ever- ringing phones. Finally, we return home in the evenings to our nightly desensitization routine under the cool glow of the television. In today’s society, many of us have neither yard nor apartment balcony to serve as “our” private slice of the natural world. And so it is that many well- rounded, educated people come to be more familiar with the world of television newscasts than that of the natural world that surrounds them, of which humanity is still very much an influential part. For, however many walls we construct to block out the sometimes chaotic influence of Nature on our lives, humankind still bears a heavy impact upon Nature itself. For this reason alone, it is important that we come to understand that which we influence so greatly.
Developing an understanding of your local ecology and seasonal cycles can be a highly rewarding experience for you as well. This understanding will grant you a sense of belonging to the world around you, an awareness of being part of something beyond the physical boundaries of your Self. Your growing curiosity will help you uncover many strange mysteries and fascinating truths about the world you once viewed as little more than wallpaper. It will fuel your sense of creativity as you make uncommon observations about the many life forms that make up the whole of Nature. And quite possibly, it will give you a sense of roots, or a connection of sorts with your earlier ancestors. To people of earlier times, the hunter- gatherers and the subsistence farmers who lived wholly off the land, the seasonal transitions clearly meant far more than they do today, as merely a change in the color of the wallpaper, the backdrop to our bustling and indifferent lives. In those days, the wisdoms of Nature and her creatures were sought after, and their advice of a sort (learned by example) was followed readily.
In today’s world, there is a growing minority which seeks to honor the turning of the “wheel of the year,” as it is called, with seasonal celebrations to mark the Solstices and Equinoxes, and other occasions as well. These would have been the great festival days of our ancient ancestors, imbued with much symbolic and spiritual significance, around which a vast mythos was created. In my opinion, this is one of the better aspects of the Neopagan community. Last weekend, for instance, the holiday known as May Day, or Beltane, was celebrated by a large segment of this community. This is a joyous, exuberant festival dating back to ancient times, a celebration of fertility and the conception of new life in the animal and plant kingdoms alike, not excluding humankind. Today, the exuberant revelry of Beltane is still acknowledged in circles across the world.
That’s not to say that you must be a Wiccan, a Heathen, or a Druid in order to appreciate and understand the natural world all around us. Of course not! I myself no longer truly belong to that world. On the contrary, Nature knows no human dogma or creed and is accessible to all. It is simply that certain human belief systems emphasize the importance of coming to know Nature. Others clearly stress the superiority of humankind over the “baseness” of the animal world, and the supremacy of spirit over the “indecent” instincts of body and flesh. In my opinion, this establishes a worldview where one is so obsessed with the spiritual evolution skyward that one never stops to notice the wisdoms of the world beneath one’s feet. And, as anyone knows, people do not hesitate to harm what they do not understand.
Conversely, I’m not saying that you need to embark on a rugged wilderness quest in order to get closer to Nature. I’m not insisting that you take a week’s vacation from your job to backpack into the remote wilderness, where you’d attempt to spear a wild animal and make yourself a pair of moccasins… unless, of course, you feel truly moved to do so. No, for the enjoyment of Nature requires neither a mysterious initiation ritual nor a survival experience in the deep woods. Nature truly is all around us. It is much closer than we think.
Let me share a simple example from my own life. Some time ago, I was working nights at a natural food store. When I left work for the evening, before returning to my one bedroom apartment in the city, I would drive to a nature center which was close to my home. I would then engage in what I called “frog walks”, where I would skirt around the edges of the several small, ornamental ponds and attempt to discern the mating amphibians by their calls. I often caught glimpses of the frogs and toads themselves, including spring peepers, their small, elfin forms clinging to low hanging branches in the moonlight. Deer, too, were active at night, thundering boldly across the meadows and startling me on numerous occasions. The world of Nature is just as active by moonlight as by the brightness of day.
More recently, I’ve begun taking my lunch breaks at the small city cemetery across the parking lot from my current place of employment. A cemetery, you ask? How morbid! Yet, it was in that very cemetery that I watched a pair of fledgling hawks grow and mature, and by the nearby creek I once saw a gallinule and observed a killdeer raising her tiny chicks, not to mention the abundance of frogs and small silvery fish. Nature is all around us.
Where To Begin
So, if you’d like to make a place for Nature in your life, and develop a greater understanding of the world at your doorstep, I’d say that the best way to start is in recognizing the different components that make up the body of Nature as a whole. This means that you would be learning to identify the various life forms that inhabit the world around you. This is not as difficult as you might think.
Here are just a few examples. Perhaps you should begin by learning to identify that which you are most curious about, and also that which is fairly abundant. Identifying plants, trees, birds and/ or bird songs, frog calls, or butterflies are excellent places to start. To begin, you need only purchase an Audubon or Peterson field guide to the flora or fauna which intrigue you most. I too am finally learning to identify plants in earnest, and I’ve found that the identification guides which are specific to my state are the most helpful. These are both titled Wildflowers of Ohio, though one is by Stan Tekiela, and the other is by Robert L. Henn. For animal calls, of course there are a number of CD sets available which allow you to easily memorize the variations in vocal pattern by species. Moreover, study the life cycles of the creatures which intrigue you most. Then, attempt to observe examples of the behavior patterns you’ve read about in the wild. You’ll be surprised by what you find.
Assuming that you have the ability to do so, I strongly recommend gardening as an excellent way to harmonize your life with the cycle of the seasons. I first had the opportunity to grow a garden just a few years ago, and was amazed by how much I learned about the weather patterns and the life cycles of plants by growing my own. Not only that, but gardening also introduces you to the intriguing subterranean world, as you begin to discover the abundance of life dwelling in small tunnels beneath the surface of the earth. If you grow vegetables and herbs, then you will also be able to add homegrown plants to your diet. This will allow you to eat “in season”, at least partly. You will come to know when strawberries ripen and when peppers are ready to be plucked from the vine, and when the flavor of your arugula is just strong enough to harvest. It’s a very valuable sort of awareness, this understanding of the lives of the crops that nourish you. By growing some of your own food, you’ll be harmonizing your lifestyle to meld with the world around you. No longer oblivious, you become a part of things, and develop a rapport with the natural world!
It is also an excellent idea to cultivate some plants which are native to your state. This creates a stunning patch of naturalized landscape in your yard, often provides food for wildlife including butterflies, and helps you to understand and appreciate the rich botanical world that evolved here, on “your” soil. It is important that you do not collect these plants from the wild, because many are threatened or rare, and surely you don’t wish to harm a life form in your efforts to appreciate it. Instead, there are many greenhouses and nurseries which grow their own varieties of native plants for sale.
Depending on what aspect of Nature you wish to understand, and where you happen to live, you might want to consider putting out food, or offering shelter, to species that you want to see more of. Of course, this will require just a bit of research. Feeding birds and squirrels are the most obvious examples here, but there are others. For instance, if you live in a rural area frequented by deer, you may wish to put out salt or mineral blocks for them to lick. Building your own bat house is another possibility. Helpful, insectivorous bats are common even in the city.
You may also wish to keep a Nature journal of some sort. In keeping with our new interest in identifying plants, my boyfriend and I both started recording our findings in botanical journals this spring. This also allows people without yards of their own to keep track of the seasonal progressions of plant life all around them. We record not only botanical happenings in our own yard, but in our neighborhood on the whole, at the city park, while hiking on trails, and while glimpsing flora along the roadways. This gives one a sense of perspective and of time. This activity, of course, goes hand-in-hand with learning to identify some aspect of the landscape we view collectively as Nature. This identification process may sound difficult, but in fact it is quite simple, and the world looks truly different when you can gaze across a park trail and recognize “familiar faces” in the woodland around you.
Lastly, I would recommend that anyone wishing to connect to nature in a stronger way find a special place to do so. I say this because, if you visit first a park, then the local cemetery, then the grassland alongside the railroad tracks, then a lakeshore… you are making valuable observations of nature, but you may not be able to grasp the seasonal progression as obviously as if you chose one of these places (or several, if you have the time!), and visited it consistently. I find it valuable to develop a rapport with specific natural sites themselves. This place need not be your backyard, or even a park. Nature is all around us. Choose what works for you. If you enjoy watching muskrats swim in the creek behind the convenient store, then that’s where you should begin your new practice of appreciating nature. Never mind how ridiculous it may seem to others. When I was in college, for instance, my special place was a small gravel path leading to an oil well behind my apartment building. Beyond the field where the stinking oil well stood (where I often glimpsed deer and groundhogs) was a branch of Black Creek where wood ducks could be found, and a floodplain which periodically became a shallow pond, then drained to a muddy plateau. If I would have spied the unsightly oil well at the end of my trail and turned around, I never would have discovered the vast world which lay beyond.
Hopefully these suggestions will serve as inspiration to you, in your efforts to awaken to the astonishing world of Nature that surrounds you, and of which you are very much a part. One of the best things about this particular area of study is that there are almost an infinite number of things to learn. Though I have been fascinated by nature since my earliest years, and have explored it avidly throughout my life, I freely admit that my knowledge is but a tiny sliver of that which can be discovered. Coming to understand Nature and her components is a lifelong process, but it is not daunting in the least, for each small discovery comes easily and means much. Best of all is when the disparate pieces come together to paint an ecological picture of sorts. To me, this is the ultimate reward, the ability to push together several pieces of the puzzle and arrive at a sudden awareness of the vast system we call Nature. For instance, this weekend on a native plants interpretive hike at Beech Creek Nature Preserve, our group came upon an alder tree, its branches covered by the whitish residue of a colony of woolly alder aphids. Upon its branches, we spied several ladybugs eagerly feasting. Ah! The world is alive, and we are a part of it! Nature truly is all around us!
Soahki is a contributing writer for projectgroupthink.wordpress.com. Get instant updates for this blog via Twitter: PGTblog.