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It’s hard to understand the nature of nature


Nature’s hip these days. My friends drive rugged vehicles, take adventure trips, wear khaki cargo pants with pieces that zip off for every contingency. Me, I curl up on the sofa and read. But even from that vantage point, I can’t escape the questions. Why are we so quick to wreck the land with chemicals and monocropping, and destroy everybody else’s habitat with our own? Why have we allowed the simple, glowing biblical harvest of “wheat and barley, vines and fig trees and pomegranates” to become a gray realm where big business rules, technology is applied before we know its consequences, and eating almost anything is fraught with guilt?

Back in grad school, reading the classic American texts, I realized that in the American mind, nature was wild and dangerous, and civilization meant taming it. Or romanticizing it at a careful distance. Or plundering it for economic gain. We find the same themes in our own scripture -- at least, the way the Western world has often chosen to understand it, as dominion over something inferior. We equate nature with unpredictable, uncontrollable, unintelligent threat. So instead of learning to live in harmony with nature’s ways, we artificially regulate their chaos.

By now we have so many levees -- and barriers and screens and pesticides and leash laws -- that it’s hard to even see, let alone understand, the real nature of nature. We buy our food processed, fortified, modified, injected and shrink-wrapped. Produce is so hybridized it’s lost all flavor. Tomatoes can indeed be purchased year round, but they taste like wet floral foam.

Even in church, nature feels remote. There’s a small stagnant pool of holy water in back, some cut flowers at the altar. Watching the occasional stray gnat, I remember a chapel I visited in Indiana. Behind the altar the wall was solid glass, and you could see the tumble of a waterfall, and flowers, and birds splashing. I couldn’t help exclaiming how beautiful it was, and an elderly nun who’d come to pray in peace turned and smiled at me. “I never fall asleep here,” she said.

The rest of us fall asleep often, our senses dulled, our spirits damped down. And yet, our instincts survive, and braid water and oil and bread and fire into sacrament, and nature continues to make our days holy.

Last year, when my father-in-law was dying -- past thinking or speaking, past making eye contact -- we brought in our dog, whom he’d adored, for a quick final goodbye. The minute Mal felt Sophie’s nose nudge his pale, bony arm, his face changed. With more strength than we’d thought he could muster, he rose up from the pillows and actually swung his legs over the side of the bed. We shot looks at each other and hurried to prop him. He listed to one side, falling, having a stroke, dying perhaps. But no: What he wanted, with full determination, was to reach his face down for a kiss. Sensing what was required, Sophie, who rarely gives kisses, softly licked his cheek. He smiled, and then, with a tremendous, trembling effort, he lay back down again.

We are made of nature, and for nature, and that knowledge creates a hunger deep inside us -- stronger than technology, stronger than speciesism, stronger than dominion. Perhaps this is why, throughout both Old Testament and New, God sends us out into the wilderness to be humbled or tested or renewed. Nature insists on perspective. Watching things grow and change and die, we are swung into a different kind of time, one that circles again and again. For everything there is a season. And in the dark winter days when things die, they do not really die. Christians know that, and so do biologists, because the central premise of faith and science is the same: We are all connected.

Hang out with an animal for a while, and you’ll feel it. A dog not only has emotions, he can sense yours more acutely than the most loving spouse. When you’re ill he’ll sit with you, he’ll -- that wonderful, old-fashioned word we rarely use because we don’t do it anymore -- abide with you. And when you’re well he’ll remind you how utterly delightful it is to doze in the sun, roll in wet grass, run crazy circles, greet someone you love with exuberance.

It’s one of those wonderful paradoxes -- by living alongside animals we become more fully human. As a species we’re frighteningly good at faking it, turning petty, getting caught up in the surface. Animals make all that rather painfully obvious, and when we follow their lead, they relax us into something truer.

I once heard of a woman who was suffering from chronic depression. Left to her own devices, she couldn’t seem to eat or sleep with any sensible rhythm. So she started to do whatever her cat did. She’d eat when her cat ate, she’d sleep when her cat slept. Sharing this natural pattern restored her to health.

We are animal, our spirits interwoven with nature in a union so tight we’ve managed to ignore it for centuries.

Hindus are taught to leave a wild space in the middle of their gardens, a place where devas -- angels -- can multiply.

We have plenty of angels already. Maybe it’s time we planted them a garden.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000