Thoreau once said, “We need the tonic of wildness.” Indeed, the natural world has a way of soothing the soul, smoothing the sharp edges of our experiences, and offering moments of lucidity amidst the constant preoccupation of modern life. Yet as we experience life’s most challenging moments, we often seek guidance from friends, family, or even a therapist, but overlook the potential counsel of the natural world. The following are some of the insights nature offers.
1. Nature reveals the beauty of imperfection.
As we gaze at the knotted bark on the highest branches of an aging sycamore or a field of unruly wildflowers tangling together as they reach for sun, we feel a visual appreciation for the randomness and seemingly chaotic imperfection of the wild. In fact, often the disorderly elements of nature are what we feel most drawn to. There is something inherently more beautiful about an old growth forest than a sharply manicured row of perfectly spaced shrubs. Yet as we look upon ourselves, we see similar imperfections as flaws needing to be fixed.
Perhaps as we witness the beauty of imperfection again and again in the natural world, we can begin to embrace this quality in ourselves. If we can appreciate the gnarly limbs of a tree that’s weathered years of storms, maybe we can love ourselves for our messy hair, our slightly crooked smile, and our rough edges, recognizing that we are part of the graceful chaos of the universe.
2. Nature teaches patience.
The pace of life in Western culture is a source of anxiety for many of us. We do too much and carry the idea that the quicker we accomplish tasks the better. Yet nature knows that there’s rarely a need to rush. The dandelion is a perfect illustration. Its winged seeds aren’t shaped to propel themselves hurriedly through the air, instead only designed with enough lightness to wait patiently to be swept up by a series of light breezes to carry them a few random feet at a time. There is a trust that these seeds will, in perfect time, float to a location where they will be nourished enough to grow.
If we recognize ourselves as part of the natural world, we can begin to trust that our own pace is equally perfect. We can let go of the need to always anxiously rush towards goals, instead allowing ourselves to be carried by the flow of life, a few feet at a time, slowing down to appreciate the beauty in each moment.
3. Nature shows us the importance of our connections with others.
The short video How Wolves Change Rivers describes how the act of reintroducing wolves in a natural park altered the physical course of rivers within a few years. Because the wolves preyed on deer, the deer began to stop grazing in valleys where they could be tracked. Plant life in those valleys began to flourish, which stabilized river banks, and as the rivers began to flow more steadily they actually changed course.
The idea that the actions of a small group of mammals has the potential to change physical geography so quickly is not just a powerful example of the ripple effect in the wilderness, but an illustration of how the actions of all living beings effect the greater whole. When we begin to understand interdependence, we recognize our own value and our own responsibility in the larger picture. We understand that our decisions have consequences, recognize that we are all in this together, and hopefully allow this to guide our actions.
4. Nature helps us understand change.
For years, there was an opinion that natural forest fires were unnecessarily destructive, and as a result we did everything we could to extinguish the blazes. Years later, ecologists discovered certain species that only thrived in fire ravaged areas and plants whose seeds actually required the heat of a flame to germinate. Ecosystems had developed not only to tolerate fire, but to use it as fuel for growth. While from a human perspective we saw fire as destroying habitat, it was instead clearing space for new life to thrive.
If we look at change in our lives as having the same necessity as change in nature, we can begin to understand it as providing opportunity. Whether it be losing a job, a person leaving, or a joyful experience coming to an end, change sometimes feels like a solely destructive force. However nature shows us that if we only focus on what’s ending, we may not notice that change, like a forest fire, often burns away old ways of being to clear space for new life and new experience.
5. Most importantly, nature offers us a glimpse of our most authentic self and a deep sense of aliveness.
Under layers of mental “to do” lists, professional obligations, and social engagements, it’s easy to lose track of the truest parts of ourselves and our experience. We operate in the realm of ‘should’- things we feel we should do, goals we should accomplish, and the person we’ve decided we should be. We forget how incredible everything already is.
Fortunately, nature gently reminds us by offering us a chance to be in the here and now. Whether we are unzipping our tent flap to see dew drops reflecting a thousand tiny suns, taking an intoxicating breath of crisp fall air, dipping our toes into an ice cold stream, or just listening to the rain as it echoes on the roof of our house, nature is a visceral experience. As our senses come alive, we notice what is right in front of us. Even if it’s just for a moment, when we experience the lucid brightness of the natural world, we no longer feel a need for anything to be different or to change ourselves, but instead appreciate the gift being deeply and wildly alive.