Mother Nature Has Beautiful Curves
A friend asked me to describe the spiritual experience that comes to me while hiking for
miles. Crafting an accurate description of a subjective experience presents an insoluble
dilemma, however, precisely because the experience is subjective and, thus, highly susceptible
to imaginative embellishment, an unintentional, but artful fabrication. Who would know the
difference between what I claim happens to me and what actually happens to me, when I walk
for hours? For that matter, does anything actually happen to me, beyond the physiological?
Much of my walking, after all, involves merely listening to my own breathing, feeling my tired
feet clump against the earth, and looking around.
Perhaps dopamine provides an adequate explanation, or endocannabinoids. Long-
distance runners experience a coveted euphoria, if they run far enough, when endorphins pour
from the pituitary gland into the body’s bloodstream and endocannabinoids (along with other
enzymes) flood the brain. Only a few times in my life, however, have I run or hiked long enough
to feel, perhaps, a small measure of that “runner’s high.” At my best, I never fared well at long
distances. A hard hike of 20 miles, up and down moderate trails, tested me well enough when
young, and I have not made that distance in many years.
The chemical explanation does not satisfy me, in other words, because it does not
account well for my experience. If I understand correctly, I do not have the stamina required
for generating that delightful deluge of delicious brain chemicals. Instead, I tire too quickly,
grow dizzy, and then nauseous, unless I keep a fairly slow pace. In fact, I might feel a “spiritual”
sense of awe, of being overwhelmed by beauty and significance, merely by standing deep in a
forest or listening to a stream. That experience deepens, expands, intensifies, with the strain of
muscle and lung, but simply being there might do. The imagination has great power, including
the power to deceive.
Nonetheless, hastily attributing my particular experience to the “psychological” strikes
me as medieval, like explaining the absence of a true vacuum in nature with the principle that
“Nature abhors a vacuum.” It begs an actual, understandable explanation. No doubt, I do in
some psychological sense create my own experience. I bring the physical and mental-
emotional elements together, both consciously and unconsciously. My valuation of Nature and
natural beauty, my sense of identity and place within Nature, my awareness of myself as a
mote within the immeasurable cosmic expanse, my intention to realize the “spiritual,” all stand
a priori to my sensory experience. I bring myself along on hikes, in other words.
On what grounds, then, can I call my experience “spiritual”?
In Cosmos, a passionate Carl Sagan reaches and stumbles rhetorically in his attempt to
provide a scientific explanation of everything. Alas. “Nature,” for Sagan, seems very like a
conscious and deliberative deity. So much does Sagan’s “Nature” function like a creator god that
I wonder why he does not finally say “god,” as the language he uses for description is, indeed,
saturated with purpose, value, and awe. To his professional credit, he does not say “god” because
science will not let him. He reasons well within the tradition of Darwin (we are products of evolution), Huxley (we are “conscious automata”), Cashmore (we are “bags of chemicals”), and
countless others. He sounds profoundly worshipful, but faithfully reminds us that we are each a
mere “collection of water, calcium and organic molecules”, a “complex machine” following the
dictates of natural law.
Does my “spiritual” experience, a very common sort of thing, merely express another
advantageous step in human evolution, my “love” for Nature predisposing me to engage in a
mutually beneficial relationship with her?
Recent efforts by Intelligent Design advocates quickly stumbled into disrepute and near
oblivion by confusing the epistemological and methodological boundaries of philosophy,
theology, and science. Sagan may have slipped into rhetorical indulgence and presumed moral
and aesthetic values that his science alone cannot support, but he understood the one thing he
could not finally say, as a scientist: “god.” The Intelligent Design folk left the scientific method
behind by making that most treacherous leap, not of faith, but of poor logic (and, I suspect, of
They fell to Earth.
I trespass. I have expertise neither in science nor in philosophy or theology.
Nonetheless, I humbly submit that after coming so far, we have not come far, in our efforts to
bridge the gap or to burn all bridges between a presumed God and Nature as we know her.
For my part, I cannot explain; I can only describe.
As I hike, a joy overtakes me, and I begin to sense—or imagine—an inextricable unity of
raw sensuality and intense spirituality in Nature’s Beauty. As the miles pass, I feel more deeply
moved by the beauty that embraces me and more keenly aware of how that beauty penetrates
everything, every detail of soil, grass blade, flower, branch, leaf, bird, and sky. We traditionally
speak of “Mother Nature,” and some refer to the Earth as “Gaia,” a female, very much in
keeping with ancient Earth-Mother mythologies. Those ancient notions carried considerable
insight, along with gratitude, regarding the value of our beautiful and fecund Earth. “Mother
Nature has beautiful curves,” a friend of mine once said. Indeed, she does. Her beauty ravishes
me, and the inrush of joy, through my physical senses, becomes an excruciating “spiritual” joy.
Still, I must justify my use of that dubious term.
Given the gift of deep pleasure that comes into me, my experience inevitably takes on a
moral dimension. I see this moral dynamic as a sine qua non of anything “spiritual.” “How will I
respond to the gift?” becomes a profoundly moral question. My imagination runs inevitably to
a familiar set of choices. I say “inevitably” because we all face an environmental crisis
stemming from choices our predecessors have made, regarding our responses to Nature, our
reverence for or irreverence toward her beauty and our use or misuse of her resources. She
has ravished us; we have raped her. We have what one author calls “an unchaste” relationship
with her, taking more than rightly belongs to us and injuring her in the taking. We see a deep
forest or spectacular mountain, a lush island . . . and we want to own it, to possess it selfishly or
ravage its resources and move on to the the next.
All of Nature’s beauty can so quickly become a distraction, and then a temptation, and
then a deadly spiritual poison to the selfish soul. We humans seem not only capable of, but predisposed to doing what makes no evolutionary sense. We destroy our environment pell-mell.
The medieval "doctrine of plenitude," as I recall it, intrigues me in this context. It says
that God is love, that love must have an object, and that God by His own nature was compelled
to create everything that could be created, because everything that could conceivably be loved
had to be created in order to be loved. So we have this fabulous Earth, the exquisitely beautiful
human body also, and yet we fight to possess her, then exploit and abuse her. I can find all
such impulses within myself (I do not, however, understand the failure to see her beauty at all
or the failure to feel powerfully moved by her). The very Beauty of Nature that awes us also
seduces us. How do we properly—safely—embrace her, then?
I stand transfixed along a trail, looking out across the snow-capped peaks and down at a
pristine lake bordered by cliffs and spruce, and the moral ambivalence of my own nature rises
to meet that inrush of awe and joy. I do not believe that a bag of chemicals or an automaton,
no matter how complex, has the capacity to yield such an experience. Appeals to my “survival
instinct” fall like wearisome clichés against my ears, as I might too easily dismiss that instinct,
and as we humans collectively seem so bound to do. I have no counter-proof to offer.
As to the spiritual state that I experience, I believe that this phrase captures it fairly well:
“an inrush of joy.” The beauty of a setting has much to do with it. The Flint Hills of central-
eastern Kansas, by my reckoning, are especially beautiful and, in a sense, "seductive" in late autumn and winter. The undulant hills rise and fall with the soft and varied flesh tones of
autumn grass. The purple, early morning haze thinly covers the hilltops and folds into the
valleys, until the new sun slowly draws away the blanket of fog. And there She lies, alluring,
vulnerable, excruciatingly beautiful. And there I am, my mind troubled by few if any discernible
thoughts, with a deep longing. I might, in other circumstances, experience this merging of the
sensual and spiritual through sorrow, rather than joy, but the process is fundamentally the
same—a kenosis, a losing of oneself. As another friend says, the process involves "getting
oneself out of the way" and then letting Beauty overwhelm.
This experience of immersion, a kind of "drowning” in the sensual, may become a
discipline with practice; but is it mere illusion, a psychological trick with a chemical card deck,
generating an emotional high? I don't believe so. I disapprove of making too clear a distinction
among “physical,” "psychological," "emotional," and "spiritual" experiences. From my Christian
perspective, I may say that God, as Father and Creator, has "wired" us physically and
psychologically for such enlightening processes. The spiritual encompasses the whole person,
not some a-physical, detachable soul.
A hike among hills, along a river or beach, or up and down a mountain presents one
opportunity, step by step almost, to let go of distractions from work, from church, from home,
from whatever exterior and interior tensions beset us. To unfocus and refocus again. To be
silent and listen. To wait for the the lover to come alongside. To choose her, and in our
choosing, bring new life or old death.