I was recently asked to speak at the Religions for the Earth Conference on the topic “Outdoor Epiphanies,” an expression that might well summarize the meaning of my life. As John Muir famously said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
To begin with, I want to state a scientific fact: all behavior is motivated by emotions. Or, in ordinary folk language, we are moved to action by the feeling of our hearts, not the thoughts in our minds. Having said this, I follow with the idea that it is natural for humans to love nature, to be moved by nature, to act out of that love we have for nature.
I went out for a walk at 35 years of age, and I stayed for life. What I learned over time is that it is my own deepest nature to love nature, whether or not my culture placed that love on the list of acceptable desires. Uncle Angaangaq said about his own work some words that caught my attention: he said the farthest distance humanity must travel is the distance between our minds and our hearts. I would add—and I say this as a scientist and as a priest—that going out for attentive walks in nature is the surest and shortest way to traverse that distance between our minds and our hearts. For 25 years I asked college students to tell me their favorite place. Of those hundreds of adult students, all but one described some especially beautiful and peaceful place in nature. This relationship to nature, this longing for nature; this being held in nature’s arms, it is essential to us, essential like food, essential like water, essential like human love. But no one talked about this.
Having taken a job at a small rural community college, I moved to the mountains, fully expecting to get a better job and to move again. But life had other plans for me. I remember distinctly the autumn day when, sitting on the rugged banks of Bull Run creek, I became aware of my senses opening. I saw light and colors in the water, and I heard the wind in the treetops, and moving through the grasses, and I heard waters splashing over rocks, and felt the warm sun and cool breeze both pressing on my skin. I said to myself these simple words, “I never want to give this up again.” Simultaneously, I understood that urban living had shut me up, imprisoned me within myself. That day was a pivotal moment of vocational choice for me, though it took many years before I really understood.
Living in a remote town of 1,800 people did not promise much career advancement, and it did not allow me to live with supportive tribe, but required me to live amongst people for whom I was a strange and not always welcome Other. These are big prices to pay. But, in those early years, this old song line came back to me… “out where the rivers like to run, I stand alone and take back something worth remembering.”
Now I understand better why I had to make the choice to stay with the waters and the wilds, and there have been many things worth remembering, though my culture gave me no words by which to recognize them. I recently collected some of the most deeply felt of these memories—my encounters with wild animals—like the little bat who was thirsting to death, whom I brought to water, and who finally swam away from me; or the injured fawn who taught me more about Jesus than all the theology books I’ve read; or the baby whale who befriended me in Baja California—I collected these stories and a lifetime of scholarly thinking about these encounters into a book about animals and natural spirituality, Spirit Unleashed. This book, which has now been nominated for literary awards including the Pulitzer, is the harvest of that decision to stay in my body and in my heart and in nature, the decision I made by the creek side so many years ago. The book I wrote was not the result of my ideas about career development, but a consequence of following my heart all the way home.
On the basis of my life experience, I offer two pieces of advice for gathering some things well worth having:
First, love an animal. Listen to an animal and become friends, as you would do with another human. If you have a pet, begin there, as you probably have already done. Or befriend a bird or a squirrel in your neighborhood—you will learn to tell one from another, and that one will come to recognize you too. Or adopt into your heart and visit a zoo animal; many of them are lonely and depressed and you might make a great anti-depressant. Many animals enjoy hearing humans sing; try it. Your animal friend will, no doubt, do something wonderful for you, too.
Second: Go out for a twenty-minute walk in nature as often as you possibly can; and, to turn off your relentless thoughts, treat each thing you encounter as a person.
“Hello, bird, who are you?”
“Creek, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
I came to call this exercise “the animism experiment” as I assigned it to students over many years. Again and again, these adult students told me that doing this simple exercise once changed their sense of life. I think this happened for them because the “experiment” closed for a moment that great distance we tend to have between mind and heart.
When we expect to experience the world as “a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects” in the words of Thomas Berry, then whole world will come out to greet us and to welcome us home. This being welcomed home to the larger life of our planet is the foundational Outdoor Epiphany, and the greatest blessing of my life.