Do you communicate with nature?
To combat anxiety in the age of Covid-19, many observers say you need to commune with nature. An article in Medical Press about a recent study by a Notre Dame psychology professor is titled, “Taking Time to Commune with Nature Increases Sense of Connection, Study Finds.”
I’m sure a hike in the country is good for the mind and body, but I find it hard to understand the popular phrase “commune with nature”. What does it mean?
The verb “common”, says the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from “common”. Since the Middle Ages, it describes an exchange of views: “Talking together”. The OED quotes a line from Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale”: “Why, what do we need to commune with you? »
Since the 16th century, commune has also had a more intense meaning: “to communicate intimately”. The OED quotes Psalm 77:6: “I recall my song in the night: I commune with my own heart.”
In 19th century America, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and other transcendentalists believed that communing with nature was superior to traditional religious worship. Thoreau, who was more anti-Christian than Emerson, said, “A healthy man. . . will not be a good subject for Christianity. He also said: “The wisest man preaches no doctrine.
In “Walking”, Thoreau offers his own version of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the forest, the meadow and the night where the corn grows.” Thoreau was not widely known during his lifetime, but Lawrence Buell, a professor of American literature, said in 1995 that Thoreau was “considered the first major interpreter of nature in American literary history and America’s first environmental saint”. .
Communing with nature is now a strong current in American life. Mary Oliver, America’s most popular poet of the past three decades, wrote of the “wonder” she felt at paying attention to the natural world. Oliver was not a practicing Christian, but shortly after his death in 2019, Lisa Ampleman, a Catholic poet, wrote about reading Oliver’s poetry to a Catholic spirituality group.
Many people who commune with nature are practicing Christians, Jews or Muslims. An aspect of all Abrahamic religions calls us to respect the natural world, which God created. Yet, some religious worshipers view what we might call nature worshipers as unfocused, self-centered minds. Likewise, nature worshipers often view religious worshipers as narrow and closed-minded.
“Our high culture, wrote Lionel Trilling, invites us to transfer our energies from bourgeois competition to spiritual competition”. There are many paths to God or transcendence: traditional worship, nature worship, and various combinations of the two. Communing with nature may relieve your anxiety, but it does not make you a morally better or spiritually deeper person.
Mr. Miller is the author of “The Peculiar Life of Sundays”.
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Appeared in the March 17, 2021 print edition.