“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”–L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Green Gables
“Ms. Hill, don’t you like doing healthy stuff like hiking and running?”
The 6th grader looked at me with sincerity written across his face. He was in my homeroom, the group of students with whom I start and end the school day. By this point in the school year, I have come to know most of the students in this group fairly well, and this particular young man, in spite of his energetic youthfulness, has an uncommonly thoughtful side.
The group of boys with whom he was talking and joking around at the end of the day, all turned to look at me. I affirmed that I did indeed like both of those activities, but that I also enjoyed walking or simply being outside equally as much.
Nodding, seemingly with understanding, the same young man further inquired, prodding as to why I liked being outside. After pausing to gather my thoughts, I explained that it made me feel happy, at peace, and connected to God.
“So it’s kinda like a prayer, huh?”
Out of the mouths of babes, or in this case, a 6th grader . . .
Then, in typical middle-school fashion, the young man’s conversation quickly pivoted back to his buddies, so I returned to my routine end-of-the day tasks. However, his words remained with me. In fact, his words have often returned to me on a number of occasions for the past several weeks, especially during moments when I am out-of-doors.
Scanning through photos of my recent trip to the Blueridge Parkway as well as past out-of-doors experiences, it is clearly evident from the large number of nature-centric images that I relish time spent outside. From images of wispy cloud billows to leaf-scattered earthen trails; from layers of cerulean blue mountainous peaks to emerald green moss dressing up a boulder, and a great many variations in between, I have collected hundreds of images of Mother Earth. Nonetheless, my fondness of nature is so much more than taking photographs.
Time spent outside is like pouring soothing salve over my weathered soul. One deep inhalation of fresh air, and I can instantly feel more calm and grounded. In fact, I have an overall sense of vigor, not just in my body, but in my mind and soul when I am outside in the natural world. It is as if my whole being comes alive.
Therefore, it was no surprise for me to learn that numerous research bodies and scientific communities corroborate my personal experiences with nature. As I scanned through several research pieces published by well-respected groups such as the American Psychological Association, Yale School of the Environment, Harvard Health, and Scientific Reports, to name a few, there were some variations as to what defines “nature” and how long one needs to spend time in nature to reap the benefits; however, all pointed to the fact that spending time out-of-doors is overall beneficial to good health and mental well being. Some of the commonly cited perks of spending time in nature include: improved mood, increased cognitive and memory function, reduced stress levels, improved mental health, boosted immune system, and overall reduction of blood pressure and heart rates.
While I whole-heartedly appreciate and welcome ALL of those benefits, it has been my experience that there are also other, more ethereal, benefits of spending time in nature. I find that when I bear witness to the brilliant rise of the sun, gaze upward as sunlight dapples through a canopy of leafy green, or catch sight of sunbeams streaming across dark silhouettes of towering tree trunks, naked in their winter respite, I feel a sense of awe and wonder. The wide array of colors, lines, shapes, sizes, and the symmetry rivals great artists of our time–our world is a marvel!
The more I observe nature, the more curious and inquisitive I become. How did all of this happen? How do I, a person so small and insignificant in the face of all this wonder, fit into the grand scheme of the great I AM? How am I to comprehend Divine Providence and this wondrous creation called earth? I have no answers, nor do I feel a need for answers. Rather I am in a state of being–being appreciative and feeling adoration for the great playground that is nature. After all, we are called human beings.
Francis Bacon, often cited as the father of science and ironically attributed to have invented the essay form, is quoted as once stating that God wrote two books: The Scripture and “a second book called creation.” Time spent with the “second book” offers me tangible, first hand reminders of the greatness of our Creator. Standing in the presence of a lofty range of mountains, floating across a lakeshore rippling with life, strolling through the rhythmical edge of ocean tide waters, or simply jogging alongside streams and trees on an earthen park trail, my heart and soul are at ease. There are no timelines, no demands for my attention, no to-do lists, or looming deadlines. Instead, there is a softness that envelops my soul, a well-worn quilt of comfort, that is available to all.
I suppose my student said it best after all. Spending time in the majesty of nature opens my heart and mind, allowing me to feel as if I have been gathered into an embrace by a loved one happy to see me once more as God’s peace settles over me. My spirit is more serene, and I feel as if I am part of something larger than myself. Something so large, I cannot fathom it, but it is something like a prayer.