Executive Pagan

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More on being nature-based

Posted by Erik on June 22, 2009

[NB: this is basically the part of  Sunday’s sermon that was not drawn from previous blog posts, with a couple of additional thoughts added. I think it constitutes a coherent thought-unit.]

In my experience, nature-based spirituality comes in two main varieties: natural and symbolic. Symbolic nature spirituality is what you get in most of the popular books on paganism – unless you happen to live in England, or somewhere with similar weather and seasonal changes. (Or, ideally, unless you do as many do and adjust your observances of the Wheel of the Year to fit your actual location.)

Somebody in the desert Southwest or Florida celebrating Beltaine in May as the “beginning” of the warm season because that’s what it says in the book, is practicing symbolic nature spirituality. Likewise, calling Yule “Midwinter” because the ancient Celtic year was divided into two seasons and Winter started at the first of November, is symbolic spirituality in many other places. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with a symbolic religion, but that’s not what interests me. ¹

I fall on the natural side. Not “Nature” in the abstract, as an idea or metaphor, but nature as itself – the dirt and trees and water and wildlife that are right outside my door. The nature I live in, its landscapes, seasons and weather are the forces that shape and influence how I experience the world; and I take spiritual lessons from them.

Of course, there are facts of nature that are true everywhere, that can and do teach life lessons: first and foremost, the fact that almost nothing more than gravity is true everywhere on Earth. Believing, as I do, that the physical world is not separate from the Divine, I take a teaching from this. I believe it’s reasonable to assume that just as nature is experienced differently in different places while still being part of the same system, so too may the Divine manifest differently in different times and cultures while still being Itself… and just as we can only understand the whole planet as a system by gathering and integrating data from all over the world, maybe – just maybe – if we gather and integrate spiritual knowledge from all the world’s religions, we might get a bit of insight into the Divine. Maybe.

However, just as the Gods that I worship are the aspect of the Divine that I concern myself with, the part of nature that matters most to me is the part I live in. The story of Persephone would make no sense to a native of a tropical rainforest, or to an Inuit whose Goddess of abundance lives in the ocean because that’s where their food comes from. Nor do their stories, while interesting and good to know, truly resonate with me, any more than would knowing how to survive an Arctic winter storm or a tsunami.

The lessons I learn from nature, I learn from the nature here. My experience of winter, for instance, is that it’s generally mild, fairly short, and rarely hazardous (except for the occasional ice storm); even in the middle of January, there are liable to be shirtsleeve days now and then. I take from this a comforting realization that bad times, when they come, won’t last forever, and that the long, warm growing season will come again before too long.

Another lesson: I live surrounded by trees, flowers, and lots of other plants that just grow on their own, without anybody lifting a finger. Some things, though, will only grow with help, and some things will never grow here – and if I want to grow something specific I need to plant and tend it. This teaches me both that life will take care of itself, for the most part, and that I need to be able to discern what is likely to flourish in my life and what I shouldn’t even try to cultivate. And knowing that (when I remember!) frees me to concentrate on just what I actually need to cultivate.

[1]  For an absolutely perfect illustration of the difference between natural and symbolic understandings of Nature, look to Gary Larson’s classic “children’s” book, There’s a Hair in My Dirt.

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9 Responses to “More on being nature-based”

  1. Maebius said

    you’ve managed ot put into words a concept I’ve often thought but could not quite quantify, which is Symbolic nature, verses Natural nature. I agree, that for folks living outside Europe (specifically the British Isles) and using a European spiritual framework, it often requires a bit of tweaking for best results, which is not always discovered or taught. (Likewise other traditional teachings being used outside of their traditional environs. ie: tropical Persephone)

    Lots to think about here, but wanted to at least comment that you’ve sparked my interest on the topic for my own Musings. Thanks!

  2. executivepagan said

    Excellent! I look forward to seeing what you come up with…

  3. luckyloom1 said

    I am with you on this – beautifully put. It is so important to tune in to the patch of earth you live on. Even here in the British Isle, there are great differences and contrast with regard to place and season, flora and fauna, and so, as you say, the perception of the Divine in nature and its lessons can be very different depending on where you are. It’s all about building a relationship. I also think that once you start to make that deep connection with your local environment, you start to invest in it, want to protect and care for it. If we all developed a deep connection to our litle patch of earth, perhaps we could make some real positive shifts with regard to this ecological crisis that is faces us. Lovely post!
    PS I love Gary Larson! I must check out this book – I hadn’t realised that he had written for children.

  4. luckyloom1 said

    Me again. Sorry for typos – writing in a hurry on my way out! :0) Was keen to leave a comment before I left.

  5. executivepagan said

    once you start to make that deep connection with your local environment, you start to invest in it, want to protect and care for it.

    Exactly – it’s all part of becoming a local. I’ve done some reading on the natural history of my area, and getting into gardening is an entire curriculum in itself, but there’s a lot more I need to learn.

  6. executivepagan said

    Your enthusiasm is appreciated, believe me! You might want to consider filling out the “website” field when you comment, to get a free link to your blog in the Recent Comments section… :)

  7. Feral Boy said

    Exactly … I tend to gravitate much more towards what is Out There than what Should Be, From The Book. Invocations can also
    be more customized depending on what is there — if you’re on the east coast, you may prefer assigning the element of water to the east in your associations.

    But also, I much prefer being outside in the presence of Them than inside listening to another interpretation of any Book. The video you cross-posted says it very well.

    — Feral Boy

  8. executivepagan said

    if you’re on the east coast, you may prefer assigning the element of water to the east

    You could do that where you are as well, with that big ol’ sacred river right there…

    As you might guess, I’m a big fan on localizing those sorts of associations.

  9. Kay said

    I really agree with what you’ve written here as well. I think that is why I’m so drawn to Animism (especially ‘Bioreginal Animism’). What I experience here, in Utah, in the dessert, in the Northern Hemisphere, just doesn’t jive with what I read about. And the place spirits that talk don’t feel like any that I read about either.

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