[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.
 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.