Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay on Nature in 1836:
“Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort all her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected all the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood…The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood….Standing on the bare ground, –my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.”
Nature is an ancient embodiment of grace. The elegance of form, motion, manner, action and moral strength inherent in the natural world can be revealed and described in detail by science, but not in totality. The mystery of this grace remains. There is a random, chaotic element that defies analysis and inspires awe. The morality of what is defies dogmatism. Death is intrinsic to the grace of life, not an aberration or problem to be solved. I have not always believed this, although I have always loved Nature.
During my child-rearing years, I frequently walked to a prairie preserve in my neighborhood for sanctuary and solace. I began to have a very special relationship with “my prairie”. My entire demeanor would change the minute I set foot inside the gateway. I would feel myself relax, physically and emotionally, and whatever was simmering at the core of my being would bubble up and spill over. Often, I would cry copiously, hoping I wouldn’t meet anyone on the paths. Just as often, I would be exuberantly lifted by sunshine, color and fragrance and dance my way over the grass. After settling in to the quiet, I would observe the wisdom of the place and learn something to take back with me into the suburban world. For many years, I would visit the prairie in the middle of the day while the kids were in school and feel rather guilty and unproductive to be enjoying the grace of the place instead of “working”. It occurred to me one day that someone should at least be doing the job of enjoying it. It seemed a huge pity that the dazzling elegance of the sky, the land, the creatures and all that thrummed and buzzed and swished should go unnoticed. I felt that their Creator should be thanked, and in those days, I believed that was the God of the Bible, the same Father God who rescued and redeemed us from Death.
Death is a biggie, in my life and in my culture. When I was 16, I was in a car accident with my 20 year old sister where she died beside me. When I was 29, I was a prayer warrior who fought off Death when my infant daughter had spinal meningitis. When I was 45, I woke one Saturday morning and found my husband cold and lifeless beside me. Death was The Bad Guy who sneaked into the Garden and stole our birthright. God was The Good Guy who caught him and gave it back. Illness is just Death sneaking around, and I have been a paranoid hypochondriac at times because of that way of thinking. But that isn’t the only way of thinking, I found out.
Once, when I entered my prairie, I was shocked to go around the bend in the path and see the ground burnt jet black. The vibrant green shoots of grass across the path from that section of land made a startling comparison. This controlled burn was part of the park management program for spring. Dry stubble and thick hanks of grass had been burned down to decaying ash in order for the new life to grow up. I wasn’t sure what to make of the change in my sanctuary. I felt that something bad had infiltrated the Garden. I took it rather personally, and although I understood the scientific reasons for it, my spirit was troubled. I wanted to know the wisdom of this observation. I found it explained quite elegantly later, by Thich Nhat Hahn in his book No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life. He gives many examples of how life is in a state of continuation such that there is no beginning point or end point. We have no birth day or death day. Paper is the forest, the logger, the clouds, the sunshine, the ash when it is burned, the heat that we feel after the smoke blows away, the soil that is enriched and the tree that grows in the soil. “If you are a scientist and have very sophisticated instruments, you can measure the effects of that heat even in distant planets and stars. They then become a manifestation, a continuation of the little sheet of paper. We cannot know how far the sheet of paper will go.”
Continuation is the ancient grace of Nature. Ancient and immortal and always new.
Yesterday was a wonderful continuation day for me. My daughter Emily and Steve and I walked in Chicago’s oldest cemetery and found cicadas everywhere – their sound, their carapaces, their bodies. Death is not a Bad Guy, just a concept. I am comforted by this wisdom.