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My View: Nature presents paths to spiritual renewal

My View: Nature presents paths to spiritual renewal

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In these times of trouble we can still find hope in the little, unnoticed things. For me, that hope resides in the panorama of nature.

Tom O'Malley (copy)

Tom O’Malley teaches in the English Department at Canisius College.

In our daily life, we too often take the natural world for granted. While we put up with rain, snow and clouds, we believe the sun will shine again, the clouds will part and the moon will glow. It is comforting and predictable. Nature teaches us to be hopeful – if we pay attention.

In the medieval ballad “Sir Patrick Spence,” Patrick was called the “greatest sailor who ever sailed the seas.” When his king ordered him to ship out to Norway during wintertime, one of his crew saw the “new moon with an old moon in her arms.” This was a sure sign of dangerous storms. It was a warning from nature that he understood.

All travelers watched the stars, studied the flight of birds or consulted the bark of trees to gauge the wind. Ignoring these omens in nature could bring disaster. The heroic Patrick Spence loyally followed his king’s orders and his passengers and crew ultimately sank 50 fathoms deep where they met their final rest.

Later, in a more scientific age, we can still look for signs in the natural world. Henry David Thoreau branded himself as the “self-appointed inspector of snowstorms” which involved observing and documenting winter’s dangers, even down to the level of the individual snowflake. When it snowed, Henry called it “the creative genius in the air.” Years later, the writer Robert Frost read bent, fallen birch trees and stone walls near his New England home. For the poet, a path in the woods became a meditation on the meaning of his life and the choices that created it.

Closer to home, the painter Charles Burchfield spent hours documenting his observations of the natural world in his journal. In the summer of 1959 he watched an incredible lightning storm near his home in Gardenville. He tried to give words to describe the unique colors and feelings that the display revealed to him. These observations led to drawings and paintings that suggested a spiritual force in the natural world that left him “intoxicated with happiness,” with a renewal in body and spirit.

Recently, my wife, Meg, and I went for a stroll down Mckinley Parkway to get some air and stretch our legs. The sky was heavy with clouds and the wind pushed cold against our faces. It was a struggle just to slog forward. Along the way I found myself buoyed by the steady, silent trees standing sentinel along our route.

At first glance, their frosted bark seemed dead on the outside. But on closer inspection, they were clearly alive and thriving on the inside. Walking these quiet streets, I could almost feel the sap preparing to run while the winter birds were busy decorating their branches with their colorful songs. As Thoreau pointed out in his journal, “nature will bear the closest inspection.”

These trees are a book, and we read in them a story of resilience and strength. They teach lessons and stir emotions that serve as markers for the countless chapters of creation. Trees do not keep time by the ticks of a clock or the fleeting pages of a calendar. Rather, they stand strong and patient while the winter winds roar. And in this way they show those who care to notice, a steady path to a brighter future up ahead.

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