Nature as a Spiritual Path By Eric Alan
Eric Alan is a photographer, author, and public radio program manager. He lives with his partner, Jane, in Ashland, Oregon and practices with the Community of Mindful Living, Southern Oregon. Following is an excerpt from his book, Wild Grace: Nature as a Spiritual Path, featuring his writing and nature photos. Publisher: White Cloud Press, Ashland, Oregon.
The Earth speaks in quiet affirmations. All that we call language, with its strings of words and human meanings, is but a narrow part of its living communication to us.
The other noises of creatures’ calls, often opaque in meaning across a distance of species, add to our own cries to broaden language’s scope. The vegetative sounds of leaves and branches in the wind, and all other living sounds that speak without a mouth, talk to us as well.
From sweet tones to solemn, soothing to raging, there is all manner of earthly speech. Silence speaks with the most powerful voice of all, at times: sometimes with no more message than its own healing power; other times by allowing the inner voice its own chance to speak, at last.
Naturally, the Earth speaks to us without using words—via wind and weather and strange facets of beauty.
I find that as a reward for creating harmony, for compassionate steps taken, for pure hard choices I’ve made that keep me along the path of the heart, that quiet affirmations offer themselves. A coincidence of birds at a moment of my own song; a falling star’s timing attuned to a good decision—it’s these kind of messages I hear as affirmations. I find them in urban places, too; in affirmations that might not at first seem a part of nature. They’re in money found at streetside; in music that falls in rhythm to the drive. They’re remarkable for the continual resonance they give to a kind act done, a good decision firmly made. They’re also remarkable for their absence when disharmony is chosen, when the path to my purpose is betrayed, or when I’m removed from returning beauty to the world which has given so much to me.
At this book’s genesis was such a moment. The beginning of autumn was arriving with its usual clamor of working demands. I had retreated for a Saturday afternoon with the trees and the creek, the warm but waning sunshine that would soon gain a winter chill and vanish into gray. I came to ponder this book’s concept. The agony of indecision arose in me, though, upon arrival at tree-side. Should I leave instead, to attend to my list of a thousand things? Were errands a better use of my time? I could busy my hands and ignore the silence and its dangerous release of my own inner voice. If I left, I could withdraw from the pure, silent world, and by missing the beauty, avoid all the danger that beauty brings. Or I could stay within the pain of silence and beauty, and pass through that pain to where only the afternoon’s beauty remained, and dare to believe that this book was worth beginning. I could stay and begin to face the reflection of the world upon these pages. I lay back on the grass for a minute and stared at the sycamore canopy far above. I breathed with focus, to take my heart back to center, my mind away from words. Breathing in, the wind is a part of me... In, pause, out, pause, in, pause, out. ...Breathing out, I am a part of the wind. Pauses as important as breathing, like silence as important as speaking.
When harmony settled to the core, the silent answer came, distilled from between thoughts. I would stay and dare the words, risk the sunshine. I would take the harder, more beautiful path.
Decision made, tension released, I opened my eyes to see a sycamore leaf release exactly then from the top of the grove canopy. Unlike most of the leaves using the wind as a path to the ground, it did not flutter and tumble. Leading with its stem, it kept the same side down as it traced a perfect, centered spiral. I watched it glide with focused calm direction as it came, closer... closer... to touch at the very spot I instinctively knew it would. I lay motionless and willingly remained defenseless as the centered spiral ended with the leaf stem exactly hitting my heart.
The Earth had spoken its affirmation. I was in the right place, along the path the Earth had invited me to discover. I was at ease, then, and the words began to flow into the place where you now read them. As I type them in, that leaf is still beside me, in a place of honor on my desk.
The Earth’s affirmations are small, quiet, easy to miss or deny. They almost never have the volume of a door slam, a pain cry, or an aggressively barked order. They aren’t orders, after all. They’re thank yous for a choice of beauty, and it often takes a vision of beauty, developed as a skill, to notice them. But I’ve learned through constant experience that they subtly exist, and that if they don’t show from time to time, despite my best awareness, I’m walking off my path. I’m not following nature.
The faith that these quiet affirmations require is something I restore by watching birds. Birds strike me as very faithful, spiritual creatures, for in every leap from a branch into the wind, they place the absolute trust of their lives into the invisible. Were the air not there to carry their wings, they would only crash in their delicacy onto stones far below. They may never see the air, or think of it with other than instinct, but they trust in it with absoluteness. We must trust in the world with that same absoluteness. We too must jump off branches when our soul knows we are ready for the air. We must give ourselves over to the world and its quiet affirmations. We must affirm the Earth, in return.
Photography by Eric Alan.