The Solace of Wild Places -- In Nature and Ourselves
March 20, 2020
Dec 06, 2023
Photo credits/Volunteer Images
Who can forget Maria at the opening of The Sound of Music, when she goes to the mountains, twirling in a grand circle of life and joy? "I go to the hills, when my heart is lonely--I know I will hear, what I've heard before, my heart will be blessed with the sound of music, and I'll sing once more." A lonely heart, fear, stress over the political state of the world, ill health, job worries, all these can create anxiety that can drag down our spirits.
When the unexpected happens, we always have our inner core strength; we can cultivate that from our connection to the earth, to God, and our relationships with people as well as animals and plants. John Muir says, “Go to the hills and get their glad tidings.”
Take your dog for a walk, pet your cat, commune with the birds, sit in the garden, and have a chat with your herbs. This wild world brings us solace, peace and grace. The best- selling book and now movie, The Shack, portrays the Holy Spirit, as a mysterious woman, Sarayu, an ethereal being of mercurial wind, creativity, passion and life force. She is also a gardener! It’s no wonder that Greek teachers moved their classes to the garden for peacefulness and solitude.
I, too, look for peace in the garden. My front garden is starting to look a little wild--and I love it. After our brief winter, spring appeared! The rains came...and they came...and the antique roses took it to heart. My apricot colored Perl 'd Or popped out 20 blooms, the Mutabilis held three different shades of roses all at once.
Slowly the leaf mulched earth took on the appearance of a tiny miniature forest, with wild strawberry flowers, mug wort, chickweed and oxalis spread out to catch the sun. There are cleavers galore, (those sweet woodruff imposters!) ready to be brewed into a spring tonic, along with small elder trees popping up here and there: come May they will blossom out with creamy flowers for colds and fever. The dark berries will later be harvested for a thick syrup for chest maladies.
Soon, the return of the sun's beams, will attract numerous little lizards--all colors and varieties...who jump and run as if being followed by phantom spirits. It will be Leapin' Lizards all over the place! The bees and other pollinators come to visit the luscious blossoms, open and inviting.
As I walk through the garden, I often see the eggshells that I have placed around the rosemary in a total other place, carried no doubt by neighborhood possums or raccoons. If you are very still, all manner of winged creatures could appear: tiny lady bugs, butterflies, cardinals, blue jays, and robins, and the occasional hawk, after my lovely doves.
I am not a typical bird watcher. I usually don't have binoculars or a bird book nearby. Nor am I in a park or woods somewhere. No, I am putting the newspaper in the recycling bin, or going to the laundry room behind the house, and a bird calls to me, out of the overgrown bushes of our backyard. Sometimes they are in the nearly bare branches of the crepe myrtle tree, as the last leaves gracefully drift down like some lovely Nutcracker ballerina.
On the last Winter Solstice, I noticed the morning sunlight reflecting off the colorful winter tallow tree, with the sky a brilliant blue. How could the longest night, an ancient time of fear and everlasting darkness, really be tonight, I thought, on a day with the sky so blue? Truly, that is how life is sometimes, things are moving along quite nicely when suddenly: uncertainty, chaos, change, loss, or an unexpected illness. When this happens, I seek the solace of nature, as a balm to heal my soul.
I look for the little wild places in the garden and the creatures that live in it, or I seek the wildness of the Galveston shoreline, or I sit in meditation and take myself to a pine and spruce forest.
The Japanese have a custom they call shinrin-yoku, “forest bathing” or taking in the forest atmosphere. They go to a pine, spruce or fir forest to walk, breathe, sit and focus. This forest immersion has no goal except to breathe and relax, be calm and aware. There is normally a creek or waterfall nearby and being in this calm environment is restorative and restful.
Wendell Berry, the well-known nature poet, wrote:
“When despair for the world grows in me,
And I wake in the night in fear . . .
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in beauty on the water,
And the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day blind stars waiting with their light.
I rest in the grace of the world and am free.”
Months ago, an article I read resonated with me. “Our Lost Intimacy With the Natural World,” by Jack Turner, from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, talks about wilderness, wildness, solitude and the places all over this globe we call home. Turner wrote, "You can see wildness in the movement of glaciers, or track it in the stars. Wildness is everywhere...microscopic particles, in the cosmos, in the soil and in the air. We breathe and wildness comes in. We need the natural world and all its textures, so that we can feel a part of something bigger; something often unexplainable.”
We need this intimacy with the world and sometimes we find it in our own backyard - like the summer bats flying like drunken birds at dusk or the small screech owl who visited my oak tree one winter evening. Then there was the chance sighting of Canadian geese flying overhead this past fall. Sometimes we find it in an art gallery, as I experienced last Sunday at an exhibit of paintings and sculptures of wild animals. There I met and touched a rescued Barred owl named Luna. How exciting to be so close to wildness.
This past summer, I lost my best friend of 50 years and in the fall, I was diagnosed with cancer. The fragility of human life was put right in front of me. I sought solace in nature, seeking solitude, silence, and hibernation. And nature is not something out there. I got it that I am nature--we are nature---we are a part of this vast network of life. Oregon naturalist, Loraine Anderson says, “Our bodies are the earth of us, and a wild river pulses in our blood.”
Some Native American tribes thought a person could lean against a tree and partake in the energy of that tree and even be healed. Walk barefoot on the earth and contemplate those wild places we see every day. Contemplation and reflection - these are good words. However, most people just go, go, go. “I am busy busy,” they say, but I think, “That is too bad!”
Jack Turner observed, "Every one of the luminaries from the American Conservation Movement : Thoreau, Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and others spent a lot of time alone on the seashore, or in a canoe on a lake, or in a forest, or in the mountains, or digging in the soil--always in silence." We have to be alone and experience silence and work out the knots of our lives . . . I can communicate with that best friend who is on another plane, ask the earth to heal us.
Listen to our heart's song. I have a friend whose heart song is raising Monarch butterflies in her kitchen. She attracts butterflies into her garden and tends to the chrysalises to ensure a safe return back to nature.
Then there are the animals who live with us and mirror the wild world to us. We were given a seven year old Maine Coon cat a year ago; he came into our lives just when we needed comfort. He is very serene, paws folded as if in prayer with just a touch of wildness. His name is Mr. Monk--Thomas Merton, after a famous Kentucky Trappist Monk whose vision for ecumenism and peace still echoes today.
There are also animals who come to us in our dreams. Shortly after my diagnosis, I had a powerful dream, where I was near a wood and there was a river with a large female brown bear next to it, looking at me. Also in the dream was a dear friend who works as a therapist with cancer patients. We looked at one another, and without words we knew that this bear would be my guardian, spirit guide, healer and ally on this journey. We just knew.....and she has been. The bear could be called my Totem animal--one who is close in spirit and whose qualities of courage and strength, ability to hibernate and live with the cycles, are necessary to my healing.
What I have learned through this whole experience is that there is a fear in us that we cannot be our true selves. There is a wildness in us, an authentic free self who is infinitely creative and shining with life-force. Sometimes that light gets covered.
Marian Woodman, a Jungian therapist, was healed of cancer over 25 years ago. She worked with medical doctors, alternative healers, and inner guides to uncover her wild and joyous gypsy self. She wanted to dance in the garden once again.
No matter what you are being healed from, you can’t help but be uplifted by where we are standing right now at Festival Hill in this medieval, walled garden with the endless sky, magnificent trees and flowing water. We are surrounded by music, history, and love. What a gift.
The gardens here that we bless are truly a balm for the spirit. Or as the Persian poet Saadi said, “A garden is a delight to the eye and solace for the soul.”
Leave behind everything that no longer has a place in you. Find your authentic, wild self again. Discover the truth of who you are. Remain an opening for magic and know that the preciousness of the earth starts with you.
I’d like to end now with the words of Rick Bass, a former Houstonian and naturalist who moved to the wild and spacious state of Montana:
“If it’s wild to your own heart, protect it. Preserve it. Love it.
If it’s what makes your heart sing,
If it’s what makes your days soar like a hawk in the summertime, then focus on it.
For sure it’s wild – and if it’s wild, it will mean you’re still free.”
Lucia Ferrara Bettler has been passionate about herbs and gardening for over 25 years. A native Houstonian and a former English teacher, she is the owner of Lucia’s Garden, a well known Houston gift/herbal shop and learning center that strives to nourish the body as well as the spirit.
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