For her philosophy class at Oregon State University, a friend asked me, amongst many others, to share “a story about your first memory of feeling really connected with nature.” A few months later, I still wonder what the public school professor’s reaction to this musing of an essay was.
I remember going for early morning summer run, as a high schooler, through the valley-side foothills of Oregon’s coastal mountain range. This is where I had grown up, the terrain was familiar. Due to something unusual going on that day, however, I had been forced to schedule my daily run much earlier than usual. The orange and purple of the sky, illuminated as it was by the sunrise, drew elongated shadows through the vineyard-covered hills. Oddly enough, the beauty of this moment was not my first experience of connection with nature, but rather the feeling of alienation. This passing magnificence weighed me down with an unusual sense of futility. I wanted somehow to “use” this sunrise, to capture it, to share it. But I could not.
Right now, I attend an evangelical Christian college in Chicago. One of our general education requirements is in ethics, considering perspectives both within and outside of our faith tradition. Accordingly, I took a course in environmental ethics. The course was taught by a philosophy professor who specializes in theology and a physicist who specializes in climate dynamics.
There is a myth that permeates popular evangelicalism that the world is just a trashy holding place for souls that hopefully will stumble upon the secret of escaping into heaven. As many have noted, it is a line of thought that gives way to crass utilitarianism, something I had all-too-obviously fallen victim too. If there was one takeaway point from that class (at least from the Christianity unit), however, it was that God created the world to be good, but that human sin has subjugated the world to cursedness. The ethical component was that in anticipation of the eschaton, we humans need to start living into the divinely-ordained role of those trusted with the care of nature that we are a part of. Especially in the western world, where we have treated creation like a candy bar wrapper (save, of course, for a few parks and preserves here and there).
I internalized this worldview shift, and the reward was soon fruitful. It was a good warm spring day for a run, so I laced up my running shoes and set out for some miles down River Park: a long narrow greenway along the north branch of the Chicago River. There were a few white clouds in the sky, some blossoms in the tree branches. In the distance were city skyscrapers, which are awe-inspiring in their own way. At my feet, however, were the flat concrete trail and the stench-filled sewer drains that can be especially ripe during the first few warm days of the year. The gentle, odd mix of the majestic and mundane somehow led to an epiphany moment, where simple ideas took on the power of experienced truth. “Nature is cool. This is enjoyable. It is not perfect. That is okay. Nevertheless, we have work to do.” The echo of my ethics course could be heard as my mental monologue further proclaimed in complete academic-ese: “Look at this tree! What non-instrumental value!”
I have come a long way since then, developing a deeper appreciation for the wonder of nature, often while on the run. I would realize how running, by reanimating a genetic ritual was a sort of quasi-spirituality, an experience with one’s inner nature (this is with a shout-out to the fantastic book, Born to Run). I have now had sunrise runs that are rather euphoric. My desire to see the thriving of landscapes and life would deepen (although, I must confess, I still am unsure how to translate this into consistent personal action). But it was this moment, thanks in part to a changed attitude, on a pleasant yet mundane Chicago afternoon, that first allowed me to step into nature, in a way the majesty of an all-too-perfect Oregon sunrise was too overwhelming and daunting to allow.