by Marie T. Sullivan

July 7, 2023

One of the happiest Sunday afternoons of my life took place at the zoo. A gentleman friend given to spontaneous adventures spirited me to a place of wonders: performing seals, laughing dolphins, peacocks with plumage unfurled. Suddenly he pulled me aside and pointed out the best of all. On a distant hill sat a mother kangaroo with her baby in her pouch. I’d always thought such was the stuff of Warner Brothers cartoons, but there she was, right before us on that hill. A delight to behold.

Many of us are nature-starved and thus set apart from reality. It’s clear that reality is in short supply in our culture—in the realm of human sexuality, for example. Maybe we’d best take more trips to the zoo.

There is much talk about the environment, of course. But as the introduction of wokeness diminishes the fine arts, politicizing the environment erodes our appreciation of the real thing.

Environmentalists. Preachy, pallid tofu-eaters, I’d always thought. The more extreme ones embody a new form of Puritanism, one comprised of more thou-shalt-nots than any tablet of Moses. Like anything, environmentalism can be taken much too far. I recall visiting a large Chicago law firm on repeated occasions, one located in a gleaming downtown office tower, luxuriously appointed and full of modern art—a palace of wealth. Until you visited the restroom and attempted to wash your hands. You met with a pathetic dribble of stone-cold water every time. It’s a green building.

Appreciating nature has nothing to do with left/right. We all benefit from paying attention to the natural world from time to time. It offers human beings something of immeasurable value: a tiny glimpse of the Garden of Eden. It’s been posited that one of the primary causes of atheism is light pollution. How can we contemplate our place in the universe if we can’t see the stars?

I am not green. I am afraid of snakes. Give me a nice little cognac bar any day, with a gleaming Steinway and a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc. But I recently attended a lecture in which the learned speaker, a professor of theology at Notre Dame, spoke of the interconnectedness of human ecology and natural ecology. Nature whispers to us of the transcendent, he said, a dimension without which human beings are lost.

Might this be one cause of mass shootings?

Then there’s the delight factor. We need delight, to counteract the immiseration resulting from pandemics and social media and the sad incoherence of our confused culture. Twenty centuries ago, St. Basil the Great spoke in a homily of the “amphitheater of creation.” The delights of the natural world lie before us for the taking. But we have to look up once in a while. No tree-hugging is necessary, but on occasion it’s not a bad idea to reach out and stroke some bark or grasp some pine needles, if all you normally touch are manufactured surfaces: phones, steering wheels, airplane tray tables. And once in a while, inhale the scent of lilacs.

Ah, flowers. I recall the loveliest of poems, of dubious attribution but generally credited to John Greenleaf Whittier:


If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft

And from thy slender store two loaves alone are left

Sell one, and with the dole

Buy hyacinths to feel thy soul.


God bless gardeners. They are in close touch with the natural world. A science teacher and avid gardener I know tells of compelling her high school students one spring to plant a vegetable garden, a project they viewed with disdain. One of the high points of her teaching career, she reported, was seeing a jaded, tattooed high school girl squeal with delight when she later pulled from the ground the carrots she had herself planted.

Want your kids to eat more vegetables? If they grow them, they’ll be far more interested in eating them. Egad, they might even learn to cook!

On a deeper level, Thomas Merton put it well in his Seven-Storey Mountain: “There is not a flower that opens, not a seed that falls into the ground, and not an ear of wheat that nods on the end of its stalk in the wind that does not proclaim the greatness and the mercy of God to the whole world.”

Back to the learned college professor. He spoke of giving his students assignments related to astronomy, solely for the purpose of getting them to look up at night. Which brings to mind more lovely lines, these from Gerard Manley Hopkins:


Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!

O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!


There are other good reasons to stay close to nature, and reality. One is that it prepares you for things like birth and death. In a bizarre inconsistency, modern women who would not dream of using any but “natural” products on their hair readily thwart their beautifully-designed reproductive systems with chemicals. And death? Come fall, nature reminds us that we have limited time on this earth. That’s a reminder we can use.

I am told that for troubled urban youth, some physicians now prescribe what they call “forest bathing” as a remedy for nature-starvation. It simply means walking slowly at length in a forest, watching and listening. Children who grow up on farms have no such need, of course. What’s more, they develop a healthy sexuality. They’re around animals that are reproducing.

The good news is that in the still-marvelous time and place we live in, we can have our cognac bars and nature, too. This is certainly so in a major city like Chicago, with its parks and other pockets of green where you can watch a small green caterpillar climb up a tree. So look up at the stars! Turn off the AC for a few minutes, crack the windows and listen to the sweet summer sound of the cicadas, singing their little hearts out.

Take your seat in the amphitheater.


An Ohio native, Marie T. (Terry) Sullivan has lived in Chicagoland for all of her adult life. She has a degree in music, with flute as her principal instrument, but turned to ensemble singing after college. In recent years she took another musical turn, to singing jazz. By day she works for a Chicago nonprofit.

For two years she served as culture editor for the now defunct Chicago Daily Observer.

Comments 26

  1. Very nice word pictures.
    Thank you for writing this.

    For those who haven’t tried it, wait until it’s good and dark, then take your sweetie (and a blanket) out to the back yard. Lie down and just look up at the universe.
    If you can’t imagine the God who created all of that wonder above you, imagine harder.

  2. Beautifully written and painted as a mural of life for us all Miss Sullivan…now a jazz singer…a must stop for you ChicagoLand folks…

  3. Growing up in Chicago and then the suburbs I enjoyed seeing the stars even though they were reduced by light pollution but was especially enthused when I got away from the city & suburbs to see just how many more stars there were when you were in the darkness of nature. Then in the late 60’s I joined the US Navy and reported to duty on a navy ship, a destroyer. The first time I went on deck at night while at sea and looked up at the sky I was astounded by how many stars were visible. There is no light pollution out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a US Navy ship and you can literally see the universe. It’s amazing.

  4. Beautiful thoughts, and all true. You lose sight of that living in a city full of concrete, steel and glass, with the sounds of machines.
    I left Chicago (Streeterville) a year ago, moving to the coast of South Carolina. I’ve never seen such beauty in the night sky, with so many stars and the planets awaiting me every night. Lightening and thunderstorms are beautiful and fascinating when you can see them from miles away. And, the animals remind you every day of your place, not of superiority but of that as an equal. With the threat of gators in every pond, cottonmouths and coral snakes always to be wary of, you learn to be respectful and that your place in this world is easily nothing more than a potential meal. But the idea of becoming prey. Quickly disappears when you walk the beach and see the dolphins playing just off the surf. When that happens, all of nature falls into place.

  5. Great writing! Growing up in the Chicago area, I was lucky to have coal mining Grandparents in far southeren Iowa. Spent some of my growing up summers there and had the chance to see farms, rivers, “just plain living” and eating the food my grandparents planted, the same day it came from the ground. Being many many miles from any major city, the night skies were filled with stars. We’d take a blanket, lay on the ground, and watch for shooting stars. Always have loved nature.

  6. Well written Ms. Sullivan!

    If you ever want empirical proof of God, just look at nature and the cosmos. Nothing so wonderful, frightening, beautiful and serene can be found elsewhere: it’s organization is not at the hand of random molecules but at the hand of God.

  7. When I was in first grade, the Lincoln Park Zoo opened its Farm in the Zoo. My passion for gardening and farming was sparked on a field trip to that exhibit.

    Living in an apartment over a bakery and other shops on Clark Street did not thwart my attempts to coax life from soil. A neighbor lady produced a clay pot and potting soil. I ran down to Walgreen’s with a nickel in my hand to buy a packet of seeds.

    I was hooked.

    Although it took me many years to finally get my first true vegetable garden, and many years after that to finally get to my farm, I can honestly say it was worth the time and effort to get here.

    Thank you, Ms Sullivan, for your lovely essay on the joys of communing with nature!

    1. Ms. Lenarz, I salute you for having persisted in your quest to live on a farm, a dream I share. As long as there’s a nice cognac bar close by, with a first-class jazz trio.

      1. Well…. we live pretty far off the beaten path. May have to build a nice cognac bar.

        I have a guitar, a beat up flute… Have to work on the jazz trio. 😉

      2. If you’re ever in my neighborhood, I’d love to have you visit. My husband says that I’m a farm life (and goat life) pusher, but he’s wrong.

        I’m an enabler. 🙂

  8. Thank you Ms. Sullivan for a very well-written essay. I have always believed that civilization, by art and by music, is not alone in showing mankind how to be noble. So also does crude nature.

    Joe Eichberger

  9. Many years ago while sailing my first Mac Race, at midnight about off Milwaukee, I was dumbfounded by the ambient star light, enough to read a newspaper on deck! I marveled at the expanse of our waters and universe, and knew, once and for all, that God created this beauty for us to admire and look after. Hundreds of shooting stars confirmed my feelings!! Thanx for a great article, and reminding us that we must always look skyward for guidance!!

  10. Hi Marie, I enjoyed your Nature-Starved writing very much. It quickly brought me back in time to just a few weeks ago. I went fly fishing on the Madison River in Montana for the first time. I was in awe. It was the real thing and as close to nature as you could get. The beauty was there no civilization (if that is what we call it nowadays) around except for me and my guide. Time stopped for 7 hours! As stood in the amphitheater, we drifted aimlessly and my casts were blessed as I caught 2 Montana white fish and 1 brown trout and 1 rainbow trout. They were a delight to behold and even though I would have savored them for dinner, I was just as happy to toss them back. Yes, I was on the River of Eden and I nourished myself with so much nature I was stuffed.

  11. Thank you for a beautiful article.
    I am never too busy not to stop and look at nature. Watching a sunrise or a sunset. Many times I have watched and said god has his paint brush out today.
    There is an overwhelming feeling of relaxation watching a full moon rise.
    As a young girl my grandpa would take me for a walk. As we walked he would ask me what do you see? I started with the obvious. I see homes, cars, lawns, etc. Then he would say look closer. It was then I would see the little wild flowers, or someone who has planted flowers, and shrubs around their home, someone had a porch swing. I would think how lucky they were to be able to sit, swing, and watch nature.
    Even with growing up in the city my family would take a walk. As with anyone who lived in the city we could always find someone sitting outside enjoying the evening and we’d stop and chat.
    Thanks again for the column.

  12. Great piece on nature. You do know this left/right, woke garbage has been amplified and exploited by the oligarchy to keep us divided. “The left” and liberalism in general has been corrupted and exploited to such an extent that “leftist” “woke” policies actually hurt the environment. The Democrats have prostituted themselves to such an extent that they are actually to the right of Republicans on many issues.

    They say they care about the nature, yet they pollute and ruin the environment with their global warming con job they’re running. Pro business, pro corporate Republicans have never really cared about putting harmful chemicals into nature, polluting the waterways, spewing toxic chemicals into the air. The Democrats destroy the reputations, careers, the lives of those who go against them.

    1. A never fail downer response from one of the usual suspects Maitano. Same bullshit, different day. Can a response from noted nitwit “Riga Tony” be far behind?

  13. A never fail downer response from one of the usual suspects Maitano. Same bullshit, different day. Can a response from noted nitwit “Riga Tony” be far behind?

  14. Now that was a great article!
    Read this article after taking breath from reading the massive book: ‘INSIDE USA” by John Gunther. BTW if u can get the book read page 349, chapter 23 about the ‘great Chgo Tribune’ of the days past, circa late 1940s. You’ll realize what it’s turned into: SCAT.

  15. I’ve been a Scout leader for 30 years. It’s always great to see the reaction the first time a Scout gets away from the Chicago suburbs to a dark sky and looks up for the first time.

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