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.