In his classic work on Nature Mysticism James Edward Mercer offered a general definition of his subject as ‘the causes and the effects involved in that wide range of intuitions and emotions which nature stimulates without definite appeal to conscious reasoning processes.’
It is not an easy definition and indeed, defining Nature Mysticism is difficult. But in essence it is the spiritual response to the emotional or intuitive reaction we have to contact with Nature. Or, to put it another way, what Mercer was exploring was the spiritual sense that develops as a result of an intense communion with Nature. By ‘communion’ I mean an interaction that takes place between the individual and Nature – whether it be the landscape (or a feature of it), organic life form, weather or even the stars. In other words, it is about an interaction between the individual and the Cosmos.
The important thing, as Mercer realised, is that as individuals we all have the capacity to have a relationship with Nature which has a deep impact upon us and which can lead to a sense of greater well-being or heightened creativity. Conversely, alienation from Nature can lead to a much more negative condition – dulling of the mind, depression, and mental ill-health. And these individual reactions have a wider social consequence. Even writing in 1912, Mercer predicted that it was man’s growing distance from Nature that was creating social, economic and political unrest that would lead to catastrophe. And how prophetic he was!
City and urban life distances us from Nature. It offers unnatural and artificial stimulation which in fact over-stimulates some of our senses, while depriving other senses of activity. As a result, those other faculties decay. As Mercer put it. “The eye and ear…are deprived of their native stimulants. In short, city conditions unduly inhibit the natural development of many elements of the higher self.”
Humankind feels an innate need for nature. At the beginning of weekends and holidays in the urbanised West, the population movement is usually away from the city, not towards it. And the traditional ‘seaside’ holiday still has its association with relaxation and healthy activity – even if it has come to seem unfashionable more recently. Country walking, even off-road cycling, have become increasingly popular activities by the early 21st century. Behind all of this lies our desire to be in our natural environment rather than the artificial cityscape. The health implications may seem obvious. Clean air, exercise, de-stressing activities, and a degree of space or even solitude perhaps, which the city denies us. Furthermore the use of natural environments as an aid in the treatment of both mental and pathological illness is now a common practice in some countries.
For the Nature Mystic, however, the natural environment is more than a landscape serving as a pleasant backdrop for more absorbing activities. Mercer observed, “The Nature Mystic goes deeper down to the heart of things, and holds that to lose touch with nature is to lose touch with reality as manifested in Nature… it is not mere lack of education of the senses…but the stunting of the soul-life that ensues on divorce from nature, and from the great store of primal and fundamental ideas which are immanent therein.” Furthermore: “The Nature Mystic… desires to hold communion with the spirit and the life which he leads and knows to be manifested in external Nature,…he hears deep calling unto deep…The life within to the life without – and he responds.”
A Nature Mystic, then, is someone who not only becomes aware of the interdependent relationship he or she has with nature, but also seeks to strengthen that connection and develop their consciousness of it. Being fully engaged and connected with Nature means understanding that we are not only a part of nature, but that we are connected in some way with every part of it, that we share a ‘oneness’ as an inherent part of the Cosmos. It is an understanding that gives perspective and meaning to our existence. It also gives purpose – because once we understand our connection to Nature we come to realise our responsibility towards it and towards everything within it. Although it is sometimes claimed that humankind has a higher level of consciousness than any other species – it is not necessarily the case, since we can, after all, only measure this by our own understanding and definition of consciousness itself. But it does mean we should be conscious and aware of our own responsibility towards the rest of the cosmos, its inhabitants, environment and future.
Attempts have also been made to give a more ‘scientific’ cause to a heightened sense of connectedness with Nature. In Biophilia (1984) Edward O Wilson hypothesised that humankind might have a deep, subconscious affiliation with other living life forms. Wilson’s ideas have subsequently been developed and set in the context of evolutionary process, our innate love of Nature might stem from deep within our biology itself. Even more recent studies have suggested that our connection with Nature might be embedded deep within our DNA, and that it might be part of our inherited biological memory.
What all scholars of Nature Mysticism seem to have in common, however, is the vital personal experience of the deep and intuitive encounter with Nature, the moment of connection. It is a moment of revelation, of deep emotional response resulting in elation, joy, or ‘ecstasy’ to use an earlier term. Everyone who experiences this moment of heightened consciousness is suddenly aware of a changed relationship with the cosmos around them. It is a profound and life-changing event. But this is not to say that all encounters with Nature have or are expected to have this effect upon us. So what is it that makes this moment so special?
In The Story of My Heart, published in 1883, the great English nature writer and Mystic, Richard Jefferies, explored his understanding and experience of Nature Mysticism and its meaning. He also attempted to convey the moment of heightened consciousness, the sensation of that mystic encounter, the moment of “intense communion” with the earth, the sun and the sky, a feeling so powerful that he “became lost, and absorbed into the being and existence of the universe”. He had already attempted to describe the moment in one of his novels, Restless Human Hearts. He wrote of one of the characters:
"He reposed upon the grass under the shadow of a tree, til the warmth of the sun filled his veins with a drowsy, slumberous yet intense vitality, while the leaves danced in slow and intricate measure between him and the sky…He lost all sense of his own separate existence; his soul became merged in the life of the tree, of the grass, of the thousands of insects, finally in the life of the broad earth underneath, till he felt himself as it were a leaf upon the great cedar of existence …Time, thought, feeling, sense, were gone, all lost; nothing remained but the mere grand fact, the exquisite delight, the infinite joy of existence only”.
Whilst there are resonances here of the experience of the Buddha, there is a critical difference for Nature Mystics. Because, unlike the practitioners of some Eastern religions, this moment of heightened consciousness is not a moment of transcendence into some spiritual, ‘other’ world. It is a moment of complete connection with the reality of Nature. It is a moment of absorption. The body is neither denied nor abandoned. On the contrary, it becomes more alert to sensation – to touch, smell, taste, sound, sight. Nature becomes everything.
It must also be made clear that Nature Mystics view this encounter in a completely different way to Christian Mystics. For two thousand years, Christian mystics have claimed that the moment of heightened communion with the cosmos and its attendant feeling of elation, are encounters with God (or perhaps some messenger of their deity) and that Nature is just a manifestation of ‘His’ presence. This position, of course, reduces the comparative status of Nature and the cosmos.
Mercer argued that a belief in an ‘Absolute’ entity was not compatible with Nature Mysticism. In fact he was rather scathing about the traditional Christian hypothesis. He rejected the claim of the Christian Mystics: “By a ruthless process of abstraction they have abjured the world of sense to vow allegiance to a mode of being of which nothing can be said without denying it…It swallows up all conditions and relations without becoming any more knowable…It lies totally and eternally beyond the reach of man’s faculties and yet demands his perfect and unreasoning surrender.”
In fact Mercer went on to urge Nature Mystics to repudiate the idea completely, saying that they would lose nothing by it. Strong sentiment from a Christian Bishop!
In Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902 the American academic William James explored the nature of the ecstatic ‘moment’ experienced by mystics and proposed that it consisted of four main characteristics:
1. It was Ineffable.— He commented, “ no adequate report of its contents can be given in words…its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others…mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists.”
2. It has a Noetic quality.—“Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.”
3. They are transient or short-lived—“Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.“
4. The receiver does not actively seek the encounter or experience. It is given not sought. James added “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”
So the moment of connectedness experienced by Nature Mystics is hard to describe in words, it provides heightened consciousness through an intuitive rather than intellectual activity, it is momentary, and it produces a sense of awe. These are the qualities which we expect to find in the moment of Mystic connectedness. However, there is a dilemma. How can Nature Mystics convey something which is ineffable? The problem is that they can’t, not completely. But they can make the attempt, and this is where the paths of artists, poets, musicians and nature writers cross.
Britain’s most well-known Nature Mystic is the poet William Wordsworth. In The Prelude, Wordsworth attempted to express the beginning and development of his consciousness as a Nature Mystic. His famous Mystical encounter while rowing on Esthwaite Water one evening is worth quoting here:
“I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again, 380
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,--
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen 390
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being;”
Here the poet brings all his skill to bear in attempting to convey the experience to us despite its ineffability. However, the extract is also powerful because he wonderfully conveys the sense of awe created by the towering crag and, in the final line, exhibits James’s Noetic quality – the consciousness of ‘unknown modes of being.’
Wordsworth’s Nature Mysticism is however, more powerfully expressed in another poem, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey. Wordsworth wrote of the longer-term impact of a moment of mystic connection felt while walking in the Wye valley and of its continuing inspiration:
"How oft, in spirit, have I returned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit retuned to thee!
…And I have felt a presence
That disturbs me with joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and living air,
And the blue sky, and the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things, Therefore am I still
A lover of meadows and woods,
And mountains; and of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, - both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.”
It is hardly necessary to emphasis here Wordsworth’s final statement about the central role of Nature as the guide, guardian and soul of his (moral) being.
The Victorian Nature Mystic Richard Jefferies gives us a very clear statement of the ineffability of the Mystic connection: "With all the intensity of feeling which exalted me, all the intense communion I held with the earth, the sun and sky, the stars hidden by the light, with the ocean—in no manner can the thrilling depth of these feelings be written—with these I prayed, as if they were the keys of an instrument, of an organ, with which I swelled forth the notes of my soul, redoubling my own voice by their power. The great sun burning with light; the strong earth, dear earth; the warm sky; the pure air; the thought of ocean; the inexpressible beauty of all filled me with a rapture, an ecstasy, …”
Jefferies gives us many clear examples of Nature Mysticism in his later writing. Here, he is writing about a moment of connection while lying next to a tumulus on the Wiltshire Downs: “Two thousand years being a second to the soul could not cause its extinction. . . Resting by the tumulus, the spirit of the man who had been interred there was to me really alive, and very close. This was quite natural and simple as the grass waving in the wind, the bees humming, and the lark's songs. …. Listening to the sighing of the grass I felt immortality as I felt the beauty of the summer morning, and I thought beyond immortality, of other conditions, more beautiful than existence, higher than immortality."
The idea of timelessness or of time stopping, is a common feature of the experience expressed by Nature Mystics.
But there are numerous other writers to whom we could turn for examples of Nature Mysticism. Thoreau has already been mentioned. But we could cite names like R W Emerson, W H Hudson, Henry Williamson, Nan Shepherd, etc and much more recently Robert Macfarlane and Rob Cowen.