Woody Allen, no nature lover, was fond of saying, “Nature and I are two.” Which reminds me of another joke I once heard on Car Talk. “What did the Buddhist monk say to the Hot Dog vendor?” “Make me one with everything.”
More seriously, what Woody Allen meant to say is that he was an urbanite and that he vastly preferred the environment of civilization to the outdoors. I am not so much interested in thinking about what it means to love the outdoors. Some do, some don’t. Some of us love the feel of sweat running down our back as we ascend a trail or even relish the sensation of a warming body as it exercises in the cold, frigid air of winter. Some of us prefer our bodies to remain in a permanent state of 70 degrees comfort and generally cringe at the thought of going more than a day without a shower. I would argue for the value of experiencing the senses in their full range, if for no other reason than to remind us of our bodies, which can become almost invisible to us in our modern world that has essentially rendered them useless. We only seem to notice them when they stop working like they should. So, yes, I feel a certain pity for people who don’t know the vicissitudes and pleasures of a body exposed to the world in the more vulnerable way afforded by being in the outdoors. When I see folks walking on treadmills on a perfectly beautiful day, I wonder.
But it is a fair question to ask: must we love nature? Isn’t it enough to respect it? Isn’t there a risk of loving nature more than human beings? Isn’t that a kind of idolatry? All fair questions, as I say. I like President Joseph F. Smith’s answer best: “We have eyes and see not, for that which we cannot appreciate or admire we are largely blind to, no matter how beautiful or inspiring it may be. As children of God, it is our duty to appreciate and worship Him in His creations. If we would associate all that is truly good and beautiful in life with thoughts of Him, we would be able to trace His handiwork throughout all nature.” Or as we read in D&C 59:
18 Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;
19 Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.
20 And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to aexcess, neither by extortion.
What Pres. Smith indicates is that it makes little sense to claim that we love and worship God if we cannot love and worship him in his creations. In other words, we must not divorce the great gift of this world and of life itself from our biological and geological conditions. Although spiritual beings, we find ourselves earth-bound, bounded by bodies, stuck in plasma and circulating blood, breathing, moving, touching the world and each other at every turn. We see, feel, hear, smell, and taste the world and each other. The world and its many others are known to us through the senses, just as we are known to ourselves. This is not to say, of course, that all that we know only comes through the senses—there is, of course, the spiritual means of knowing—but, as the scripture above teaches, it is scarcely possible to begin to apprehend what stands above and apart from physical experience without being fully immersed in it. If the emphasis on an embodied God and our embodied and earth-bound heavenly destiny in Mormon theology should teach us anything, it is that we ought not to be in a rush to leave or denigrate the miraculous experience of embodiment nor to see it as something separate from the spirit.
But I also understand that we are not all of the same disposition. I would like to do away with the stereotype of the nature lover, the tree hugger, the outdoor fanatic. This is not what is required of love. Just as I would like to do away with the stereotype that loving nature is sufficiently expressed by taking a few moments to admire a beautiful sunset. If we consider what Christ said about love, the task is much steeper and more challenging. Hopefully a law of higher morality has taught us that love is superficial, even dangerous, when it loves an object, when it loves superficial or temporary beauty, when it seeks to possess and control, when it loves selfishly and willfully. Nature is a great test of our own narcissism. If we learn to love nature, or to paraphrase Pres. Smith, to worship God in his creations, to see life as his gift, then we have to stretch the mind wide enough to imagine that all of it—every twig lashing the eye, every storm wreaking havoc, every unexpected and even unwanted change in the weather and yes, all beautiful sunsets and all fantastical and wondrous species—all of this is part of the great expansive experiment that is our human life. And we can no more afford to be dismissive or willfully ignore the ugly and deeply troubling aspects of the creation than we can ignore the inherent weaknesses in our own flesh. Just as we must learn to consecrate our experiences, to live with sufficient faith that God can and will transform our darkest experiences into something for our own good, we must learn to see all of nature, to welcome all of its unpredictability, its harshness, its ugliness, its oppositions. To paraphrase Rilke, we must imagine a time when we can see that our nights of sorrow have been transformed into the dark green meaning of our lives. To love nature is to love mortality, to accept, even embrace, the paradoxes of our human condition, and to live in great hope not despite but because of the oppositions we experience. This is love with staying power. This is love that will not lash out in vengeful fits of anger, as we so often do to others and to a world that refuse to conform to our wishes. This is Christ’s love. Which only makes sense, since it is his world, after all, a world he not only created but also suffered… for us.