I’ve recently read a wonderfully written book of contemporary Canadian nature writing called Northern Wild. The editor, David R. Boyd, an environmental lawyer, chose essays from twenty authors for the collection. The writers all share a love and knowledge of land, water, sky and wildlife. Because we are in a time of intense destruction of nature, their stories are both ones of beauty and of loss. Many are poetic, others are humourous.
One of the amazing things that stands out that I learned from this book was in the essay by Wade Davis. In it, he speaks of the Inuit and how they navigate on cloudy days in the arctic. They study the reflections of the ice on the undersides of low clouds. From these reflections, they can tell where open water appears, where sea ice is, where ground is covered, or not, by snow. Imagine such attunement to one’s surroundings. Now that I think of it, in one form or another, many of the essays speak to moments of such attunement, calling on us to be attentive to and nurture our connection to nature.
This book is out of print, but I borrowed it from my library and then found a copy online that I’ve since purchased. It’s the kind of book that asks to be reread.
Recently I learned that our Canadian federal government has cut a prairie land protection program called the Community Pasture Program. The government is turning care for grasslands outside the national park over to the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. There are people concerned about Saskatchewan’s plans to sell what remains of this fragile landscape at market value rates. They fear that much of what is left of the grasslands could be lost to development of different types and have started a petition to speak up for the continued protection of this land.
I do not live on the prairies but have travelled to Saskatchewan three times over the past few years. There we drove through vast plains and grasslands and hiked in the Grasslands National Park. What we experienced was a hauntingly beautiful land. Contrary to what I’d heard for years, I did not find the plains of Saskatchewan boring. While they are not dramatic like the Rockies, the grasslands have the deep, elemental feel of sky and land seen over huge distances. We felt in the presence of something ancient.
In Grasslands National Park, where we hiked on rolling hills and up buttes, we saw stones patterned by lichen, wildflowers, mule deer, sky and land in full circles as far as the eye could see. We felt a deep connection to this unadorned land and to life.
Generally, when looking at protecting parts of nature, people take different sides and fight with one another. We are divided by politics and by economics among all the other things we humans cannot agree on. However, I wonder whether we share something in common. And that is, a love of some aspect of nature, be it land or water, light or clouds, trees, flowers, other animals or, in this case, grasslands. This can only happen if we have had the chance to experience nature first hand in a way that matters to us and have not been deprived of the experience, say, in city neighbourhoods devoid of nature.
And although I write using the dividing words human and nature, I return to my first blog post where I thought we could use a new word to unite us—something like humanature. Because, although nature is generally defined as the world other than human, we are animals and a part of nature. If we learn to see ourselves and our place on earth in this way, new perspectives open from the question: why should I care if such and such a part of the natural world disappears, goes extinct or is polluted. If we see ourselves as part of nature, the protection of other parts of the natural world is really a protection of ourselves. Perhaps this seems far-fetched or poetic in the face of daily concerns with making a living and just getting by. However, I don’t think so. I believe that to save and restore what we call the natural world is actually a way of saving and revitalizing humanity.
Being in nature has always evoked strong feelings in me. There’s the love I felt at Lake Louise and the plain of the six glaciers trail. But even that changed for me. It is easy to feel love, exhilaration in the bright sun or in the morning and early afternoon. As the sun gets closer to setting, more somber feelings take hold, as they did when we retraced our steps back toward Lake Louise in the dusk.
The beauty of being in nature is that I am faced with myself by virtue of experiencing the earth in a direct way. The land or ocean speaks, bringing forth emotions from love and awe, to unease and fear.
My times in natural settings at night have sometimes brought me fear of the dark, the unknown and the sounds of animals I could not identify. But I have also had profound feelings of peace. One such time was in Val Marie, Saskatchewan, a tiny town on the edge of Grasslands National Park. There, awakening in the night, I was in the midst of a quiet that I had never experienced. And there are the times I’ve looked at stars on dark, clear nights in the countryside that elicit a sense of awe common to many people who have shared this experience.
I’ve also experienced a change in feelings toward aspects of nature in my 40 plus years in Canada. When I first arrived, I had certainly been among conifers at some points in my life, but not to the degree that is offered when travelling north in Ontario. Though I could see their beauty when I was young, they felt austere and elicited loneliness in me. This has changed dramatically for me over the decades. It’s not something I willed to happen, it just has. Now I feel love for the same spruce, fir and pine that I felt such unease towards.
Beyond myself, it seems to me that our attitudes toward nature have greatly shaped our relationship with the natural world, too often in the destructive ways we are familiar with. I wonder if humans could learn to rest easier with our own feelings, whether we could view nature differently. Perhaps we could begin to view the natural world less as something to be dominated or feared, but as part of the life we all share on earth. Perhaps we could learn to know that we are part of nature and nature, part of us. In that sense, care for nature is care for ourselves.
I’ve been thinking about our trips to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, Canada. Perhaps it’s because we were there last year at this time. The land that we hiked on was unlike anything I’d experienced before, having grown up in eastern North America near forests, rivers and within two hours of the Atlantic Ocean.
I’m usually uncomfortable using the word spiritual because of its overuse in some circles. However, in trying to describe the experience of being on the grasslands, it’s a word we used frequently. We felt close to something larger than our small lives, elemental and of great depth. We walked on hills and climbed to the top of buttes and looked out over land and sky stretching as far as we could see in all directions. No buildings or trees blocked the sky. We came upon stones with patterns of orange, black and white lichen growing on them, wildflowers, grasses, dwarf aspens and mule deer.
The slow deep resonance of the land has remained with me. It’s an antidote to states of frenzy and a lifeline to the oft forgotten larger world of nature that we have arisen from.