These are foreign trees, I used to say to myself. They were planted in the 19th century in that European sensibility of the promenade – the stately arboreal avenue framing the weekend strolls of couples and families at leisure. Whatever was here originally – red gums, yellow box, grassy tussocks – had to give way to an imported Europeanness with little interest in the indigenous quality of the land.
My view of the English elms began to change on a sunny day last autumn. The 30-metre giants were clothed in yellow – a vast golden dress shimmering along their length in the sunshine. Whenever a breeze blew, curtains of gold leaves descended on the path, a drifting dazzle. A stranger walking in the opposite direction with his head craned upwards stopped in front of me. “Isn’t that amazing,” he said. I felt blessed to be in the presence of this ordinary, extraordinary sight, this vision from heaven.
Ever since, my respect for the elms and whoever planted them has increased. I’m interested in the craggy, furrowed grey bark. In the way the trunk splits into two main branches and how the leaves cascade in wisps down the tree, as if it wears them like a boa. My morning walks to work have new grace and meaning, though it is hard to explain how exactly. The English elms have presence and character, soul.
Every day people walk past those trees without appreciating them; they’re simply a backdrop to busy thoughts cocooned in busy lives. Then we wonder why we are out of balance with nature and perplexed about how the situation can be fixed. The answer is directly in front of us: it’s in how we live our lives, in the quality of attention and consciousness we give to all life. Only a full re-enchantment of nature, a full awareness of everything as being alive, can lead to human harmony with and within the natural world.
I think there are three fundamental steps in human realignment with nature: appreciation, kinship and spiritual grace. In the first, we are moved by nature’s beauty and quality but we are outsiders observing it. This tends to be the most common attitude: we go to nature for the scenery, for the chance to see animals in the wild, for the fun and enjoyment of the beach, for the walks through magnificent forest. It’s important we do this because our lives would be impoverished if we didn’t and the default position in our culture is an almost complete mental separation from nature – many people feel disconnected even in the midst of great wonder. However, though we are being moved in some way, we are as outsiders looking in. There is a gap between “us” and what we define as the “natural world”.
In the second stage, that of kinship, we move beyond the position of spectator to recognising a relationship between us and nature. Thankfully, this appears to be a growing trend. Scientists, at least at the intellectual level, are rapidly coming to the conclusion that all life is related and all life is interdependent. That means we have a responsibility to nurture and care for all living ecosystems. In the position of kinship there is an implicit understanding that we are bound up with nature; we feel its pleasure and pain as our own. The inflated human ego is brought back to a point at which it can appreciate commonality with other beings. Ancient Western and Indigenous cultures established kinship relations with plants and animals knowing that mutual care and responsibility was the order of the world, and that great harm would result if those ties were broken.
Aspects of spiritual grace, the third step, can be found in the earlier stages. At the level of appreciation, it is something mysterious: we can’t fully explain why we feel a certain sense of harmony or balance, why there is deep contentment or even why at times we may be moved to tears. Spirit is the animating dynamic of the universe and it moves through and is in everything. Spirit is oneness: when we are conscious of it, we recognise the unity of all things. All is one and there is no separation. Spiritual grace opens us to a relationship of true depth with nature where we are in touch with the deepest essence – we act to further all life. With the benefit of spiritual grace, we begin to open to the different levels of being, to the different stages at which life operates in us and in everything.
Nature can be the gateway to Spirit, but so can any other aspect of living. The point is the development of a level of consciousness that is receptive to and aware of Spirit; once this consciousness establishes and grows in an individual the divine is increasingly experienced as ever-present. The challenge is to create the conditions in one’s own life and personality for Spirit, then to bring that reality to concrete action in the world.