One year during graduate school I was a TA for a course called “Religion and Ecology.” During the first class of the semester, the professor showed some clips from the BBC series “Planet Earth.” This was 2006, and it cannot be overstated how jaw-dropping the image quality of that production was for the time. I remember we sat there collectively stunned and amazed.
The professor then told the students to watch the whole series over the weekend. She said that to enter into the moral imagination of the various religious traditions we would study that semester, we first needed to unlock in ourselves the capacity to love this planet and the community of life on which we all depend. “Fall in love this weekend,” she said, without irony or embarrassment. “See you Tuesday.”
I’ve thought about this a lot in the years since, what it means to love creation. The word “love” itself can be an obstacle, considering its common uses. On the one hand we dilute the word’s meaning entirely by applying it to anything from favorite snacks to socks and wine and t.v. shows. On the other, we apply it too sparingly, only to our closest romantic relationships. Neither use seems to capture the passionate and practical requirements of caring for creation.
The problem, of course, is not with the word, but with our shrunken vision of what it can express. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis argues that love of creation describes awe at the grandeur of life. Such love, he says,
cannot be written off as naïve romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior.
If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.
This suggests that cultivating feelings of “intimate unity with all that exists” is not sentimentalism but eminently practical. Stand in awe of creation and the call to care for it will inevitably well up in you.
It is easy to fall in love with creation in special moments, like when you visit a national park or notice the first blooms of spring in Louisville. A few years ago, I was driving up the west coast of northern California and into Oregon and could not contain my sense of wonder. “Look at that,” I shouted every time we rounded another bend in the road. But the fact is that most of our days are not so exceptional. Eventually we must come home and endure winter in the bleak and gray deciduous forests of Kentucky. Where is the love then?
Perhaps the experience of love for other human beings can teach us something about loving nature despite the winter blues. Because with people, too, the feeling of intimate affection does not always arise in us spontaneously. Sure, sometimes we see our loved ones and our heart sings, seemingly without effort. At such moments they are like the beauty of Yellowstone to us. But on other days, we have to work at it. Love is not only the heart’s flutter in the face of beauty, but also a kind of dedication, even in the absence of easy joy. If we don’t have the flutter, we might not build a relationship in the first place. But without dedicated action, we’ll never build one that lasts.
We can love nature in the same way—rooted in spontaneous awe and wonder, yet committed to intimacy even when it seems elusive. Our winter love just needs a friendly push! Take this non-exhaustive list of suggestions as a place to start:
Go outside anyway. Too often, we treat less-than-preferable weather as prohibitive. We would love to go for a walk in the park, we say, but look at this weather. In moments like this, remember that humans are hardy creatures! All you need is a decent jacket, a warm hat, some gloves, maybe an umbrella if the day calls for it. None of this gear needs to be fancy. If you step out the door and you’re still too cold, add a scarf and some wool socks to the ensemble.
Pay attention to new things. In a winter landscape like ours, all bare trees and stems, it might seem like there is less to see. But this is a misperception! As birdwatchers, my wife and I have discovered that the absence of leaves in winter offers a greater abundance of sightings. Just yesterday, on a meandering 45-minute walk, I recognized the following birds in a Louisville park: a Carolina wren, a downy woodpecker, a tufted titmouse, a red-bellied woodpecker, a great horned owl (no kidding, and much easier to spot in wintertime), a cardinal, a winter wren, an American goldfinch, a yellow-rumped warbler, and a song sparrow. You might find you are grateful for winter’s alternative views!
Write down what you see. Get one of those cute little notebooks shelved near the checkout counter of any bookstore, and when you come back inside, record what you witnessed. This might seem tough if you don’t know what some of the plants and animals are called. But describe them anyway. What strikes you about their form and/or behavior? Start with simple things—the difference between the bark of sycamores and beeches, or whatever you noticed that day.
Do a little research, and awe will follow. Look up some of the things you saw online, and be amazed! The other day I saw a hummingbird sitting in a dogwood tree in our yard. I didn’t know what it was, so I googled “hummingbirds in Kentucky” and compared the results to what I was seeing. I quickly learned that I was observing a female ruby-throated hummingbird (cool!), and that a hummingbird’s heart beats up to 1260 times per minute. And that there are about 360 different species of hummingbird. Amazing!
Trust that there is room for awe everywhere, in any season. It sometimes takes a little extra work to recover our openness to it during the winter. But in the end the work is light compared to the riches of intimacy that await us. Get out there and fall in love!