* a morning in early spring, crisp air with new sunshine, long-awaited respite from a fierce winter season in the North Country, near the Canadian border.
* a winter-beaten field at last free of snow, surrounded by bushes and small trees behind a white frame house, near the edge of a quiet village.
* a small girl of seven or eight, dressed in a navy blue wool coat, matching hat and snow-pants.
She walks slowly, daydreaming, into the center of the field, idly examining and poking with the toe of her boot the swirled and crumpled patterns where the pressure of the winter’s snows flattened the tall grasses and weeds of her previous summer’s explorations and adventures. The low hummocks of grass and straw are now dry and crunchy under her boots, but give slightly under her step, as spring begins to thaw the ground beneath.
Suddenly she drops to her knees, then lies face down on the grasses, sun warming her back, and chilly air tickling her face. She closes her eyes, pressing her ear and cheek to the bleached brown stubble, sniffing the rich scent of awakening earth through the sweet smell of dried grasses. Her eyes closed, she feels the firm support of the earth beneath yet can almost sense movement, and is slowly flooded with the feeling of being held, while being one and the same with the air, the sun, the earth, boundaries dissolving.
* * *
The snow that has been overwhelming various parts of the country recently has reminded me of my childhood home in the “North Country,” which is how people there refer to St. Lawrence county in northern New York State. I was fortunate to grow up in a loving (yet eccentric) family, with parents who taught biological sciences at St. Lawrence University. At that time there was a Universalist theological school at St. Lawrence, where my father was sometimes asked to present the atheist position in their debates, which he did with vigor and enthusiasm. With my mother and sisters, I attended the Universalist Church.
The earliest “religious” experience in my memory did not happen in church, but in my own back yard. The great outdoors was my home during my childhood summers, and my earliest memories of spiritual awakening have to do with experiences in nature. At a conference I attended about ten years ago, the workshop leaders asked those of us in attendance questions about our formative spiritual experiences. Lo and behold, the majority of people related nature experiences.
There are powers at work not only throughout Earth and the universe, but also within every one of the cells in our bodies. We “incarnate” these powers, and when we are conscious of them, our identity expands. Most of the time we struggle to realize our shared identity with other people, never mind animals, plants, rocks, the sun, or the stars. But with the development of our cosmological imagination, our identity can be stretched, and indeed must be, in a world both torn apart and deadened by difference and alienation. Yet we are capable of living ecstatically, finding new energy and joy in life. Some traditions speak of something akin to this “incarnation” and the consequent expansion of our identity in terms like Christ consciousness, or Buddha nature.
Brian Swimme, in his book The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, has a naturalistic, yet transcendent understanding. He wrote,
“We were born out of the Earth Community and its infinite creativity and delight and adventure. Our natural state is intimacy within the encompassing community. Our natural genetic inheritance presents us with the possibility of forming deeply bonded relationships throughout all ten million species of life as well as throughout the nonliving components of the universe.” (p.34)
“We need to put our energy into inventing cultural forms for initiating ourselves into an ecstatic sense of involvement with the community of beings that is the very universe.” (p.36)
People have been doing just that. A Google search on the words Universe Story will bring up plenty of information about earthy and cosmic play and celebration. It’s one thing to read it, and quite another to experience it: in a field or forest, climbing the rocks, under the stars, at the water’s edge. Or maybe in your own back yard.