After a day spent wandering around the woods of Kentucky, the Cistercian mystic Thomas Merton wrote,
“No words that were ever spoken can equal the sound of the wind in the pine trees.”
At first, this conviction might sound a little inflated. Surely Merton’s pine trees might have some competition from all those ironclad words delivered in times of conflict, or soothing words whispered to a feverish child at three o’clock in the morning. Or even literary words of great passion and zeal that leave indelible marks upon our psyches and change forever how we orient our souls to the world around us.
And yet, there is something mysterious and compelling about Merton’s declaration. The canon of mystical works is filled with encounters with nature, of reclusive ascetics liberating themselves from society’s chains, even for short periods of time, to find meaning and insight and vision in an uncompromising and illuminating wilderness.
Sometimes it simply isn’t possible for us to trade the city, with its energy, light, and noise, for the monumental quietude of the wild. To find insight and peace, though, we need not go to the iron heart of the Anza Borrego desert, or ascend the knife edge of Mt. Katahdin, or wander trancelike into the emerald depths of the redwood forest. All we need is a willingness to let go of our ego-centered concerns, which then allows us to embrace the beauty, majesty, and mystery of a non-human other.
Consider this. In the year 430 C.E. the Chinese “Mountains and Rivers” poet Hsieh Ling-yün wrote:
“When you go deep, following a winding river to its source,
you’re soon bewildered, wandering a place beyond knowing:
cragged peaks towering above stay lost in confusions of mist,
and depths sunken away far below surge and swell in a blur.”
Bearing in mind our obsession with knowledge, Ling-yün suggests that we should hold ourselves aloft in a great mystery, “a place beyond knowing.” His winding river is at once literal, symbolic, and cosmic. Yes, it is the mountain creek that rushes by our feet, but it’s also the river of the mind, and our wild minds reflect the Milky Way, the great “star river” of the night sky. Perhaps like Ling-yün, we need to step outside our myopia, stop our rushing, task-driven madness, and hold our minds and bodies still for even just a few moments. To breathe, and feel the air penetrate deeply into our lungs. To let the light of the sun strike the optic nerve and conjure in the mind great visions of form and structure and being. To open ourselves to all forms of life, not just the human ones, that surround us every day.
Wherever you are right now, take a few minutes to wander outside. Find a patch of grass, or walk into the woods, and look down. The delicate flower at your feet, like Merton’s pines, cannot be constrained by the language we use to define it. It is a phenomenon that charms all of our senses, strikes the eye with its vibrant color, articulates its form in space, and erupts from the rich, loamy soil that covets its roots, like an ecstatic explosion of energy, absorbing and reflecting the light of the sun with an irresistible vibration of being.
Right now, together, we’re hurtling through space on our 580-million-mile annual journey around the sun. Already we’ve gained more than one hundred minutes of daylight since the December solstice. Winter wanes, and signs of spring are everywhere. The world in all its wonder, its beauty, its frightening power, its sacred mystery puts into grand perspective the small miseries we humans create for ourselves: the mountains of books to read for our courses, the interminable late-night study sessions, the too-long research essays, the failures we so desperately try to avoid. The natural world even puts into perspective the formidable pressure to figure out how to navigate the serpentine twists and turns of the so-called “successful” life.
I might suggest that the truly successful life is one thoroughly examined. To be sure, there is a time for hard work, and that hard work will pay off. But there must also be a time for introspection and for rest. A time to breathe deeply and with great intention. A time to take in the expanse of sky, and to look all around us with childlike wonder at the magnificence of the natural world. There, in still and silent moments, with the wind in the pine trees, the heart finds its peace and the soul its home.
Associate Dean for the Engaged Liberal Arts
Associate Teaching Professor of English