This past summer I picked up a small book at a yard sale called “When the Trees Say Nothing,” written by Thomas Merton who was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani. The book reads like a journal with entries meditating on his love and wonder of the natural world. Merton talks of the sacredness and the veneration of the natural world. He writes, “The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God.” Merton calls us to be attentive to nature’s beauty and mystery. He calls us to enter into the paradise that is around us. We are to experience what is given in the here and now, what is given to us as a gift. He thinks people ought to be in “the fields, in the sun, in the mud, in the clay, in the wind,” for “they form our contemplation. They instill us with virtue. They make us stable as the land we live in.” Merton urges us to be engaged with this beautifully created gift we are given.
Like Merton’s “When the Trees Say Nothing,” a lot of the most striking poems I have read seem to also call us to a love for the natural world. One poem in particular stands out to me: “Binsey Poplars” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In this poem, Hopkins’ aspen trees have been cut down and he mourns their lost beauty. He grieves for how we are treating the natural world, writing, “O if we but knew what we do / when we delve or hew —/ Hack and rack the growing green.” Like Merton’s reflective book, Hopkins’ poem is also a call to treat nature as a gift. He sees nature, here the aspen trees, as expressions of beauty and of God’s creativity. He talks about the trees losing a sense of self when they are cut down. In order to lose a self, the trees must have had a self to begin with. Here I think Hopkins means something similar to Merton: we ought to listen to the trees and to nature because we have much to learn from them.
As with Merton and Hopkins, I find that there is a certain wonder, peace, gratitude, and beauty only found in nature. Both men write of a call to love nature. But to love something well, you must first know it. Wendell Berry, farmer and environmental activist, echoes this idea that “We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it. And to take good care of it we have to know it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.”
The earth is a gift to us and like any good gift we ought to treat it well, with love and appreciation. You do not put a gift away in the back of a closet, you take good care of it. For it is not by ourselves that we can learn how to care for things, but it is through gifts we are given. The way we care for the earth teaches us ways to care for each other. Tending a garden teaches us patience and intentionality. A long hike teaches us endurance and commitment. A walk through the woods teaches us to breathe, to slow down and to look up. It is in his book “The Four Loves” that C.S. Lewis says the only thing nature asks of us is to “Look. Listen. Attend.”
Sources: “When the Trees Say Nothing,” “Binsey Poplars,” “The Four Loves”