Inner Life

A time of lament, and a time of awakening

Former TMA editor Roland Ashby reflects on how "falling in love with nature" can help lift spirits during the COVID-19 pandemic, and hopes that once the current crisis is over, people will take urgent steps to save the natural world that they love

May 11 2020
The Yarra River at Warrandyte. In the current lockdown, people are connecting with nature again through walking.

This is a time of lament. Many have lost lives and livelihoods. Jesus gave voice to such despair most poignantly on the cross when he cried out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, the opening words of Psalm 22.

But for many others it also has the potential to be a time of joyful awakening. I have been greatly encouraged by the large numbers of people connecting with nature again through walking. On my two regular walks along Dandenong Creek and the Yarra River at Warrandyte people of all ages are discovering, perhaps in some cases for the first time, the simple joy of walking among trees, contemplating the beauty of bark and leaves bathed in golden autumn light, and listening to the timeless sounds of bird song and gently flowing water.

American Anglican priest Matthew Fox urges us “to fall in love at least three times per day”, not in an anthropocentric kind of way, but with “creation itself and its many expressions of beauty, of the Divine”.  

Jesus, too, told us to contemplate the lily (Matthew 6:28), and once compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed which grew into a tree (Luke 13:18-19).

The late American poet Mary Oliver also fell in love with nature. She wrote that her work as a poet “is loving the world... [and] mostly standing still and learning to be astonished”. Her work is also, she said, “gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart... [and] and a mouth with which to give shouts of joy”.

In her poem “The Summer Day”, in which she tries to wake us all up with the startling question “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” she says, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is/I know how to pay attention, how to fall down/into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass/how to be idle and blessed.”

Another word for paying attention is mindfulness, and the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hahn has written beautifully about how to walk mindfully: “Walking meditation is really to enjoy the walking – walking not in order to arrive, but just to walk ... Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet. We have caused a lot of damage to the earth. Now it is time to take good care of her.”

I am encouraged by seeing more people walk because only in such a way will enough people fall in love with the natural world to want to save it. Once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, a much greater threat to the future of civilisation and the whole earth is soon to engulf us – global warming. Australia’s recent unprecedented bushfire season is not just a clarion call to Australia, but to the whole world.

Roland Ashby is the former editor of TMA.