The Journal as a Journey into Mystery

February 17, 2013 • In the mornings when the light has only just touched the mountainside and the low valley is still in darkness, I whisper one long prayer. The mountains, too, set loose their steamy breath into the rising wilds of day.

Gray Jay Overlooking the Cascades

There are as many ways to keep a nature journal as there are people who keep them. Some fill their journals with sketches, watercolors and diagrams of the plants and animals they find in the natural world, while others take notes, jotting down lines of descriptive prose or inspired verse to evoke a sense of wonder, curiosity and care about the diversity and beauty around them. Anyone can keep a nature journal: whether you’re traveling in exotic locations or observing the gentle, gradual changes of the seasons in your own backyard. The Sierra Club describes a nature journal as:

a place to grow your thoughts, feelings, ideas, activities, observations, and relationship with the natural world. […A]n opportunity to interpret your inner thoughts out into the natural world and a space where the natural world can flow into you and leave a permanent mark.

It is this give-and-take relationship with the world around us that makes the task of journaling such sacred work. In many Pagan and Wiccan traditions, the Book of Shadows serves as a record of the practitioner’s personal spiritual journey: a recipe book, reference guide and diary all in one. For the natural polytheist and the earth-centered Pagan, the nature journal can be all this and more. The act of journaling can open us more fully to the world around us, and invite the natural world into those interior spaces within our own souls. A journal can be more than just a record of where we’ve been; it can be the beginning of a whole new journey.

There are two powerful techniques that I especially like to use when journaling out in nature, in order to move me from a place of mundane consciousness into a state of contemplation, attention and receptivity. They are: naming, and questioning.

Naming The World Anew

March 11, 2013 • Night choir frog, Drum-throated frog, Mist-creeper, Reed-root frog, Ripple-maker, Long-legged shadow, Water’s shadow, Dark moon frog, Spring-caller, Rain’s companion, Mud-and-leaf frog…

Names are powerful. So powerful that they can break open our minds to new realities. In many folk traditions, it is said that if you know the name of a spirit, you can gain power over it. But the opposite is also true: if a malevolent spirit or the ghosts of the dead learn your true name, they can make your life hell.

When it comes to our relationship with the natural world, names are a double-edged sword. They can empower us, helping us to organize the mind-boggling diversity of living things into families and phyla, giving us a way to grasp the subtle interconnections and relationships that might otherwise escape our notice. But names can also have a deadening effect. Often when I’ve been out teaching naturalist programs, I’ve seen how desperately people want to know the names of things, as if the name were a lifeline that they can hold onto to keep from being swept away. But once I tell them the name, the conversation ends. They’ve been gripped by the hard-fisted spirit of Expertise. They hold onto the names so tightly, like a treasure, the proof that they have learned something new about the world. But after an hour or two of learning dozens of names, they discover that these names are more like faery gold that has turned back into dead leaves or grains of sand, crumbling and slipping through their fingers, leaving them with nothing.

The joy of names is learning to hold them loosely. Dr. Richard Feynman tells a wonderful story about his father teaching him the difference between knowing the name of something, and truly understanding it. The unassuming brown-throated thrush has a suite of names befitting a king, a different name in every human tongue. The most modest creature can inspire fascination deserving a great and beautiful name, a name that changes with the weather or the mood and tremor of its call. A little boy who was on a low-tide beach walk I was leading crouched down, entranced by a tiny green anemone with pink-tipped fronds drifting delicately on the rocky side of a tidepool. “What is it?” he asked excitedly. “It’s called a pink-tipped green anemone,” I said, and he looked up in vague disappointment at such an obvious, unimaginative name. “But,” I added, “what do you think it should be called?” He thought for a while, sitting back on his heels. “How about a water flower?” he said, “Or, the Pink-Haired Clam Slug? Or….” and he trailed off, turning possibilities over in his mind. Some names are too special to be spoken out loud.

Journal Exercise 1: Naming • Do not rush to pull out your field guide. Sit with your journal and spend some time with the plant or animal in front of you. Watch how it moves, how its leaves spread, how its limbs bend. Listen to its calls and cries, to the sound of wind, water and soil surrounding it. Breathe deeply of its scent. Imagine what it might feel like to be this creature — how would you experience the world around you? Then, begin your journey to find its true name. Write down whatever names come to mind, whichever names seem to fit. There is no wrong name, for every name is an invitation to relationship. With every name you will discover more of the mysteries of the living world around you, as well as the mysteries within yourself.

The Quest of Questioning

April 23, 2013 • Why do the white lilacs bloom before the purple ones? Where is the hummingbird building its nest this year? How many kinds of moss grow on the cement wall by the garage, and why do some grow there but not others? Where is the hawk that has the crows in an uproar?

When we have broken free of the need to learn the proper names of things, we discover that there are so many more questions to ask about the world than just, “What is it?” In the introduction to his book, The Natural History of Puget Sound Country, Arthur Kruckeberg explores the revolutionary importance of ecology as a science that asks the tough questions:

In probing the natural world, what kinds of questions do we ask? Easiest are the “what” and “how” questions. What is it? and How does it work? usually can be given direct answers. The unknown tree or insect gets a name and a place in its family tree to satisfy the What is it? question. Though more demanding of observation and thought, the How does it work? question also has ready answers. The literature of how things function in the world of life is the product of patient experiment and observation by plant and animal biologists. It is only when curiosity persists to the How come? stage that science reveals its tentative and ever-probing qualities. The answers to What for? questions asked of the color of a flower, the hair on an insect’s body, or the slime of a slippery slug, are within the domains of ecology and the study of adaptations.

The scientific study of ecology tries to answer these How come? and What for? questions. But perhaps more important to our spiritual and contemplative lives is learning first how to ask these questions, and to allow them to lead us into deeper, more complex relationship with nature and its many gods. Asking questions can change the way we look at the world around us and our place within it, shifting our attitude from one of self-assuredness and certainty, to curiosity, wonder and mystery. Following the advice of the poet Rilke, we can learn “to have patience with everything unresolved in our hearts.” Remember:

try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.

Journal Exercise 2: Questioning • Sit and breathe, your journal in your lap. Spend ten to fifteen minutes quietly observing the place where you are sitting, its personality, its presence, and the other living beings that share this place with you. Allow the questions to arise naturally. If you find yourself asking, “What is that?” revisit the Naming exercise. Search for the hard-to-ask questions — why, how, how come, what for? Notice the way these questions invite you to look more closely, to breathe more deeply. Notice how questions like “where” and “when” shifts your attention beyond this time and place, broadening your awareness. Most importantly, do not try to answer the questions you ask. Allow them to remain unanswered, at least for now. Later, you might discover the answer to one of these questions while exploring the landscape or reading a book about your local ecosystem. But for now, just for now, allow yourself to dwell in the possibilities and mysteries that your questions open up before you.


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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