When I was nine, my family moved to a seven-acre plot of land. At night, cicadas buzzed and lightening bugs rose simultaneously with a mist from the creek. We ate mulberries from the tree while slapping mosquitos, and I trained tender pale-green pea vines up wire mesh. We spied goldfinches and bright-breasted orioles and mimicked the whistle of bobwhites with one-syllable names: “Bob White! Fred Jones! Tom Smith!”
Living in a suburb as an adult, I’m minutes away from libraries, art institutes, and eateries, but I look at my two children and have a gnawing sense they’re missing out. When I read Norman Wirzba’s From Nature to Creation, I’m taken with an image of my kids’ and my relationship with nature.
I’ve heard the setting of a book referred to as another character, such as, “Chicago was one of the main characters of the novel.” Wirzba’s description of creation is reminiscent of that. God loves the world he created, and because God loves the world he created, we accept it as gift and not just an assumed “resource.” As a parent participating with my kids in a Big Story about the world, the people in it, and its reconciliation with God, seeing nature as also loved by God, as a character revealing his glory, causes me to interact with it less callously, more intentionally and respectfully—to listen to it.
Scripture tells us multiple times that the glory of God is revealed in his creation. Dale Gentry, who teaches biology at the University of Northwestern-Saint Paul, referenced Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20, to name two such instances. I talked with him and his wife Ann while our kids whooped, ran, and climbed a crabapple tree. He said when we engage with nature, God’s glory “is everywhere if you look for it.”
Besides amazement at its intricacy, another way nature speaks to us is through analogy. Dale shared that the winter ecology he studies includes creatures who could migrate, but who stay and have found ways in which to tough it out for the winter—prompting him to consider how God may call us to take a hard path. Likewise, after an afternoon digging weeds, we may experience more viscerally those Scriptures based in the context of an agricultural society, such as the parable of the sower.
From God’s Glory to Our Dependency
Astounded by the glory of God we see in nature causes us to affirm God’s might, creativity, and wisdom. His glory says something about us too: we are dependent, not autonomous, not capable without him. Engaging with nature teaches his greatness and creation’s dependence. As Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matt. 10:29, NIV). Here is the crux of spiritual formation—dependence on our Creator.
While we see much of God’s supernatural oversight in Scripture, such as the sun standing still in Joshua 10, we see in the Book of Nature how he sustains—a word Wirzba uses—the earth with manifold dependencies. These connections are the study of ecology.
Nature as Spiritual Formation
But in spiritual formation with children, particularly young children, to preach to them is limiting, separating them from their instinctive wonder with the world. Instead they must experience and explore, and we as parents reawaken our faith by embracing their wonder. We can extend their wonder—and worship of God—with conversations in the moment.
Dale recommends letting kids have unstructured play—something he learned from working at the Teton Science Center. When hanging out with his kids, he’ll make comments such as, “What’s the shape of the stem? It’s square, so it must be part of the mint family.” I don’t have this knowledge, but I do have kids’ field guides to nature, books we’ve checked out at the library, and my smart phone. I can ask: “Tell me what caught your attention? I wonder what it eats (or what eats it)? Why do you think it lives here?” When my younger daughter dashes away from a bee and tells me about it later, I inform her that we need the bees to distribute pollen on the flowering trees.
Intentionality with Nature
This summer as my kindergartner has her first summer break and my preschooler has her last summer before full-time school, I want to intentionally be in nature with them, pondering the connections.
- I’ll involve my children in food more than eating it. Wirzba suggested this to me. Since we have a shady backyard and I have an aesthetically oriented husband who populates the front yard with flowers, we will be going to farmers’ markets, where my children can encounter the people who actually grow their food. We’ll visit the animals on their great uncles’ farms, which smell of hay and the stench of pigs. It means, as happened tonight, letting my four-year-old shove her hand into the raw ground beef I was shaping into patties and answering her question about “What is this?”
- We’ll get outside. Wirzba likes the word creation because we often associate the word nature with “wilderness,” a place where we may have a transcendent moment of beauty but then neglect the nature at our doorstep. For Dale and Ann, going outside seems unintentional, a way of life. Ann made it a goal one summer to visit one hundred local parks (including friends’ yards in her definition of parks). But if you’re like me and often have your head in a book and then raise it to realize your house is in disarray hours before your guests arrive, you may find it hard to remember to cross the threshold. Instead, I’ve been requiring my kids to go in the backyard on nice days, and once forced to, they play, asking me to come to see something, which generates conversations. Recently, we looked up an inchworm in a kids’ field guide on my phone, and I announce that not only will it be a moth, but that it is destructive to our trees. My kindergartner found a library book with a photo of it and deciphered the words herself on its ability to inch. (You’ll locate a spate of recent kids’ books on Amazon on the topic of “backyard ecology.”)
- We’ll visit a nature center. For the nature center, I may offer a loosely structured scavenger hunt (“find something white”) or prompt some nature art out of sticks, leaves, and rocks, but I want them to feel free to run, which is what my younger daughter loves best. The nature center nearest our house could be an opportunity to talk about how the trees are part of the water cycle for our rainfall or how the runoff from our lawn affects the connections among the flora and fauna at the center.
For the last decade, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods has spurred a revolution to turn kids from their screens to nature. The epigraph by Wendell Berry at the beginning of one section haunts me: “Our children no longer learn how to read the great Book of Nature from their own direct experience or how to interact creatively with the seasonal transformations of our planet. They seldom learn where their water comes from or where it goes. We no longer coordinate our human celebration with great liturgy of the heavens.”
Whether a fellow character in the grand story God is telling, a second book of his revelation, or a liturgy in a service that draws us to worship him in his glory, nature can spiritually form us.