I’m reading through essays that my students have submitted in response to the assignment to spend one hour in nature, undisturbed by phones or to-do lists. They write about the maelstroms of stimuli coursing through their over-busy minds. They write about memories that have surfaced: of times at home with parents, grandparents, or siblings, playing on the beach or hiking through forests. They make observations about trees, breezes, and the shouts of children in the distance. Some discern symbols in what they see: the trees that have grown apart, like a past relationship; the calmness of birds cooing, in stark contrast to their own anxious minds as they confront a job search.
I assign this essay every year, and every year I am moved by the longings that emerge in their writing. “Why don’t I do this more often?” they frequently ask. I share the science about how times in nature yield positive mental and physical effects. We talk about how unplugging from devices, even for a short time, can reduce anxiety and provide calm in a sea of busyness.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of his own experience in nature at this time of year: “Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty…” He pays attention to sheaves of grain gathered at harvest time and sees clouds coursing across the sky. He contemplates hillsides and lets his mind wander to the figure of Christ, so present in all this creation, because he has loved it into being. Hopkins states the paradox as he gazes across all this beauty, wondering why people don’t avail themselves of it every day:
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
This line stays with me, especially at this time of year, when in prayer I ask that God increase in me the desire to be a beholder. The Lord, in turn, returns me to the practices that the Lord has instilled in me since youth: of beholding, of remembering, of savoring, of delighting, and then returning, refreshed, to the world in all its complexity.