On nature

I: September

One Saturday, I went hiking with a friend in the forest just beyond the city. We walked for about ten kilometers, up and down hills and through swamps and along lakes, all of the time in forests of birches, the white trunks rising high above us and the leaves shimmering in the wind. It was that moment between late summer and early autumn, when the coolness and dampness have settled in but before the leaves have changed. Any man’s thoughts are apt to turn to higher things in such a place, and given that my friend is a Lutheran priest, I was not surprised that he wanted to talk about religion when we stopped for lunch. But I was surprised by how he started.

‘Of course, nature is very important to you Mormons.’

 

‘Is it?’ I asked, more out of curiosity than denial.

He had toured the temple during the open house and had been struck by the mural in one of the endowment rooms covering three walls, clearly representing the beauty of the natural world just outside of the temple: birch forests, rock outcroppings and the occasional native fauna. (I believe murals representing the local landscape are common in the small temple designs.) He said, ‘It must be wonderful to worship in such a room.’ I agreed that it was, although I was unsure about the actual role of the room in the temple worship. I assume it is meant to represent the tellestial world, or the world in which we now live — but it is green and lush, full of life and beautiful, with nary a thistle or thorn. If you add to that the nearly religious devotion of Finns to their forests and the products thereof, I imagine that for most people in that room, the mural represents more of an Eden than a vale of tears.

I explained that the creation of the world and an appreciation of the beauty of nature as a reflection of God’s grace is important within Mormonism, as it is in many varieties of modern Christianity. As I thought about it, the production values of the temple film (aside from the actual content) reinforce this concept implicitly. At the core of Mormon worship is a depiction of how beautiful our world is: yes, it is meant to represent the world before the fall, but it is our world, isn’t it? They didn’t film those sunsets on a Provo backlot.

In addition, I explained nature plays a significant role in Mormon history: many of the foundational events of the church occur in the forests of the Finger Lakes region of New York, with the Sacred Grove at the center. In historical hindsight, or perhaps as a doctrinal construct, the function of the natural space seems to be a placeholder of sorts for the temple, and indeed the visitations occur in the Kirtland Temple as soon as it is completed. Still, in the core of our religious experience is this sense that nature is the place to go to for religious insights, away from society and closer to God. If you believe Hugh Nibley, modern Mormonism seems to have walked away from that heritage; but for those interested in exploring the idea, it is very Mormon to see the natural world as an inherently spiritual space.

II: October

 

How I ended up in a swamp in central Finland with a rifle in my arms looking through a scope is a complicated story, but there I was, with the sole purpose of shooting a moose for the sole purpose of feeding my own and my extended family. And I did. I shot a moose and killed it. One minute it was moving and the next, because of what I did with my finger, it was lying on its side looking at nothing. I felt — well, it is difficult to explain. I felt close to the earth. I felt like an ur-man, like all of my trappings of civilization and education and individuality fell away from me and I was essentially involved in life and the death. I felt a desire to participate in a ritual that would mark my recognition that this was significant, not sporting or frivolous.

My hunting companion, a young man who spends most of his days in the forests, said a single word when I fired the shot — ‘Yes’ — and we approached the fallen animal in silence.I stood above this beast, astounding in both its size and its awkwardness, and we did nothing for a minute or two.

I recognized that the experience I had was somehow spiritual, but I find it difficult to articulate why. It has to do with the role death plays in the world. As a wise friend expressed, all life requires death, and we have largely forgotten it. By denying our access to death, we have also denied our access to life, to understanding the mechanism between the two, that the circle of life is a circle of death. For humanity, creation involves destruction. We are engaged in death every day as we eat and drive and build and live, but we try our best not to think about it.

I had been fooled by my own social delusions that life and death are opposites, and my experience with the moose reminded me that death in this world of suffering is not just a mistake or a by-product: it is part of the plan, something we need to confront and understand and prepare for, not something to hide from and whisper about. The absolute center of our faith and spirituality is the death of the Son of God. Death is overcome, but it is overcome through the experience of death itself. *

A few days later, after the carcass had been picked up for processing, we drove back to the city and I went to our ward’s temple day. I sat in the endowment room, watching my friends gathering there and looking around the walls, and there I saw a moose. Not a vision, but a moose painted into the mural. It brought it all together for me: this thing we do, whether it’s religion generally, Christianity or Mormonism more specifically,  is about figuring out what to do in this world — this beautiful world, where death is a straight fact — and finding order, finding beauty and finding eternity.

*If this sounds a little irrational, it is because even now, months later, I see the truth of this out of the corner of my eye, and when I try to look at it directly it escapes me.

Comments

  1. Extraordinary, Norbert.

  2. This goes down as my favorite Norbert post of all time. There is indeed a spritual element to the act of the hunt, the kill, and the bringing home of the meat to the family. It connects you the earth. Did you use a Saika rifle? What caliber? In Europe moose are elk….:)

  3. Nice one, Norb.

  4. #2 should be “Sako rifle”

  5. ByTheRules says:

    Hunting, especially when successful, does indeed keep death from being a feared stranger. The grander perspective it brings to the participants is difficult to articulate, but Nobert has done well.

    Q: So how old does an Elk have to be before it is a moose? ? ?

  6. Wonderful. I admire your abillity put this into words. Thank you.

  7. In Communist Russia, Elk moose you.

  8. BTW, great post.

  9. Loved this Norbert. I appreciate your reminding me that nature indeed plays a part of our spiritual heritage, a fact that is always eluding me, and mostly is forgotten.

    Today, for no particular reason whatsoever, I was thinking back to the time I had one of my first and powerfully testimony building experiences. I was in the woods (girls’ camp) and looking up at the night sky. I felt like I was looking into the universe and saw God.

  10. I want to write about how extraordinarily moving this post is. The previous trollish comment makes that difficult. [Editor: spam removed]

  11. A lovely reflection, Norbert. Thank you.

    I am reminded of two things:

    Earlier this year the art gallery contained in the cavernous three-story atrium of the Harris Fine Arts Center at BYU was dominated by an large and arresting piece. It consisted of a very long, white ramp, which slowly inclined just a few inches as in spread across the gallery floor. Near the high end of the ramp, in an unceremonious heap of white feathers, was a dead turkey. A real dead turkey. The piece caught a lot of ignorant “my kid could do that” snickers, but I found it terribly moving, and stopped to look at it nearly every time I passed by (several times a day). The artist (whose name, alas, I can’t find) explained that the turkey was the first animal he had ever killed, and that it was a deeply spiritual experience for him.

    The second thing I’m reminded of is an essay by Steven Snow in New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community (Gibbs Smith, 1997). Snow is a southern Utah native and a longtime environmental advocate. He’s now in the presidency of the Seventy. I’m unable to link to the pertinent pages, but one of the points of his essay is basically this: Utah, and to the corollary extent, Mormons, have inherited from our hardy pioneer ancestors a survival(ist) instinct that manifests itself in today’s relatively comfortable Mormon/Utah society as an aesthetic of usefulness that compels us to see the world the the lens of utility and efficiency rather than beauty–and thus to see the natural world first and foremost in terms of resources. (Thus the recent industry-funded push in the Utah legislature to make mining appreciation part of the core school curriculum).

    This is why I, too, would be surprised if someone turned to me in the middle of a scenic hike and said “Of course, nature is very important to you Mormons.”

  12. Even though I am a city girl all the way, nature has always played a very important role in my spirit over the years. Truth be told, I feel closer to God on a hike than in the temple almost every time. I’ve always struggled to articulate why I feel that way and found this to be a thought provoking and helpful exercise in thinking through my spiritual relationship with nature.

    I do think many Mormons tend do tend to think of nature in terms of utility and efficiency… as a tool to be used in helping the human race to fulfill God’s plan. But I’ve always viewed nature as much more mystical. Nature belongs to something bigger than ourselves, to God. To show reverence to nature is to show reverence to God.

  13. ” I see the truth of this out of the corner of my eye, and when I try to look at it directly it escapes me. ”

    Wonderful line. Truth is elusive.

  14. Norbert, so beautifully expressed and written. It is true that we have largely been disacquainted with the bond between life and death and how they depend on one another. Ecology is, in some ways, the study of how these two work together to create the wonderful planet we live on. When our food comes wrapped in plastic on a styrofoam tray we often forget a life was involved food. It is so nice to see this sort of reminder. And especially the spiritual aspects you draw out about nature. We are going to be reading this in my Religion and the Environment class.

  15. The account of Norbert in the temple reflecting on the moose makes me think of the cave paintings at Lascaux and other sites in France and Spain. Scholars struggle to make sense of the apparent connection between hunting and worship. Maybe we all need to go kill a moose once in awhile.

  16. 12: “Truth be told, I feel closer to God on a hike than in the temple almost every time.”

    That’s an interesting thought actually. If we look at the temple as representing the celestial kingdom, none of us are there yet. We’re all on that journey together, so naturally we’d often feel more at home in the tellestial world. I suppose the goal would be to realize the beauty in one, without losing site of the beauty of the other.

  17. What a lovely perspective, Norbert.

  18. This had a calming and peaceful feeling about it. I appreciate this.

  19. Norbert, thanks for this reflection. The connections between life and death, us and nature. Very nice.

    (BTW, I think murals in smaller temples are wonderful additions, but we don’t have any in ours in Detroit, Michigan.)

  20. I heard a wonderful talk many years ago that temples are actually a metaphor for mountains, the original holy places. I loved mountains and hiking before, but this made me appreciate them even more. Mountains, and trees, make you look up, an uplifting and yet humbling experience. The ‘Utah society aesthetic of usefulness’ distresses me, as does the belief that we are to subdue the earth, rather than exercise a stewardship over it.

  21. I know I’m very late on this one, but I really love the way you articulated these thoughts. I have felt some of these same things as I have hunted in the forest, but the words have escaped me, until I read this post. Thanks.

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