Learn to Like (IV)

More George Handley on Lowell Bennion:

Lessons from Doc: #4 Learn to like fields, trees, brooks, hiking, rowing, climbing hills.

This might have the appearance as one of the easiest, dare I say natural, aphorisms of Doc’s, since appreciation of this sort would appear easy to come by. I have never met a person who did not have at least a modicum of respect for natural beauty of some kind. So it is curious, then, that much rarer are those individuals whose attachment to beauty is deep enough to forge a lasting commitment to the health and wellbeing of their surroundings. I have said it before, but fierce affection for nature without due attention to its health and flourishing is akin to pornographic desire because it is more interested in gratification than service and sanctification.

That is merely to say that Doc holds us to a much higher standard than we might at first think. The truth is, it hasn’t exactly been easy over the course of human history to find beauty in ordinary nature. One look at the history of art is sufficient to realize that it wasn’t at least until the Renaissance that we began to see images of somewhat ordinary landscapes in paintings and as late as the early nineteenth century when we saw them finally unadorned by the whimsical imaginations of the artist or by the weight of mythology and history that art critics demanded of landscape paintings. In their long battle for supremacy with the poets, painters had convinced themselves that painting wasn’t a high art unless it was philosophy and it wasn’t philosophy if it didn’t embellish on reality. We spent the better part of Western history, in other words, believing that nature needed artistic enhancement to be beautiful. But once we finally began in earnest to let go of these pretensions, we found we were scarcely up to the task. The Impressionists alone are proof that reality is inexhaustible and inexhaustibly beautiful. We now know, or at least we should, that we are always playing catch up to the wonder of this world.

Doc is not describing exotic locales, the likes of which we might see on a cruise or an excursion, but the simple and mundane places that most immediately surround us. If you have seen the film, “The Tree of Life,” then you know what kind of deeper perception of beauty is required in order to imagine that the trees of one’s childhood or neighborhood—in the case of the film the trees of Waco, Texas—could be seen as the trees of eternal life, or at least as portals into heaven. The film so lovingly passes through, passes by, and passes underneath these trees while sacred music plays, one feels that it is a wonder that we don’t all drop what we are doing and stare. One telling phrase from the LDS account of the creation should haunt us: “And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. And it became also a living soul” (Moses 3:9). Aesthetic value is primary here. Sure, we are told that Adam and Eve discover that trees are useful for food, for fuel, and for shelter (and we now know they are central players in the regulation of the climate), but they are first and foremost something wonderful to behold. This is their gift and our privilege. True too, of course, of the fields and brooks of which Doc speaks. Elegant in their simplicity, strange in their familiarity, spiritual in their physicality, the earth and its many forms challenge us to find language, culture, and lifeways adequate to the mystery of what it means to be alive in the body.

In 2004, a colleague and I interviewed the novelist, Marilynne Robinson, and at one point, almost improvising on the spot, she dropped this gem:

It seems to me as if every local landscape is a version of the cosmic mystery, that it is very strange that we’re here, and that it is very strange that we are what we are.  In a certain sense the mystery of the physical reality of the human being is expressed in any individual case by the mystery of a present landscape. The landscape is ours in the sense that it is the landscape that we query. So, we’re created in the fact of ourselves answering to a particular sense of amazement…. One of the ways that they have of hiding from human reality is to create artificial environments. Look at people from Babylon forward; when people have power they create an artificial environment around themselves that can suggest to them that they’re immune from the consequences of being mortal. And palaces, all these things, are monuments to this impulse…. to the point [now] that we have no idea where we are by looking at what surrounds us.

Much here to consider, but I would highlight one notion in particular. She says that we are “created” in the act of “answering to a particular sense of amazement.” This astonishment, in other words, is what makes us human. If no success can compensate for failure in the home, I am tempted to say that neither can any success indoors compensate for a failure to be amazed at what lies outdoors. Why is this? Just ask Job. For one thing, such amazement places us in proper perspective. As I have written here and there, like Job and Moses we can really only understand our significance as a kind of nothingness. Once we understand ourselves as interdependent not only with each other but with all of life, as part of something much grander, much more complex and vast and diverse than our puny human interests, we begin to comprehend how strange and unnecessary beauty really is, as strange and as unnecessary as love or grace or forgiveness and mercy. And when we see them unnecessary but nevertheless real, we see them as gifts of a Giver. Such awareness most meaningfully begins in a home landscape.

A word about recreation is needed here too. Doc doesn’t mention ATVs, boats, or cruise ships. He had lived to see the explosion of interest in recreation that began after World War II and that hasn’t stopped in its many commercialized advancements. We are all seeking our paradise on earth, only now instead of working for it, we want to buy it or mechanize our relationship to it. 50 years ago the average visit to the Grand Canyon was two weeks. Now it is closer to two hours. As I intended to thematize in Home Waters, recreation and affection for nature are no panacea for the environmental problems we face. As Wallace Stegner made clear, we can love a place and still be dangerous to it, and this is due in no small measure to our method of relying on wasteful technologies instead of on our own bodies. (It doesn’t help that we now know too that the small engines that propel most recreational machines are exponentially more wasteful and damaging to the environment than larger engines, making an hour of use in many cases the equivalent of using a full tank of gas in an automobile.) Yet again Doc suggests that we would do well if we could learn to simplify the way we enjoy nature. Being physically present in it—walking, hiking, rowing—makes our bodies work to earn our reward of coming closer to the earth’s allure and teaches us something of the rhythms of a place.

In the end, superficial exposure to nature, as if at a diorama, doesn’t captivate us enough to change our rushed and mechanized lives and inspire better care of the world. I don’t mean to sound redundant, but it was at Doc’s Boys Ranch in Teton Valley at the age of 12 when I really entered my embodied existence and discovered the value of physical work and of physical recreation. I discovered that the gift of embodiment, the gracious gift of life itself, gave me the unique privilege and responsibility to serve, build, care for, and experience the world. Not much else seemed to matter, and not much else matters still.


  1. Antonio Parr says:

    I know that you are not getting much by way of comments for your Lowell Bennion posts. However, I am reading every one, and am enriched by Handley’s observations/mediations. Just fantastic.

  2. Thanks, Antonio. I am really enjoying revisiting and thinking more about Lowell’s ideas. I am stunned, though not surprised, at how relevant they still are.

  3. I have been transformed over the years that I have lived in Hawaii– for the reasons that you explain. The amazement was lost on me in the beginning. I was simply not reared to be amazed at nature and I longed for the beauty of a home outside of the poverty from my childhood in Southern New Mexico. Now I don’t live in Hawaii full time, but am lucky enough to have three homes here, so I visit often and come here to work feverishly in order to maintain them. But the entire time of working on them is (with the exception of how much I loathe going to hardware stores) almost a zen like experience. I love to be outside and work on the land and cultivate, yet maintain the indigenous nature around me. I’ve learned what it wants from me and I am here to provide my meager little assistance.

  4. Oh, my. :)

  5. Elegant in their simplicity, strange in their familiarity, spiritual in their physicality, the earth and its many forms challenge us to find language, culture, and lifeways adequate to the mystery of what it means to be alive in the body….In the end, superficial exposure to nature, as if at a diorama, doesn’t captivate us enough to change our rushed and mechanized lives and inspire better care of the world.

    A beautiful invocation of the deeper meaning of Bennion’s wise counsel, George, and the connection of this invocation to Marilynne Robinson’s (and then Wallace Stegner’s) observations makes it that much stronger. This is a great call to rethink what it is we love. Wendell Berry can be fit in here too–all of it revolving around the idea that our embodiment, our humanity, finds its fullness in a simple relationship of appreciation and husbandry (responsible labor I suppose we might call it) with the natural world. Bravo!

  6. I just want to echo what Antonio said. I’m not commenting much on these posts – mostly because all that comes to mind generally is amazed appreciation.

  7. Meldrum the Less says:

    Last week I was visiting relatives in Utah, sitting in church and directly behind the podium was a floor-to-ceiling window framing the mighty snow capped Wasatch range. As the same old dry talks droned on with only a few morsels of dubious doctrine to keep me awake, I longed to be up there in the mountains hiking with my scouts back home in Georgia, an impossible dream. I realized the two largest competing religions in the area are the scrubbed and primped Mormons gathered in droves to the churches that seem to dot almost every block and the scruffy nature lovers who were scampering out of the settlements and into the mountains with their wine and cheese like a pack of rats leaving a sinking ship.

    How does one balance these two strong impulses pulling (me anyway) in opposite directions every Sunday morning? Am I that far out of line when I take non-LDS scouts camping Friday to Sunday in the Appalachians about 6 to 8 times a year?

  8. I don’t know if this is useful, but my own feeling about competing demands to be in church or in the outdoors is that it is probably a false choice. It would be an unfortunate mistake to make anyone feel badly about having spiritual experiences in the outdoors. That would seem to contradict the moment at which the Restoration begins in a grove of trees. At the same time, it would be an unfortunate mistake to always pit going to church against the allure of a good hike. I like reading secular books and I like reading the scriptures. Both are enjoyable, and while there might be scenarios where they are pitted against each other in direct competition, I am a lot happier having my scriptures and my novels too if I don’t think of them in competition but rather as complimentary enjoyments. It simply is a matter of compartmentalizing a bit. I don’t recreate on Sundays as a rule, and I am a lot happier in church if I am not thinking about other pleasures I might be pursuing. If I could fault outdoor recreation for anything, it would be that it doesn’t teach me to leave myself and to serve in the same way as the chance to rub shoulders with my fellow saints, nor does it instruct in the same way. To make church worship work takes a lot of effort and discipline and thinking about and working with the ward family. I suppose it is true that the worst day at church can’t compete with the best hike, and who knows, for that matter, when that precious Sunday is going to come that refreshes everything? I guess all I am saying is that it shouldn’t be a competition. I like to think that the more I nurture my church life and develop the discipline of Christianity, the more I will get out of being in the outdoors (or out of reading novels and eating good food, and everything else in life, for that matter). I don’t know if that helps, but those are my two cents.

  9. Meldrum the Less says:

    “it shouldn’t be a competition”

    George, thank you for your thoughts. They are what I was looking for when I posed the question and would appreciate more responses if anyone else has anything to add. I concur completely in principle and in a perfect ideal world I would be in total agreement with you.

    Consider my reality:

    -A big strong active boy for a son who doesn’t like athletics and loves camping and hiking. (Originally I didn’t.)
    -Residence an large city with horrible traffic due to poor career choices,
    where one must begin driving at 3:00 pm to get to the mountains before dark.
    -Strict truancy laws in a state not known for educational excellence (Georgia #49, thank God for Mississippi)
    making it risky pulling kids out of public schools to go to the mountains.
    -Low commitment to scouting in local LDS congregation. Rare expeditions. Few boys with little interest.
    -No fellow ward members who share my love for nature and have any inclination for such.
    -Excellent scout troops in the community,
    that have found by long experience camping from Saturday morning over Sunday afternoon works better.
    -Reluctance of many parents to be cold, hungry, tired, bitten, dirty, lost, etc. and grateful to those who will tolerate it.
    -Experience seeing scouting change the lives of dozens of boys. No parallel personal experience at church.
    -The usual personal tendency towards inertia from normal competing demands of life
    where half a year can slip by between trips to the mountains if left to my own devices.

    Already I miss church about 33% of the time due to work from which I can’t weasel out. Over the years the ward has grown less flexible resulting in fewer callings for part-timers like me. My inclinations seem to justify my absence in church one more time a month to take non-LDS teenage boys camping. it doesn’t feel like I am accomplishing anything when I am in church. The draw to the outdoors and the chance to influence the boys is so much stronger.

    Perhaps it really is a false choice and I experience both. I have long suspected that the best of the 20 minute devotional services led by the boys in the woods is more effective in bending the course of their lives towards God and towards goodness than an average year of the 3 hour block program. Unforgettable and invaluable is when your own generally nonverbal 16 year old gives the best Sunday sermon you will hear in an entire year to 20 other boys beside the trail.

    The natural world is not a friendly place beneath the surface. (Bad weather, boy almost died from heat and asthma, near drowning, young boys lost in the woods, criminal activity resulting in boys going to jail instead of home, etc.) I have experienced this much and more. But I am invaribly overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and feel closer to God outdoors than at church. For me it is not a matter of the worst day at church not competing with a good hike. Quite the opposite!

    The very best day at church doesn’t compete with the worst expedition into God’s cathedrals of trees and mountains. I agree that it requires an enormous amount of effort and discipline to make church worship work. Perhaps the same could be said of worship in nature; all the packing and unpacking and cleaning and fixing and planning and the physical exertion involved. Except this all seems to come naturally to me now and it doesn’t feel like much effort at all. Sitting bored in church doing nothing with my mind in neutral feels more like work or rather make-work than all of this.

    I suppose every church sluffer has his or her own many excuses and they seem good to them. Nature does compete with church and is winning in my case.

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