Harvesting Nature’s Wisdom for Listening and Leading
This reflection about harvesting nature’s wisdom began as a workshop presented at a conference for Spiritual Directors International in Toronto called “Into the Woods.”
Harvesting Nature’s Wisdom
Dependent upon screens and digital realities as we too often are, harvesting nature’s wisdom can remain remarkably out of the ordinary. Standing and walking in holy landscapes can deeply influence how we understand and exercise our roles as spiritual directors and leaders. When the pressures of leadership begin to make me feel disconnected and discouraged, for example, I have learned to return to the woods. There, on a small tree farm in Southeast Minnesota, I immerse myself in the interplay of soil, water, air and wildlife as it instructs me in the wisdom of God.
Role Models for Harvesting Nature’s Wisdom
Poets, writers and artists have long urged us to awaken to God’s presence made visible in creation. For our own good and for the benefit of others, those who lead and listen to others need to enter the woods and harvest nature’s wisdom found there. Therefore, we need a compass for reconnecting with nature and reflecting upon how that experience helps guide both our wellness and our exercise of leadership so that we can support others in finding healing and transforming connections through the natural world.
A good compass would:
- Identify the ways nature awakens their own physical and spiritual senses;
- Help us apply lessons gained from “a walk in the woods” to the demanding roles of listener and leader; and
- Identify resources and practices that would continue to help individuals and communities better engage the natural world for the sake of soul and society.
It would be hard for me to overstate the importance of being in the woods at this juncture in my personal and professional life. It is sanctuary, release, beauty, purpose, balance, challenge, and possibility. Although being custodian of a 10-acre tree farm introduces more, not less, complication into my life, it somehow provides the counter-balance to other areas of responsibility and ambiguity. And I am not alone in recognizing and being shaped by the practice of harvesting nature’s wisdom.
For all the complex dilemmas humans might create for themselves, internally or externally, a bird whistle, the sound of rushing water, the opening of young green bud can call us back home. In that light, we want to sink into that holy place, not only so that we can recognize the power of nature to usher a refreshing wisdom into our own lives, but so that we might also practice helping others discover the same.
Sounds from Five Landscapes
Take a moment to listen to this simple medley of sounds from five separate landscapes. Let yourself be escorted outdoors. Close your eyes, if you like. Notice where your attention goes and how your body responds.
Those were the sounds of the Sonoma Coastline in California, and then from Minnesota, the dawn chorus at Lake Phalen in St. Paul, the single call of a woodland Blue Jay (I think), the evening call of a Barred Owl, and the gurgling of the South Fork of the Root River. Rather than purchase or borrow sounds, I intentionally used imperfect, homemade recordings. You can do this. Grab your phone and record your own landscapes.
For reflection . . .
- Recall a natural place, as specific as you can get, that is holy to you. How does that special place help you harvest nature’s wisdom?
Five Lessons: Harvesting from Nature’s Wisdom
Wherever we find our sacred homes, nature awakens our attention and invites us to be harvesting nature’s wisdom and integrating it into our unique forms of leadership and service. As Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “Every farm woodland, in addition to yielding lumber, fuel, and posts, should provide its owner a liberal education. This crop of wisdom never fails, but it is not always harvested.”
Invest your body
Modern convenience has distanced us from living close to the earth. Whenever possible on the tree farm, we work with hand tools, not only to stretch and strengthen our bodies but to let ourselves hear all that surrounds us. Whether through manual labor or other forms of body work, participate in a full-bodied way with the rhythms of the earth.
Claim personal agency
Our tree farm is currently overrun by buckthorn, an invasive species choking out forests all over North America. It would be possible to get lost in blaming others. We might also say like some do, why bother fighting when it is so deeply established and no one else cares? I choose, however, to make some small impact because it teaches me how to keep making a difference in the world. Doing something to care of the planet embodies a set of values that I hope my children and my neighbors might someday express themselves. When we choose to claim our personal agency in “thorny” situations, we are living as faithfully as we can.
Attend to scale
The corollary to personal agency is that our human bodies have limitations. We must attend to scale. We all know the dilemma — as we pass through our days we see many more things that could be done than can be done. This is a beautiful challenge, in some ways, because it hones the muscles of discernment. Given the time and resources available to me today, what are the most faithful actions I could take? Who or what needs my undivided attention most at this particular moment
Think lifetime contribution
If the swift passing of a day were not humbling enough already, another lesson taught by our natural world is the real and beautiful acknowledgement of our short lifetimes within the longer passing of time. As Mary Oliver writes in her poem The Summer Day, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” I am beginning to look out over the tree farm and accept the place of my own lifetime within the long arc of this forest’s evolution. Should I live a healthy and active thirty years more, at best, my contribution will have been restoring the forest to a more natural state. A little corner in Southeast Minnesota will have been loved into better condition and, I hope, countless women, men, and children will have come to the woods seeking the quiet footsteps of God.
The last, and perhaps most important lesson to be harvested from the woods is the discipline of wonder. And I struggle to call it “discipline” because I want to speak of the mystical gifts and grace that we cannot create, summon, or capture. If there is any discipline to it, I mean the continuous opening of our hearts to be ready to receive. Or, if we should be caught off guard, to pause and soak in the moment as fully as we can. Sometimes the moment slips by too quickly and can only be recognized in hindsight. Then practicing wonder means attempting to stretch ourselves toward an expression of gratitude for beauty beyond our own making, for sunrises and sunsets that glow whether or not we are watching.
For reflection . . .
- Nature teaches us to invest our bodies, to claim personal agency, to attend to scale, to think lifetime contribution and to practice wonder. Of these five lessons, what touches you personally and what resonates most closely with your desire to serve others? If you like, let this recording of a morning birdsong play as you practice harvesting nature’s wisdom.
Five Principles for Guiding Others in Harvesting Nature’s Wisdom
Having explored how nature touches us personally and speaks wisdom into our own lives, the question becomes, how do we equip others to keep harvesting wisdom from nature? This information being useful within a session, when shaping a personal immersion experience, or when crafting a retreat with others.
Clarify the anchor points
One of the most essential elements of planning and design is to clarify the one or two most central concepts that ground the whole experience and against which every good opportunity is weighed. They help us make decisions in advance and, importantly, the spur of the moment. In spiritual direction and retreat settings, for example, I believe this to be part of establishing our mutual expectations for the relationships at the outset. It also suggests holding a sense of boundaries for the duration of the relationship.
Plan for flexibility
Clarifying the anchor points enable us to be strategically flexible. Those who work and play outdoors know that we must be ready for changes in weather, circumstances, and expectations. The impact of the unexpected can be lessened by some degree of preparation, but it is even more important for us as listeners and leaders prepare our hearts. Can we incorporate a degree of flexibility into our expectations and approach? Can we leave margins enough so that we can adjust (maybe even delight!) in the improvisation required of us?
Reflect upon the tangible
Master teachers excel at helping us learn the great mysteries through whatever is right under our noses. Listeners and leaders are like trackers, helping people kneel down in the mud to touch, measure, investigate the markings of an unknown animal. Or like bird watchers or naturalists who help others learn through experience to notice that bird and that sound and to name those treasures properly. Over time, the rigorous disciplines of reflecting through the senses become second nature, as well as a reliable form of interpreting both inner and outer landscapes.
Allow for genuine freedom
Those who designed the Coyote mentoring model (more below) recommend a ratio of 50/50 structured time to free time. Helping people find and practice open spaces in their lives allows them learn to create margins, to find rest, and to pay attention to where the Spirit is leading them. Children need room to play and adults need room to breathe. We all need to experience the world as it exists without the pressures of our own agendas and expectations. Such experiences help us cultivate inner freedom.
Keep bridging daily life
In addition to the being grounded in the immediate experience, expert guides and companions also keep bridging the lessons back to daily life. With reflection, what we see, hear, and feel in the great outdoors does bear insight for the inner worlds that accompany us wherever we go. During the outdoor experiences I lead, I like to weave in reflections about calling and practical purpose. Some might assume that entering the woods means they leave the world entirely behind. I find, however, that most discover that nature proves to be an interpretive lens for their experience more than a means of escape.
One Model for Harvesting Nature’s Wisdom: The Coyote Learning Cycle
As a means of making these principles practical, I recommend exploring the Coyote Mentoring Model, developed by the staff and partners of the Wilderness Awareness School near Seattle. These educators offer programs for youth and adults that foster, as they say, “understanding and appreciation of nature, community, and self.” They have also adapted what they have learned into resources for those who mentor others in harvesting nature’s wisdom. One resource is their Coyote mentoring guide. Among their many useful tools, what I find most useful for structuring experiences is the way they describe the cycle of learning:
Cycle of Learning
- Open and Close: rituals mark the beginning and endings of intentional space we are creating
- Inspire: the welcome offers a sense of renewal, possibility, and excitement
- Activate: the orientation equipes participants for the task ahead (for example, this may be learning to identify and remove buckthorn or to appreciate the basics of casting a fly rod)
- Focus: the core of full-bodied, experiential learning
- Take a Break: remember the importance of freedom, space in between, moments of transition
- Gather and Share: toward the end of the day/experience, bring people together and harvest from one another’s experience
- Reflect: what does this experience mean for me?
- Integrate: another kind of transition, resting in gratitude, absorbing what has been experienced, discovered, reflected upon
- Return for the Closing
This cycle of learning works well, whether it be in an extended retreat experience, or a short morning experience of harvesting nature’s wisdom. You may be designing experiences in nature for your peer group, hosting a family gathering, shaping a day alone in the quiet, or framing a retreat for others. I recommend you consider drawing on this cycle of engagement in some way.
For reflection . . .
Here is one last opportunity for reflection and integration. This time we will use another poem as an invitation to receive God’s wisdom for your listening and leading through nature. There are at least two ways you might approach this. As you reflect with the poem and begin integrating what you have been harvesting from nature’s wisdom, it may be as simple as this: What do you want to take with you today? This poem may sharpen your awareness to that bit of wisdom. You might also consider using the five principles we discussed to guide your reflection . . .
Anchor points: the natural world and your own spiritual grounding
Tangible: As you read this poem, what are your senses telling you?
Freedom: How is the poem inviting you to express your full-bodied attention? Does it make you want to breathe, doodle, journal, read aloud, memorize, or something else?
Flexibility: What is surprising you?
Bridging to daily life: What wisdom does the poem hold for you personally and as a listener/leader?
When the tide pulls back,
the shore does not weep,
does not act the spurned lover.
Instead, the shore smoothes her skirt
and lies back sleek and content.
When the tide returns,
she avoids reproach or complaint.
She draws him slowly, gently
to herself, a vagabond welcomed.
Pay attention to the shore, to the tides
as they embrace a rhythm of receiving,
of letting go without disappointment.
Dwell less on regret, on absence.
Follow where your spirit leads you.
Be still and at peace while you wait.
Discover how life finds its way
when we release our preconditions.
Victor Klimoski, A Month in Kilcar & Poems of Other Places
Copyright © 2013. Used with permission.
Other Resources for Harvesting Nature’s Wisdom
Experiences of the natural world are contagious. They usher us into embodied encounters with wonders beyond our own person. We can carry those lessons from natural landscapes into our unique forms of service. There are many good poets, leaders, and organizations who are inspiring others with their expressions of harvesting nature’s wisdom. The initial list below reflects some excellent examples I have encountered personally. Additionally, I have compiled an expanded list of role models and resources. The expanded list reflects the contributions of participants in 2017 Spiritual Directors International conference in Toronto. While I cannot endorse them all from personal experience, the the diversity of examples brings me great hope. Take some time to explore them and let your own hope and vision be renewed, as well. If you have other suggestions I might add, make your own suggestions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or commenting below.
Poets Harvesting Nature’s Wisdom
Tom Hennen. Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems. Copyright © 1997 by Tom Hennen. Used with the permission of Copper Canyon Press.
Victor Klimoski. A Month in Kilcar and Poems of Other Places. St. Paul: Prior Avenue Press, 2013.
Ted Kooser. Delights & Shadows. © 2004 by Ted Kooser. Used with the permission of Copper Canyon Press
Mary Oliver. New and Selected Poems. © 1990 by Mary Oliver. 20 copies used with permission from Beacon Press.
Berry, Wendell. A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1998.
Brueggemann, Walter. Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Whyte, David. The House of Belonging. Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 1997
Publications Harvesting Nature’s Wisdom
De Waal, Esther. The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Francis, Pope. Laudato si: On care for our common home. Our Sunday Visitor, 2015.
Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.
Lane, Belden. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballentine Books, 1949, 1966.
Olson, Sigurd. Listening Point. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958, 1986.
Orion Magazine: Nature, Culture, Place (https://orionmagazine.org/)
Some Organizations Harvesting Nature’s Wisdom (accessed 23 Feb 2017)
Eagle Bluff Nature Center (http://www.eagle-bluff.org/)
Everwood Farmstead (http://www.everwoodfarmstead.com/)
Farminary at Princeton Theological Seminary (http://farminary.ptsem.edu/)
Japanese Forest Bathing (https://www.facebook.com/worldeconomicforum/videos/10154303720471479/)
Minnesota & Iowa Conservation Corps (http://www.conservationcorps.org/)
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/index.html)
Trout Unlimited (http://www.tu.org/)
Wellspring Farm (http://www.wellspringsfarm.org/the-farm)
Wilderness Awareness School (https://wildernessawareness.org/)