The rivers tell stories. Can you hear them? (Part Two)

The first part of this post is The rivers tell stories. Can you hear them? (Part One).

Some time last year or the year before, I dipped in and out of a book called Spiritual Ecology: the Cry of the Earth. It was a collection of essays and interviews, and I found it wildly inspiring. One of the pieces was an interview with someone named Sister Miriam MacGillis. I don’t know much about her. But I love what she said:

Typically the religious meanings we hold are still based on our separation from nature – the pursuit of God is equally separated from nature – and so they do not bring us to truly reverence nature. We don’t go out into our backyard and kneel down before the soil and know that we are in the face of sacred mystery.

She went on to say that Western religions, although they have explored the sacred in other realms, have never fully explored the spirituality of the natural world. And then she went on to say – and this is what has stayed with me and what I keep turning around in my mind – that if you see the Universe “as the process by which God created”, then the Universe becomes “a primary sacred scripture.”

Whether my view of God – which is vague and questioning and uncertain – matches hers, doesn’t matter to me right now (one of my only strong views about spirituality has always been the less certainty, the more openness, the better). What I’m holding on to is the idea of the Earth – in all its earthy beauty and messiness – as the primary sacred text. It captured my imagination. It fit beautifully into what I saw emerging for me in my own life. The sacred is here, not out there. Not a new idea – a very ancient one. One that bears revisiting.

I see that our responsibility, as humans, is to pay attention to the Earth with our whole selves: to read, to witness, to trace the connections between one being and another; to study each tree, plant, track, bird, insect; to connect the web of influences. It’s the closest thing to a spiritual creed that I’ve approached in the more than twenty years that I stopped identifying as Catholic, a part of me that lay fallow for most of those years. I’ve so long been cagey on the subject of belief, it’s like opening that proverbial kettle of fish. It’s where I am right now.

I see that part of reading the Earth is learning facts and information. Those are useful; they can be crucial. They are what accumulate from time spent immersed in the natural world, wherever we live. We need to see the details. We need our relationships to be grounded and specific. We need to know, practically, how we can steward the land. We need to know what animals live around us, what plants, what trees; what was here in the past and could be here again. We need to be in relationship. We can’t care for nature unless we know it intimately. We need to actually know what is here.

But I’m also learning that some reading I need to do with my heart. I read the text, but I want to read behind the text. I find that symbols and metaphors bring me into deeper relationships.

I don’t think looking for symbols is naïve or superstitious. Perhaps it can be, if it’s without context. But it can also offer another, very rich, layer of understanding.

Each animal I form a relationship with, each plant and tree, has a story to tell. When I see how they connect to my own story, my relationship with them deepens. If I repeatedly see deer and start to ask and read about what meaning deer could hold, I learn that one of the qualities people have traditionally connected with deer is gentleness. Not pushing, not forcing things. I find this reminder to have a lot of relevance to my life right now. I also see grace, awareness, finely tuned senses, speed, the ability to suddenly change direction. Can I develop these qualities in myself?


I sit with the images I uncover; my intuition pulls me towards the symbolism that has meaning for me. Discovering that meaning becomes part of my relationship with the deer, along with factual knowledge about their tracks, feeding patterns, mating behaviour, habitat. Along with what I know about deer in general and about the particular deer I encounter. Each creature is a mentor.

I’m finding that hearing the stories of the Earth means listening carefully for the metaphors. Being able to hear the stories in a personal way creates personal relationships. When we believe that everything around us has the potential to speak to us, to tell us a story and to become part of our story, we are held in a web of relationships and of responsibility. This is not human-centered narcissism; it’s the most ancient way of connecting to the Earth in all of its intricacy, one which all of our ancestors at one point or another shared.

To open myself up to the possibility of dialogue with everything in the world has been transformative for me. It has helped me fit different parts of my life together that previously seemed disconnected. It has helped me see that each of our stories holds a richness of meaning way beyond the human details of our lives. I has helped me know that I am never alone.

I live half way between two rivers. They are real and specific. They have a history; they are part of a watershed; their health or lack of it is an indicator of the health of their ecosystem; their health foretells our health.

And I live between other rivers, less tangible, and equally full of possibilities.

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