Spirit of Nature

WindInWillowsThe Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic, was a book I first read during my doctoral studies. In the UK professors are likely to be able to cite A. A. Milne and the fictional bits of C. S. Lewis as well as the current academic stars. Of course I’m over-generalizing. In my experience, however, I met many wonderfully rounded professors and I tried, during my too-brief stint in academia, to emulate them. My wife recently read The Wind in the Willows to our college-aged daughter and me. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve had an accord for all our married life that I will wash dishes if she will read to me, and we have read well over a hundred books this way, from children’s titles to scholarly tomes. From my perspective, listening to a book read adds a layer of meaning to the text. The cadences, the intonations, and the editorial remarks all lend texture to the experience. I had quite forgotten, as it has been years since I’ve read the book myself, about the mysterious theophany in chapter 7, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”

In a passage that is almost overwritten for today’s youth, Rat and Mole, in search of Otter’s lost son, encounter Him out on the river. The language is reverent, and languid. The two animals come upon a horned deity who is not named, and fall in worship. The fact that he has pan-pipes makes Pan an obvious candidate, but the description also reminds me on this autumnal equinox of Cernunnos, the horned god. The spirit of nature. I feel myself trapped in a world of cubicles and drywall and money. Who wouldn’t fall at the feet of even a pagan deity offering release from such shackles? We have allowed ourselves to be trapped here. We have bought into the system that enslaves us. “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing than simply messing about in boats.” Rat is my preacher; I am his acolyte.

Nature reminds us that we are evolved creatures and that civilization comes at a great cost. I never feel so alive as when I’m walking in the woods. I don’t pretend that I could survive alone, but having a position that requires growing heavier at a desk day-by-day feels out of sync with what I grew these feet to do and these eyes to see. Manhattan is a wonder, to be sure, but it too comes at great cost. Nashotah House was not a problem-free place, by any stretch, but it was in the woods. The trails on and near campus could restore a soul in the way chapel could never nearly approximate. So it seems appropriate to slip The Wind in the Willows onto my bookshelf next to my Bible, and to slip outdoors for one last untrammeled moment of summer before autumn begins.


Author Neal Stephenson, inspired by fellow author George B. Dyson, built a baidarka a few years back. The baidarka, an Aleutian version of the sea kayak, was such a necessity of life among the Aleut that it was treated as a living being. Whenever I find myself at the same latitude and longitude as the baidarka Neal built, I like to take it out for a relatively safe lake voyage. I’m not much of a swimmer, and taking boats out on the big water always chills me before the water actually touches my skin, but this is a kind of ritual that I feel compelled to observe. It is a participation in the mythic world of the Aleut. As spiritual beings, kayaks were a necessary part of life for island dwellers. In their own way, I suppose, they are saviors.

Author and partner in the baidarka

Traveling by water, I find, is a spiritual experience that eschews scientific quantification. It is a feeling, not a measurable commodity. To quote the great sage Rat in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” We are born of water, mostly made of water, and ineluctably drawn to the water. Rachel Carson suggested in her classic, The Sea Around Us (always one of my favorite books), that having evolved from the sea we are forever yearning to get back to the sea. Water is life as much as blood is.

broken water

When water breaks by being forced into an unyielding shore or by being thrown over a cliff to become a waterfall, flinging refreshing spray into the air, its great energy is released. Although its flow may be interrupted it will break apart granite and basalt, literally moving mountains and carving coastlines. Water that is placid in the morning may be raging by the end of the day. Water is life, and if life is anything more than a metaphor no one has yet convinced me of it.