I read through essays my students submitted in response to the assignment of spending an hour outdoors, undisturbed by phones or to-do lists. They write about the vortex of stimuli that rush through their over-busy minds. You write about memories that have surfaced: of times at home with parents, grandparents or siblings, playing on the beach or hiking through the woods. They make observations of trees, breezes and children’s screams in the distance. Some recognize symbols in what they see: the trees that have grown apart, like a past relationship; the calm of cooing birds in stark contrast to their own fearful thoughts when facing a job hunt.
I award this essay every year, and every year I am moved by the yearnings that arise in your writing. “Why don’t I do this more often?” they often ask. I share the science of how times in nature have positive mental and physical effects. We talk about how unplugging devices, even for a short time, can relieve anxiety and calm you in a sea of hustle and bustle.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of his own experiences in nature at this time of the year: “Summer is ending now; now, barbaric in beauty… ”He pays attention to the grain stacks collected at harvest time and sees clouds moving across the sky. He looks at hills and lets his mind wander to the figure of Christ who is so present in all of creation because he loved her. Hopkins realizes the paradox as he looks over all this beauty and wonders why people don’t use it every day:
These things, these things were here and only the viewer
This line accompanies me, especially at this time of the year, when I pray in prayer that God will increase in me the desire to be a viewer. The Lord, in turn, leads me back to the practices that the Lord has instilled in me since my youth: looking, remembering, enjoying, rejoicing, and then returning refreshed to the world in all its complexity.