Engaging With Spirit: Awesome Awe

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Awe is more than an emotion. It is a way of understanding, an insight into a meaning greater than ourselves….Awe is the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.  (Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Who is Man?” 1969)

A man stared into a canyon and felt one with everything….

A woman stood between two trees and flashed on the interdependence of all of nature….

A horse trainer walked into a forest and entered a parallel universe….

These were not substance-induced perceptions. These were not spirituality workshop assignments or planned outdoor events. These were spontaneous, fleeting moments of spiritual engagement with nature, triggered by a sense of awe.

Why awe?

Because awe is awesome. Awe is an emotion that resides in us all, dormant, on call for those moments when we behold something in nature’s spirit that invites us in. Awe connects us to our unconscious knowledge of being part of something larger than ourselves, gives us the opportunity to transcend our everyday world and connect spiritually.

Heschel describes awe as the sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the worldAwe allows us to transcend our current frames of reference. Awe triggers transcendence.

Transcendent experience, the kind sparked by nature, involves momentary feelings of appreciation for beauty, a sense of unity with nature, God or the universe, and peacefulness. During a transcendent event we feel diminished.  Our sense of self fades away in what author Jordan Rosenfeld describes as a temporary blurring at the edges.

It’s beyond our capacity to fully grasp what loss of self means. But science now has the technology to probe the brain and, although the answers to what and why are still elusive, at least research is beginning to answer the question of how self-disappearance might occur.

There is some evidence to suggest that areas of the parietal lobe, those which affect our spatial sense, may be involved in the awe experience. Images of the brain show that during intense transcendent episodes there is decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, leaving the brain incapable of separating the self from the surrounding environment. This might contribute to our sense of self-loss and to the blurring of the boundaries between self and other things in the world.

It’s no wonder that such an experience can elicit fear in us; we earthbound creatures, comfortable in knowing who we are and where we exist in space.

But take heart. There may be a good-news point to all of this. Experiencing our smallness through awe may make us better people.

Psychologist Paul Piff and associates conducted a series of experiments designed to test the hypothesis that experience of awe would trigger a sense of small self that would, in turn, lead to greater prosocial behavior – that is, voluntary behavior intended to benefit another person, such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering.

In one of the studies, after having gazed at 200-foot eucalyptus trees for one minute, students reported feeling less self-centered and exhibited greater generosity when given an opportunity to help another person. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, the researchers concluded, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.

So, here we are. We are spiritual beings.  We have the capacity for transcendence. What now?

In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words: Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.




Engaging With Spirit

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

This is not simple, venturing into the obscure, formless realm of spirit. So, for comfort’s sake, I’ll ease in with a definition.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines spirit as an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms – a.k.a., nature. Based on that definition, and recognizing that we are part of the natural world, one way to think of spirituality might be as the human capacity to engage with nature’s life force, its spirit.

To take it a step further, what does it mean to engage? If spirit is what gives nature life, and if spirit resides in us as well, then to engage implies a joining together, a merging, of our spirit with nature’s spirit. In other words, through spiritual engagement we experience our oneness with nature, and we experience this in what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke calls indescribably swift, deep, timeless moments.

It’s no surprise, then, that at such times we might be driven beyond the physical into other-worldly places. A woman is urged by nature to reach out and hug a mountain. A kayaker achieves instinctive understanding with a loon. A horse trainer enters a different dimension where he exists in a state of heightened awareness. The mountain tells a 4-wheel driver he’s where he belongs.

It’s as if at those times, in moments of spiritual connection, people willingly relinquish the rational and take part in their altered reality.

And here is where we touch on one of the most intriguing – and at times, one of the most challenging – aspects of engaging with nature’s spirit; contending with the emotions that well up inside and the feelings attached to those emotions.

As we saw in Iris’ story, the feelings can be difficult. Iris did not negate her spiritual experience. She recognized and accepted her emotions of awe and humility and the appreciation of the beautiful connection between animals and plants. But the amorphous feelings about her spiritual experience made her uncomfortable.

This makes a lot of sense. These feelings can be disorienting, scary. Like having the rug pulled out from under you.

Dr. Lisa M. Christie, adjunct lecturer in the Women’s Spirituality Program at the California Institute for Integral Studies, explained that some people have difficulty integrating mystical experiences into their lives because these experiences can radically shift our understanding of the nature of ourselves and our world. This feeling of disorientation can be frightening.

Further, because these experiences are often discounted in Western culture, people who have them sometimes doubt their  own sanity.   Or they may be censured by friends or relatives.

People can become more comfortable with this kind of experience, with this different sense of ourselves, said Christie. It takes time. It requires a shift from seeing oneself as separate in the world to being part of everything. Connected.

And then there is beauty, a physical aspect of nature that touches us deeply. We marvel at her loveliness, her majesty. When we behold something in nature we consider beautiful, however, our spirit can be stirred beyond an appreciation for the physical.

Marine biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber refers to beauty as aliveness felt.

Nature is about beauty, according to Weber, because beauty is our way to experience aliveness as inwardness. Those awe-inspiring, wow moments that seize us in the face of something beautiful tell us we are alive, engage us with all of life, with spirit.

This reminds me of a story told to me by a backpacker friend. She arrived at dusk at her campsite after a day of hiking. After setting up her tent she went and sat at the edge of the canyon at the periphery of the campsite. The sun was setting behind her. Suddenly, a ribbon of color lined up along the crest of the mountain across the canyon. Like a rainbow lying down, resting in the waning day, is how she described it. As she sat there, a sense of awe washed over her, then utter peace. She needed nothing.  She wanted nothing.  It was a perfect moment.

The words of psychiatrist Carl Jung captures the essence of the backpacker’s experience: One looks out and surrenders all self-importance.

Although there is much in nature that engages our spirit with its beauty, the stars, by offering us a peek into the expanse of the universe, stand out as instigators of spirituality. After all, who can gaze into the heavens and contemplate the universe without feeling some measure of awe and wonder, and for some, connection?

When a man stares at the stars, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1831, he becomes aware of his separateness from the material world.

To end the discussion of beauty in nature, and this post, I have chosen to reproduce here the blog post, Nature’s Beauty, written by Robert Folzenlogen, May 15, 2009.

I believe this offers an interesting and expansive perspective on nature’s beauty, one that I wanted to share with you.

Nature’s Beauty

For most humans, the beauty of nature is represented by spectacular sunsets, magnificent vistas, colorful foliage and graceful wildlife. But her true beauty lies in her diversity and in both the interrelationship and interdependence of her physical forces, chemical processes, biologic systems and countless life forms. Nature is both evolution and extinction, life and death, growth and decay. She is a mosaic of heat and cold, light and darkness, fragility and awesome power. Nature offers sunshine and hurricanes, swans and maggots, rain forests and pond scum, whales and bacteria, distant galaxies and the molecules of life. Nature is neither good nor bad, benevolent nor judgmental, sentimental nor discriminatory. We enjoy her gifts and are subject to her whims. We are, after all, a component of her beauty, just like the golden eagle and the dung beetle.


Reflecting on Spirituality

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

A woman – we’ll call her Iris – stands between two bristlecone pines and flashes back on an elementary school lesson about the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. As she stands there she feels a connection to the trees and to all of life.

Could  Iris’ experience be described as spiritual?

The following are the comments Iris made as she attempted to answer that question for herself.

There was something about standing on the path between those two trees, and I just felt a connection, but it was a connection I hadn’t thought about since I learned about it in grade school. I thought about how the trees give off oxygen, which we take in, and we give off carbon dioxide, which they take in.

And I thought about the relationship between animals and plants, our beautiful connection to each other, that we need each other, that we’re all part of the same living organism. I don’t know if that was spiritual, that feeling of connection to everything in life. I felt it at that moment. But, maybe it was.

I would think spirituality can be a connection to something bigger than ourselves. When I stood there with a tree on either side of me and I was in the middle, what I felt was a smallness.

I’m just a speck in a big universe. You feel that you are here for a small period of time, passing through.  But those mountains and those trees are going to be here a long time.  I was humbled, not frightened.  It gives you some perspective.

The bristlecone pine are not lofty and not magnificent, not like the redwoods and sequoias. They are small and gnarled. But they are survivors, 5000 years. Think about what was happening in the world 5000 years ago. Europeans were probably still living in caves. It was before Judaism. Around the time the Egyptian pyramids were built.

And yet, a spiritual experience might be as simple as looking at the stars at night, or it could be walking through a field of wildflowers. Moments like that, awe-inspiring, wow moments. I guess a wow moment can be an appreciation of the beauty of the moment. But do I see that as a part of a big connection to God? No. You could probably be an atheist and feel the spiritual connection to nature.

I’m such a practical person, that I kind of don’t want to deal with spirituality. The feelings are too amorphous.  It’s the unknown, and spirituality has a sense of the unknown.  It could be comforting for someone actually seeking it, but for me it’s uncomfortable.

Beauty. Emotion. Connection. The unknown. God. Iris has touched  upon many of the elements we associate with spirituality. Her statement gives us a kind of blueprint for considering the topic.

Next week’s post, It is. It isn’t. Maybe It Iswill explore the role of beauty and emotion in connection with the spiritual experience. 



Intuition: The Sixth Sense

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Intuition. How does one begin to understand something that can’t be seen, touched, tasted, smelled or heard, something that eludes those basic senses that anchor us and help make our world comprehensible? What exactly does it mean when intuition is described as an unconscious sense of knowing or a clear conception of the whole?

It is probably beyond our ability to comprehend. It is not reasonable. It does not lend itself to rational approaches to understanding.

Yet, we know intuition exists. We feel it in our gut. We infer it from observation and evidence.  Intuitive knowledge results in the familiar ‘aha moment’; in the experience of thinking or dreaming of someone who calls the next day; in the I-knew-that-was-going-to-happen event.

Intuition also offers a gateway to our primal selves and helps us preserve our unity with all of the natural world. When modern life threatens to sever us from nature, intuition lets us know and sends us out for a walk in the woods, or compels us to hug our cat, or to stop in our path and gaze into a star-studded sky.

Intuition exists in us all, although some of us are more in touch with our intuitive selves than others. Intuitive awareness becomes available to us when logic falters and objective life is not enough.

With intuition, however, we are challenged to leave the comfort of concrete experience. Our intuitive understanding does not come through reason and judgement, as happens in our conscious life. The understanding comes through knowing we know, but not necessarily knowing how we came to know. In making decisions based on our intuition, we rely on an internal communication system that accepts the absence of logic and reason.

It boils down to our conceding to the idea that we have unconscious and subconscious abilities that allow us to sense everything in our surroundings all at once. Leading us to solutions and actions.

Although the neural pathways associated with our five basic senses have been well documented, researchers are still unclear about where intuitive perception – commonly referred to as the sixth sense – resides in the brain. Researchers are attempting to understand intuition and to pinpoint the regions in the brain that contribute to intuitive experience.

Other research is attempting to understand the decision-making aspects of intuition. Scientists are trying to identify the intuitive decision-making processes that result in the ability to recognize and act on intuitive information, without intentional and conscious analysis.

An interesting four-year study, which began in 2012 by the Office of Naval Research, was undertaken as a result of a steady stream of anecdotal reports of marines and soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan who, in combat, had developed a feeling or a hunch that alerted them to possible attack or the presence of a hidden I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device). Dubbed, the spidey sense, after the mysterious perception and intuitive power of Spiderman, this ‘sense’ about the dangers they were facing while in combat allowed them to trust what they knew and to respond without conscious analysis.

In the course of analyzing their data, researchers identified two types of individuals who exhibited greater ability to detect hidden I.E.D.s and who were more alert to the danger around them: 1) Those who either had been raised in rural areas in a natural environment and who had experience with hunting, and 2) those who had grown up in tough urban settings.

This raises many questions about the relationship between intuition, prior knowledge and experience. But I’ll leave that for someone else to ponder.

What is of interest here is this truly human phenomenon called intuition, which expands our possibilities beyond what we experience in the objective world and which keeps us connected to the wild.






Trophy Hunting: Take 2

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Did it ever occur to you that outdoor recreation in all its iterations could be considered a form of trophy hunting?

Take as an example, bird-watching. To spend a day bird-watching all you probably need to do is throw some snacks and water into a backpack, grab your binoculars, and head into the woods.

However, as researcher David Cole points out in his review of the wilderness experience, it is more likely that you would plan your adventure and set goals. You would probably pack your birder’s guide along with your binoculars and your camera with a zoom lens. You might challenge yourself to spot a new bird. Or identify a new call.

It’s great fun, planning and gathering the paraphernalia, reading the maps, setting goals and anticipating their success. According to Cole, it’s also motivating. It shapes your experience and gives it purpose. Pursuing goals challenges your skills and your creativity and brings much joy. As such, the quality of the experience is greatly enhanced.

So what is the trophy when it’s not a tangible something? What do you bring home?

As a birder, you bring home your story that you share with fellow birders. You bring home an item to post in your birding journal. And, if you’re lucky, you bring home a photograph.  These are your ‘certificates’ that say – in Aldo Leopold’s words – its owner has been somewhere and done something – that he has exercised skill, persistence, or discrimination in the age-old feat of overcoming, outwitting, or reducing-to-possession.

Trophies gained through recreation in the wild can come at a price, however. The loss of a rare living creature. The degradation of objects removed as specimens of interest. The integrity of a meadow when the trophy is mud.

For the recreationist, even in such eco-friendly pursuits as birding, hiking and photography, the price can be the loss of a sense of oneness with the natural world. Feelings of connection could lay dormant, buried under the layers of gadgets and goals and hoped-for triumphs, where nature becomes merely an arena for personal pursuits and pleasure.

So, how can we sustain our awareness of our fundamental kinship with the natural world when our lives are full of demands on our time, when we are by nature innovative, creative and energetic beings?

Through our senses….

  • A horse trainer looks into the eyes of his horses and receives permission to begin his training.
  • A 4-wheel driver gets out of his truck and stands on the shore of a mountain lake and knows he’s where he belongs.
  • A woman reaches out to hug a mountain because that’s what nature makes you do.
  • A hiker gazes into a valley and feels being one with everything
  • We look into the eyes of a pond turtle and we worry for her safety.

Watching. Looking. Paying attention. We take that first step and tumble headlong into the horse trainer’s parallel universe of heightened awareness and consciousness. We achieve instinctive understanding, oneness, and belonging. We are awestruck by the beauty. We exhibit empathy.

Once such seeing is achieved, the challenge is to hold on to the connection; watching more, looking further, paying more attention, going deeper into the gift of sight, perhaps exploiting the depth perception and peripheral vision that give us the ability to take in our entire surroundings.

In her memoir, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard devoted an entire chapter to ‘seeing’.

Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair. A fish flashes, then dissolves in the water before my eyes like so much salt; deer apparently ascend bodily into heaven; the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration…..there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied…..When I see this way I see truly.

And what of our other senses? From early childhood we learn that we have five: sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing. And we carry that bit of information into adulthood. We talk about using our senses in the wilderness to slow down and smell the roses, to identify birds by their sounds, to search for wildflowers, and stop and feel the wind.

Sensing in the wild in a connected way, however, is not about achieving serenity or slowing down. It’s not about enjoyment or about collecting.  It’s about increased awareness.

John Muir, in his essay A Wind Storm in the Forest, talks of seeing the winds, which become at times about as visible as flowing water.

For the 4-wheel driver, using his senses in the wild is about survival, kill or be killed.

When I’m out there, my primal instincts kick in so that I can hear a twig crack in one direction and know it came from over there, or I notice something doesn’t fit in, it’s the wrong color, or that something is giving off a particular smell. It’s my sight and hearing, my ability to smell, these all work together the way they were meant to.

In her article, Finding My Wilderness Self, hunter Robyn Miglorian describes  how, in the process of learning to hunt for her meat, her senses became sharper and tuned into what she describes as the chorus of life of the wilderness.

The goal was to see before being seen and to hear before being heard. The pursuit of game required a complete mental and sensory recalibration. For the first time in my life, I had to actually tune in to the living, breathing wild. I had to embrace the silence that I feared.

Over time, the silence and stillness gradually morphed from a chore, to a routine, to a way of existing. On a bowhunt for deer this September, six quail waltzed by within ten feet of me as I stood like a statue in the pre-dawn dimness. During a mid-afternoon glassing session [using her binoculars or her scope], I entered into a five-minute staring contest with a hyper-vigilant doe while her two fawns milled about feeding. In these moments I felt like more of an intimate member of the desert wilderness than I ever have before.

For me, becoming a hunter meant quietly embracing the chorus of life in the wilderness – what I had before perceived as uncomfortable silence – and gleaning as much information from it as possible. In doing so, I am developing an integrated sense of belonging in the backcountry and seeing what it means to be human-as-predator. I am finding my wilderness self.

The Trophies in Trophy Hunting

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Disclaimer: My impressions about trophy hunters expressed in this post are based on two articles that crossed my path, both on the same day.

One was the story of a young woman who tracked and killed a bighorn sheep. The article appeared in the 2013 Sheep Issue of Eastman’s Hunting Journal, which I randomly picked up from a pile of magazines while I sat and waited to have my hair cut.

The other article, entitled What Kind of Person Trophy Hunts? (It’s Not What You Think) was cited in the online newsletter, Nature’s Tangled Web, Musings October 13, 2017, which I receive through email.

Prior to reading these articles, I had never read anything about trophy hunting and had never thought about it much, either.

However, I have always been aware of the revulsion and the pity, the incredulity and anger I experience whenever I am confronted with a wildlife trophy hanging on a wall.  And the bafflement. What would make someone want to do that?  I wanted to understand what makes a trophy hunter tick.  I wanted the trophy hunter to understand me.

To my surprise, as I leafed through the Eastman magazine, viewing photos of hunters posing with their bighorn ram kills brought on the same intensity of emotion as any trophy animal displayed on a wall. I was saddened to look into their innocent soft eyes. Awed by the massive curved horns adorning their delicately shaped heads.

Considering the implausibility of both articles appearing out of the blue on the same day, and the more improbable idea that I would have actually read them, I felt the decision to write about trophy hunting had already been made for me.

As a result of having read the articles, however, one thing became quite clear; I would never be able to understand – or be understood by – a trophy hunter. We simply do not live in the same universe.

So my disclaimer is this: What follows are my impressions of what makes the trophy hunter tick, as filtered through the framework of my universe. In other words, this is my opinion.


When it comes to connection with nature, the hunt for a trophy is a one-way street. The hunter cannot relate to the animal she has in her sights, except as the object of her quest.

If for one moment she were to look beyond the thrill of the hunt and joined with the animal as a soulmate in nature, she might enter Terry Tempest Williams’ world of shared experience and find herself at the threshold of empathy. She would be in danger of touching on compassion and love for the animal, bringing on the ethical dilemma of killing it.

The trophy hunter in the story I read protected herself from such connection by staying completely focused on the job at hand. Advice, like that which she received from a veteran hunter to Shoot the ram you like. Shoot the ram you want to look at for the rest of your life, inspired her and helped increase her determination.  She stayed invested in the task as a life-altering experience, similar to climbing to the top of El Capitan for the first time or saying I do at the altar.

The trophy hunter is also protected from confronting the reality of what researcher and author Marc Bekoff calls gratuitous killing of sentient beings with rich and deep cognitive and emotional lives and capacities by excluding specific references to the animal’s death.

The article about the ram hunt describes the kill without mentioning that the ram died. He rolled one time into a juniper, not moving a single muscle. Of course he didn’t move a single muscle.  He was dead!

The only reference in the article to the ram’s death was the hunter’s partner congratulating her by shouting YOU DID IT.  HE’S DEAD (the capital letters are not my editing for effect. They appear in the article.)

Some researchers are beginning to look at what motivates trophy hunters to do what they do. One study concludes it’s the joy of earning a ‘certificate’ that shows you’ve done it.  It could be a photograph or, in the case of the hunter in the story I read, breaking the glass ceiling of the hunting world and winning the female state championship.

There is also the status one achieves by overcoming difficulties and solving problems in unique ways. The trophy is that the hunter bore the ‘cost’ of the hunt, and not just financially.

One of the hunter’s triumphs mentioned in the article was that she laid the first human hands upon this incredible animal. Another trophy. Only he was no longer an incredible animal.  He was a hapless victim who stood no chance against the self-directed determination of the advantaged trophy hunter.

So from the point of view of my universe, it seems that the whole enterprise of trophy hunting can be reduced to pleasure. The pleasure of the hunt. The pleasure of the kill. Of the photograph. Of the display and the status. A pursuit that elevates human ingenuity and skill to great heights and that reduces the animal to nothing.

The Empathy/Nature Connection

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

It seems that ‘empathy’ has become a topic of interest lately.

Psychologists. Researchers. Journalists. Teachers. They’re writing about empathy. Plumbing its meaning and touting its values. They promote empathy and use principles of empathy in their programs. Empathy has even found its way into the business world, promising improved employee productivity and increased sales.

Some information about empathy:

1) Basically, empathy is thought of as an innate ability to take another’s perspective; more commonly known as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to recognize and respond to what the person is feeling.

2) Advocates for empathy say that without empathy self-interest would prevail.

3) Research has shown that the ability to show empathy is associated with pro-social behavior, behaviors such as obeying rules, conforming to society, and expressing concern for the welfare of others.

4) Research has also shown that pro-social and conservation behaviors are more likely to occur in people who are disposed to connecting empathically with nature.

What about animals?  Do they possess the capacity for empathy? Those who distinguish humans from animals would like us to believe that, no, animals do not exhibit empathy, which is unique to humans.

Evidence does exist, however, to the contrary, and it is possible that empathy is genetically encoded in animals as well as in humans.

Many stories have been written – and I’m convinced that each of you could come up with stories of your own – about animals engaged in what appears to be empathic behavior. An elephant guarding a lost, helpless hiker. A humpback whale sweeping a seal being hunted by a killer whale onto its back.

I once watched one of my cats try to rescue a very perturbed kitten who had gotten stranded on my roof. His strategy was to show her how to jump from the roof to an adjacent tree and climb down. He did it three or four times before giving up, as the kitten would have none of it.

The cat’s sense of ‘responsibility’ went just so far. With humans, however, it’s unlikely that we would give up that easily. We would try other methods.  Maybe that’s one thing that does separate us from the animals. Our vast intellectual ability and our resourcefulness would compel us to test out various solutions.  Maybe that’s when empathy actually crosses over to another human trait: determination. Stubbornness?

If you do accept the premise that empathy is a shared experience between humans and all of nature, it seems to require acceptance of the implications of an empathic relationship with nature.

  • The recognition of our interdependence
  • The necessity of a mental shift from domination to joint membership
  • The acknowledgement of the citizenship of all creatures, including humans, in the natural world
  • The sense of responsibility to protect the land and all its parts

Furthermore, an empathic relationship with the land involves ethical duty that imposes restraints on us, forces us to pull in the reins on our personal desires. We would have to come to consider nature worthy of our ‘sacrifice.’ In essence it would become incumbent upon us to value behaviors geared to arriving at a state of harmony between us and all of nature, behaviors that would bind us to the care of the land.

Empathy towards nature may start with looking, really looking. A conscious, mindful looking that Rachel Corbett, in her book The Invention of Empathy (2016), refers to as the wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart wherein perception leads to emotional connection…..

A kayaker achieves instinctive understanding with a loon. A trainer bonds with his horses. We peer into the eyes of a pond turtle and tumble headlong into Terry Tempest Williams’ threshold of shared existence.

Once such seeing is achieved, the challenge is to hold on to the connection; watching more, looking further, paying more attention, going deeper into the gift of sight, exploiting the depth perception and peripheral vision that might give us the ability to take in our entire surroundings, to transcend self-interest and to build bonds.


This is what happened….Bobcat and Rainbow

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

This is what happened……

The setting is the dining hall at the Yosemite Majestic Hotel – when it was still called The Ahwahnee. This is a stunning, cavernous space, famous for its Native American décor, its elegance, and its restrained atmosphere. Coupled with good table manners and well-behaved children is an air of formal relaxation that buzzes with conversation.

One gray winter’s day, at lunchtime, a bobcat ambled along a path just outside the dining hall.

Photo courtesy of foothillfotos.com

All at once, as if a tweet of the bobcat’s presence had shot around the room, dozens of diners dashed from their seats – some dragging kids behind – and raced to the windows in order to get a view of the bobcat passing by.


Oohing and aahing, they crowded around and pointed excitedly out the windows, over the heads of the folks dining at the window-side tables, unmindful of their rude behavior. Those with children pushed in closer to get a better view.

When the bobcat disappeared behind a tree and was lost from sight, everyone returned to their places and the dining hall returned to its refined state.

This is what happened too……

A Seder is in progress. Twenty people are seated at eight tables arranged in a large square. They are reading and discussing, answering the question, why is this night different from all other nights. They sample ritual foods that evoke the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. To honor the rebirth that comes with the springtime celebration of Passover, the Seder leader reads lines from an anonymous poem:

The rains are over and gone,

the winter is past;

everything is created with beauty; go

in peace rain.

The reader pauses, and at that very instant, outside, in a sky that had threatened  rain all evening, the sun breaks through and the room lights up. Two rainbows appear along the horizon, two arcs of stranded color, one poised above the other, fainter, colors reversed – red to violet – the two held together in perfect harmony.

Photo courtesy of Gay Abarbanell


All decorum breaks down. Squeals of delight. Oohs and aahs. Cell phones and cameras appear. Some in the group dash outside, unperturbed by the sprinkling of rain that has finally begun to fall.   Some stand by the windows gazing silently. Finally, when the rainbows have faded, and the sky has darkened, and all are reassembled around the seder table, a hush washes over the room and hovers for a moment, creating a mood of collective awe.

What is that all about?

A bobcat walks up a path. A double rainbow appears in the sky. And a breakdown in decorum and a departure from valued traditions follows. Why?

Many things could account for this: novelty, rarity, predisposition to nature, a highpoint of a vacation.

But there are factors related to these two situations that might allow for a different explanation; not only the abandonment of good behavior, but the spontaneity and authenticity exhibited by the players in both of these stories. These were natural events, unrelated and disparate. Yet the response in both groups, in addition to being unplanned and uncensored, were identical.

Is it possible that these experiences had tapped into something deep-seated in the observers, something innate in their relationship to nature? Something primal?

Edward O. Wilson, the author of Biofilia (1984) might say that these people exhibited their instinctive bond with all life and their deep-seated urge to affiliate with life and life processes.

Author Bill Bryson, in his book, In a Sunburned Country, describes just such a feeling at his initial view of Ayers Rock, a.k.a. Uluru, a sandstone outcropping measuring 5.8 miles around and rising to an altitude of 1,142 feet in an otherwise flat desert area in the Australian Outback.

The thing about Ayers Rock is that by the time you finally get there you are already a little sick of it…..Even when you are a thousand miles from it, you can’t go a day in Australia without seeing it four or five or six times – on postcards, on travel agents’ posters, on the cover of souvenir picture books – and as you get nearer the rock the frequency of exposure increases….and then you see it, and you are instantly transfixed…..Somewhere in the deep sediment of your being some long-dormant fragment of primordial memory, some little severed tail of DNA, has twitched or stirred. It is a motion much too faint to be understood or interpreted, but somehow you feel certain that this large, brooding hypnotic presence has an importance to you at the species level – perhaps even at a sort of tadpole level – and that in some way your visit here is more than happenstance. I’m not saying that this is so. I’m just saying this is how you feel…..

One comes across many authors, both contemporary and from the past, who, like Bryson, have articulated similar feelings about their connection to nature. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher stated in his memoirs, I felt close to nature, the earth, the sun, the moon, the weather, all living creatures…. Trees he saw as mysterious, direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life.

Oddly, once you open up to the idea of a human kinship with nature it becomes apparent that many people feel a sense of oneness with nature, each in a personal, unique way.

Speaking with individuals who claim to have experienced their connection with nature is like taking a trip into a world apart, yet it feels somehow familiar.

A kayaker who rescued a loon that had become entangled in a fishing line, said he believed the loon felt calm during the whole procedure because, when we looked into each other’s eyes, we communicated and connected. There was an instinctive understanding between us.

A lifelong backpacker remarked that he has had many momentary experiences of feeling completely whole and connected. I could be sitting on a rock looking into the San Joaquin River gorge and I suddenly become conscious of being one with everything.

A member of the Fresno 4-Wheel-Drive Club likes to explore in the wilderness. I am taken aback, she said. My breath just stops at the beauty and cleanliness of Nature. It’s so there. I reach out and hug the mountain. It’s what Nature makes you want to do.

A horse trainer said that when he is in nature it’s as though there’s an additional dimension, as if I enter a parallel universe where there’s balance and beauty of design and purpose, where I exist in a state of heightened awareness and consciousness.

When he trains a horse, before beginning, he establishes a connection with the animal. I might touch them in places where horses touch each other, he said. We might even breathe on each other. And then I wait. I wait and allow. He waits until the horse signals that he is ready. His eyes will open up, get bigger, but also deeper, as if I could dive into them. That’s when I know we’re really seeing each other, really connecting.

Three wildflower seekers come across a Pacific Pond turtle:

Driving along in the back country we pass a turtle crossing the road. The driver, ordinarily a calm, controlled person, screeches to a halt, dashes from the car, which sits in the middle of the road, and picks up the turtle. We dash out of the car after him and the three of us gather around. We are naturalists and have an intelligent conversation about the turtle. It looks like a Pacific Pond turtle. What a find. It’s native to California. We hold it. Turn it over and investigate its underbelly. Its flatness tells us that she’s a female. We flip her back to upright. Her head and legs are retracted into her shell.  She is looking at us from inside. Her deep black eyes seem to pulsate. It’s as if she were demanding. Pay attention! And something happens. We obey. We finally look at her.  Really look at her. And we connect and, in that moment we become concerned for her. We soothe her.  Don’t be afraid. We’re not going to hurt you. Where are you going?  We’re certain she’s listening, understands what we’re saying.  Her head ventures out a bit. We’re excited. Look! She’s come out.  She likes us. Her legs fly out, as if she wants to run away, and her head slides back into her shell.  She’s had enough of us. We place her in the grass on one side of the road, but then we wonder, which way was she going? How do we know where a turtle wants to go? We choose one side of the road and set her down.  Be safe, one of us says, in a final moment of connection, and we stand and watch her inch her way along the grass.

In her book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams wrote, To hold an animal, to look into its eyes and have it look back at you; to try to calm its terrified heart; …..is to open the door to empathy and cross a new threshold of shared existence.

Next week we’ll take a look at empathy. In the meantime, see if you have the opportunity to hold an animal and look into its eyes, or to view a forest devastated by fire, or to watch a hawk circle in the sky in search of something to eat. Is Tempest Williams correct?  Can we tap into empathic connection with the animal? The forest?  The hawk?



Sensation-Seeking Over the Lifetime

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

In her recent comment, Sandy Alonzo raised the question about the relevance of age in the sensation-seeker personality. She wondered whether the mudder’s youth would explain his willingness to engage in activities that have ecologically destructive outcomes, without considering the negative effects on the environment.

It probably will come as no surprise to learn that, in this personality type, sensation-seeking activities tend to escalate around the onset of puberty, peak in the mid-teens, and, with the leveling off of hormones, wane in intensity by the late twenties. Also not surprisingly, the need in sensation-seekers for external stimulation declines significantly over the lifespan.

I couldn’t find any specific information about whether the young mudder might become more ecologically responsible as he ages; another question raised by Alonzo.

Reason tells us that sensation-seekers, like most people, will develop a perspective about themselves and about their place in society as they experience life. In the process of maturing, they would most likely become more knowledgeable about the world around them and more reflective about how to take part in the world they had come to know.

This seems to presume that awareness and experience would contribute to an increase in environmentally responsible behavior, and that it would happen voluntarily and spontaneously as a consequence of maturation.

Ecologist and forester, Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), might have argued against that supposition. He might have proposed that, without valuing land and all its soils, waters, plants, and animals for their own sake and not for the fun and excitement they offer; and that, without a knowledge base in ecology and an appreciation for the connection between human health and safety and the health of the planet, those sensation-seekers who pursue their sport in nature are vulnerable to misusing the land and inadvertently creating collateral ecological damage.

In his essay, The Land Ethic, published in 1949 as part of his book A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote, We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” Leopold proposed that ethics imposes a limitation on freedom of action in the service of a higher cause.

If the sensation-seeker cannot develop a land-oriented ethic based on ecologically sound principles, one that  obligates him to correct use and care of the environment, behaviors required for protecting the environment would come into conflict with his need to achieve excitement and stimulation.

The young mudder will be particularly susceptible to choosing pleasure over prudence if he lacks a value system that holds protecting the land to a higher standard than fun and excitement. His genetic makeup and his age would almost dictate that he drive his vehicle into a forest meadow and bear down in pursuit of his coveted mud, leaving destruction behind. Out of sight, out of mind.

The mature sensation-seeker, therefore, is in the best position to steer the young towards ecologically responsible behavior. He can become a mentor and role model for youth through a land-based code of ethics which reflects ecological principles and which can work side by side with an ethical code for the sport.


The Secret Life of Meadows

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Last week’s post left us with the question of how Sierra meadows protect our health and safety. The answer is simpler than you would imagine:

By controlling the flow of water, season to season.

Intake and outflow, overflow and underflow, water following natural laws of movement from the mountains, directed into streams and rivers that make their way to the San Joaquin Valley, where it is eventually shunted to the canals and reservoirs that supply two-thirds of California homes with water.

As such, Sierra meadows stand out as hydrologic marvels, engineered by nature for efficiency, able to moderate the effects of the seasonal extremes of water flow in the Sierra.

On the one hand they check the oncoming deluge of water during springtime flooding from mountain snowmelt and rainstorms, and, conversely, during the driest, hottest times of the Sierra summers, they move water up from their shallow water table to replenish diminished streams. In addition to recharging streams, the meadows draw water up to feed shallow rooted plants and to restore moisture to the soil during drying out periods.

In a healthy meadow water is continually circulating, entering and leaving. It spreads over the surface and seeps into the ground. Absorbed as if into a sponge, it percolates down through deep layers of moist textured soil and plant material to a shallow groundwater. There, the water is stored amidst a maze of decomposed granite pools, waiting like a dedicated servant to be called upon when needed.

In a striking example of efficiency, in the process of percolation, meadows filter out excess sediment and undesirable nutrients, offering clean clear water to meadow wildlife and to wildlife downstream, as well as to us, the human recipients.

Moist textured soil. Decayed plant life. Underground decomposed granite. These are the key elements that allow the meadow to carry out its many tasks. These structures work together in a delicate balance, sensitive to even slight changes in the environment. The meadow’s hydrologic abilities become threatened if the natural flow of water into the meadow is interrupted or redirected – let’s say, for example, by the presence of tire tracks.

Cutting tire tracks into a meadow could be compared to pouring sand in the truck’s gas tank. The system becomes clogged and shuts down. The ability of the meadow to capture the incoming water and spread it out is decreased. The soil dries out. Inundation during runoff cannot occur. The water passes over the surface unimpeded and the threat of flooding downstream increases.

Underground, meanwhile, the moist textured soil and decayed plants become dry and compacted. Percolation is blocked. Filtering of sediment and undesirable nutrients cannot occur. The natural storage of the water is reduced, and the groundwater table lowers.  In the arid summer, streams are unable to draw fresh clean water up, so silty tainted water is transported on to forest streams and rivers.

A year after we discovered the tire tracks in the meadow featured in the wildflower-seeker story, several of us returned and found the imprint of the tracks still present; two pale lines, bare of vegetation, running parallel into the meadow. The deep gouges were gone, but the tracks has filled with compacted soil.

Fortunately, in this case the driver of the truck had backed off before venturing too far into the meadow, so the tracks appear to have had little impact on the water flow. But they stand out as a reminder of the intrusion, an ugly scar in an otherwise healthy meadow of rich dark soil with springs bubbling up from underground, and acres and acres, as far as the eye can see, of green.

And what about the next truck driver? What will he do when he sits at the edge of the meadow, drawn in by the moist, dark soil – in other words, the mud – contemplating his ride, faced with choices?

Let’s try another ‘what-if’ story, different from the one in the wildflower-seeker story:

What if, instead of depressing the gas pedal he keeps his foot on the brake and takes a moment to think? What if, instead of revving the motor he decides to turn it off and step out of his truck? And as he stands at the edge of the meadow, what if his fractured connection to the land gives way, and the truck fades from his mind. And he begins to notice things; movement amongst the grasses or the sounds of buzzing or chirring, or he might catch the sight of a butterfly settling on a flower nearby.

And in his heightened state of awareness what if he enters one of his alternative sensation-seeker worlds, where breaking the law and tearing up Sierra meadows with a pickup truck would be unfathomable. Then, maybe he would put aside his mud desires and his natural inclination for physical challenge and would say to himself, not here, not now.

 As the president of an urban 4-wheel drive club said:

My church, the mountains, you step out of your vehicle and it no longer exists.  There’s only you and the expanse and the quiet. It draws you in, takes you into its arms and tells you, now you’re where you belong.  You can’t put it into words. You have to experience it.