Go In by Going Out
by Mary Blocksma
I wasn't always an amateur naturalist, painting and writing books about the Great Lakes. All that began fifteen years ago, after I had escaped a painful divorce and moved from California into a cottage on Lake Michigan. Gazing out my window one December day at a stretch of trees, I realized that I couldn't name any of them.
That moment changed my life. I became conscious for the first time of how little I knew of my natural environment, and I was appalled. Like most Americans today, I had somehow become an adult who could not claim even an elementary knowledge of my natural neighborhood. Nature afar was “landscape,” up close was “ambiance,” and in my conscience was “the environment.” How, I wondered, will we save the world if we can't even name the trees?
I decided to make their acquaintance. I would learn the trees' names, as well as the names of other wild neighbors, but where to begin? Nature's variety felt overwhelming until it occurred to me that if I could name just the most common plants and animals, I'd probably recognize half of what I saw. I arranged my project whimsically: I'd take four or five walks a week, each time naming one thing, for a year, and if it stopped being fun, I'd quit.
In only a few weeks, I was drawn into the game, my enthusiasm growing with my “natural” vocabulary. Familiarity breeds intimacy, I believed, and intimacy, concern. Naming could be a powerful way to make the unknown approachable and perhaps more highly valued. In some small way, my adventure might help save the environment.
It certainly changed my life. Soon the woods became a familiar neighborhood in which I recognized much of what I saw. My world expanded. I became intimately acquainted with the beaches, meadows, orchards, lagoons, woods, rivers, lakes, ponds, golf courses, wetlands, and rural roads around me. I got strong. I was frequently overcome by joy. Connections with nature, an expanding environment, physical fitness, and dependable joy did much to heal my heart.
My spiritual journey was also affected. I was working with a Jungian therapist to balance what I thought of as my masculine side (critical thinking, reason, analyzing, organizing, and utilizing), which had long dominated my life, with my feminine side (intuition, feeling, playing, nurturing, and protecting). Connecting with nature became a way to go in by going out, to simultaneously work and play, to make the masculine serve the feminine for a change. Over time my project grew into a series of books about the Great Lakes.Naming is not the only way to appreciate the natural world, of course, but it can be a gentle, playful way to say hello. It requires only a few walks a week, a few basic nature guides, and possibly a pair of binoculars. I found nature surprisingly eager to entertain anyone, even a rank amateur, who shows up with some regularity. So do me a favor the next time you go out: Notice the trees. Have you met yet? Have you been introduced to your natural neighbors?
Mary Blocksma is the author of numerous books for children and adults, including Great Lakes Nature: An Outdoor Year (University of Michigan Press, 2003; $19.95), from which this essay is adapted with permission. Her Web site is www.beaverislandarts.com. Blocksma is a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.