by Matthew Wood
"Nature is alive!" Such thoughts should fill us with joy, as if fairies were discovered in our backyard. The natural world is a place of beauty, vitality, and excitement, yet even this amazing world is but the material shell surrounding the even more dazzling inner beauty of the Living Nature. Contact with this inwardly alive presence lights up the spirit. It is like a return home from exile.
When we come in contact with the Living Nature we know that there is a spiritual world and we are a citizen. Our lives become more authentic while our decisions are based increasingly on the greater good. Best of all, real magic is restored to our lives, and I do not mean the magic of creative visualization or parlor tricks, but the wonder in which children live because the next moment is alive and unpredictable. In developing an internal life I had a fortunate advantage which many people are not afforded. I was raised with the idea that the inner life was a real thing, that it could and should be developed, and that one should follow the internal dictates of conscience and spirit rather than the external rule. This was not a common sort of education for children in the 50's and early 60's.
I was born into a Quaker family. In my early religious education I was to learn that there were only two dogmas in Quakerism. The first is that "each person has the inward light." That means that everybody has an internal, personal spiritual mechanism for deciding for themselves what is true or false, or right or wrong. The second dogma is that "divine revelation is continuous." This means that God speaks to men and women down through the ages and not just through the pages of the Bible or in an era of the past or at one time only. In short, there is a voice that speaks and an ear that can listen.
When I was about ten the Half Yearly Quakter gathering was held in Wausaw, Wisconsin. There were still passenger trains in those days and we took one to get there. It was exciting. Meeting was held in the Marathon County Historical Society, an old Victorian mansion that was probably built on the ginseng money that is still the base of the economy in that area. There were interesting pictures on the walls, Persian carpets on the floor, elaborate woodwork, tall windows, and elevated ceilings. The gift shop had reprinted Confederate money which I played with long after that weekend was over. The atmosphere was quite magical and not to be forgotten. We didn't have a Sunday School because the old seventeenth century Quakers thought the names of the days of the week were "too pagan." Instead we had First Day School. The teacher was Francis Hole, a soil science professor from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Francis took us up on Rib Mountain, a worn down chunk of volcanic lava and black crystal, a few miles outside of town. He was lively and entertaining but it was a feeling that emanated out of Frances that sank into me and became an internal experience and changed my life. It was as if words emanated from him and they said, "Nature is alive, Nature is alive."
Twenty some years latter I visited Frances at his house on the isthmus in Madison, near the Yahara River. I thanked him for his teaching. "Ah yes," he said as he leaned back in his chair. "That was a beautiful day." He remembered it just as I did: sunny and bright, as if Nature were smiling. I explained to him how I had experienced that "Nature is alive" and how that had helped to shape my life and form my calling as an herbalist. "Yes, Nature is alive," he commented. His bright, professorly eyes sparkled behind wire-rim glasses. "People crave that knowledge but they're cut off from it." With this statement there was an unspoken inference he did not put into words, but which I felt: "you have chosen well to work with something that people need so deeply in order to live." Although I had received my blessing up on top of Rib Mountain, sitting in Frances' living room discussing the secret mystery of Nature so openly was itself a blessing. It felt like the Old Testament patriarch or prophet handing on his blessing to the next generation. Neither one of us batted an eyelash at the difficulties of such an unorthodox path. We had both long experienced the pain caused by following an unconventional calling. Years later I was teaching at a yoga ashram near Madison. One of the yoga teachers asked, "How did a boy like you from Minnesota become an herbalist?" I answered with a question, "Did you ever hear of Francis Hole?" A look of instant recognition crossed my examiner's face, as if it all made sense.
After his retirement, Frances used to tour the state of Wisconsin with his "history of the soil" performance. He took his fiddle, which he had played since childhood, and sang "songs of the soil" that told about how the soil had been under the deep, dark forests in Indian times, and when the virgin prairies were first turned over by the whiteman's plow. He described the slow, steady wearing away of the topsoil until brown patches of subsoil appeared on every Wisconsin hillside where the black soil had once been. "When I was young we never saw that," Frances commented. He spoke in front of groups of all kinds, from innocent schoolchildren and jaded prisoners. They all loved his crazy fiddling and singing about the soil. And, of course, at Northern Half Yearly Meeting by now called "Halfly" he gave his presentation. On one level it was about taking care of our resources, but on the inner it was the exact same message I had received: "Nature is alive, Nature is alive."
So what does this mean?" A perceptive eye and heart will notice that within this living world every hill, stone, tree, plant, and animal has a lesson that it can convey to the onlooker. We conscious humans are the ones who can experience, love, and learn from the world around us, but right now we are trapped in an isolated, cold, dark place. If we were to look and see, open ourselves and feel, we could learn innumerable beautiful lessons of both heart and mind. The Mother of All is a highly articulated and developed in content world, or even an entire civilization.