04 September 2009

Discovering Nature

I'm infamous for not "doing" nature. Going for a walk in the woods or on the beach is not a meditative or restorative experience for me. Chalk it up to physical awkwardness or just plain fear that I will fall and not be able to get up. Whatever. I found a kindred spirit in a pastor named Kathy last year. Kathy said she was a couch potato and couldn't understand why one would want to "go for a walk and talk" when one could just as easily sit on the couch and talk.

I do the "ooooh and ahhhhh" thing from time to time, but it is rare.

A pastor I once worked for was going on about his summer vacation, a month on the coast of Oregon. I looked at him and said, "I couldn't do that. The ocean never shuts up!" True.

I live in a beautiful part of the country, and April to June is wonderful with waves of new colors appearing. The streets can be awash with rain and looking quite dreary, then one day the cherry trees blossom--and there's never just one standing alone, groups of cherry trees in shades from white to almost red.

At the prison, there's a severe lack of nature. Much of the campus is paved over with cement. There are great stretches of green, but it is not lawn. It is yard. By mid-August it is brown and stiff and there are deep grooves where the softball games have gone on too long. The only green left is around the flower beds which are relentlessly cheerful in color and variety. And the green of the vegetable garden which holds thousands of pounds of the good stuff for the local food banks.

Lately, though, I've been sending guys "out into nature" to get a new perspective on things. It feels like a strange suggestion.

If you stand anywhere on the prison grounds, you can see the evergreen trees that surround us. The ground itself was once covered with trees, but they were cleared out to build the prison back in the 1960s. The evergreens that are visible are far outside the perimeter, across the road (and you wouldn't dare go hiking in those woods because they are covered with treated sludge from our wastewater treatment plant). The Olympic mountains are visible, snowcapped for a good part of the year. But there are no trees within the fences. The flower gardens start their journey in the greenhouse, as do the vegetables. One day there is nothing, the next day, flowers and vegetables.

If you stand anywhere and look out at the horizon, you see concrete. You see chain link fences. You see something standing in your way of the view. I think those visual limitations cramp the soul, but most people don't realize it. I can't send restless men out to "take a walk." Too often that's just an invitation to be in the wrong place and get a write-up for doing it.

So I've been telling them to find a spot in the big yard and lay down. Look up at the sky. Watch the clouds for a while. See the big expanse that can't be seen when standing vertically. Shift the horizon.

The suggestion has been met with quizzical looks. I'm not surprised. But after I'd given that direction to the 12th or 13th person, I added, "You won't be alone out there staring at the sky, I promise."

And they haven't been.

I'm on vacation this week and listening to the rain outside my window falling onto the broad leaves of whatever-it-is growing out there. I like the sound. It's peaceful. It's about as close to nature as I get. But it's good.

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