The soul of leisure, it can be said, lies in ‘celebration’. Celebration is the point at which the three elements of leisure come to a focus: relaxation, effortlessness, and superiority of ‘active leisure’ to all functions. But if celebration is the core of leisure, then leisure can only be made possible and justifiable on the same basis as the celebration of a festival. That basis is divine worship.

– Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture

A few years ago, I was privileged to stay in a grand old Virginia inn along the Shenandoah. As I stepped through the stately oak doors and entered the lobby, it felt as if time had paused in history’s Regency period. A massive marble fireplace was at the center of the far wall, and all manner of plants and decor were arranged on either side. Tufted chairs and small tables topped with vases filled with seasonal flowers stood invitingly in front of bay windows. Tall cherry wood bookshelves, some with glass doors, were lined up in the center, filled with all manner of books. Most of them were vintage, dating back several decades, and they are my biblio-kryptonite. Older books are written in a different manner than contemporary works; their tone and style are often lyrical with attention to details expressive of the era in which they were penned. There is an earnestness and mastery in the writing that brings the reader to a particular moment in time. Essay collections, in particular, are my favorite because they introduce me to a wide sampling of unfamiliar authors.

I walked to one of the bookcases, scanning the bindings for a potential weekend read, and found A Treasury of Birdlore, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch and Paul Eriksson. I’d never heard of them, but according to the inner cover flap, they were men of a certain renown in the topics of history and publishing. And Eriksson had a lifelong fascination with all manner of birds. They collected over forty essays by naturalists of the past, including John James Audubon, Rachel Carson, John Muir, Roger Tory Peterson, and even E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web. What captured my attention in the Table of Contents were essays by the conservationists Aldo Leopold and Sigurd Olson, favorite writers of my father and grandfather. Aldo Leopold wrote his literary masterpiece A Sand County Almanac in 1948, and a copy of that book was in my parents’ home. Olson was a wilderness guide in northern Minnesota, my home state, so my family also owned a few of his works. I can best describe these authors as early 20th-century Wendell Berry. I pulled A Treasury of Birdlore from the shelf and settled into an overstuffed chair by a window, selecting “March: The Geese Return” by Leopold as my first reading.

Lingering over that first essay invited me back in time to an era of true understanding of leisure. A walk in the woods spent in contemplative quiet, with only bird songs and wilderness whispers as companionship. The undercurrent of wonder running through the author’s prose as he describes the return of the Canadian geese to his farm inspired by slow and easy consideration of small details. He posed a valid point about our simple receptivity to beauty, as well as a lack of it. Leopold writes,

A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?”[1]

Are we educating ourselves out of the ability to be still and ponder without demanding an answer?

As I read several more of these essays, I came away with new insights into the theological implications of the deep love that these authors had for nature. I can’t speak for any of their religious affiliations – they were reflecting on what most of us would miss on a hike or canoe ride. These naturalists found beauty in the things most people view as inconsequential today. The 19th-century poet John Burroughs equated birds with living poetry. In “Birds and Poets,” he noted, “It might almost be said that the birds are all birds of the poets and of no one else, because it is only the poetical temperament that fully responds to them.”[2] To Burroughs, birds were transcendent and inspiring beauty.

In his essay “Wilderness Music,” Sigurd Olsen writes of the natural music found in wild places; one example in particular stood out to me. Following WWII, Olson was walking past the River Main in Frankfurt, Germany. As he made his way through the ruins of the bombed-out city, he stopped and looked at the remnants of destroyed boats and barges. The devastation was sad and overwhelming, but then he heard

a sound that was not of the war, the hurrying whisper of wings overhead. I turned, and there against the rosy sky was a flock of mallards. I had forgotten that the river was a flyway, that there were still such delightful things as the sound of wings at dusk . . . and the soft sound of quacking all through the night.[3]

Nature can speak to us as a parable, revealing Christian truths. But the ability to take in those truths improves when we slow our pace in the outdoors, then we can truly see and hear. We can find beauty, hope, and encouragement through God’s creation when we live in wonder and listen for God’s voice in the moment.

This is akin to C.S. Lewis’s brilliant observation in his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed.” Lewis describes his experience of ‘looking at’ a sunbeam shining into an old tool shed to ‘looking along’ the sunbeam. He looked at the beam of sunlight and saw its brightness and the dust that floated in it, but he saw only the light. Once his gaze turned along the beam, the beam ceased to be the focus; instead, he saw “green eaves moving the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 million miles away, the sun.”[4] Instead of only seeing the light, he observed the beauty and the great transcendent expanse of nature as he looked along the light. This is the light that illuminates our faith. Lewis states, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[5] As I step out my door into my garden or sit in a kayak in an intercoastal waterway, I cannot help but see that God’s hand is at work in everything.

Take the time for a morning hike, or even an activity as simple as lounging in a lawn chair, binoculars and birding book within reach, pondering should take priority. Pondering is a leisure we seldom indulge in. Like a slow read through a mystery or meditation over scripture, we come to celebrate the experience and revel in discovery. In his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper writes:

What happens when we look at a rose? What do we do as we become aware of color and form? Our soul is passive and receptive. We are, to be sure, awake and active, but our attention is not strained; we simply ‘look’ – in so far, that is, as we ‘contemplate’ it and are not already ‘observing’ it (for ‘observing’ implies that we are beginning to count, to measure and to weigh up). Observation is a tense activity; which is what Ernst Jünger meant when he called seeing an ‘act of aggression’. To contemplate, on the other hand, to ‘look’ in this sense, means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess them.[6]

The phrase “take time to stop and smell the roses” is so familiar to us that the words have morphed into a phrase casually sprinkled over advice to simplify and slow down. Oddly enough, the origin of this phrase doesn’t mention roses, with the actual quote coming from golfer Walter Hagen in his 1956 memoir The Walter Hagen Story. Hagen wrote, “You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”[7] That lyrical (and perhaps spiritual) advice was soon truncated into a checklist-type item to add to the regular day’s responsibilities. The weight and meaning of the original thought is pared down to observation, not a meditation on wonder or the beauty that lies before us every day. Modern living leaves scant time to revel in the moment; we sniff the assigned bloom and move on to what really brought us outside in the first place – the next thing on our to-do list.

Psalm 19 illustrates that God is clearly revealed in His creation. The psalmist writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”[8]Creation is constantly revealing God who is timeless and perfect, but we must take the time to appreciate the glorious message spoken through it. We must have eyes to see and the patience to ponder. Paul tells us, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”[9] It is important to bear in mind that nature is not a god or a thing to be worshiped; but each piece, from sparrows to seas, points us to God who created all of it. Lewis states that “Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. Nature will not verify any theological or metaphysical proposition . . . she will help to show what it means.”[10]

Modern man may find it difficult to lace up the hiking shoes and just go for a wander. It is popular to look at a casual, observant walk as less important than a hike, where speed, intensity, a certain volume of sweat, and beats per minute are the essential ingredients to any worthwhile experience in nature. The earnest hiker may firmly believe that we must be properly attired, with the latest UV protective layers, expensive hiking trousers and matching windbreaker, a ballcap proclaiming our sincerity, backpacks with fifty-four features, and the latest hydration delivery system. The walk must be vigorous; the trail must be conquered; time must be squarely harnessed to meet our definition of a worthwhile activity. As the final proof that all was well-accomplished, a sweaty selfie is posted on social media for all to see.

I wonder if we are as in tune with creation as these authors who stood in awe of the life in a creek or field, reveling in the difference in calls of geese in spring and fall? Or do we just look and walk on, too rushed to really contemplate the absolute miracles that surround us? The naturalists who wrote their essays on their experiences no doubt soaked their imaginations in what their senses absorbed: the dusty-dirt smell of a freshly turned field, the warbling, trilling songs of nearby birds, tones of greens and browns in the trees and on the forest floor, downy softness of cattail seeds, and the rich sweetness of berries picked along the way. Leopold’s writing in A Sand County Almanac paints a vivid setting because of his attention to the small details during his hikes. The destination came second to the journey.

Learning the art of contemplative time outdoors is a habit that should start early in life. My grandfather and father passed on their love of nature by taking me for walks through muddy fields and along nearby lakes. They could identify every type of duck, just by its call. When our children were young, they kept feeders and birdbaths filled throughout the year. We noted that certain birds, like the juncos, ate the seeds from the ground that the others, mostly cardinals and blue jays, had pushed from the feeders. The noisy, migrating geese flew in a symmetrical formation over our house, while other birds disappeared over the long, winter months. The appearance of a robin was the first sign of spring. We checked out several recordings of bird songs that we listened to in the car, becoming quite adept at identifying several species. Jays sound like squeaky gates, robins give a melodic warble, and cardinals speak in a chip-chip song. A phoebe sings its name fee-bee. Gradually, we became attuned to the rhythm of the seasons resonating in bird song, changes in the colors of leaves, and the flowers that bloom in differing months. Even the seasonal scents consistently changed, from spring rain-sogged marshes to the summer-baked, dusty smell of fields. Nearby orchards acted as a natural calendar with the cycle of ripening fruits. Now when our children are grown, they can still identify birds by their calls on a trail walk and note the clues in the dependable turning of the seasons. The blessings of slowing down to gain a natural sense of place are acquired over a lifetime.

Rushing through a hike is like rushing through Scripture – we miss the nuance and meaning when we do either. Setting aside time to cultivate a relationship with creation adds to our relationship with God and puts our place in the world in perspective. One cannot help but see the designed purpose and plans in nature. Consider the rhythm of oceanic tides, constellations that guided the Greeks and today’s navigators alike, and the changing of seasons. It is good to rest in the sacred mystery we encounter during a leisurely ramble in nature.


Citation Information

Annie Nardone, “Leisurely Rambles: Hiking & Birding as Sacred Play,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 33-41.


Endnotes

[1] Joseph Wood Krutch and Paul S. Eriksson, ed., Treasury of Bird Lore (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1962), 9.

[2]  Ibid., 64.

[3] Krutch and Eriksson, Treasury of Bird Lore, 68.

[4] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Cambridge: Eerdmans Publishing, 1970), 230.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 140.

[6] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 26.

[7] “Stop and Smell the Roses,” Grammarist, accessed August 4, 2023, https://grammarist.com/idiom/stop-and-smell-the-roses/#:~:text=The%20expression%20stop%20and%20smell,stop%20and%20smell%20the%20roses.

[8] Psalms 19:1-2 (ESV).

[9] Romans 1:20 (ESV).

[10] Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Harcourt, 1991), 20.