Having no core texts, practitioners of the Pagan religions will often talk about nature being our book, our teacher, our source. The trouble is that like any other book, how we let ourselves be taught and what we choose to understand, is very much down to us. I believe in nature as teacher, but to learn it’s important to understand the limitations, and know where the pitfalls are. If all we want to see is our own belief, prejudice or assumption reflected back at us, we can very easily find it, just like the people who can find a biblical quote to justify anything.
For a start ‘nature’ is very diverse. It covers not only all the living things, but the seas, sky and land as well. What makes perfect sense for one is a nonsense for another. We can take inspiration from the solid, steadfast nature of rock, or from the shifting, unpredictable nature of water. We can learn from both, they are equally valid and real, and they will tell us totally different things.
For many urban pagans, coming out to a natural space is a relatively unusual experience and may well only happen for the festivals. Standing in a beautiful bit of landscape with a bunch of other pagans, enjoying the beauty of the day, may feel like communing with nature. And this is a good thing, it is soul nourishing and of great benefit. People should get out more, not just pagan folk. But at the same time there’s a danger in taking that happy, pretty space as being ‘nature’. The ritual is peaceful, the trees are lovely. You stay long enough to see something, and you go. You miss the details, the drama, the bad weather. You don’t see the teenagers tearing down saplings for fun, or the hunting of one creature by another. You don’t see anything freeze to death in winter or a badger starve because the summer was too dry and there were no worms. Taking snapshots of the pretty bits, we can miss the complexity.
Landscapes, seas, trees, plants and sky can seem peaceful. Maggots in a dead bird less so. Which lessons are we choosing to learn? Are we watching the mice who eat their own young, or the cute lambs in the field? Are we seeing the moment, or the lifespan? Are we seeing a solitary thing, or its place in a wider pattern?
On the flip side if all you perceive of nature is the roadside slaughter of innocents, the hunting, the sudden death and short, brutal lives then you can learn that the world is a harsh, bitter and unjust place. You can learn fear, grief, and the pointlessness of everything.
To take ‘nature’ as your teacher means the whole thing, in as many different ways as you can find. It calls for actively seeking out and exploring many different aspects of the natural world. Not by imagining them, or watching them on the telly, but through active and conscious engagement. If you fixate on one thing, you lose that precious balance and any scope for seeing a bigger picture. Balance, systems, context and relationship are all important druid concepts, not to be overlooked in favour of too much specialisation, or too much skimming of surfaces.
To learn from nature is to learn to judge things on their own terms. What was disaster for my coot family was a happy snack for the passing gull. Neither creature has more or less right than the other to exist. What gives advantage to one species may undermine the viability of another. Cinnabar moths are very pretty, the ragwort they entirely depend on is poisonous to horses. Do we keep or destroy the ragwort? We have the power to choose. What is nature teaching us to do here?
I think the only easy conclusion to draw is that there are no easy conclusions. Nature is complex, full of subtle interdependencies, unlikely bedfellows. What you see on the surface is never the whole story. Two miles downstream the implications could be totally different. What might seem pretty today could be the makings of tomorrow’s disaster. Nature teaches us to look deeper and wider, to think, to question, and to accept a huge variety of ways of being, doing, living and dying. And more. But we can’t learn it hypothetically. Only in experiencing and contemplating for ourselves can we be taught anything by the natural world.