One of the inseparable aspects of living in the Pacific Northwest is being a lover of nature. Even if you don’t love nature yourself, you can be sure that you are surrounded by those who love nature. I think that to many of us, the outdoors are much more than just about physical health. In a world of skepticism, divisive politics and moral corruption, reconnecting with the beauty and wonder of nature is a way that we seek our peace and balance. And yet, in this attempt to rekindle our sense of the magic of the world, the “not religious, but spiritual” soul faces a nagging and awkward tension: What is nature and why is it so wonderful?
The scientific mindset of our age has starved our souls. A universe that is pure chance and chaos carries no wonder. A world that basically boils down to biochemical machinery is a dead world. All the beauty that we think we see is not actually beauty. Its just our genes playing tricks on our nervous system to tell us that we should keep living and keep reproducing. In this kind of worldview, our sense of the the cosmos is flattened out. The flavors are drained. The colors are stripped. The heart is left parched and thirsty for something more.
And yet we get out there. We breath in the wet forest smells. We feast our eyes on the thousands of shades of living green. We listen to the thickness of the silence. We gaze at the stunning armies of rugged white and gray mountain peaks. This world belittles us. This world exalts us. And we know that there is something more than biochemical machinery at work in it.
Tolkien and His Trees
One of the most striking aspects of Tolkien’s world to me was the way that he describes trees. Ever since I first visited Middle Earth I can’t really unsee the wonder and wisdom of trees. But then, its not even just the trees. Its the grass. The stones. The mountains. The streams. The animals. Wisdom. Wonder. Power. Purpose.
The heart of why Tolkien’s natural world is so powerful, and the same reason why all nature is so powerful, is because it is not just a force, it not just a machine; nature is wonderful because there is something about nature that makes it personal. Behind all the beauty of all that we see around us, there is a sense in which it is haunted by a personal presence that fills the human soul and points the fact that we are not alone in this world.
This is actually something that ancient paganism got both right and wrong. Many of the ancient (and now modern) pagan religions saw great personality in the forces of nature and therefore made nature itself into a god (or set of gods). They saw this witness to personality in nature, and yet they tried to exalt nature itself as god. But the trees are not persons. The rivers don’t have consciousness. The mountains do not love you. That is absurd and we know it.
The Source of True Wonder
The great contradiction of our modern culture lies in the vain attempt at destroying all ideas of the supernatural, while at the same time trying to embrace the magic of life. We are told that all is evolutionary process, all is time and chance, all is machine. There is no Creator, no One to whom we must answer. And yet we try to believe in a certain spirituality and magical that is presence in the universe. At the end of the day, this magic cannot be defined. And because of that, it offers no real answer, and gives no true freedom to fully enjoying the beauty of the world.
The wisdom of Tolkien’s trees came from his own assumption that there is a Master Artist at work in this world. Middle Earth was only possible because Tolkien himself lived in the world of a the Bible’s infinite personal Creator. And it unlocked his ability to see and enjoy the personal wonder of nature, and to write about it. Nature is beautiful not because it is God itself, but because it points to the love, power and wisdom of the world. Every time a sunset takes your breath away or the lush green wood brings your soul to silent awe, know that these are the brush strokes of your Father. He cares for you. He is telling you of himself, and of your need for his redeeming love.