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Caring for the Earth as a Spiritual Practice

When it comes to my relationship with the Earth, I sometimes ask, “Should I save it or savor it?”  There’s no doubt that Earth is in need of saving, and I know I have a role to play in reversing the damage we, as humans, have done to the Earth. Yet, I also feel a need to spend time just basking in the beauty of nature. I find that walking through a forest, hiking in the mountains, or just watching a sunset nourishes me in profoundly satisfying ways.  I call such experiences “soul-making” experiences; and by “soul-making,” I mean that which helps to shape the core of who I am and gives my life deeper meaning. 

But, then I ask, “With the environment in a state of crises and the future of humanity at risk, shouldn’t our energies be spent on saving – versus savoring – the natural world?  How can we be concerned about soul-making when there are much larger issues needing our immediate attention?”

Fortunately, the message about needing to “save the environment” is out there, and many are taking heed.  What may be equally important, however, is a message about the need to save ourselves – not just in terms of our physical well-being, but also in relation to our souls or spiritual well-being. If we need nature to nurture our souls, we’ll certainly want to spend some time just savoring the beauty of the natural world.  But does this mean that we have to choose between saving or savoring the environment? Is this really an either/or proposition? I think not.  Working to save the environment is important for the health of the planet—and ultimately ourselves -- but such work can also promote the well-being of our psychics and our souls, especially when saving the environment is motivated by a sense of caring. 

Caring expands our souls and is critical to attaining our full potential as humans. We sometimes refer to reaching our potential as achieving self-actualization which—as psychologists tell us—involves expanding our circle of concern beyond ourselves to include the larger community of humans. Aldo Leopold, in his articulation of “the land ethic,” proposed an even larger circle of concern.  He called for enlarging the boundaries of community “to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” Leopold believed that our relationship with nature should be based on an ethic of care versus coercion or fear. According to Leopold, this changes the role of humans from users and conquerors of the land-community to members and citizens of it.  

When it comes to saving or savoring the environment, Leopold suggested that our ability to perceive beauty in the natural world may promote voluntary self-restraint for the sake of ecological sustainability. Taking this thought another step, it’s reasonable to see how savoring the beauty of nature can motivate us to care for nature and that the very act of caring will nurture our souls and make us more whole.

We might pass mandates to save the environment, but will this approach save our psyches and our souls? For the holistic well-being of humans, we may need to focus—not just on the environment—but on our emotional and spiritual connections with the natural world. Once we enter into a caring relationship with the natural environment and give of ourselves to protect it, we’ll understand more fully the truth behind the sentiment that it’s in giving that we receive. We’ll also appreciate the fact that the land ethic isn’t just a mandate or a code of conduct to be followed. It may prove to be a soul solution, as well. In this sense, caring for the earth becomes a spiritual practice and a path to spiritual growth. Both saving and savoring the environment thus become soul-making experiences.

About the Author

Ruth Wilson

Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., is a retired educator who now works with the Children and Nature Network as curator of the Research Library. 

She also devotes her time to writing and consulting, especially on issues relating to children and nature. Wilson has written several books and numerous articles on these and other topics relating to the way humans interact with the rest of the natural world.

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