Fiona Nordemann is a 28-year-old who works in development for a health nonprofit. According to The Washington Post, she grew up in a nonreligious home in Switzerland and has always found meaning in nature and animals, seeing this connection as “the base of who we are.”

She values a “sense of community with people who are also looking for inner growth, mental health support and discussion of shared ethics.” She also meditates, practices yoga and reads books on spirituality.

“With nature, there is something coming back to you. These things are alive, and connecting with them can energize you,” she said. “I don’t know how other religions feel to people, but I feel this spirituality is reciprocal.”

Bron Taylor, a University of Florida environmental studies scholar who is a leading expert on religion and nature, sees “natural spiritualities” spreading around the world, especially since the founding of Earth Day in 1970. He is aware of a growing body of evidence that experiences in nature produce their own kind of transcendence and awe. Participants in “natural spirituality” include “environmental activists who see nature as sacred, scientists who see their spirituality tied to nature and the high correlation between people reporting feeling a ‘sense of wonder about the universe’ and being atheist or agnostic.”

Praying in the woods

In my novel Windows of the Heavens, a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden takes a walk in the woods near the Occoquan River to clear his head. When Harley is sitting on the ground, a man approaches him, dressed in a broad-brimmed hat and hiking clothes. In his right hand he is carrying a large hand-carved walking stick with a skull at the end. Although the light is fading, Harley recognizes him as John Jonas—the witch who goes by the name Earth Eagle.

“What were you doing here?” asks John.

“Sitting,” replies the pastor. “And praying.”

“It’s beautiful here,” says John, looking around. “A good place to pray. But I didn’t think you people prayed in the woods.”

“Oh, sure,” Harley nods. “We do. We see God in creation.”

“You wouldn’t know it,” says the witch.

“Why’s that?”

“By the way you Christians treat the Earth.”

Harley puts the palms of his hands on the ground, and leans back against a tree, thinking for a moment. He’s trying to hook me. Don’t take the bait. He tries to change the subject by saying, “I think I saw you on the riverbank a few weeks ago. What were you doing?”

John seems to be surprised that Harley had noticed him. He pauses for a moment before saying, “Clearing debris.”

Harley nods. “That makes sense, after the flood.”

“I do a lot of trail maintenance,” says John. “There is a path along the river that was totally covered in logs, branches, and trash.”

“I bet.”

“Took me several days to get it all clear. It’s part of my commitment to the environment.”

Harley nods “Thank you for doing that.”

The spiritual and the physical

John sits down but keeps his walking stick propped between his legs, holding it with his massive hands. The two men look out over the Occoquan River, as the last flickers of light dance on the water. “We do most of our services outside,” says John.

“That was my impression.”

“There is so much power in nature,” John says, “so much energy. We believe that the spiritual world and the physical world are totally interconnected, and that every single thing has a spirit.”

Harley believes that Christ was the firstborn of all creation, and that all things were created through him. But he keeps this to himself.

“In our services, we tap into this power,” John continues, “and we embrace it all—earth, wind, water, fire, sky.”

“Earth, wind, and fire?” asks Harley. For some reason, he feels he can take a chance on humor. “Like the music group?”

“Yeah,” nods John, smiling, “just like them. But I’m serious about everything having power. We embrace it all. You Christians get all holier-than-thou and pretend that you are such a force for good, but you are not. You do as much evil as anyone, but you deny it. We have no problem with pride and personal freedom and individualism.”

“We are certainly sinners,” admits Harley. “None of us is all good.”

“We embrace the evil and the good,” John continues. Using his walking stick as a pointer, he sweeps it across the scene in front of them. “Nature is a fierce and violent system. Hawks use their talons to pluck fish out of the river, snakeheads eat frogs, coyotes attack chickens. Humans are violent, too, and always have been. It is part of our nature. We don’t deny it. But everything should be kept in balance, whether the system is a river or a forest or a town or a city. Even if the system is two people, or two groups of people, or two nations—balance is the goal, through violence if necessary.”

Harley looks at him and asks, “But is violence the best tool?” Gazing into his dark eyes, Harley senses that John would not hesitate to use violence if it suited him.

“Not the best tool,” he admits, “but one tool of many.”

Where do you find spirituality in nature, if at all? Join the conversation through a comment below.