Reading the Landscape: Religious Reading and Contemplation
Dr. Kristen Page – May, 2015
I read books to learn, to worship, to teach, to escape, and to relax. As an ecologist, I also read landscapes by considering the ecology of the places I find myself. I scan, recognize, identify, and interpret (Schur 1998, Dehaene 2009) with the hope that I might learn, worship, teach, escape or relax. As I considered the reading of texts during the CACE seminar on reading, I realized that the motivations for reading and the outcomes of reading are similar whether you are reading a text or you are reading a landscape.
Reading the landscape involves paying attention to ones surroundings in order to understanding what attributes make the place biologically unique. As the landscape is explored, the “reader” considers the common species making up the community (like robins and gray squirrels) and delights with every surprising discovery (like a visiting scarlet tanager or a roaming red fox). As the landscape is read, the reader asks questions including: what species are common to this community? What species are rare? How do the species present interact? How do humans interact with these species? How do humans impact the interactions of other species? As an ecologist, my reading of landscapes moves beyond the basics so that I might answer more complex questions. I read landscapes so that I can understand how interactions drive ecological processes (like disease transmission), and I especially want to know what role humans play in these systems. I also can read landscapes and understand how God provides for his creation through these interactions, and how we harm our neighbors when we do not value these interactions.
Reading landscapes is not just for ecologists. You do not have to have an exhaustive knowledge of flora and fauna, nor do you need to be able to scientifically interpret the interactions you observe. In fact, some of the strongest “readers” of landscapes are children who are not yet able to read texts. A child’s sense of wonder and endless questions allows them to explore and examine and recognize patterns that adults take for granted. However, as a child grows distractions increase and many forget the joy and excitement of the ways they used to “read” nature. Rachel Carson, a pioneering conservation ecologist noted, “It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed even lost before we reach adulthood. “(Carson 1965, p. 84-85)
The loss of this sense of wonder has important implications for the Christian. Reading landscapes is more than just creating lists of species and learning natural history. Rather, such readings can help us understand more of our creator when landscapes are read by readers who believe that “God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Griffiths (1999) writes “religious reading …has to do primarily with the establishment of certain relations between readers and the things they read, relations that are at once attitudinal, cognitive and moral, and therefore imply an ontology, an epistemology, and an ethic” (p. 41). In this sense, reading the landscape may be a form of religious reading. It facilitates a relationship between the reader and God, the author/creator. What is understood impacts all facets of the reader’s life, and should “yield meaning, suggestions (or imperatives) for action, matter for aesthetic wonder, and much more” (Griffiths 1999, p. 41). Religious reading is transformational. According to Griffiths (1999), religious reading evokes reverence, recognizes beauty and is the source of delight. In Psalm 8:3-4, David responds in just this way to what he has read in the landscape:
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
Creation can be approached with reverence, awe, wonder, and the reader can participate with the author in the narrative. Therefore, a cultivation of this type of reading can facilitate spiritual growth and formation. When children are encouraged to facilitate their natural tendency to read landscapes, they are also being encouraged to deepen their relationship with and understanding of God. Adults also benefit when we work to help children maintain their natural abilities. We must work to re-learn how to read and wonder, but if we start with young children they can teach us. Working together, the child can maintain her sense of wonder while the adult rekindles theirs.
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in” (Carson 1965, p.88-89).
God is revealed in his creation, and as with any religious reading, he delights when we “read” it. In fact, we are instructed to do so. “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (Job 12:7-9). As with any religious reading, we can be transformed in the knowledge of the creator when we approach our reading with awe, reverence and contemplation. We learn that we are part of creation and cared for as God cares for everything he made. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams.” (Isaiah 44:6) If someone has ever seen a poplar meadow by a mountain stream, reading this verse in Isaiah may even take on more meaning. When I read this verse, I am immediately in that meadow; hearing birds, smelling the clean air, feeling loved and peaceful. I also understand more of the promised blessing because I know that grass and poplars grow in thick stands, and propagate faster than many other types of plants. People need take time to read landscapes (which requires spending time in creation) so that they can approach a religious reading of the scripture in new ways.
Reading the landscape has many benefits. Spending time in creation results in a slowing of life. Exploring what God has made in an attitude of wonder and joy requires time! As with any type of reading, one could approach a landscape by quickly scanning a beautiful vista (Dehaene 2009). Certainly some landscapes, like a sunset in the mountains, will evoke strong emotion with just a glance. However, there are benefits to taking the time for a close reading (Schur 1998). Children are better at focusing on small, often obscure details. Spend time in creation with a child, and you will notice so many amazing things. A recent walk with my daughter along Lake Michigan led us to a conversation about time and transformation – but in ways that a six year old can comprehend. It started with her observation that the “rocks” making up the sand look like glass. We talked about this large lake, and how all of the land around it was under a glacier. We thought about how big that river of ice must have been to make such a huge lake. We thought about how heavy it was and how long it took for that ice to move back and forth over large rocks to make such small grains of sand. Through the conversation, my daughter was hearing about how God cares for his creation, about the long processes required for transformation. She learned that beauty takes time, and although I did not apply this to her life at this point, when she is older she will have this as context to understand the slow process of how God refines our lives.
Reading the landscape requires an intentional slowing and deep attention (Jacobs 2014). It results in reflection, confidence and joy. God loves and takes delight in His creation. Creation sings his praises! We are part of creation and have a special responsibility as caretakers. When we spend time reading the landscape we are more prone to respond to the Creator in praise and by taking on an attitude of responsibility for creation. Reading the landscape requires that we “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10). This stillness draws us closer to God and provides us opportunity for contemplation. “My God, I pray better to You by breathing. I pray better to you by walking than by talking.” (Merton 2007). Reading landscapes provides us with opportunities for this stillness, and this type of religious reading can improve our spiritual life and draw us closer to the Creator.
Carson, R. 1965. Sense of Wonder. Kindle Edition. Open Road, New York.
Dehaene, S. 2009. Reading in the brain: the science and evolution of a human invention. Penguin Viking, New York.
Griffiths, P. 1999. Religious reading: the place of reading in the practice of religion. Oxford University Press, New York.
Jacobs, A. 2014. The attentive reader (and other mythical beasts). http://blog.ayjay.org/uncategorized/attentivereader/ (accessed 20 June 2015).
Merton, T. 2007. Dialogues with silence: prayers and drawings. Kindle edition, ed. J. Mantaldo. Harper Collins ebook, New York.
Schur, D. 1998. An introduction to close reading. Harvard University, Cambridge.