My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings
of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.
OLIVER SACKS

Not now when the world is dark on my way to work, and dark again as I head home – but on most mornings on the train, I can turn and see the trail I’d run along two hours earlier – from this other perspective, and at 100 kph.

The sky is wider somehow, seeing it from behind a pane of dirty glass. Though that doesn’t seem logical.

But there’s no sound of my footsteps. There’s no scrutinizing the shadows on the path, no still frogs, dead blackbirds, or snapped limbs scattered to trip me up. So I look up and over the water to the horizon where the hills layer themselves in ever-lighter blues to white where they smudge into the sky itself. Quiet, steady hum.

The lake is simultaneously bigger and smaller from this perspective.

Despite the creeping suburbs, I know there are elk among the trees on the far shore. Deer and mink. And there are thin vipers hidden just underground or between the stones in the centuries-old hedges. There’s a part of me that whispers: still, not wild enough. Not wild enough until the summer’s ticks dig bullseyes into flesh and release sickness into the bloodstreams of weekend hikers.

Nature does put me in a state of awe. “Wonder and mysticism and gratitude” – I guess. But also fear. If I were to call nature my religion, it would be the religion of the Middle Ages with its attending ugliness, its violence.

For every lily that unfolds in the sunlight, an injured lemming staggers days towards its death. Mallards force themselves on hens, and insects snip one another in half.

Nature isn’t pretty.

And it’s beautiful.

Biology was one of my favorite subjects in high school. Drawing the mitochondria and the Gogli apparatus was like doing God’s doodling. Now florescence and electron microscopes show diseased cells as bright and as ornamental as peacock feathers. Death and beauty go hand-in-hand. The poets have always known this, even if they’ve romanticized as a way to tame their fears. We’re snake charmers, all of us.

I keep asking myself if nature has compassion. But I find myself circling back to the idea that a whole is made up of parts: does a mallard have compassion? Does an army ant? Does lichen feel for the stone it erodes?

Does the earth
itself grieve its half-deaths
its own evisceration
shrouding itself
in plastics?

Are we losing our religion?