When my husband and I honeymooned in Scotland, we decided to take a hike to the Old Man of Storr geologic formation (read: big, tall rock) in Isle of Skye. The day was foggy, misty, and rainy — in other words, an authentic Scottish experience. We donned our hiking boots and rain shells and hit the steep slopes full of promise. With each step, the moss-covered rocks and green grass grew more slippery. The wind whipped relentlessly. At one point, the path narrowed, forcing us to walk single file. Just as we turned a corner, the wind gusted so hard, I lost my balance and teetered over the edge. Thankfully, my new husband quickly caught my jacket and held on with a steel grip until I regained my footing.
I often turn to nature in hopes of metaphorically regaining the footing in my life. Nature allows me to retreat from the pressures of daily life to reflect upon important decisions I need to make (do I voice my perspective and principles even if they are unpopular?), and to resolve dilemmas in my heart (do I pursue teaching or writing, or somehow attempt to do both?). I go to nature to heal. And to pray.
But experiences like my near catastrophic fall in Scotland made me realize that nature isn’t only an escape for me — it’s a teacher. As an educator myself, I’m acutely aware of how nature has been teaching me life’s wisest and most precious lessons. As the cool kids say, “Game recognizes game.”
Teachers know well that the best lessons learned are not the ones you meticulously plan for your students. They aren’t related to the content, and they aren’t what is on the test. The best lessons, instead, test your mettle. They show your character. And nature, like no other teacher, can knock you off your pedestal and expose your most vulnerable core. Here are just a few lessons nature has taught me over the years.
Persevere through obstacles — and learn from them.
Nature can be ruthless. Like the time we had to follow deer prints across a frozen lake because we got lost. The snow cover obscured the trail markings, and it was getting dark and cold quickly that January day. Nature teaches us how to buck up, buckle down, and persevere. Like when I had to corral strong-willed cows into the barn for milking, lead stubborn goats into pasture, and chase wayward chickens back to their coops when I worked on a dairy farm. Nature certainly doesn’t take any flack or cut us any slack. Like the time I almost flooded our tent by accidentally leaving the window flaps open before a big rainstorm. I never did that twice.
Some mountains are worth climbing — and not just for the view at the top.
Take, for instance, the day my husband and I set off on a circuit hike in the woods. It was a hot, muggy summer day. The path wound through shady thickets of trees and was overall pretty pleasant despite the humidity. All was going well until we got to the foot of the hill.
Aptly named Mount Misery, the not-so-high looking hill was incredibly steep and fairly treacherous, with loose rock and spots of sheer ninety-degree angles. Though we are both fit endurance hikers, this incline was a real pain. We stopped for breath countless times. Our calves burned, and our knees ached. There’s a saying in Polish: “Za jakie grzechy?” — which translates to asking, “For what sins?” Indeed, I felt like I was undergoing both physical and mental penance climbing that hill.
But we finally made it. There was no picturesque view at the end, only more trail, but Mt. Misery will forever be etched in my memory because it hadn’t beaten me. I climbed it, albeit begrudgingly and cussing under my breath, but I never gave up. Nature tested me, and I passed. I was proud that when the going got tough, I didn’t turn back.
We are so small — yet our lives hold significance.
Nature’s relentless tough-love approach taught me to see the smallness in myself, not in a way that renders me insignificant (after all, God calls each of us by name, knowing us even before we are born), but in a way that reveals that I am not the center of the universe. And let’s be honest — those are the best kinds of teachers, the ones who know your worth and potential, set high expectations, challenge you, let you fail, and help you get up again and again.
Not everything revolves around me; my problems, although they can feel large and looming, with the right perspective, can become small enough to carry. There is no better feeling than realizing that I am a grain of sand in this vast universe, a single thread in the tapestry of God’s creation. This was best revealed to me as I stared up at the Milky Way shining brightly in the dark country sky, on the dock with my now-husband who just proposed to me.
Just seeing the seasons change over time, or a hummingbird flitting by, or a little bumblebee packing golden treasures from a sunflower reminds me that we are all part of something greater than ourselves. You don’t need to be a thrill seeker to see God in the natural world. Any little moment in the presence of his creation is a moment filled with his grace.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, an essayist and transcendentalist living and writing in 1800’s New England, believed that the divine could be accessed through an appreciation for nature. How very Franciscan of him: St. Francis believed that our encounters with nature are doorways to the divine. This is a long way to say that my lessons from nature are really lessons from God. Unlike my students who often return to me years after graduating to thank me for the lessons they realized they learned from my class, let’s give nature due appreciation for the real, tough life lessons we can learn every day.