It’s only been in the last few years that I began to realize, as I hiked the numerous trails of Sedona, that in my own way I was “reading” nature – that in some ways it had a voice I was listening to. And then, when I came across this ancient idea, it struck a deep and familiar chord.
There’s a concept, prevalent in antiquity and the early to mid-middle ages, that was a metaphor for how nature was regarded – as a “great book,” full of meaning. Building on Aristotle’s view of the world – nature possessing form or soul – and weaving this into a Christian perspective was the metaphor of “The Book of Nature.”
The Book of Nature
Some people, in order to discover God, read books.
But there is a great book:
the very appearance of created things.
Look above you! Look below you!
Note it. Read it.
God, whom you want to discover,
never wrote that book with ink.
– Saint Augustine (354 – 430 CE)
For Augustine, there were two books that one could study in order to develop personal qualities of piety and virtue that would bring you closer to God – the Book of Scripture, and the Book of Nature. He saw both books as allegorical – pointing beyond themselves to a higher truth, which in a sense permeated both books.
Back then, when nature was like a book, it was meaningful – the contents of nature had significance for people and spoke to them. There was a relationship that was two-way, and a sense of connection and an acknowledgement of belonging to a common source.
As I walk many paths in Sedona’s amazing landscape, I feel this connection and, in addition, reaching back over more than 2000 years, I find myself walking with Aristotle and Augustine and even seeing a little through their eyes as they read the same book that I now stand in front of.
Somewhere in this experience is a kind of deep healing for me, because I have found that the modern-day world – its stresses and belief structures – can separate us from ourselves, nature and each other. Opening the book of nature feels like blood flowing back into a forgotten limb – the limb that carries my own connection to this cosmos and my deepest self.
I am trying to teach you that this alphabet of “natural objects”
(soils and rivers, birds and beasts) spells out a story.
Once you learn how to read the land,
I have no fear of what you will do to it, or with it,
And I know many pleasant things it will do to you.
– Aldo Leopold (1887 – 1948)