Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
—Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
In early May I found myself walking through the streets of a semi-industrial Berlin neighborhood. I had stepped off the train and crossed an ugly main road, which was still busy at that evening hour. The sun was fading behind a pink- and blue-colored mist, foreboding rain.
I entered a quieter street, lined with 1920s condos behind rows of slender Hawthorn trees. There, I heard the voices: A Blackbird, high on a gutter, hurled melodic fragments through the air. His song was echoed by other males on the surrounding roofs. A Black-capped Chickadee whistled crescendos from one of the Hawthorns. And where the condo opened onto a small park, a Nightingale sang in a hedge covered with foamy-white Honeysuckle blossoms.
The blossoms scented the air, filling it with sweetness as the Nightingale filled it with sound, and behind the city’s pale haze, the evening sun filled the sky with light. Two teenage girls lingered in the park, relishing the evening, which in every aspect was a call. The air was scent and sound and stirring limbs and opening blossoms, a call to become fully alive.
It reminded me of a night in Tuscany, Italy, years ago. On that particular night, the fragrances of flowers in bloom gave way to the dance of uncountable drops of light: Fireflies were out for their mating rituals. In the twilight above the poppies and the sage, it was not clear if the stars were falling to the Earth or the Earth was birthing sparks of light.
Watching that sparkling scene, I remember that I felt the need to fall in love. That was my reaction to the Italian spring around me: the desire to love. The joy of spring is not happiness derived from something that we have received or that we will get. Spring’s joy emanates from our powers to participate in aliveness. We experience this joy in the presence of other beings, in encounters with the more-than-human-world. This joy inspires the desire to care for life. Such joy sustains itself through acts of caring and gifts of delight.
To me, this exchange of joy is the essence of our experience of what we usually call “nature.” To be in touch with nature is to be included in an intense mutuality, a web of reciprocity stimulating connection with other lives. For a long time, our culture has not paid much attention to the rites and relationships forged in Spring: the unseen connections which exist between the humans full of fresh desire, the ecstatic birds, and the exploding blossoms. And for nearly as long, nature has simply been seen as that which is not human, that which is not mind, or language, or culture. Nature has become an other we think of either as better and more harmonious or as a dangerous Leviathan ready to sow wild destruction.
But, in my experience, nature cannot be so simply defined. Nature is not distant from us. It is not other. It is not matter alone, not the substance of birds and blossoms, but matter as desire. Nature is the embodied desire to connect. The senses are vehicles for this desire; they speak to our own longing to connect.
In this respect, we can say that what we truly experience when we are connecting to nature is the call of our Higher Self. We are never really disconnected from nature, nor can we extract ourselves from connection with other beings. We are entangled with all life, even amid the disasters of civilization. The Higher Self is the yearning for aliveness manifest in all of us. It encompasses a deep, sensual knowledge about the rules according to which this aliveness can unfold. The Higher Self is not an abstract concept, which can only be taught by moral philosophers or priests. To the contrary, the Higher Self is totally present to all of our senses. We can touch it, hear it, taste it, scent it, because we are a part of it.
I am proposing we give up the idea of nature as an essence or substance, different from the human essence. But I’m not about to consider nature a set of relationships, either. Instead, I see nature as something not-yet-present, something continuously yearning to be realized through the bodies of living beings. These bodies transmit the genuinely unfinished core of nature, its desire to become through reciprocity.
When I talk of Higher Self, I’m not referring to a person or the inner voice of the superego (some messenger telling me exactly what to do and judging me for not doing it, or not doing it well). The Higher Self does not command. It calls. And it calls to us through the body. The basic natural condition of being a self is being a body that needs contact with other bodies. Bodies have needs they yearn to fulfill. They are full of feelings and express these feelings. This existentially meaningful, expressive relation between self and world is also the essence of ecological interactions. From an external perspective, you can think of nature as an ecosystem. From within, you can feel nature as a call to connect, to nourish aliveness by communing with others. You can think of it as your own Higher Self.
We are in the midst of a tragedy. As the sixth mass extinction gains momentum and the emptiness explodes, we are forgetting the Higher Self. The Higher Self can never be truly lost because it is knit into life, and we all are an instance of life, every cell in each one of us. But in distancing ourselves from the lives of others, we are destroying the moments in which the call can remind us that our true need is not only to take what we need for a great individual life, but also to give aliveness to the whole.
What happens when there is no Honeysuckle nearby to call to us with his fragrance? No Nightingale to awaken our hearts with her song? We are already neglecting the needs of the Higher Self, when we say “humans” here and “nature” there. When we see ourselves as apart from nature, we are claiming that the Higher Self is not human. But in truth it is what is most human in us.
The danger is that without the Higher Self our actual selves become obscure. “Empty self” is the term psychologists have given to the identities of people who are not able to give; who can only take what they need; who feel entitled to take; who blame loved ones if things go wrong; who are afraid to simply be; who, in brief, behave according to the rules of our mainstream culture. A true self, in contrast, does not exercise dominion over life but participates in the exchange that is living.
We can describe this exchange, the Higher Self, as our ability to blossom. A blossom is not a moralistic law. Blossoming is not obedience to the tough love and severe judgment of a demanding god-creator. Blossoming is our ability to create—to give—through unique forms with varied and interconnected ways of being alive. Enveloped in the Honeysuckle’s scent, beneath the Blackbird’s triumphant call, I realized that blossoming is an elementary way to love.
Other beings do not love as we love. If we lose the others, if we don’t give to them, we will be loved less. If we continue to think that we can stand apart as beings, isolated from all other life, we will be loved less, and we will be less loving in return. Our Higher Selves will yearn in vain, like a lover who has lost his beloved.