Hannah Anderson on Engaging with Nature

Hannah Anderson lives in the haunting Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She spends her days working beside her husband in rural ministry, caring for their three children, and scratching out odd moments to write. She spoke with us today about how nature can teach us about God.

We think it’s easier, Hannah, to see the handiwork of the Creator and recognize spiritual lessons in natural things like plants, trees, and animals. But as all of us can see, we’re living in a world where our lives are further and further removed from nature. Are we also becoming further and further removed from being able to contemplate the things of God in the way that’s described in Turning of Days?

The short answer is “yes.”

Yes, I believe modern life creates unique barriers to learning about the ways of God in nature, if for no other reason than the fact that we don’t actually have to engage with creation if we don’t want to. We don’t have to raise our own food. We don’t have to adjust to seasonal cycles of cold and heat. We don’t have to ever leave our cozy houses and climate-controlled cars. We don’t have to care for animals unless we want to. So the very act of being present in nature becomes, like so many things in modern life, simply a matter of personal choice (‘if you like to be in nature, fine, but that’s just your personal preference’). It’s seen as a hobby or a special interest. The reality, though, is that we were created to interact with the natural world around us. We were made to engage with it. 

I don’t think this means that everyone has to move to the country or plant a garden. But it might mean that we need to re-orient our attention back toward the natural world. It might mean recognizing that the shape of modern life isn’t going to naturally take us in that direction, so if we’re going to contemplate the ways and works of God in nature, we’re going to have to be intentional about it. 

What innate discerning abilities are we at risk of losing due to living away from nature?

One of the dangers of a lack of awareness of the natural world is that we quickly begin to center ourselves in it rather than remember that we too are created beings. We begin to think of human beings as somehow over and above the world around us; we develop an anthropocentric view of the universe and subtly put ourselves in the place of the Creator. But when you’re living in awareness of the natural world, you can’t help but be awed. You can’t help but realize how small you are and how big God is.

But when you’re living in awareness of the natural world, you can’t help but be awed. You can’t help but realize how small you are and how big God is.

This is exactly what David says in Psalm 8 (NIV): “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” In other words, when I consider the majesty of creation around me, I can’t help but feel small. But rather than being discouraged, David celebrates the glory of God in all the earth—he celebrates the power and person behind it all. And even more interestingly, he recognizes that it is in God’s loving kindness that He would care for us at all. I’m not sure you can get to that same awareness without first recognizing your place in the creation. 

How do we cultivate that kind of mindfulness in order to be able to notice the things that you do as you venture out into the world around you? Is that something that you have innately? If not, how did you develop it?

Part of what led me to write Turning of Days was a realization that I had been blessed with a distinct upbringing that had formed certain perspectives and dispositions in me, particularly toward the natural world.

I grew up on 10-acre homestead in rural Pennsylvania and spent much of my time outside either in the garden or in the woods. My husband Nathan, the illustrator of Turning of Days, grew up in a similar context in the mountains of Virginia. And when we met, we found that we had a kind of shared language and categories. We valued similar things and moved through the world in a similar way. It took us a while to understand that this wasn’t necessarily shared by everyone.

In many ways, this kind of presence and awareness feels innate to us, but it’s actually something that we learned through experience and then chose to cultivate as adults. (I know plenty of people who grew up similarly, who’ve decided they prefer different rhythms as adults.) Nathan and I have chosen to continue to live along certain habits and patterns at a scale that makes sense for our family. 

So I do think this kind of mindfulness can be learned because we learned it. But I think it’s something that you learn by doing—by actually getting outside and getting your hands dirty. You learn by planting a tomato plant and watching it grow and blossom. You learn by taking walks and grabbing a field guide and being curious about what you see. You learn by paying attention and taking notes. And for families, I think it’s especially important to learn together, to invite each other out and into this world that God has made.

Learn more about Hannah’s latest release, Turning of Days: Lessons from Nature, Season, and Spirit.