As I was driving to my rural hometown, leaving behind the hubbub of a Chicago suburb, I looked out across the frigid plain. This was about a week before a polar vortex ravaged the heart of the country, so my skin had not yet had the opportunity to be blistered by negative 50 wind chills. However, I grew up in a small Midwestern town, and so am well acquainted with the scourge of an Illinoisan winter.
It is a habit of mine to spend most of the glacial months cursing the skin-chapping temperatures. I can usually be heard muttering to myself about the absurdity of this season while walking from the train to my car. I invariably end up questioning why I chose to live in such a horrid climate.
As I looked out at the barren land, though, I realized a change had taken place this year. It started as the season approached, but I brushed it off as a fluke, as something momentary and fleeting. And then, at Christmastime, I again marveled at my situation. The anomaly had not yet expired. Instead, it was gaining strength. And now after the New Year, during some of the coldest temperatures ever experienced by the region, I yet again meditated on my current predicament. For the first time of my adult life, I was thankful for winter.
This thankfulness was not the byproduct of some logical need. I was not gracious because much-needed precipitation fell on the land. I didn’t long for cool temperatures because of summer days spent toiling in unbearable heat. No, this thankfulness felt different. It felt like contentment. It was the thankfulness that comes when one reflects on the world around them and is surprised at what they see. And I found that after thirty-four years on this planet, there are still treasures to behold in this life.
The beauty of nature has always called out to me. I am drawn to it. This is a paradoxical part of my personality. Some people are “outdoorsy.” They enjoy the sun on their skin, the smell of the wind, the dappling shade that is the hallmark of the forest. These people spend their time partaking in activities that thrust them outside. They climb mountains and hike through the woods. I, on the other hand, am rarely interested in these pastimes. I don’t like bugs. My relationship with the wind is fraught – that is to say, most days I view it as more of an annoyance than an ally. In the cold I am uncomfortable and unfocused, and in the heat I become lackadaisical and weary. No, I spend most of my free time in artificially-controlled environments. I’d much rather drink a beer in a pub or meet over lunch, concealed from the elements.
And yet, when I gaze out at the natural world, my mind is swept up in the philosophical current flowing beneath the tangible surface. The colors, the sounds, the life forms chasing and evading, hunting and hiding, sustaining and supporting each other – how all of it comes together to form an ecosystem, a realm mostly unseen by our busy, bustling world. Where did it all come from? Who created it, or if not who, what? Why? But the biggest question I have, the one that keeps me coming back to nature time and again, against my natural instinct to stay indoors; the question that causes me to sit among the trees, lost in a stupor of awe, allowing the environment to wash over my consciousness and, in the way that only nature can, rejuvenate me, is this: Why is it so inherently beautiful?
[TO BE CONTINUED]