Twenty minutes from my old home in Michigan lies a park with ever-changing vistas. Tall leafy maples blanket the hilly landscape, shifting into pristine groves of towering pine. At some places, the tree-lined canopy opens to expansive, grassy meadows that reach off into the distance, skirted again by the green boundaries of hardwood forest. Trails stretch for miles like arteries, weaving together the multiple landscapes. It’s amazing, for if you could be transported to different spots without journeying along the trails, you might think you had visited several different parks rather than adjacent places. At one point the trail moves through lush, swampy lowlands; at another, it climbs skyward in a pine cathedral. At one point you descend through an old apple orchard, and at another you move along a gurgling, rock-lined stream.
At one eerie spot, the landscape changes into a couple of huge sand-filled craters, encircled by large, creaky oaks. The change is so unexpected, and the craters so out of place, it feels like you have stepped onto another planet; even the wind brushing against the dry leaves sounds extraterrestrial. Open to the sky above and encircled by the oaks below, the shining dune craters always give me the feeling of being in a secret grove. I often wonder what it would be like to be there at night, with moonlight and starlight glistening off the pure white sands.
Whenever possible, I drive out to the park and often discover I am the only one there. It’s wonderful to be there at different times of the year, though in the wintertime, cross-country skiers make the steeper trails icy and dangerous. And while it’s not the most beautiful time of the year, I have had several noteworthy experiences there in the early spring, in that pregnant moment right before the emergence of the season’s first growth.
A typical experience goes like this. It’s that time of year when cabin fever turns into spring fever, and the first really hot day comes along. Having been cooped up over a long winter, everyone is feeling stale, confined, and ready to break free. Finally, it appears—that first memorable day in which the fertilizing heat of the Sun bears down on the landscape and everything responds to it. In the human sphere, there is an anxious rush to get outside and feel the warmth of the air, which releases a wild, carefree abandon. People become animated and are ready to cut loose. On the first hot day of spring, car windows roll down, the music is turned up to a blare, and automobiles careen by at speeds much higher than normal. I respond by hopping into my car and traveling to the country, also at speeds much higher than normal.
Pulling into the parking lot, I switch off the music as shards of gravel crunch beneath the tires. After coming to a stop and turning off the engine, the car door opens, engages with a hearty slam, and my journey down the trail begins.
All of nature is in a state of unfolding gestation. As I head down the trail, the pathway curves and meanders along the bank of Honey Creek, which is now swiftly boiling from the winter melt off. There are a few birds, but the atmosphere is mostly quiet. It is as though everything is ready to break out, but is, as yet, on pause, in a state of suspended animation.
The sharp heat of the Sun beats down and is embraced by the moist, black earth. Every now and then I come across a patch of lingering ice that is being worked away relentlessly by the Sun’s rays. I’m moving along at a good pace and feel the first sting of sweat on my back, arms, and shoulders. Perhaps I’m starting to melt, too.
Everywhere I look, I feel the presence of emergent life, but it is not yet realized. While there are no leaves on the trees, saplings display tiny points of new growth. Everything is black, brown, maize, silver, or the color of driftwood. Despite this neutrality, under the Sun and hot air, the radiant presence of life is unseen yet tangible. It impinges on every sense and you can taste it in the air. In reality, everything is cooking in the primordial heat of gestation.
My attention is repeatedly drawn to the warmth of the air and what is happening in the rich, black soil along the stream. The air itself is like a moist, hot breath. As I breathe in, I take in the living breath of the Earth, and when I exhale I offer back my own life essence. As nature breathes and cooks, there is a continuity of the inner and the outer.
Pounding along the trail, I am struck by the immediate perception that the black earth is alive and twisting beneath the surface, ready to send forth shoots and carpets of green. And it is this on which I linger. Warmed by the heat of the Sun, the black earth is animated by a life power that is ready to burst forth. The importance of the perception lies in its tangible, experiential nature: the body of the Earth, warmed by the alchemical heat of the Sun, is itself alive. The force of the living Earth is sensed and present, a manifest perception that cuts to the deepest core of reality. It is an intoxicating sensation, and one that the calculating intellect could never hope to grasp or explain.
When the spring fever of the hot Sun cooks the black body of the Earth, it is then when you can most tangibly feel the living spirit of nature. The alchemists called it Mercurius, quicksilver, the World Soul, anima mundi, spiritus mundi, the light hidden in nature, and a dozen other names. It is a vital force, a living presence, the Holy Spirit that penetrates all things. My breath and the breath of the living Earth are one. And when the hot sap of spring fever mounts upward in exfoliation and celebration, it mounts upward in us, too.
David Fideler studied ancient religions and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and the history of science. Excerpted from his latest book, Restoring the Soul of the World (Inner Traditions, 2015).