By Kyle Mitchell
I work on a farm and do a lot of farm-based education with youth. One of my weekly joys right now is walking the farm and leading kids on a tasting tour. We try carrots, sorrel, sugar snap peas, mint, cucumbers, blue borage flowers – which taste like cucumbers oddly enough. I point to a potato plant and ask kids to guess what the plant is. They guess – An apple plant? Tomato? Lettuce? When I dig down with the garden fork and begin to pull up on the plant, I can barely hold in my excitement. I know the squeals and gasps that will shortly ensue when they realize that, “it’s potatoes!” “Can we eat them?” Wait, no, we need to cook them first, I think? Mental note for later, “Google ‘can you eat raw potatoes’”.
One of my main goals when I walk the farm with young folks is to facilitate an encounter with where our food comes from, an experience with nature herself. Sometimes I get nervous thinking that I need to communicate some deep truth about the universe, how we’re all connected, how we literally eat ourselves into existence each day (pause and chew on that for a second!). And then I realize, all I need to do is let them be on the farm – with the plants, with the animals, with the soil. Eating a cucumber straight off the plant is pure magic, even if you don’t understand photosynthesis. It’s healing. It awakens something deep within us.
I was recently flipping through a book called Last Child in the Woods which has the subtitle: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. The author cued me in to the origins of the word nature. It comes from the Latin natura meaning – “birth, constitution, character, course of all things”. The past participle is nasci which means “to be born”. It reminded me of Jesus’ instructions to Nicodemus about being born again. It’s the famous phrase that we read on church billboards or hear used as an adjective – I’m tall, blue-eyed, and born-again.
I began turning this wording over in my head, wondering if there was a more useful way to think about this phrase. I thought about how taking a ritual bath has been a way of celebrating a new way of experiencing life. My church called it being baptized in water. We liked to get fully underwater, fully immersed. Since we did not clap at my church for reasons I can’t remember, it was always quiet when someone came out of the water at baptism time. I actually appreciate the silence now, which was interrupted by the swishing sound of a person emerging from the water, followed by the echoing drip drops of water falling off their back. They had been born again. Re-natured. Nasci.
In thinking about ritual baths, I was reminded of a phrase I recently heard – forest-bathing. I’ve never done it officially or consciously like in “Hey ya’ll, I’m about to go forest-bathe.” But the concept sounds simple and delightful. The idea is to walk through the forest (or around some trees) slowly and without technology to distract. Follow your senses. What do you smell, hear, see, feel? Where do you need to sit and just be for a while? What is drawing you in, peaking your curiosity? The Japanese call it Shinrin-Yoku – Shinrin meaning “forest” and Yoku meaning “bath”. I imagine it like a forest baptism, where one enters into wild nature and comes out reborn. Re-natured. Nasci.
I find it interesting and instructive for those of us trying to dig into the roots of this Christian path, that after Jesus had his ritual water bath in a river, he immediately went into wild nature for 40 days. I like how Mark’s gospel mentions he was with the wild animals. Jesus entered the womb of the wild to be reborn. Re-natured. Nasci.
Nature is the ultimate womb, the place of perpetual birth and re-birth. Surely whoever came up with Latin was pondering this meaning when they named nature.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist and member of the Potowanami tribe. In her quest to understand the beauty of the natural world, she connects modern science with traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). One of her insights is that we misuse the impersonal pronoun “it” when referring to trees, rocks, water, or clouds (e.g., That oak tree is a giant. “It” provides so much shade). Using “it” increases the chance that we will objectify nature, thinking in terms of natural resources to be exploited and monetized. Instead, she has been trying out the word “ki” from her indigenous tongue, meaning a living being of the earth (e.g., The river was flowing fast when I waded in “ki” the other day.) This simple switch in language and thought might be a way to grow in our affection and respect for the natural world of which we are related. In fact, the plural of ki is actually a familial word we know – kin.
It’s exciting to me that some folks are trying to recover the beauty of Jesus’ radical vision of Shalom by dropping the “g” in kingdom of God. This phrase in our vernacular drips of imperialism, patriarchy, and domination – the opposite of what Jesus had in mind. As we collectively wake up to the reality that we are all family, we are all kin, the phrase “kin-dom of God” seems to me a beautiful way to describe the family of creation, including trees, rocks, rivers, and red-winged black birds.
With climate catastrophe looming over us, we hear of countless species being lost and threatened each day. Our home is in danger and our Mother, nature, is sending us messages. Her messages are overwhelming, mind-numbing, terrifying. What must we do to be saved!? I imagine Jesus saying something like, become like little children pulling potatoes out of the ground for the first time. Climb a tree. Plant a tomato. Feel wonder. Play. Enter the forest and smell the sweet, moist humus. That’s where you came from and that’s where you’re going. Be vulnerable. Feel the connection. Feel the continual birth and re-birth in nature, of nature. You are nature. As nature is continually born and born again, so you must be born again. Re-natured. Nasci.
Only then will we see the kin-dom of God.
Kyle Mitchell (right), a Florida native, now lives in Ohio with his wife Lynea. It gets cold there, but that’s ok because the seasons are really great overall. They recently transitioned from the urban farming world in Cleveland to living and working at a camp and retreat center farm in the country. They grow vegetables and care for a whole herd of animals including chickens, goats, sheep and dogs.