Nature as the last Sanctuary

Geoff Ward


Geoff Ward

Nov 15, 2022

If we save nature we save ourselves

‘It has taken billions of years for each one of us to reach here. To reach this splendour.’

So Peter Owen Jones reminds us in the prologue to his Conversations with Nature (Clairview Books, October 2022), a series of eighteen metaphysical meditations, or prose poems, visceral personifications of the natural world.

The quote remains uppermost in the mind in one’s appreciation of this lyrical work, a powerful evocation of the evolutionary impulse and its interconnectedness, and how meaning and significance is readily revealed by communing with nature. It’s a small book, only about 80 pages with illustrations, but it has a big message.

An Anglican priest in East Sussex, England, Owen Jones is the author of several previous books and, in the past two decades, has been the presenter of a number of BBC TV programmes with spiritual and ecological themes.

He says: ‘We don’t save the natural world, it saves us. By seeking to save the natural world in all its glory, brutality and fertility, we can start to save ourselves. If we act with love towards the natural world, we can start to become the best of ourselves. Altruism, love and care trumps survivalism as well as delusions of mastery and command.’

Owen Jones’s radical vision is of a personal immersion in, or re-merging with, nature, a reconstitution of human participation in the universal where the materialist paradigm is subverted. He joins the ranks of nature mystics in a metaphysical tradition, with an intensity of vision akin to, say, Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies or Henry Vaughan, taking literary examples from past centuries.

Nature speaks to us if we have ears to hear, Owen Jones assures us; if we don’t heed what it’s saying then we cut ourselves off from our true being: the fox, the mouse, the bear, the heron, the hawthorn, the jasmine flower, they all tell us so. It’s a call back to creation.

Code of life

From ‘The oak speaks of sanctuary’: ‘The giving of sanctuary is written into the code of life. Planet Earth is a sanctuary, a lifeworld in the midst of space.’

And from ‘The pond speaks of peace’: ‘I cannot know peace unless I am living in peace with every tree, with every bird, with every cloud, with the deer, with the snake and the nettle, with the very air itself.’

A Wordsworthian sentiment is detectable. In ‘The Painted Lady speaks of reverie’, Owen Jones writes: ‘While you fill your days with counting and carrying, the magpies are merrying, otters are spinning stones, the pomegranate is flowering, ripples are weaving lagoons and the mountain streams are gambolling down.’

Indeed, so, while we’re ‘getting and spending’, Conversations with Nature provides us with a poetical aide-mémoire that helps us remember our cosmic origins, on what we depend and what we’re part of; in forgetfulness we cannot truly know ourselves.

I use the word ‘mystic’ in the context of Owen Jones’s book more in terms of its deeper meaning involving self-surrender to attain unity with the absolute, rather than the general sense of someone who connects to the divine through nature, and draws inspiration from it, although this aspect is also present.

A long tradition of mystical thought in the West resonates with that strand of Christianity which deplores the secular or physical world — the world that’s ‘too much with us’ — and seeks to divert attention to other realms. In saying this, I’d contend that the mystical experience is not a glimpse into another, higher order of reality, but actually is that reality.

Spiritual teacher

Nature comes to be seen as a spiritual teacher, a notion found in cultures worldwide and expressed in most spiritual traditions — Gaia theory and post-materialist science having complemented the idea in recent decades.

Conversations with Nature, offering the promise of such teaching, regards nature as life’s ‘temple’, towards which we should act with loving kindness as a kind of spiritual exerciseThe book includes a glossary conscientiously explaining various allusions, and benefits from ideographic drawings by Jerry Shearing.

Owen-Jones, now 65, has a variform background. Having grown up in the countryside, he dropped out of school at 16 and went to Australia where he worked as a farm hand. Returning to the UK, he continued farm work before running a mobile disco and then taking a job in advertising as a messenger boy, working his way up to become a creative director. In his late 20s, married and with two children, he gave up the commercial life to follow a calling to the Anglican ministry, being ordained in 1992.

On TV, in How to Live a Simple Life (2010), he tried to live a life without money in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi, and in Around the World in 80 Faiths (2009) he visited adherents of various religions. His 2006 documentary The Lost Gospels discussed the Apocryphal Gospels omitted from the New Testament, and how their contents might have changed Christian theology if they had not been suppressed.

His previous books include Small Boat, Big Sea: One Year’s Journey as a Parish Priest (2000), Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim: Reflections on life, love and the soul (2010), and Pathlands: 21 Tranquil Walks Among the Villages of Britain (2015).


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