Nature as Metaphor

In 1877, freshly ordained Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, composed the sonnet ‘God’s Grandeur’, which would posthumously become a timeless example of the poet’s prodigious artistic calibre and deep respect for the innate spiritual lessons of the natural world for humanity. Hopkins spent much of his short authorial life revering nature’s efforts of rejuvenation, and lamenting man’s dominance as the industrial era began.

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…

Analysis of Hopkins’ words reveals a simple (and beautifully put) notion: that the natural world endures what he deems the often anti-spiritual world of man and, despite humanity’s best efforts, still produces new shoots of green; still recuperates itself to the very best of its ability; still bears fruit and flowers. Grass will grow even through the smallest cracks in the concrete that has sought to cover the earth; nature will, as far as it possibly can, propel itself to life when conditions around it dictate otherwise. Hopkins’ lines – And for all this nature is never spent/there lives the dearest freshness deep down things – remind us that nature’s very essence is that of rebirth. It replicates and rejuvenates itself season after season, depletion after depletion. Nature’s seasonal triumph provides not only physical beauty, but also, as portrayed by Hopkins and his ilk, gentle spiritual teachings on the human capacity for renewal.

It is ancient thinking, to relate our inner transitions of mood and fortune to that of the season. And yet, it’s a metaphor humanity cannot seem to dismiss or surpass; it endures as a dramatic device, and as a way of conceptualising our personal ebbs and flows of achievement, happiness, grief and hardship. We only have to go as far as the cultural zeitgeist that is Game of Thrones to see the ‘winter as death and despair’ allegory in full contemporary swing. Likening the status of the inner to the outer world could be considered cliché, yet the comparison shows no signs of losing its merit or helpfulness in the human plight to conceptualise and philosophise on how to live well.

Some argue that it is because of our innate and natural fear of death that we are inspired by motifs and metaphors of rebirth, revival and resurrection.”

This certainly rings true for followers of any major religion, each of which promises an afterlife immeasurably more pleasurable and peaceful than one’s lived experience on earth. But the secular among us also seek inspiration via scenes of nature’s restoration and regeneration, if not too quell a fear of personal extinction, then perhaps to gain comfort in life’s inevitable rocky moments. All of us will require the personal strength to overcome major adversity at some or many points of our lives. What we hope is that through trauma and adversity we can re-emerge; that after the metaphorical winter we will experience a bountiful, fresh spring.

Nature’s literal rebirth doesn’t just provide a helpful symbol for those experiencing emotional hardship. It also represents a flourishing transformative period; a stage of unfurling, of becoming, of beauty, a fruitful outcome of a hard won journey. To be a human being is to suffer, as Bill Ayers famously theorised, but arguably in equal measure it is to seek rebirth and transformation. According to Maslow’s long-standing theory of the hierarchy of needs, once a person has their basic requirements of water, food, rest and safety met, they eventually move towards a need for self actualisation, to achieve their full potential. It is indelibly human to wish to improve ourselves, to become what it is we believe we are destined to be. There is perhaps no moment in our lives when we stop and think ourselves completed, satisfied with our personal and collective transformation.

Thus, perhaps the reason the cyclical transition of nature – from the decline and depletion of winter, to the renewal and opportunity of spring, to the primeness of summer and then to the winding down of autumn – is so enduring as a metaphor for our inner states is because it teaches us a lesson we all instinctively know to be true yet cannot fully realise or enact into our psyche. The steadiness of nature’s stages of rebirth offer an ultimate example of surrender, of letting go, of trusting in an intrinsic and slower paced process of reaching our potential.

Nature’s example suggests to us that rebirth and transformation, becoming exactly who we believe ourselves capable to be is not only possible, but inevitable, if we let go of the struggle and speediness, and of the need to become our best instantly and without journeying through several unique stages.

Nature’s metaphor releases us from a sense of battling against our circumstances and invites us to rely upon an innate, perhaps universal, order and timing.”

Naturalist and poet Henry Thoreau often philosophised on the benefits and inspiration of living in harmony with the seasons. Journaling in 1853, he wrote: Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth. Yet most of us don’t wish to heed Thoreau’s advice or take nature’s example. We tend to want the dramatic weight loss in a week; the job promotion to be offered today; our grief to untangle and release its grip on our hearts quickly. Unlike our most primal and humble example, the natural world, we often wish for instant gratification and once we receive it, expect to remain at our best. We do not see the benefits of a season of emotional depletion, hardship and reflection. We do not see that this sets us up for a dramatic personal rebirth when the time is exactly right. And yet we know deep down that there is sense and beauty in nature’s metaphorical example. On some lingering level, we hope to take a figurative lesson from her literal rebirth.