I drove across country this past weekend, from central Illinois to the suburbs of Washington, DC. I passed through many types of terrain on the way to the nation’s capital, from the temperate prairie to broadleaf forest and into the mountains, where pines still rendered the winter slopes in green.
On my way east, I passed suburbs and cities and farms and small towns. From the Great Plains to the Eastern Forests, each biome was different. And I don’t mean simply in a geographical or political sense, but on a deeper, more spiritual level.
Each region through which I passed “felt” different to me. Yale University tells children that, “A biome is a community of animals and plants spreading over an extensive area, sometimes thousands of miles in length or width, with relatively uniform climatic conditions.”
Scientifically, sure. But there was more than animals, plants and climatic conditions at play.
The mountains spoke differently to me than had the once tall grass prairie turned farmland. And not just on a visual, sensory level, but something deeper. Sacred biomes.
On my way to the bustling I-95 corridor, I was detached from what I was seeing. I was in the car, on the Interstate, and experiencing it all at a remove. It – that is, nature – was out there, on the other side of the glass. I was in my car, flying by at sixty to seventy miles per hour. It was pretty, but I was not actually experiencing it, not in the sense that I was part of it.
I was really no closer to our earth than if I had been looking at photographs while orbiting the moon.
But on the way home, my experience was different. Perhaps the recent rain had brought out the earth’s smells. Perhaps it was just that I was more open to the world, but I experienced it on a level I had not on the way out.
I could feel the earth from my car. The occasional rest-stop only deepened the experience. It was as if my senses had reached out and encompassed the world, or perhaps the world had reached in and encompassed me, turning what was on the other side of the glass into more than images. I was part of it. Included in it. An electrical connection.
I could almost feel the dry grass beneath my feet, feel the rough bark of the trees, feel the rich dark loam of the fields between my fingers. I could breathe them all in, the particular scents of every biome.
My Norse ancestors knew that there were spirits in the land, spirits of tree and rock and water. They knew that the land-wights of Iceland were different from the wights of their homes across the ocean. They recognized the differences and accommodated them.
It is a pity that our brief accounts of their visits to North America say nothing about the spirits of this land. They were too busy dealing with the natives, perhaps, or too many of them were Christians, who did not allow themselves to become attuned to the earth’s mysteries.
Modern Heathens recognize these differences too, and accommodate them. The spirits of North America were honored by the Native Americans and they can be honored by us. We think of the landvaettir as “Scandinavian” but really, they were there before the Norse arrived, and before the Irish arrived even earlier than that. They are always in the land, attuned to and a part of their biome.
Many of us shut out the spiritual part of the world around us. It is easy to do in the cities and suburbs, on trains and subways and in cars on the paved Interstates. I have been trapped in these environments for some time, yearning for that contact to be renewed. It had been many months since I had walked beneath the forest eaves and felt the naked earth beneath my feet.
So my journey became more than part of a move; it became something of a religious experience, a voyage of rediscovery. I longed to stop the car and roam about, but humankind’s devotion to clocks and time zones kept me from such indulgences.
But I reveled in the feelings I was experiencing all the same. The earth was lavishing its attention on me and I was made aware again how much many of us take the world for granted. Our lives become a distraction, a barrier rather than a means of connection to what matters most of all.
No, not some afterlife, but this life, on this world on which we live this life. I embrace the day when I step outside, not only the terrain and the climate, not only the wildlife and the people, but the underlying world itself, both physical and spiritual. Our biomes are spiritual, and we should celebrate that while we celebrate the majesty of the mountains and forests and plains and streams.