Nature Is My Religion

Ardhasaig with Clisham, Isle of Harris, Scotland. Photo: Chris Combe, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons.

By David Wilkie
December 11, 2018

Stop it, David! That was about the only thing my mother would say to me as I picked up some live or very dead critter on our Sunday walks with the family.

As a young boy in a Scottish village, my parents had tried sending me to Sunday school at the local church to instill in me “some values,” as my pragmatic and not overly devout father would say. But arguing with the minister over the truth of bible stories did not appear to be one of the values my parents were hoping for.

So Sunday walks were deemed the answer. I suspect it was just an excuse for our family to avoid church altogether — a rather dour experience in the Free Presbyterian kirk with no music, not much singing, and certainly no joy.

My walks taught me to value nature simply for its existence, its remarkable beauty, its complexity, the interdependence of all its pieces, and the joy it gives me.

So walk we did. Long walks, or so they seemed for a small boy — miles along rocky and sandy shores, or over the moors covered with heather and sheep paths. For a curious child each Sunday walk was a time for discovery.

Tide pools offered cold dripping treasures, rough skinned starfish, nipping crabs, salt tasting seaweed with small bladders I would pop with my teeth. Each find would be examined, savored, and used to torment my sisters, who seemed to view nature as slimy, scary or smelly. Otter scat was all three to them but a trove of fish bones, fur, and funky smells to me.

Each walk was new even when we returned to the same place. In spring there would be warm grouse eggs to hold briefly, later chicks to watch racing for cover, and adults flushing under our feet with a whir of feathers. I never tired of these walks. Over fifty years later, I still walk on Sundays and find each as exciting as the last.

Looking South over the Quiraing on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. Photo: © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0,

A woodpecker drumming on dead timber, chipmunks barking at the human intruders, a young red-tailed hawk keening to be fed, a nut-hatch running head first down a red maple, a lady’s slipper orchid peeking out among the ferns, crushed grasses where a deer had lain, listening to an owl, or watching a weasel race nimbly across the top of a dry-stone wall — each a wonder that I’d marvel at my luck to have inherited.

I am extraordinarily grateful — and to be honest, surprised — that my parents, grand-parents, and their parents before them for generations must also have been, in their owns ways, awed by nature and seen the need to ensure that their children, like me, had the chance to take long walks to see, smell, and feel the natural world.

Each walk was new even when we returned to the same place. In spring there would be warm grouse eggs to hold briefly, later chicks to watch racing for cover. Over fifty years later, I still walk on Sundays.

My walks taught me to value nature simply for its existence, its remarkable beauty, its complexity, the interdependence of all its pieces, and the joy it gives me.

Reminiscing with my 90 year-old mother, we laughed about how I would chase my sisters with some smelly bit of nature on our Sunday walks. She teased me that nature was my religion. I agreed, but said, “The minister at Sunday school did teach me at least one thing — that we must leave this world a little better than we found it.” Now that is a value worth instilling in everyone.

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David Wilkie is Executive Director for Conservation Measures and Communities at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).