Documenting Divine Nature: Kent Bonar studies God by studying God’s creations
by Megan Hollingsworth
Branches, July 2004
My childhood was spent in the fields of corn and soybeans, small towns and “woods” of central Indiana. It was not until I moved to Bloomington in 1993 that I realized Indiana has forest. When I first climbed the fire tower in the Deam Wilderness Area of the Hoosier National Forest, I expected to see fields and homes. Instead, there was a blanket of trees that covered the land for miles. I was enamored with the place.
Though it is difficult to describe, there is something alive in the forest that goes beyond the trees, plant life and creatures that make it. The forest is an unknown and mysterious yet extraordinarily familiar place where my soul finds gratitude and humility for the things I cannot explain for the magic and mystery of creation. The experience has been most profound for me when I have visited old growth forest. There, I have been privileged to learn an ancient wisdom that speaks through a life that has endured centuries of change and adversity.
My experience is minor compared to the life of Kent Bonar, a naturalist and modern-day woodsman who has been called the John Muir of the Ozarks. With a steadfast commitment to his art, Bonar studies and documents the natural world around him on a daily basis. In 2001, High Plains Films, a nonprofit organization based in Missoula, Mont., released “The Naturalist,” which documents Bonar’s work and philosophy.
Unlike many biographical films, “The Naturalist” speaks more about Kent Bonar’s service to the natural world than it does to the specifics of his life. In the film, Bonar states, “The way I look at it, nature is God’s creation, so the way to properly study God is to study his works.” With a nonjudgmental approach, “The Naturalist” reveals the many layers of one man’s understanding of divine nature.
Though I have not met Kent Bonar in person, I have seen the film a few times and am impressed by his ability to see the big picture, in terms of the effects of human activity on the natural world, of which we are a part. Even while he studies and documents the smallest details of his subjects, Bonar is conscious of the larger connections that exist in nature, including the human ones. His awareness is apparent in a humble approach to his work and to human behaviors that threaten the integrity of life on Earth.
According to David Haberman, professor of religious studies at Indiana University, “Within every religious tradition, we find an articulation in some way that all life is sacred.” With this in mind, it is mystifying to observe how we, as a culture and a species, have come to separate ourselves from the natural world to the extent that we are able to brutally exploit the land. We level mountains, poison waters, and dissect and smother the earth with our infrastructure. Only as we come to understand our place in the natural world do we recognize that we lose ourselves as we dishonor the land and ultimately sacrifice that which feeds the Soul.
While I do not claim to have the answers, I do believe we have the innate power to heal ourselves and can learn how to live as an integral part of nature. Though sacrifices must be made, I believe we can do this without giving up many of the technologies and comforts that we have become accustomed to. In our culture, we already see the cost of the loss of a sense of place and connection to the living Earth manifest in violence, depression, addictions and despair.
Just as we cannot survive without physical nourishment from food, water and air, I believe we will not survive without spiritual nourishment from the natural world. In the absence of it, we lose sight of the magic in this life, the magic that we are. While it is not feasible for all of us to live as Kent Bonar does, we do have the opportunity to learn from his experience and perhaps see more clearly the connection between our lives and our surroundings.
Megan Hollingsworth works with Heartwood, a Bloomington-based regional forest protection organization, and is an advocate for human and planetary health.
“The Naturalist” will be shown at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 28,at Bear’s Place, 1316 East Third St., as part of The Ryder Film Series in Bloomington. A benefit for Heartwood will follow. For more information, call 812/339-2002 or visit http://www.theryder.com or www.highplainsfilms.org