The casual tourist driving west on Route 125 in Addison County, Vermont, might not notice the unobtrusive black and white sign pointing to a right-hand turn up a dirt road. “Spirit in Nature Interfaith Paths” it quietly advertises. In all likelihood the angular mustard-yellow buildings of Middlebury College’s Breadloaf campus, the Breadloaf cross-country ski trails, or the Robert Frost interpretive trail and Robert Frost’s cabin are the more popular attractions for July vacationers, October leaf-peepers, and January cross-country skiers. Indeed, many residents of the area, focused on getting to their destination, have passed the side road without thinking twice. However, the quiet paths of Spirit in Nature provide an unexpected, refreshing moment of disorientation for those who stray from their tourist’s mission or daily itinerary into these sacrosanct woods.

What would you find if you took the rutted dirt road up the mountain? After a short drive up the road, you would cross over a small bridge and make a left-hand turn into a small parking lot. A large bulletin board to the right of the trailheads has maps of the Spirit in Nature paths and a metal pipe in which you can securely leave a donation. You can also pick up a “Nature Notes” pamphlet, which opens your eyes as you walk the paths and teaches you to read the recent history of the land in the White Pine and Mountain Ash, the tree stumps left by loggers, and the eroded stream banks. You can choose from ten different paths that wind through the woods, each marked with bright strips of nylon; they include a Christian, a Jewish, an Islamic, a Pagan Sacred Earth, and an Interfaith walk. A small pedestal blocks the paths’ entrance. “Walking meditation is really to enjoy the walking—walking not in order to arrive, but just to walk,” it reads. Slow down, it reminds you. These aren’t running or conquer-the-mountain hiking trails.

In the summer the grass grows knee-high on the paths, and the bright green leaves create speckled shadows on the ground; in the fall you crunch through same leaves, now shadows of their former selves. The paths meander through pine groves and along streams. Quotes from the holy text of each religion that connect spirituality to the natural world line the walks. Along the Unitarian Universalist path, one of the walks closest to the parking lot, you will find a quote by Pierre Van Passen. “Half of our misery and weakness comes from the fact that we have broken with the soil. And that we have allowed the roots that bound us to the earth to rot. We have become detached from the earth. We have abandoned her. And, when we abandon nature, we abandon ourselves.”

The quote is a favorite of local Unitarian Universalist minister Paul Bortz, the founder of Spirit in Nature. Bortz had always been interested in social justice issues and actively advocated for equal civil rights for racial-ethnic minorities, women, and homosexuals. However, he had never considered the environment to be a pressing concern until he asked Steve Kyle, an astrophysicist friend, to tell him about global warming. “It’s not going to affect you and me that much,” Kyle told Bortz, “but it will affect our children, and I’m not sure that we would want to live in a world like that.”

Kyle’s words were revolutionary for Bortz, who started doing research on contemporary environmental concerns. As he learned more about the destructiveness of America’s current consumer society, Bortz began to wonder how he could combine his work as a parish minister with his belief in the need for greater awareness of environmental crises. Bortz initially contacted Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont, but found it difficult to cut through the red tape involved in introducing a new idea into the well established educational and business facility. He next went to Middlebury College, who agreed to lease the land where Spirit in Nature is currently located to Bortz. Soon Bortz found himself walking through the woods with a naturalist, following animal paths and the contours of the land in order to create the most walkable paths.

The quotes from the various religions that line the paths clearly are chosen with an eye towards achieving Bortz’s goal of heightened environmental consciousness. “Every article entrusted to us must be used with good care in some useful way, because it is not ‘ours’ but is only trusted to us temporarily” concludes a story on the Buddhist path. The words, like many of the others on the paths, are a direct challenge to prevailing American concepts of ownership, in which an individual has the right to possess, accumulate, or consume without regard to the broader impact of his or her actions on a larger human and non-human community.

Spirit in Nature’s power lies in its ability to use the traditional wisdom of organized religion to jolt you out of your mind’s ruts and into a new perception of your environment. Many of the environmentalists and naturalists that Bortz knew were not involved in organized religion. They found that the rituals and structures of religions did not describe or address profound, inexplicable spirituality. In the labyrinthine paths of Sprit in Nature, affectionately referred to as SPiN, Bortz found an ideal way to include spiritual but not necessarily religious friends. For thousands of years labyrinths have served as meditation exercises in which the movement of the body towards the center of the labyrinth corresponds to the movement of the spirit towards peace and clarity. Unlike mazes, labyrinths have no dead ends. “Some people use the walk for clearing the mind and centering,” writes the author of one of many webpages on labyrinths. “Others enter with a question or concern. The time in the center can be used for receiving, reflecting, meditating, or praying, as well as discovering our own sacred inner space.”

Dane Springmeyer, a Middlebury College student on SPiN’s board of trustees, describes a spiritual experience as “any experience that disorients you in a positive way,” thereby creating the possibility of reorientation in a different direction. As you emerge from the woods, will you be able to look at your car without thinking about how much gasoline it consumes? Or about the direction that your life is moving? Inevitably, you will get in your car and drive away, perhaps east across the Middlebury Gap or west back down the mountain. Perhaps you will stop at your original destination, perhaps you will continue on towards home. Even more importantly, perhaps your mind will continue to spin around what you have read and seen as you walked the quiet paths.

Lynne Howard
December 30, 2000