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Impact Magazine

Six Spiritual Lessons from the Natural World

I have a deep love for all of Heavenly Father’s creations.

The summers of my childhood were spent camping with my family in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. On our drives up the mountain, we would regularly stop so my mom and grandma could try to identify any new wildflowers they saw. From them I learned to appreciate the beauty and diversity of Heavenly Father’s creations. I find that I often feel closest to Heavenly Father and the Savior when I am out in the natural world.

Nine or ten years ago, I went through a traumatic life event. Around the same time, I also went through a divorce. I was beset by stress and anxiety. My physical body rebelled against the trauma: I had trouble eating and sleeping, I was plagued by nightmares, and I developed recurring shingles. My immune system was compromised, and I caught every illness passed around.

Where could I turn for peace amidst this storm of pain and turmoil in my life? I found peace and refuge from my storm in two sacred places: out in the natural world and in the Lord’s holy temple. Thus, desperately seeking that peace, I spent a lot of time in both places.

Today I would like to share with you some lessons I learned from Heavenly Father’s creations that helped me weather the storm and better center my life on my divine potential. I attribute my progress during this time to six important lessons I learned from the natural world.

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Lesson 1:

Grow Toward the Light

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Plants exhibit phototropism. Photo means “light” and tropism means “turn” or “growth toward.” Have you ever seen a plant growing up and around a rock to acquire more light? Plants grow toward light. Light is essential for photosynthesis, which produces carbohydrates from carbon dioxide. These carbohydrates are necessary for plant growth but are also the basis of the food webs for all other life on earth. Without the carbon fixed from light energy, there would not be energy for further life in the ecosystem.

Just as light is essential for life in the natural world, the Light of Christ is necessary for our spiritual survival.

Just as light is essential for life in the natural world, the Light of Christ is necessary for our spiritual survival. Examples from the plant world have shown me how to actively grow toward the Light of the World.

Growing toward the Savior and focusing on Him made all the difference during my time of struggle. I focused on His light. I grew toward it. How? I made a choice to keep my focus on the Savior every day. I consciously chose to look up, to grow away from the sadness and darkness in my life, and to bathe in the warmth of the Savior’s light.

As I chose to grow toward the Savior—His light—I felt His warmth and love. I learned how to use the Atonement more fully in my life, and I felt Him carry my burdens and sorrows. I gained a broader perspective of the eternities.

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Lesson 2:

Remain Deeply Rooted in the Living Waters

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Water is also essential for photosynthesis. Plants use light energy to split a water molecule, providing the molecular energy necessary to fix carbon dioxide into the carbohydrate that the plant can then use for growth and survival. Because water is essential, many plant species have great adaptations for taking up water and preventing water loss, especially in desert systems. One strategy is to root deeply. This allows the plant to draw life-sustaining water from deep reservoirs in the soil. This water doesn’t easily evaporate, unlike the water on the soil’s surface. Deep roots also function as anchors for the plant against storms and strong winds.

Besides light, another symbol of the Savior is living water. Plants have many strategies for taking up and maintaining water. How much effort do we put into obtaining living water? What are strategies we can use to remain deeply rooted in living water?

One way is to keep the commandments. An additional way is to make and keep sacred covenants.

President Russell M. Nelson said: [Our] covenant[s] will lead us closer and closer to Him. . . God will not abandon His relationship with those who have forged such a bond with Him.1

Attendance at the temple helped me remain deeply rooted. I made a specific choice to attend the temple at least once per week. Not only did I find peace there, but it helped me remain deeply rooted in His living water.

I am thankful that throughout my life I had developed a deeply rooted testimony of the Savior—the Living Water—for it sustained me during that difficult time.

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Lesson 3:

Find Effective Ways to Tolerate Stress

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In 2017, I published a paper with my husband and one of his colleagues on a new population of Great Basin bristlecone pine, Pinus longaeva, that we discovered in the Tushar Mountains of Utah.2

The bristlecone pine falls into a category of species called “stress tolerators”—plants that live with the highest amounts of stress.3 Bristlecones thrive on adversity by living in the harshest conditions: extremely cold temperatures, dry soils, high winds, and short growing seasons. They also live extremely long lives. Many trees in our newly discovered population ranged from 1,000 to 1,500 years of age.

Bristlecones survive such extreme conditions by growing slowly and devoting their energy to the simple basics for survival. The trees grow so little each year that it is difficult to see their growth rings without a microscope. I learned some important lessons from these pines on how to survive my stress.

During my stressful time, I learned from the bristlecones to simplify my life and concentrate on the basics.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf counseled: If life and its rushed pace and many stresses have made it difficult for you to feel like rejoicing, then perhaps now is a good time to refocus on what matters most. . .

Let us simplify our lives a little. Let us make the changes necessary to refocus our lives on the sublime beauty of the simple, humble path of Christian discipleship—the path that leads always toward a life of meaning, gladness, and peace.4

During my stressful time, I learned from the bristlecones to simplify my life and concentrate on the basics. I focused first on my relationship with God and my relationships with my children. I focused on what was most important—personal scripture study, personal prayer, family prayer, and family home evening—and I let the less important things slide. Doing this was hard for me, as someone who tries to do everything for everyone. However, as I focused on what was most important and simplified my life, I drew even closer to my Savior. I was able to tolerate the stress.

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Lesson 4:

We Don’t Need to Know All the Answers

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Ecosystems are incredibly complex. The more I study plant communities, the more I realize that we don’t fully understand them. I have learned that there is no way to truly understand all the complex interrelationships between species and between species and the environment. Sometimes I make hypotheses about plants and their ecological communities and later find through data collection and study that I am completely wrong in my assumptions.

While I dealt with my traumatic event, I asked a lot of questions. Why did I have to experience my trauma? Why did life have to be so hard? I did not have the answers.

Elder Neil L. Andersen provided insight: At times, the Lord’s answer will be, “You don’t know everything, but you know enough”—enough to keep the commandments and to do what is right.5

Not knowing everything about a particular plant species, its ecology, or its role in the ecosystem has been okay for my research. As I spent time in the natural world, I realized it must also be okay not having all the answers to the questions in my personal life.

Realizing that I did not need to know everything helped me find peace. I could believe that all things would work together for my good if I walked uprightly and kept my covenants. I have been blessed as I have learned to be patient in my prayers for answers both in my ecological research and in my personal life.

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Lesson 5:

Find Refuge and Stability in a Diverse Community

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In ecology, the diversity-stability hypothesis states that more diverse communities—in number of different species—maintain more stable ecosystem functions over periods of environmental stress, such as drought. Conceptually, it suggests that some species might be better adapted than other species to withstand specific types of disturbances, and thus the community or ecosystem retains its function in spite of the stress.6

Elder Peter M. Johnson said, “The Lord loves diversity.”7 I have come to learn the importance of a diverse community in the gospel. During my difficult time, I was surprised by the diversity of help that came to my rescue: a former college roommate living in California provided support, a former bandmate from South Dakota flew out to be with me, a retired neighbor stepped up to help with my children, former graduate students called and provided collaborations and research help, my bishop came by my house unexpectedly and offered a blessing—and there were many, many more. These people were from diverse socioeconomic positions, diverse educational levels, and diverse cultural backgrounds. Even their relationships with me were from diverse aspects of my life. However, each brought their own unique perspective.

Elder Uchtdorf stated, “Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.”8

Just like a diverse ecological community, my community came to my aid and provided me stability and refuge amidst my storm.

I am thankful that I had built a diverse community around me. My community had a diversity of talents, abilities, and approaches. Each found their own unique way to help me. Just like a diverse ecological community, my community came to my aid and provided me stability and refuge amidst my storm. They were able to work in unity and harmony for my rescue.

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Lesson 6:

Always Remember to Thank Him

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When my daughter Sabrina was four years old, she had terrible growing pains in her legs. Late one evening, she would not stop crying, and I was exhausted. When the pain medicine did not work, I told her we needed to pray and ask Heavenly Father to help take away her pain. We knelt and offered a simple prayer that her pain would subside and she would be able to sleep. I put Sabrina in bed next to me and rubbed her legs until we both fell asleep.

In the morning, I was awakened by Sabrina’s squeals of delight. She said, “Mom, my legs don’t hurt anymore!” What she did next melted my heart. She looked up to heaven and said, “Thank you, Father!”

Do we remember to thank Him? For me, it is sometimes a challenge to remember to do this in times of hardship.

President David O. McKay stated, “We find in the bitter chill of adversity the real test of our gratitude; . . . true gratitude . . . goes beneath the surface of life, whether sad or joyous.”9

I made a conscious choice to look for things to be grateful for each day.

I made a conscious choice to look for things to be grateful for each day. Maybe it was just a beautiful sunset, good weather for my commute, kids who happily ate their dinner, a class lecture that went well, or that none of my kids forgot their homework.

Sister Bonnie D. Parkin taught this principle: “Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things.” All things means just that: good things, difficult things—not just some things. He has commanded us to be grateful because He knows being grateful will make us happy. This is another evidence of His love.10

And I felt God’s love. But could I find happiness, as Sister Parkin suggested? Because I remembered to look up and say, “Thank you, Father,” each day, I gradually began to find happiness again, and I gained the eternal perspective that I so desperately needed.

Learning From and Loving the Natural World

I am so grateful for these six beautiful lessons I learned from nature that helped me weather a tumultuous storm in my life and other trials since then. I am glad that I was able to find answers and lessons in Heavenly Father’s creations. This has made my love of His creations grow even stronger.

I feel an urgent desire to help protect and conserve the natural world... I know that if we can truly love the natural world, we will be good stewards over it.

I feel an urgent desire to help protect and conserve the natural world. We are commanded to care for the Lord’s creations and to be wise stewards over them. I pray that we can love the world as He loves it. I know that if we can truly love the natural world, we will be good stewards over it.

I know the Savior lives, and if we grow toward His light, remain deeply rooted in His living water, rely on the simple basics of the gospel in times of stress, remember that we don’t have all the answers, find refuge in a diverse community of Saints, and remember to thank Him always, we will be able to weather any storm in our lives and gain an eternal perspective. I love my Savior, “the Master Healer,”11 and am so grateful for the blessing of His Atonement. And, as the Primary song says, “I’m glad that I live in this beautiful world Heavenly Father created for me.”12 I leave you with this testimony in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Loreen Allphin, associate dean in the BYU College of Life Sciences and professor of plant and wildlife sciences, delivered BYU’s devotional address on April 4, 2023.

Read or listen to the full devotional here.

1. Russell M. Nelson, “The Everlasting Covenant,” Liahona, October 2022.
2. See Andrew Orlemann, Steven H. Flinders, and Loreen Allphin, “The Discovery of Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva, in the Tushar Mountains of the Fishlake National Forest in Central Utah, USA,” Western North American Naturalist 77, no. 1 (March 2017): 111–17.
3. J. P. Grime, “Evidence for the Existence of Three Primary Strategies in Plants and Its Relevance to Ecological and Evolutionary Theory,” American Naturalist 111, no. 982 (November–December 1977): 1169–94.
4. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Of Things That Matter Most,” Ensign, November 2010.
5. Neil L. Andersen, “You Know Enough,” Ensign, November 2008.
6. See Robert MacArthur, “Fluctuations of Animal Populations and a Measure of Community Stability,” Ecology 36, no. 3 (July 1955): 533–36; see also Kevin Shear McCann, “The Diversity-Stability Debate,” Nature 405, no. 6783 (11 May 2000): 228–33.
7. Peter M. Johnson, “Christ’s Atonement, Invitations to Act, and Promised Blessings,” BYU devotional address, 15 November 2022.
8. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,” Ensign, November 2013.
9. David O. McKay, Pathways to Happiness, comp. Llewelyn R. McKay (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1957), 318.
10. Bonnie D. Parkin, “Gratitude: A Path to Happiness,” Ensign, May 2007; emphasis in original; quoting Doctrine and Covenants 59:7; emphasis added.
11. Russell M. Nelson, “Jesus Christ—the Master Healer,” Ensign, November 2005.
12. “My Heavenly Father Loves Me,” Children’s Songbook, 228–29.