Beth Norcross likes to take walks in the woods. But when she does, she’s looking for more than scenery and solitude.
The Arlington resident is the founding director of the Center for Spirituality in Nature, which combines ecological and theological objectives. She will encourage the hikers she leads through D.C.’s Fletcher’s Cove on Saturday to look outside and inside.
“We’ll walk along the canal and see what’s happening on that particular day that we might get some spiritual insight from,” Norcross said. “For example, we’ll take a look at the frozen canal, and we’ll wonder together what’s happening underneath the surface. And we’ll compare that with what might be happening to us spiritually. Where it might seem cold and frozen and dormant on the surface, what riches lie underneath?
“There are frogs that are probably hibernating, turtles that are hibernating underneath,” she added. “And we’ll talk about times in our lives that have felt dormant spiritually, where in fact things have been happening with us that we’re unaware of.”
Patience is a theme, she said. “Trees set their buds in fall, and everything it needs to blossom and grow in the spring is being held in that bud in the winter. What does that tell us, spiritually? Does it tell us to hold our faith during the course of the cold, hard winter?”
After working as a staff member for the U.S. Senate National Parks and Forests Subcommittee and as vice president of Conservation for American Rivers, Norcross sought another sort of insight into nature. She studied at Wesley Theological Seminary, a United Methodist school near Ward Circle, and got her master’s degree in theological studies and a doctorate in ministry. She’s now an adjunct professor at Wesley, but did not become ordained.
“I self-identify with the Christian story,” she said. “I use those words carefully because I think there are many stories out there — religious stories, spiritual stories.
“I find that when I teach from my own story, I can teach with depth and substance,” Norcross added. “But we encourage other stories and interaction with other faiths, as well.”
In October, one of Norcross’s walks was co-sponsored by the Potomac Conservancy, which is also promoting the upcoming one.
“We thought that this was a great opportunity to explore a different side of the Potomac River that we at the conservancy don’t always take the time to look at, and give people the space to experience,” said Katie Blackman, director of community conservation for the Silver Spring-based group.
“Even for people who aren’t part of a particular faith or cultural tradition, there’s that moment where the trail opens up and you’re standing at the edge of the river and it’s just this kind of deep breath, and you suddenly feel free of stress and worry,” Blackman said. “We think that the deeper the connection that people form with the river, the more likely they’ll be to stand up and take action to protect it.”
Norcross has similar goals, even if she approaches them from another direction. “I started the center a year and a half ago because I began to realize that, if we were going to make behavioral change, we really needed to reintroduce people to the natural world. And to having a kind of relationship with the natural world.”
Fletcher’s Cove doesn’t offer the most dramatic vistas in the Potomac watershed. It was chosen partially for a practical reason: In wintertime, it’s easier to reach than some wilder locations.
Still, Norcross said, “It has the canal, and it has the river. We can talk a lot about the river and the significance of water, spiritually.”
She has led winter hikes there before, she said. “It’s actually one of our favorite walks. Once you get the participants bundled up and out there, they so enjoy it. It’s clear, it’s cold, the sun is shining, the sycamores are beaming in contrast to the great blue sky.”
Norcross laughed when asked whether she can guarantee sunshine. “I’ve done programs in storms. There’s always something that nature has to offer. No matter what the weather.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
The three-hour hike begins at 10 a.m. Saturday. The cost is $20. For information, visit centerforspiritualityinnature.org.