EDITOR'S NOTE: As debate rages over climate change and other environmental issues, what do the world's major religions say about mankind's role in the natural world? We asked local believers to explain.

Spring's arrival beckons us out into a world of warming air, blooming flowers and flirtatious songbirds. But for the faithful, nature can mean far more than enjoying the Lowcountry's immense physical beauty.

Nature also plays a critical role in prayer, meditation and feeling connected to something larger than one's own life struggles.

Dr. Barbara Cole walks nature's path as often as possible. She first walked it long ago as a girl growing up on a Kansas farm, where her most precious companions included a stray dog and the earth that left dirt under her nails and yielded fresh vegetables she ate right in the fields.

“It became a part of me,” she recalls.

Medical school and a demanding career in pediatric nephrology took her from those fields in Kansas to the halls of St. Louis hospitals and academia for many decades.

But when retirement came, she and her husband, Jack Quigley, moved to Charleston and created a new home in Mount Pleasant's I'On neighborhood. Jack, a minister and quadriplegic, could traverse its paths to glorious marsh views and maneuver down local beaches when the sand was firm enough to support his wheelchair.

With more time and access to nature, they deepened their spirituality.

“There's something about looking up at the live oak leaves when the stars are just right. It's like myriad lights — just miraculous,” Cole said. “And all of that magnificence out in the ocean is just amazing to me.”

Six years ago, Jack died due to complications from a stroke. In that circular pattern of life, Barbara returned to her beloved natural world, once again with a furry companion.

This time, she befriended Jack's service dog, Thumper.

“She taught me about unconditional love, about patience and about enjoying the moment,” Cole said.

Barbara and Jack had joined Circular Congregational Church in downtown Charleston, a congregation known for its emphasis on conservation. There, Barbara joined a book group discussing the importance of nature in Celtic worship, both before and after its Christian advent.

“They saw God in the trees, in all of creation, in all living things on Earth and in themselves,” Barbara said. “I really do believe that God is in and of everything. If one looks at the trees or mountains, there is something far greater than what we see on the surface.”

Being in the natural world also reminds her that humanity is interconnected on this planet despite harsh divisions among cultures and faiths.

It reminds her that she is part of something larger than herself.

She notes that among many of the world's faiths there is congruity in the belief that some form of creator crafted the natural world, from the ocean's ceaseless energy to the solitude of a woodland trail.

“These things create a majesty that transports us out of ourselves and into a much greater existence,” Cole said. “It's a mystery. We are part of a greater idea than any we could conjure ourselves.”

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.