adventure, Affirmation, Birds, Creation, Creator, Faithful Living, Forest, God, Hardiness, joy, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Nature, Peace, Perseverence, Praise, Prayer, Sigurd Olson, Silence, Uncategorized, virtue, wilderness, Winter

Bring on the Ice!

It is icy at Trout Creek this February morning from the overnight sleety rain suspended in millions of icicles off branches and eves. I have the window open a crack to soak in the music of the silence.  The creek riffles on, but the rest of the landscape is a still life, no deer, and no squirrels. Perhaps it is too early yet. Perhaps they ‘ve hit their own version of the snooze alarm, and are rolled over in their roosting cavities for another 10 minutes.

I go make coffee, and sit back down to marvel at the way nature stills itself. The trees have nothing to say, though they are adorned in crystal gowns just waiting for the dance to begin. The tall grasses are bent in prayer. You can feel the hush, as if you are in a great, empty cathedral. The silence is pregnant with expectancy.

Just then the bold, brassy wren who habits the tamarack tree chirrups his, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m heeeerrrre!”

Over and over  he chants his solo, as if inviting the world to join the chorus. Maybe he’s shouting, “Wake up, wake up, wake uuuupppp!”

The wren’s chatter works: the squirrels are carefully heading downtree.  The titmice family swoops in to the feeder for brunch. The deer are out there pawing the snow in the fallen maple’s atrium to belly down for a morning nap.

In his book, The Singing Wilderness,  Sigurd Olson writes about the winter blue jay, with its “brazen call, more of a challenge than a song, a challenge to the storm and cold.

There was a jauntiness and fortitude, announcing to me and to the whole frozen world that where there is wine and sparkle in the air, it is joy to be alive. I liked that jay and what he stood for; no softness there, pure hardiness and disregard of the elements.”

I think that’s how I want to embrace this cold, frozen world we live in. With a cheerful fortitude and strength of character that encourages people to wake up from their numbing technology, their frozen minds, their careless thoughts, their selfish motives. To embrace the joy that life brings, whether it be storm or stillness.  I want to be hardier, and heartier in the face of both challenge and delight. Perhaps, though, a bit less brazen than the wren or jay, with a meekness learned from saints, and a thankfulness wrought by God’s great mercies.

Bring on the ice! (May it give us pause).

~J.A.P. Walton

Adventure Tourism, Birds, Creation, Creator, Faithful Living, God, Nature, Praise, Risk Taking, Uncategorized, wisdom, worry

My Favorite Lesson

I am watching the birds at Trout Creek today, the outdoors swathed in snow mantle, the wind chill temps blisteringly cold.  After our month-long absence, we found the birds waiting in the wings of the Norway spruce for “their” feeder to be refilled, and the water bath topped off.

It was blizzarding out, lacy snow swirling in a blinding, biting wind.

The intrepid titmouse was at the feeder immediately, running laps from there to the gutter to hammer open his seeds, and find a crack to hide them. The red-bellied woodpecker was not far behind, carelessly scattering seed for which the ground-hugging juncos were thankful. All afternoon they came, the hapless chickadees, bold cardinals, upside down nuthatches, purple and house finches, and downy woodpeckers. This morning, a finch parked itself on the feeder as I worked at my desk through a month’s worth of mail. Though birds’ feet can withstand the cold quite well, it was a happy sight to watch the finch balance on one foot with the other tucked up into her fluffed up feathers. Every so often, she switched feet.

While strolling through the ruins of the Roman Forum earlier this month, I sat for a time to rest and imagine the people who once lived in that grand, impressive place. In the Temple of the Virgins, statues of twelve virtuous ladies line the walk, but only one still has her stone head. On the headless statue in front of me, a small sparrow-sized bird landed, and began to drink out of the water bowled in the lady’s neck.  Next, this bird, a red-breasted flycatcher common to southern Europe, jumped into that pooled water for a bath. I doubt the sculptor could have imagined his beautiful work serving as a bird bath!

Also in Rome, while watching the filthy Tiber River flow by, I observed a pigeon-a fat one at that- limping along on stumped legs; the bird had no feet.  Still, it had adapted quite marvelously, and didn’t even seem to know or care that it was footless.

Jesus taught that

God cares for even the lowliest of sparrows, and that we should never worry about our lives, because He loves us even more.

It is why I like to watch the birds, knowing that while they neither reap nor sow, they are still known by their Creator. While we are busy flitting from thing to thing, worrying the bones of life like a determined dog, God sees us. Knows us. Knows our needs better than we do. Cares for us. Loves us. Provides for us. Hears us.

The birds teach me that. It’s my favorite subject in the school of nature.

adventure, Affirmation, Cancer, canoeing, Creation, Creator, Darkness, death, God, Henry David Thoreau, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Nature, Peace, Perseverence, Praise, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Religion, Silence, Transcendentalism, Uncategorized, wilderness, Wilderness Paddling

The Ecstasy in Being Brave

I have been reading about transcendent philosophy espoused by the likes of Emerson and Thoreau. Its main tenets are that man and (N)ature are inherently good, emphasizing the prime importance of the individual and individual freedom, as well as oneness with the universe. At its most basic, the idea teaches that there is a power deep inside of us that, when we tap it, allows us to become one with what we see, whether it’s a mountain, a constellation, a river, a sunset, a storm, or an animal.  It teaches that we have a light inside us that banishes darkness, leading us to know Truth, wisdom, and goodness. And, when all of this aligns within us, a deep delight, a visceral ecstasy-or transcendence-results.

As a student of the Bible, and the God who wrote it, it is disturbing to me that many of these transcendentalist ideas are woven into the weft and warp of the minds of people who seek out the wilderness. Why?  Because it gets everything horribly backwards.  I will let a simple chart do the talking:

Bible Transcendentalism
Sin is real, both in people and Nature All people and Nature are inherently good
God is light and Truth Each person is his own source of light & Truth
Worship of anything other than God is idolatry Nature and beauty should be worshiped
Knowing God brings delight Delight is a direct result of knowing myself
God is the only and the great, holy I AM I am God, my own deity and salvation

Still, to believe what the Bible says about all of this, you first have to believe in the reality of sin and evil in this world, and, more directly, in your own heart.

People who don’t know the God of the Bible don’t accept that we live in the tension between God’s goodness and the evil he has allowed.

They only want a loving God. They only want the light, the happiness, and the good things of God. But, for humans to have perfect freedom to choose how they live and what they believe, there has to be a choice. Life or death. Light or darkness.  Goodness or evil.  It is no wonder that these people cannot fathom how something so evil as the attack on the World Trade Center could happen in this day and age. People who know God, and understand that most of the world has chosen to reject him think, how could it not?

When Hugh got cancer we were all devastated. Sickness has a way of letting big questions scream at us. Why would God allow this suffering, especially for someone as good as Hugh? But our goodness is irrelevant –and irreverent- in the face of a holy, just, and good God. Sickness is just part of what it means to be human. So is death.  Mark and Hugh had been paddling together long before the leukemia showed up. They kept paddling during ten long years of treatments. Why?  What did the wilderness have to offer in dark and confusing times? It offered the chance to leave the distractions and torments behind: the doctor visits and hospital stays, the long, long road to an outcome that no one could predict, the fear, the hopeless feelings- all of it dropped out of sight the minute the two brothers stepped into their canoes.

We can go to Nature to be wowed. We can go to get away from the world’s brokenness. We can go to seek out the quiet places where God’s voice can be heard, where there are “moments when [we] can sense Him near [us], and [we] can never quite believe it.

He never condemns, He just sustains. He doesn’t judge, He understands. He gives [us] hope again, and says be brave.”[1]

The Walton brothers went out, not to find themselves, not to be their own light, not to become one with Nature, but to bathe in the balm of the unsullied wilderness, perfect in its minute and grand designs, just as God created it.

They went in brotherliness, to be bolstered with strength enough to be brave together in the dark shadow of Hugh’s illness.

They never went to attain ecstasy through oneness with a brilliant sunset. It was to know and treasure that they were one with the very God who made that sunset, knowing that they were loved, held and nurtured in spite of the specter of illness and death. If that’s not ecstasy, what is?

~J.A.P.Walton

[1]Bear Grylls.Facing the Frozen Ocean. Pan Books, UK.2013 (digital edition). p.105.

adventure, Adventure Tourism, Bryce Canyon National Park, Camping, Creation, Creator, Desert, God, hiking, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Mountains, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Praise, River, Starry Skies, Uncategorized, Water, wisdom, Zion National Park

Thin Air, Thick Dust, Beauty All Around

It is good to be home in Michigan after a 3-week spell in Arizona and Utah. Here, I can drink deep draughts of the autumnal palette of green, vermillion, orange and gold, reveling in this bounty of colors so much rarer in the western landscape.

Phoenix was particularly hot and dry where the greenish-yellow of the prickly pear and saguaro cacti stands in base-relief against the purple of distant mountains. Here, the only deep greens are on the golf course, watered with precious and dwindling flows from the Colorado River, and on the cell phone towers painted green to look like giant saguaros.

Climbing out of the desert into the high mesas to the north, the landscape changes in an instant. The cactus and sand give way to rock and bristlecone pine at the higher elevations. In appearance it seems an unforgiving landscape, but

the Hopi and Navajo have lived here for a thousand years, “thriving long in adverse conditions: poor soil, drought, temperature extremes, high winds.”*

Past the Grand Canyon and on into southern Utah, aspen join the autumn chorus, waving golden, glittering arms in gladness. Here, the weathered rock cathedrals tower, where sandstone is king, and sagebrush his queen as they reign over free-ranging cattle on a thousand hills. Here is the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, those life-giving ribbons of water, home to the pronghorn antelope, nattering prairie dog, and swift peregrine falcon. Here, too, is Zion, a river-carved fortress of sheer honeyed walls, and Bryce, with its colorful hoodoo armies blown by winds like fine glass.( Zion National Park   and Bryce Canyon National Park )

It is an entirely different kind of wilderness than what we experience in northern Michigan and southern Ontario.  Here, damp, verdant, fertile. Out west, thin air thick with dust, where the only immediately visible abundance for hundreds of miles is rock. To be sure, both are beautiful in their own ways. Both point to an imaginative Creator, who paints with a bold and vibrant palette.  Both give us the same gifts that wilderness always gives: delight in its bigness, contentedness with our own smallness, hope that life and beauty abound wherever we find ourselves, and that

nothing on this earth is godforsaken at all.

~ J.A.P. Walton

* William Least Heat Moon. Blue Highways. Chapter 2.

adventure, Affirmation, Creation, Creator, Faithful Living, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Peace, Praise, Prayer, Silence, Uncategorized, wilderness, Wilderness Paddling, wisdom

Hush Yourself

The Walton brothers leave in two days for their epic paddle on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and as they pack and plan, I find myself wondering how Mark and Hugh will adapt to a group setting, because when it’s just the two of them, the trips are filled with long, contented, contemplative silence.  A group of 16-20 paddlers is sure to be filled with whoops and the idle yakking that an exciting adventure can bring out in boisterous, bombastic ways.

Silence and wilderness are comfortable companions.  Big, wide, primitive, and timeless spaces like the Grand Canyon almost demand our reverent silence. So much so that the human tendency toward ceaseless chatter is nearly a sacrilege. I say ‘nearly’ because there are times when a gasp or sigh just won’t do, when, in our inability to find the words to describe God’s perfect creation, we can only utter an awe-filled, praise-pregnant, “Wow.”

A few weeks ago, at a gorgeous state campground in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we were surrounded by such surreal beauty that we could hardly speak at times. Yet, there were our neighbors, blasting their base-thrumming music right up to the stroke of the start of quiet hours. Beautiful wilderness, birdsong, chipmunk chirrups, the wide river lapping the shore, thunder in the distance- all crowded out by someone’s idea of a sound so beloved that it just had to be shared with everyone.

We seem to have arrived at a cultural norm in which it is another person’s right to fill “my” personal space with any sound, at any volume they choose, and if I don’t like it, I can leave. I get to listen to their cell phone conversations, their music, and their video movies on line at the store, in waiting rooms, restaurants, and, yes, even wilderness campgrounds. They may find it entertaining. I find it immensely thoughtless- storms, earthquakes and fires of our own destructive making.  But, God told Elijah that he was not in the earthquake, wind, or fire. God was a whisper so low that Elijah had to go outside and be silent to hear it. (1Kings 19)

Where in this whole, big world can we go to find real silence-that quietness of space and soul that God can speak into with his whispers?

And why do we shun God’s silent places with noise that distracts and numbs us while overflowing into our neighbors’ lives?  I find this mindless and endless self-absorption disheartening at best, a habit-forming and careless* practice of escapism that effectively shuts God’s voice right out of our lives, and, what’s more,  intrusively does so to the people around us.

Just look to the creation! The sun rises and sets without a sound. The caterpillar curls up and noiselessly becomes a whispering butterfly, the trees mutely leaf out in a stunning welcome to spring, and the snowflake somersaults in freefall in glorious silence.

I think this is why I gravitate toward rowing, sailing, paddling, fishing, and beach walks. No, these are never silent, but the music is God-given, rarely brassy, harsh, or discordant. The rills of water against the oars, the foaming gossip of a white-capped wave spilling onto the beach, the scree of the hungry hawk, the wind like a cellist’s bow against the cedar boughs, and the laugh of the blue jay- now this is a symphony of harmonious delight, free for the listening. The wilderness preserves silence on this busy planet, which is one big reason it is important for us to be committed to the preservation of the wilderness.

The wilderness can give you the concert of a lifetime if you’ll learn to hush yourself.

Happy listening!

Sign up to FOLLOW and you will join a growing list of regular readers who get an email push each time a blog post is published. As always, thanks for reading as I continue on this writing journey into the wilderness.

~J.A.P. Walton

  • by careless, I mean that a person could care less