Accomodation, Affirmation, Creation, death, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, Forest, hiking, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Parasites, Pilgrimage, Religion, Sacrifice, Serving Others, Trees, Uncategorized, wisdom

The Plover and the Crocodile

Last month, we hiked through a mixed forest of beech, oak, pine, and hemlock. It is evident all through the north that these hundred+ year-old forests are stressed; the ash still standing are all dead from the ash borer, the beech are ringed with deadly fungus, and the hemlock is next, expected to succumb to the wooly adelgid in Michigan as the tiny insects migrate from the east.

When we came across this tree (pictured), I began to think about the nature of parasitism, that form of symbiosis between species in which a squatter takes advantage of a host. The deer tick is a good example; it sucks the host’s blood, and transmits Lyme disease. Obviously, there is nothing good in the relationship for the host. The photo is of a hoof fungus on a decaying tree. It is a true parasite, attaching to a vulnerable place on the tree and causing stem rot, which eventually kills the tree.

Other symbiotic relationships can be mutually beneficial, in which both host and parasite benefit one another. In Egypt, the plover and the crocodile have made peace for millennia. The crocodile opens wide, the bird flits in and eats the rotting food stuck in the croc’s teeth, and, in apparent gratitude, the croc doesn’t eat the plover. Voila!  The bird eats and the reptile gets a free dental cleaning.

I think the most interesting of these relationships is that of commensalism, in which a parasite attaches to a host for a free ride. One benefits, while the other is not harmed; think barnacles on a whale. Or a person who has asked for prayer.

This has had me thinking mostly about human relationships.  I am people-shy by nature,

in a lifelong struggle to reconcile scriptural demands to love my neighbor with the fact that I prefer solitude. Instead of open arms that welcome “the inconveniences and suffering that love requires,” [1] I tend to flee into myself, wrapped, not in apathy, but in a dread-frosted cake of isolationism.

I do not want to be needed. I do not want my energy to be sucked dry like a tick sucks blood. I do not want to be used. And, to be sure, there are people who are parasitic on one’s time, emotions, money, and good intentions. Thus, most of my freely-given time goes to things like making the coffee, offering to pray for people, serving a meal, helping people move across town, even recover from a hurricane. I can do these things without much chance of exposing my inner self to the deep, sometimes twisted, often long-term (even endless) neediness (especially emotional neediness) of others. It is as much as I can do to avoid parasites while agreeing to a time-constrained spell of commensalism.

I guess, if I am honest, I dislike sacrifice.

And that’s too bad. Here, Nature is such a good teacher. I know that, like the plover and the crocodile, the Church is full of people who both need and love God.

I know that people will come alongside me to model what it means to love without dread, to give without constraint, and to be the hands and heart of God to someone who is hurting-even when that someone, someday, is me.

We always want our relationships to be mutual, in which both parties benefit. I see this naiveté all the time when young people head out on a mission trip; it’s less about sacrificial service than they like to think.

Truth is, the foundation of faith is sacrifice. And bloody.

Freely given that we might be greedy takers of forgiveness and salvation.

But, once freed from our wayward living, the expectation is that we follow. All the way to our own death if necessary. I believe this, but I have to continually pray that God helps me in my unbelief.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1]www.desiringgod.orgaccessed July 13, 2019. John Piper. Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God.  pp. 283-284. 2012.

adventure, canoeing, Creation, death, Faithful Living, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Outdoor Adventures, Peace, Perseverence, Ralph Waldo Emerson, River, Sacrifice, Travel, Uncategorized, Water, wilderness, Wilderness Paddling, wisdom

The Cosmic Indifference of the Wilderness

It takes months of planning for a paddling journey into the wilderness.  The Walton brothers toss around ideas, the maps come out, the routes, and access to them are studied, dates are penciled in, then, finally, train and campground reservations are made. In the month preceding any trip, my husband begins an internal transition from here to there as the necessary equipment comes out of storage to join the growing pile in our living room. Sleeping pad and bag. Cook stove. Dry bags. Bear bag. Throw bag. Cooler. Camp chair. Hammock. Swiss army knife. Food list. Boots. Water shoes. Dri-fit clothing. Camera. Tent and fly. Fishing pole. Hat. Rain gear. Maps. You get the idea.  Just now, Mark and Hugh and two more of their brothers are in the early phase of staging their September trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, a trip three years in the planning.

Why so much planning? The wilderness is, by necessity, wild and weathered, unsympathetic to the needs of a paddler. The wilds don’t care about your life or your death.

I call this the cosmic indifference of the wilderness.

Yes, the wilderness is untamed and unfettered. And all around, usually invisible in the  forest deeps, and the dark swirls of river and lake is the predatory character that drives all creatures to eat, shelter, reproduce and live – as good a description of survival that you can conjure. If you are going to test yourself against the elements of the wilderness – its fire, air, water, rock, flora, and fauna, then you better know what you are doing.

So, when wilderness paddling, you learn to be on the lookout for threats like underwater rocks or deadfall trees, swirling eddies, confused currents, high water, low water, storms, lightning, fires, bears, moose, and poison ivy, to name a few.

Daily life is actually not all that different. It goes merrily along like a calm, placid river, and, unawares, we become lulled into forgetting our creaturely vulnerability to hidden threats to our wellbeing:  sickness, accident, injury, infidelity, terror, poverty, and death. We can go from flourishing to foundering in an instant.  This was true for Hugh when his leukemia diagnosis came out of the blue, followed by the ten-year slog of treatments before a life-saving bone marrow transplant. You simply can’t plan for that.

Even with maps, you don’t always know where you are.

Food can’t satisfy your deepest hungers- for life to have meaning and purpose, to belong, and to be loved.

It’s true: all the planning in the world can’t prevent you from incurring harm in the vicissitudes of this life.  Just ask anyone who’s come within a bear’s breath of dying.

Still. We learn from the wilderness that there is a flip side to almost everything.

Beauty masks pain. Tenacity is a product of frailty. Love necessitates sacrifice. Suffering is never meaningless.   Meekness and tenderness makes for strength. The water can bear you up or take you down.

Time in the wilderness confirms the relationship between the sober realities of life and its loveliness, courage, and peace. The virtues are God-inspired, and there for us to cultivate if we would only abdicate our need to control.  Yes, life is fragile. But, our own can be enlarged, enriched, and emboldened if we embrace it in all its grit and grace. Yes, life is demanding. How will you traverse it? Emerson wrote that the dowry of the wilderness is precious to any who seek it.  When will you start planning to get out and go?

~J.A.P. Walton

Costa Rica, Creation, death, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, God, Lessons from the Wilderness, Prayer, Sacrifice, Serving Others, Uncategorized, wilderness, wisdom


Do you have questions that can’t be answered?

Does it bother you that mercy is so difficult to understand?” *

I sat staring at the creek through the snowflakes yesterday, thinking about the nearness of Easter. Just then, Trout Creek’s resident red tail hawk dove to the wooded floor, wings awkwardly fanning the brown leaves, hopping and clawing, before launching to a sturdy branch for a fresh snack of field mouse. It only took a minute to rip and tear and gulp that mouse down. It reminded me of a day several years back when I was admiring a male cardinal at the feeder. Without a sound, a sharp shinned hawk dropped out of the Norway spruce, snatching that cardinal with swift surprise. The only evidence was a tiny cloud of red and pink wing fluff floating down onto the deck.

On our Costa Rica Outward Bound adventure, we were required to catch a chicken, kill it, and eat it. The catching was comical, but using a machete to behead it was gruesome, blood spurting in all directions while firmly holding the still nerve-wracked body in its violent and nauseating death shake. All so we could have some protein.  

Our sanitized grocery store wrappings of chicken and ground beef have made us naïve. Time out in the wilderness quickly teaches not of the gentleness of nature, but of its brutishness. Is life so cruel? Out in the wilds, we can’t whitewash the truth that all this teeming life around us will, and must be stilled. The heron will gulp the minnow. The salmon feeds the bear. The vole grows the fledging owlet. The cougar will bring down the freckled fawn, and the speckled trout will become our dinner. For one to live, another must die. That’s the immutable law of nature and nourishment, that one’s weakness becomes another’s lifeblood. And, that is the sum of it; life depends on death by design.

The same can be said for Good Friday and the Easter resurrection and what the mercy of God in Jesus did for each of us. Jesus died our own death and bore the just punishment we deserve, his flesh torn, his blood spilled out. If you think about it, it isn’t really about cruelty, but the mercy of sacrifice. For our own life to go on, we must kill and eat. (before you vegetarians get too high-minded, even the plants must die to feed us).

So I think it is good to ponder, “what or who would I die for?” at this time of year. Perhaps we’d die for our loved ones, or a brother or sister in the faith. Some might answer country, or liberty. I know people who give up things for Lent, like chocolate or screen time.  But that misses the entire point. Christ calls us to die to self first, to willingly give up our rights and our comforts by gladly and sacrificially taking up the hard work of our faith.

It is so clearly laid out for us in the Beatitudes. You are blessed when you recognize and mourn your selfishness and sin. And on up the ladder it climbs: life-giving blessing flows out of a meekness that denies self, hungers after God and a rightly pure heart, and shows mercy to others. Friends, isn’t it time to let Christ snatch you out of this world?

~J.A.P. Walton

Please share with your friends!

* Mary Oliver. Devotions. Penguin Press, NY. 2017. p. 239.