Affirmation, beauty, Blessings, Cancer, Creation, Darkness, death, Faithful Living, Forest, God, Hardiness, Heaven, Home, Hope, Lake Michigan, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Nature, Peace, Perseverence, Pilgrimage, Prayer, Storms, Trees, Uncategorized, vigil, wind, wisdom

Soldiering On

There is a dead calm in the trees today after a string of gusty days. The calmness amplifies animals’ movements; looking out just now, I can see a doe raise a front foot, then continue her slow browsing in the woods across Trout Creek.

Though a calm is often just a comma between storms, we should pay attention to it, because it invites introspection and watchfulness, a time heavy with anticipation like a maple leaf just waiting for the wind to ask it to dance.

I am at a point in life of watching and waiting. Watching sick loved ones cling to life, waiting for God to answer prayer. My eyes see misery clawing at hope. My pulse drones in my ears and pacifies the waiting like an undisturbed river flowing deep and sure.

Vigil is the gutsy response to life’s gusty times.

It is a posture of watching with loved ones, and waiting for an outcome while in the eye of the storm.  Every day I see adult children in their 60’s and 70’s visiting aged parents at the nursing home.  The visits are difficult-many residents can’t even remember their kids’ names-but the children soldier on out of respect, accepting the duty to honor the last days of a parent’s life. There is calm, and order, and rightness in the watching and waiting.

Vigil gives time for forgiveness and reconciliation, for sharing old memories, and for meditation on the way all of life soldiers on.

At the bluff, there is a lone cedar tree about 10 feet from the dune’s edge.  The dunes along this stretch of Lake Michigan have been unstable since the ice age created them, crumbling in the constant onslaught of waves and winds. The property my grandparents bought has lost 88 feet since the early 1960’s. This means that the cedar soldier was once deep in the forest at the back of the dune, playmates with the grand, towering beech, the stately ash, and the playful maple.  But, time has marched on with unstoppable force. The other trees succumbed to the storms of disease or the loggers’ saws. The dune continued to roll into the deeps.  So, now this cedar stands alone and bent, facing its inevitable demise with deep roots and grace in its vigil of watching and waiting. Each morning it greets the eastern sun and takes delight in the jays and cedar waxwings that haunt its branches, and the bald eagle who hunts from its crown. At night, it lifts its face westward, basking in the sun’s glow, a view it never had in its youth.

Today, my dad would have been 90 years old. But, like the ash and beech, disease took him before he could have a better view, a vigil cut short. Like the cedar, my mom stands at the edge, soldiering on through the indignities of Parkinson’s disease, in a vigil for glimpses of heaven.  Watching. Waiting. Praying.

~J.A.P. Walton

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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.

Affirmation, beauty, Birds, Creation, Creator, Faithful Living, Forest, God, Hope, joy, Light, Nature, Praise, Silence, sunrise, Trees, Uncategorized, wilderness, wisdom

Litany of Praise at Dawn

Yesterday I was awakened at dawn by an oriole’s soft, sweet whistle. He’s been haunting the hummingbird feeder, and seemed to be quietly reminding me it was time for breakfast (we pull feeders in at night to outsmart greedy raccoons).

With hot coffee in hand, I stood with the trees to watch the sun arrive, lighting up the treetops, then soon angling down to swathe the forest floor. With a penchant for keeping my nose in a book far too late at night, I rarely catch the sunrise anymore. But, yesterday, it caught me…in wonder and hope.

How rare it is to greet the day with God’s creation, and for the confirmation that, for today at least, life goes on.

I was treated to a feast of birds at every point of the compass- the oriole and the hummingbird, the pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers, those ancient cousins. A pair of indigo buntings timidly nipping a few sunflower seeds, and a scrum of blue jays laughing and nattering in the maple.

In the lane, a doe limped across my way, hindered by a broken ankle. I tenderly told her to take her time, because time would heal the pain. Not long after, the turkeys started gobbling… why the word for bolting down food is used to describe a turkey call I will never know.

The point is that dawn reveals the vitality and fecundity of the world, particularly when you are in a place that is undisturbed by the human awakening of car, horn, bus and garbage truck.  Why would God make such beauty, with its threads of genetic similarity woven into complex cloaks of myriad colors and distinctive sounds?

Why wasn’t one bird, or even three enough?  How did God know when to quit creating?

I guess I liken it to the simplest delight we get when we see something we think is beautiful. It catches our eye, pauses our hurry, and interrupts our breath.  Perhaps God created beauty to arrest our souls that we might, even for a moment, think and thank the creator, to marvel in this glory, which is his glory.

Glory comes in many forms, but the best is in a litany

of praise that rolls off our tongues. 

May your days be filled to overflowing with eyes to see, and ears to hear.

 

~J.A.P. Walton

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The Impressions We Leave Behind

There is an important canoe show (the Quiet Water Society ) coming up, but my husband left his canoes up at the bluff last fall. So, this past weekend, we went north to retrieve them.  The problem was that the half-mile 2-track back to the bluff wasn’t passable with its three feet of snow. After much discussion, we decided to haul the boats out like sleds on our snowshoes. (side note, it was also our first-ever experience of reverse worry with our daughter imploring us to be careful and to, “ look after our hearts”). (!)  If anyone later came across our tracks in the snow, they’d wonder if two gigantic ducks with webbed feet, and dragging a wide, heavy fantail made those impressions.

Everywhere we went we came across entire vistas of snow and ice without a single track-no deer, or fox, or rabbit, or human prints for miles. It reminded me of the grandness of the northern wilderness, where, in the dense forested lands the rivers were the Ancients’ first pathways, where narrow game trails became highways for the wild animals and their predators, and where the first permanent peoples-First Nations from the east, and later, the unending influx of Europeans- worked with stone and fire and steel to clear roads out of footpaths.

I love snowshoeing or skiing on virgin, undisturbed snow. It feels like exploring, and makes wide room for going “off trail” (though never in any park where you must stick to the blazes on the trees, like my daughter in this photo at Otter Creek). Glistening powder flours your gaiters, and muffles your footfall. Winds aloft in the forest rarely reach the ground, yet the treetops voice their yearning for spring in an adagio chorale of measured sighs. It is all beauty. All welcome embrace. All new.  But, fresh trackless snow also buries life’s traps and travails, when the things that can easily trip you up are obscured.

Still…. I must also think about the importance and joy of the tracks.

I enjoy identifying what has been this way before me, to marvel at the dainty hoof marks of the deer and her fawn-almost-yearling, or the thumping back-footed thrust of the rabbit. Yes, knowing that someone or something has gone this way ahead of you can be comforting.

It turns my mind to the paths I’ve chosen to follow over a lifetime.

From the wisdom of mentors, and best practices in my profession, to the loving conviction of family and friends when confronting me with behaviors that were evidence of being headed off the path, in the wrong direction.  Then there’s the biblical reminder to trust God because he is the ultimate path maker. There have been times that I bullied myself into forging ahead against advice, blustering ahead to make my own tracks. They were often fraught with the deflating trials my pride-fueled, poor choices deserved.

And I have to wonder about the footprints- the impressions– I have left behind for my child, my husband, and the thousands of college students I taught and advised. I pray that I steered them all well, with the wisdom of years that encourages risk but cautions against recklessness, because the wise stay on God’s path.

Those roads are sure to test you… the road to Damascus, the road on which the Good Samaritan knelt in blood and dirt to help a beaten-up foreigner, the road to Emmaus, and, of course, the road out of Jerusalem to the cross. None easy, none very well travelled.  

In this sense, Robert Frost had it right-the road less travelled is the better way. Faint tracks, sometimes, but real nonetheless. Remember as you go, there are others watching and following.

 

~J.A.P. Walton

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The Days Grow Short

The snow is drifting down at Trout Creek, but the squirrels and juncos pay it no heed. They stay busy burrowing and flitting, feeding.  Even so, it is quiet.  Too quiet. The pair of great horned owls we’ve had in the tall cedars for several years have not returned. Perhaps it’s too early, or they’ve wandered further north in search of denser forest. Their absence is palpable, even though we rarely saw them.

The color palette is hushed this time of year too. Brown is the primary hue, only brightened by the snow. Most signs of life are dampened too; no green leaves to dance in the breeze, no delectable tender shoots for the deer to eat. A six-pointed buck roamed by last week in a futile search for greens.  He was hard to spot in his winter camouflage of bristle brown.

We took a walk last week, up north on the Old Indian Trail, part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Sleeping Bear info  It too was silent, the only sign of wildlife in the form of prints and scat. One lone, blustering blue jay pierced the calm, but even it preferred to remain hidden. No other sounds but the wind sighing up high in the firs, and our footsteps crunching on snow-crusted, ice-rimmed leaves.

Silence and beauty are soul sisters, each one weaving purpose and meaning into the other, that we can wrap ourselves in them.  It is one of the gifts of the wilderness to be able to experience both together.  The pulsing of the mute northern lights. Silently spreading ripples on still water. The shadow of an overhead harrier flitting across your path. The flick of the white patch of a deer’s tail.  The sun on its daily trip across the sky.  How nice that the tick of the clock, that slave driver of modern life, cannot contaminate the wilds.

The days grow short. May you find some silence in them, in the falling snow, the lighted tree, and the smile of a loved one. God once broke the winter’s silence with a baby’s cry and an angel’s song. It was cold and dark then too. May you embrace the quiet spells with wonder and delight.

~J.A.P. Walton

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