adventure, Blessings, Campfires, Creation, Darkness, death, Faithful Living, Forest, Henry David Thoreau, hiking, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, River, Trees, Uncategorized, Water, wilderness

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

We spent the past week at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This park is an emerald gem set between Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay and the wide and placid Tahquamenon River. One day we hiked from the river’s lower falls about 5 miles up to the upper falls along a well-loved trail that follows the river, traversing low wet bogs, and high dry forested ridges of cedar, hemlock, and oak. Each step along the river’s edge had me looking into dark, calm pools that surely were teeming with brook trout-oh for my fishing pole! The late summer flowers were lush despite the season’s lack of rain, mostly yellow and orange as the late bloomers tend to be- black-eyed Susan, butter-and-eggs (a sore throat treatment in the old days), tall, spiky mullein, and the delicate jewelweed. We saw little wildlife, though the pileated woodpeckers laughed at us all along the trail.

Near the upper falls we came across a large hemlock about 10” in diameter with a sign that said a hemlock with a circumference the size of a soda can would be about 100 years old. Things grow slowly where the arctic winds and snows of Lake Superior have hammered at the terrain for thousands upon thousands of years.

Nature is not in a hurry it seems, and we have much to learn about the virtues of taking life more slowly.

All in all, this was a hopeful walk, the kind of hike Thoreau or Emerson would approve. In his treatise on nature, Emerson noted that a walk in the woods helps us become young again, where the “air is a cordial” and we find ourselves wrapped in an “uncontained and immortal beauty.” [1]  On this day, the trail, labeled by the park service as strenuous and challenging because it is crisscrossed by fingerlike tree roots, muddy and slick in places, was, for us, a delight, a hushed forest canvas caressed by the river, filled with beauty, harmony, grace, and peace.

Day’s end brought a leisurely campfire enjoyed in good company with mugfuls of hot tea. As always, there isn’t much to say as the fire pulls us in and rearranges our thoughts.

I thought about the wood, not unlike my own life, so many long, patient years in the making.

The wood roars to life in a last, bursting fling, sparks rising up in joyous mutiny as if they could escape a foregone conclusion: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

We repeated these words recently as we committed my husband’s mom to her earthly grave. I can only hope that, at the end of my days, I might rise up and light the night in one last delighted burst of joy, willowy arms reaching for heaven just like flames that lick away the darkness-a supplication of praise and thanksgiving for my life and my rebirth.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1]Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nature.1836.

Cancer, Creation, Darkness, death, Faithful Living, God, Hope, John Muir, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Prayer, River, Sierra Nevada, Spring, Trees, Uncategorized, wilderness, wisdom

The Geese, the Floods, and John Muir

Geese flew over the house this morning, with a honking so hauntingly welcome that it stopped me breathless with the happy assurance that winter is losing its grip. This has truly been a winter of discontent, to borrow from John Steinbeck (my favorite author of fiction). We lost a loved one. Another continues to decline. We are sending up prayers for too much cancer, too many bullets, the sword-rattling of our enemies, and the deaths of two great men of prayer and faith, R.C. Sproul and Billy Graham. This week we had days and days of rain atop melting snow, sending our creeks and rivers out of their banks.

To dwell on all this too long leaves us as drab and lifeless as the snow-matted flood-stained grass. We defend ourselves with intentional numbness. Yet the geese remind us that goodness abounds, that life is not snuffed out entirely, and that there is work to be done. This week, as Trout Creek rose higher and faster, swelling and bullying itself downstream, I thought about the nature of things-water most especially. How it gathers to itself, seeks out the lowest places, dwells and swells with an abandoned playfulness that lurks with deadly innocence too. Water has a voice and a rhythm. It sings and swings down its course, sweeping everything unrooted away with raw power. What other than our faith can anchor us amid the flood of evil tides?  But water is also life-giving.

I have spent this winter reading the selected works of John Muir because his writing is extraordinarily uplifting (winter is long in the north, so I strategically choose reading that will edify and encourage me). Muir’s prose is divinely poetic, and his love for God and Creation oozes from every page. He often wrote about the waters that fall from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada in California, carving out passes and canyons-

“The happy stream sets forth again, warbling and trilling like an ouzel, ever delightfully confiding, no matter how dark the way; leaping, gliding, hither, thither, clear or foaming: manifesting the beauty of its wildness in every sound and gesture.” 1

Muir shows us that part of the water’s power is in the way it glories to be on its way, hailing any who would heed. Spring is coming friends. Won’t it be glorious to be on our way, doing the work God has given us to do, righting wrongs with energy, and pointing others to the same hope we have in God? May you “set forth again” and rise up out of your banks with a renewed vigor, confiding in one another no matter how dark the way. Look up. The geese will show you the way.

~J.A.P. Walton

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  1.  John Muir Selected Writings, A.Knopf, New York. 2017,p.178.  This excerpt is from Muir’s first book, The Mountains of California published in 1894. (an ouzel is a bird)
Backpacking, Costa Rica, Creation, Faithful Living, God, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Outdoor Adventures, Outward Bound, Rainforest, Trees, Uncategorized, wilderness, wisdom

Lessons from the Rain Forest

I turned 46 the month I led a group of college students on an Outward Bound trip through the Costa Rica rainforest. Twenty year olds can go all day on enthusiasm alone, but my middle-aged middling fitness brought multiple challenges, the least of which was just keeping pace with my students.

The rainforest is as unforgiving as it is beautiful. On the first day, we hiked UP for 4 straight hours in a relentless rain that made the 90 degree heat unbearable. (Most people don’t even know that Costa Rica has high mountains with rugged wilderness terrain, and that you can easily get altitude sick and lost in the same day). Everything inside of me was, as the Brits say, upsot. Lungs desperate for air, sweat joined to raindrops with nowhere to evaporate, leg and back muscles screaming for relief from the 50 pound pack. Hot spots on both heels you pray are not becoming blisters. All while the young ones traipsed with joyful abandon happily shouting out lines from the Princess Bride movie.

It was hard for me to get outside of my own physical misery long enough to appreciate the stillness, the deep emerald greenness in a fine mist that nearly assaults the senses, the cheerfulness of my companions to finally be underway, and the teeming, fecund, inconceivable LIFE at every turn. Sapphire-tinged moths as big as your hand. Armies of leaf-cutting ants-whole platoons of them winding their way through the jungle, carrying, like me, a heavy load with unwavering duty. Cockroaches as fat as mice. Birds singing. Birds winging. Birds, birds, birds!

In matters of faith, it takes a willful choosing to be outwardly focused. To look at this hurting world with compassion and care even when we ourselves are hurting is, I think, the most difficult, and stridently unnatural thing that God calls us to do. The secret is in the abandon. The giving over in order to give out. To give out and not give up.

 Much of what Outward Bound teaches is how to keep going in the face of physical challenge, and how to embrace a physical challenge that you know will bring pain, tears, doubts, and, always, the bedeviling whisper that you can’t go another step. What God teaches is that there is a strength from unwavering belief that no man, certainly no devil can match. And it is true for all of our difficulties. In the midst of life’s wilderness of hurt, fear, doubt and misery, God is there to be our strength, our immovable rock. But, only if we let Him. Climb on, and BELIEVE that you need never climb alone. It is INCONCEIVABLE!

~J.A.P. Walton

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(more posts about the Costa Rica experience are in the offing, stay tuned. Oh, and lest you think me wimpy, on Day 2 of this trip a student asked if he could take something from my pack to lighten my load.  I was so grateful!  Only later, on the plane home, would I read his reaction in his trip journal:  “I took Dr. Walton’s food sack on the 2nd day to help her out.  HOLY CRAP!! It was heavy!”

 

 

canoeing, death, Faithful Living, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Trees, Wilderness Paddling, Winter

Tamarack

The graceful tamarack is my favorite tree. Now, in the iron fist of winter, it soldiers on, bared of its fronds like a naked pine. Also called a larch, the tamarack is a unique tree in that it is considered both coniferous (evergreen, conical shape) and deciduous (loses its leaves/needles). The indigenous Algonquian and Abenaki peoples used it to make snowshoes because of its pliant nature.

Why do I love it so? Mostly I think it is because it is shaped by grace, and colored a rich, soft emerald that turns a royal gold in the autumn, and because the birds love the tamarack’s cover and branching. Here at Trout Creek our resident wrens sing lustily from the largest tamarack next to the garden. Tamaracks grow in swampy areas, greedily drinking up the excess water like a camel in the desert. And, heaven knows, in this family, we love the mired bogs and fens that subdue sound and teem with life. The tamarack tenderly graces the rivers we paddle, swaddled into the forest edge with cedar, birch, and pine.

What I love most, though, is that this tree, so dead-like now, will soon sprout soft, feathery green pinions as the wrens return to nest in its bosom. It reminds me of my dad and brother-in-law who lost their hair to chemotherapy- bald and bare in the cold. But, what seems utterly dead and ready for the woodpile is actually a living thing at rest, hibernating like the bear. What seems lifeless is full of life, of living beauty and grace, where birds and animals shelter with confidence and hope. I love, too, that the tamarack is pliant, like a life bent to the Presence and will of God.

Here, in the strong grip of winter, the tamarack’s barren look mirrors my own mood; the cold, dark days strip and whip me mentally and physically, and my vitality dips, and I feel exactly the same way stumbling through this drowsy hibernation. And yet, I remain secure in the knowledge that I am protected, warmed, and given a great hope in the life that is in me and is also to come. Thank you God for the tamarack trees, and the way they remind us of your grace and love.

These short essays are my way of noodling about life in the wilderness, on foot, in a canoe, on a bike.  If you want to read more, sign up to follow the blog and you will receive an email each time a new essay is posted!  Your comments help

~J.A.P. Walton

If you are passionate about quiet adventuring: paddling, camping, hiking, cycling etc. try this link to find out about the Quiet Water Society!  Quiet Water Society