adventure, Affirmation, August, Autumn, beauty, Birds, Creation, Faithful Living, joy, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Peace, Pilgrimage, Praise, River, Seasons, Sounds, Uncategorized, wisdom, worry

To Everything There is a Season

August is drawing to a close. Here at the bluff, life is slowing down; the need to cram as many summer activities as one soul can bear is over.

It’s time to think about slowing down.

I adore all that August brings, starting with the garden. Luscious ripe tomatoes and scores of green beans, and afternoons of canning and freezing put me in step with the squirrel storing up for winter. There’s a returned hush outside-the Queen Anne’s lace nodding and napping in the afternoon lull, while the goldenrod and dune grasses sway to an onshore breeze. The tourists have gone home, there’s food on the grocery store shelves once again, and the locals are letting out a long, collective sigh of literal relief.

Salmon are running up the river mouths, and fisherman line the riverbanks like people at a parade.  Still, August brings an unhurried feel, an almost welcome lonesomeness, marked most starkly by the early departure of the migrant birds. The grosbeaks and buntings are already gone, while the hummingbirds stuff themselves in readiness.

Sumac has lit its fiery torches as the sun has finally wearied of its northward travels.

Evening comes earlier, dishing up a delightful coolness that sends me rummaging for socks and sweatshirt. It’s nearly time for bowls of chili and fresh apple pie.

When I was teaching, the beauty and delight of August was always overshadowed by a gnawing, almost unholy anxiety. “Days are short, gotta get ready.”  Hurry, scurry, worry. It was sometimes a circus, unsettling, nerve-fraying. Stressful.  What a shame that we lose the slow glow of August in slavery to an academic calendar.

But now, looking to nature, I can appreciate that the seasons bring a calming rhythm to life we’d do well to mimic. To everything there is a season. A time to vacation, and a time to work. A time to sit with friends and share a sunset, and a time to pray alone. A time to bathe in creation, and a time to create. A time to get ready, and a time to fly. A time to renew, and a time to rise up refreshed.

August never lasts, and the September calendar fills up fast. Take a moment to thank God for the last days of summer.

Even the earth will rest. See if you can’t too.

Thanks for reading along.

~J.A.P. Walton

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 Tourism, Birds, Blessings, Camping, Faithful Living, God, Home, Nature, Prayer, Religion, River, Uncategorized, wisdom

With a Honk and a Prayer

On our meandering way home last week, we camped near a lake in northern Kentucky.  We went on a rainy walk before supper, so glad to stretch our legs, gladder still to see geese on the water, which, like robins, I prefer to interpret as another sign of spring.

After dinner and washing up in the RV, we settled into our bunk with our books, lulled by the sound of rain on the roof. Outside was a deepening twilight. Faintly at first, then growing louder, the honking of an army of geese approached the lake for the night, answered robustly by the birds already in residence.  The honking was a roar at splashdown.

At first I thought the geese were honking to establish some kind of hierarchy, a kind of threat between resident and intruder. But my reading revealed that geese make such a racket in their dusky landings and dawn takeoffs so that other geese will know where they are.  They don’t honk in threat, or greeting, or goodbye. They honk to be “seen” in the dark, to prevent accidentally colliding with one another. Our church has become so crowded of late that I laugh to think about honking in the vestibule so that no one accidentally elbows me while drinking hot coffee! Still,

we can use our hearing as a kind of sonar, to listen for people’s stories, hopes, fears, and needs.

The other time geese routinely honk is while migrating. Bird experts think it is a form of encouragement. It reminds me of they way players on the bench, and the fans behind them cheer on their team on the court and field. My church family is truly my flock in this regard.

In returning to our home church for worship, it felt wonderful to be welcomed by our church family… the honking of landing back in our fold, of encouragement in the questions about our trip, our welfare, what we learned, how it went. And we learned what had been happening at home in our absence.

The Bible calls this being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses… people on both sides of the river, alive and dead, who greet us, enfold us, encourage us, pray with us, and then send us back out into God’s world with a honk and a prayer.

Who is in your flock to encourage you, to see you safely home? Listen for them!

 

~J.A.P. Walton

Photo credit: bestof:canada geese branta canadensis …snappygoat.com

adventure, Affirmation, Creation, Creator, Faithful Living, God, Lessons from the Wilderness, Light, Nature, Peace, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Silence, Starry Skies, sunsets, Uncategorized, wilderness, wisdom

The Unsaid Nightly Prayer

When you are simultaneously reading books about wisdom, nature, and brokenness, your mind swirls in eddies of hope-drenched enchantment.  This despite so much evidence to the contrary; seeing our world with despair-tinged eyes, where the sights only confirm our overlord mentality in regards to creation care; studying the metrics that confirm a warming planet and melting polar icecaps; watching ‘progress’ chew up farmland and forest for pre-fab, over-mortgaged, faux-rich plywood houses.

Yet, I remain swaddled in hope.  It is a hope born in an infantile understanding of creation as beauty, of nature as God’s artistry, of the stranger’s face as an image of God.

As a physiologist by training, it is natural for me to misunderstand the “whole” of things for spending too much time in the weeds of all the contributing parts. A stunning sunset becomes a thought-train of the influence of polluting forest fires to the west creating atmospheric conditions for super-red hues; a cloudbank over the water wraps the sunset in royal robes of purple and crimson, while my mind delves into the barometer’s dive signaling an approaching storm.

Truth is, the beauty of the whole of creation is best appreciated not when you can reduce each strand to its explainable source, but when you can understand that it is a cosmic marriage of what we know (reason) with what we cannot know (holiness). That sunset? It is love, and Spirit, and unity that only my lack of understanding tries to fracture into discordant parts. Paul Griffiths calls this the “vice of curiosity.”[1]

And that gets us to the notion of understanding, something we humans almost never achieve because we are too engrossed in overstanding. By this I mean that, in our drive to subdue the earth, we take on a superior stance that towers over all creation in ruthless domination rather than a shepherding dominion. To stand under something requires a willed humility, acceptance of the role of steward, caretaker.

So, when I see a particularly lovely sunset, I must hush my instinct to overstand it, to explain it, to force its harmony into vile little shards of scientific reason. Instead,

I remind myself of the holiness of the moment, as God prepares both me and his creation for rest while the sun withdraws on tiptoe, because everything I see, in its wholeness, is painted glorious with hope for a new and better day to come. It is an unsaid nightly prayer…

, a “sally of the soul into the unfound infinite…kindl[ing] science with the fire of the holiest affections…[in which] the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”[2]  Oh, that I could be that wise.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1]Paul Griffiths. The Vice of Curiosity: An Essay on Intellectual Appetite.2005.

[2]Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nature. 1836.

adventure, Affirmation, Creation, Creator, Faithful Living, Forest, God, Hardiness, joy, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Risk Taking, Silence, Tracks, Trails, Trees, Uncategorized, wilderness, Winter, wisdom

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