Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Moment

When I wrote last week about watching for a significant moment this holiday season, I wasn’t sure that it would happen to me. Katie and I were introduced at the Christmas Eve service, and I thought that was it. At the party afterwards, I overheard her introduced as a Mennonite pastor. So I sat down next to her, curious about how a woman, and not dressed in black, could be a Mennonite pastor. I learned there is a wide variety of Mennonites, from the very strict, who do wear black clothes and maintain distance from modern society, to those who meet society halfway.

Her journey began a number of years ago. Katie was driving around looking for a church to go to on Sunday, saw a parking lot full of cars, and figured that something must be going on. The people welcomed her in without pushing her to become a member, and not caring that she was divorced. They simply asked her to share worship with them. Eventually she joined the congregation, feeling that its members loved her into membership. When she felt drawn to be a pastor, they supported her it that, too, and helped pay some of her seminary expenses. Nine years later, when the congregation had an opening on its pastoral team, they asked her if she was interested.

The good news that came into the world at Christmas is for all people who need hope, even if they’re not members of my tribe.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


This holiday season, I’m not looking at the decorations but for the transcendent in nature, for one image that will capture my imagination and draw me in. And when I find it, then I want to stay focused on it. I don’t want to hurry on to something else, but let whatever it is settle into me. I want to sit with it, and let it surround me with mystery.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Perhaps in no other season do people go searching as much for what is missing in their lives. In December they look for signs of hope, and they try to help others get by.

A solitary pilgrim walks through the dark Russian forest repeating a simple prayer--that Christ’s breath would live inside him. Kerry walks the Santiago de Compostela in Spain and finds what she thought was lost. Lawrence works in a hospital kitchen in France; when he gets home, he answers letters from people struggling with faith. Katherine goes to work at L’Arche in Toronto and helps the developmentally challenged get through another day. Catholic Workers in Chicago raise vegetables to feed the hungry and provide spiritual nourishment. On cold Oakland streets, Ann brings blankets and coats out to those trying to survive without homes. At TaizĂ©, people of all faiths come together to pray and sing. On the island of Iona, people learn how to help those who have been marginalized by industrial society.

In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Giant Sequoias stand in the snow and marvel at the stars moving across the sky, watching as they have since before the baby was first foretold. Nothing happens at Christmas, except the birth of hope. We feel this when we stare up at the stars when we’re in the mountains, on the sand at the edge of an ocean, or standing in our backyard.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Yosemite in Winter

The sun rises behind Glacier Point, making the bare granite rock of North Dome and the meadows below glow with warm yellow light. In Cook’s Meadow, acorn woodpeckers hop up the trunks of dead trees, picking out acorns they stored there in the fall. Three young bucks hang out by Sentinel Bridge looking for trouble, their breaths coming out in small puffs. The crow in a nearby tree makes a gurgle noise repeatedly. It's a funny sound, and each time the crow caws, its tail goes down. By Swinging Bridge, a square chunk of light gray granite that was washed downstream by the spring flood, sits on the edge of a reflecting pool of emerald green. A white lace of ice edges the banks of the calm and meandering Merced River; its tranquil water reflecting the blue sky. An ouzel flies up and plays in the rapids flowing down a two-foot-stretch of pebbles.

Taking a physical inventory, I find that my only warm place is in the small of my back. Adjusting my clothing to get warmer without success, I head to the cafeteria for a hot breakfast. Then it's back outside to see more of the valley in this early light. Later in the morning I duck into Degnan's for hot coffee. At noon I heat up a can of soup. When the sun finally reaches camp, it’s finally warm enough to take off one layer of clothing. After hours of shivering, my body relaxes.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Listening to Birds

After Evelyn died, people wrote letters and cards of condolence. Many did not know what to say for someone who died in her forties.

One of the memorable letters came from Judy Rasmussen. It addressed our sense of loss and what remains of people when they die, what stays with us and gives us strength. Judy wrote, “There is no right card, no right expression, no wisdom. My heart is so heavy that I can’t express myself. I am sitting in my garden listening to the birds. I can hear Evelyn’s hearty laugh beyond their sound, and hear her sing. Her presence is strong. I remember Evelyn approaching me after my sister’s passing. I barely knew her. She put her arms around me, drew me in, and helped me begin the healing process. Evelyn’s warmth and sensitivity are embedded in my heart.”

Judy died this week. The one who heard Evelyn with the singing of the birds is gone. Her presence will also be missed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Falling Petals

My neighbor Jackie stopped in to drop off copies of The New Yorker and exclaimed how beautiful the yellow leaves were on the maple tree in my backyard. I downplayed it and said that she should have been here a week ago when all the trees were vibrant with fall colors. Then I turned and saw the yellow filling up the entire window and I was stunned. Knowing how much was gone, I no longer saw what was still here.

When leaves drop in autumn, I am sad for the loss of all the life that has buzzed, flown, grown, and run through the woods. Colors become muted, trees go bare, and a chill clings to the air. I turn away from the windows thinking that life has ended outside and there is nothing more to see. Yet when the leaves are gone, I will be able see deer moving down by the creek, a barred owl sitting on a branch, feel the contours of the land, and watch sunset’s rays moving through the bare trees.

Wang Wei writes of this dying of beauty in his poem, “Magnolia Basin,” of hibiscus blooming in a remote mountain where no one sees them: “One by one flowers open, then fall.”

I do not like dying. I’ve become used to the glory of summer and do not want it to end. The coming of winter is a time of transition, when I learn to let go of what has been and start to notice what is coming.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Spirit Land

Sometimes we hear the voice or feel the presence of a family member who has died. But is it real?

When I hike in Yosemite, I feel the presence of Nature’s spirit. Coyote trots across the meadow with a smile. The wind whispers to me about tomorrow’s weather. Native Americans believe that all the members of creation are related to each other---the buffalo, mountains, human beings, rivers, and ravens. The Sioux pray to the Grandfathers to send messages to guide them. The Japanese build altars in their homes to help them communicate with their ancestors.

There is a trinity of days this time of year—All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. The ancient Celtic people celebrated this time with an observance called Samhain, believing that the barrier between life and death thinned and people in both worlds could see and speak to each other. Latin American countries have a similar celebration called the Day of the Dead.

When we share with others, part of us begins to live in them, and this does not die when one of us does. I believe that the spiritual can be more real than the physical, and that matters of the spirit are not bound by laws that govern physical objects.

This year I want to listen more often to what I cannot see, trusting that what I feel is near.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Brother Sun Sister Moon

The feast day of St. Francis is this week and my thoughts turn to Beth. We share a love for Francis and his Canticle of Creation, where he praises the beauty of the natural world. I confess that I still hear Donovan singing the soundtrack to Zeffirelli’s movie, and see Francis running across the scenic Umbrian countryside with Clare, showing her the glorious flowers, birds, and grains of wheat, composing as he goes along.

You have to love Francis who loved to be outdoors and saw Creation’s glory in every tree, bird, and creature.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Heirloom Corn

Last week I was at the farm shucking Mandan Bride corn. Commonly known as Indian corn, it’s one of the organic crops that Jim and Peggy are growing.

We talked as we worked, of course, about life, writing, sailing the Maine coast, and about relationships. We sat in the warm sun shucking and sorting corn, feeling connected to the earth, and to the Native Americans who once sat together like this and shucked corn in the fall. Food, fellowship, and work. A moment of eternity on a September afternoon.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Outdoor City

Dawn rises over our city. Newspapers plop on cool, concrete steps. Joggers and dog walkers nod and pass each other on streets waking up. Buildings catch the early sun and fill the dark alleys with light. Lovers rise and hold hands as they walk along the shore, remembering the sweetness of night. Street vendors open their carts, warm hot dogs and chorizo, Italian sausage, satay, and burritos. They ready ice cream bars and shaved ice cones. Cars bring people in from the suburbs to fill the large open fields by the lake. City buses bring people in. Trains bring people in. The river flows through the city and joins the lake downtown. And the happy sounds of the city grow as the people come in. Children race across the grass as their parents spread picnics out on blankets. There are pick-up games of basketball and soccer. Frisbees hover on the air. Musicians gather under the trees and play the sweet and sad songs from their neighborhoods. The rhythms of steel drums and bodhrans, guitars and Andean flutes. Shuffleboard and chess, dashikis and yamulkes, laughter, dreadlocks, the smell of corn roasting in the husk fill the warm afternoon air. People dance as couples. They dance in groups, and some just spontaneously dance alone. Kites soar up on the breeze, and boats with orange and yellow sails go by, rowboats and red kayaks go by. Faces are painted with imaginary blue creatures with whiskers and toes painted a rainbow of colors. The city dances and sings today for this glorious weather. Old folks and young people dance. People of many cultures sing and dance together on this beautiful, beautiful day spent outdoors.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I’m a rugged, individual American. We all are. That’s the problem as our cities become larger and we have to drive to the grocery store rather than walk. We’ve lost our sense that we’re part of a community of people. When we get together in a group, it tends to be for national celebrations like July 4th or for sporting events. The crowd is large and anonymous, and generally there isn’t much sharing on the personal level.

Community is also important when I’m outdoors because things happen. If I break an ankle out on a trail, I will need help getting back. A cold storm soaks my sleeping bag and clothes, and someone offers me shelter. Rock climbers have an accident on the wall, and the community of climbers rally around to get them safely off.

There is also the community that forms when strangers share a discovery together, like hiking up to the top of Half Dome talking along the way, learning about each other’s lives.

We are to be individuals within our community. On our own, we would remake the world in our own image. In community, we remake the world to help others.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Holding Sunlight in My Hands

One of the reasons I hike in nature is to be overwhelmed by scenes of natural beauty and awe, to lose myself for a time in experiences that let me know I’m part of something greater than my perceptions. But as soon as I realize that I’m in one of these moments, I’m no longer part of it. I become an observer instead of a participant. Now I have a choice. I can do nothing and hope that I slide back in, or hope that a second moment will begin and take me further, or I can conclude that the moment is over and try to remember it as best I can.

Generally I preserve special moments by writing or taking photographs. With photography, the only option is to interrupt the flow of the moment because the deer will run off or the sunset begins to fade. The photo has to be taken now. With writing I can linger, jot down a few images, and flesh out the details later. Yet trying to preserve transcendent moments in one-dimensional forms like photography or writing isn’t complete because so much is left out. They are only signposts pointing the way.

Transcendent experiences are not the product of close observations or logic. I cannot make them happen. Like a Zen koan, understanding comes by surprise, by leaps of intuition. Although I write to understand these moments, life is still best when it is simply lived.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Beartooth Mountains

I’m in Red Lodge, Montana. During the day I hike a different trail in the Beartooth Mountains. In the evening I go to the chamber concerts at the Red Lodge Music Festival.

The trail up East Rosebud Lake is open to the sky, the result of a fire that burned the forest away. Here and elsewhere there is the chance of meeting moose, wolves, and grizzly bears. Yellowstone is just over the crest. I like hiking with the edge of danger present. It keeps me respectful of the ways of the wilderness.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Molly was a painter who had a wonderful eye for composition, especially when creating collages of unusual materials. She loved the Native American culture of the Southwest, asiago cheese, nature and Francesco.

One of her paintings hangs on my wall. It’s an abstract work of Yosemite that combines old clothing patterns, canvas, and oil paint. At first I thought it was of pine trees in a snowstorm, with circles and shards of green objects scattered about. Now I see the light of creation coming through the mist and the sacred hoop of the Great Spirit, renewing the life of animals, people, and coyotes. Today I realized that the inspiration for the painting could have come one day when she was in Yosemite, looked up at the sun shining above the clouds and sending through beams of light, before the clouds thickened and took the sun away.

She was struggling with a brain tumor then. How she faced her struggles taught me the importance of living in the moment and celebrating what is good today, even if other matters are going wrong. She left this vision in her painting to remind me.

Five years ago this month, Molly died at age 41.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Taking Risks

Camp 4 in Yosemite is where the rock climbers stay, and when I’m in Yosemite I stay with them. I like their camaraderie and the stories they tell around the campfire of their adventures from the day. Climbers know their activity is dangerous. Sometimes they lose their grip or the rock disintegrates in their hands and they fall, with safety ropes catching them thirty or fifty feet down and the only injuries are bruises. But sometimes ropes snap, or climbers hit points of rock on the way down and bones break. Climbers die every year from pushing themselves or their equipment too far. Yet taking this risk with others, and pushing to the edge that separates failure and success, teaches them about courage, teamwork, and most importantly, about their inner strengths.

I can comfortably get through life doing what I’ve always done. But I only grow when I take risks and attempt challenges that I’ve never done before. Taking risks also brings excitement into the day and pushes me to the edge where I can discover hidden abilities. I would guess that most changes in the world happen because of people taking risks, when they see a need and try to help without knowing how they are going to do this, improvising on the spot. Taking risks with a group of people builds community and teaches us about trust and working together.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Living in the Flow

Nature keeps changing. For example, Mirror Lake in Yosemite is now a meadow, the result of a natural process. As the river flowed down from the mountains, it brought sediment that filled the lake in and changed it into a meadow. I loved the lake because of its still reflections of Half Dome and Mt. Watkins, and because it was the only lake in the valley.

At home, possessions accumulate over time, filling every space, especially books. My bookshelves are full, so I resolved that if a book came into the house, then one book had to leave. Books that I haven’t opened in twenty years go away as books come in that I want to read now because of my changing interests.

Like rivers, relationships are always adjusting their courses. You and I have changed a little since yesterday. Events and discoveries have happened and our emotions are different. Each day we either move closer together or further apart. If we don’t keep up with the changes, we risk losing touch with each other.

If I hang on to things like Mirror Lake that are gone, bemoaning its absence rather than enjoying what is here now, then I increasingly live in the past as more of the present pushes them further away. Life is a journey, not a destination, and we’re not the ones in control. If we don’t connect to Life’s movement, then we get left behind. I want to wake up in the morning excited about what I might discover. I want my life to flow with the changes.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Native life in the barren Arctic is a constant battle to survive. To the Inuits who live there, the bitterness of the struggle for life is balanced by the sweetness of living. A long life is never assumed, not even an additional year. There is gratefulness for what they have. It is not enough to survive each day if they have not also found something to celebrate.

I think my great grandparents felt the same way. Life was hard creating farms in the wilderness of Wisconsin. Yet the physical life and the fresh food they grew helped them live long lives.

I like to camp outdoors, hike all day through the mountains, and come back to cook over a fire because it reminds me how many comforts I take for granted. The longer I camp, the more I realize how little I really need.

Gratitude is life in small steps.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nature Poetry - John Burroughs

April is Poetry Month. Go outside and find something that moves you. Describe the images you see. Say why the scene moves you. Connect the two worlds. Don’t think too much, just start jotting thoughts down, like: “Corn stumps molder in the ground. / Birds fly in, pick up remnant seeds / in their beaks. Warm breezes walk / Spring across the field. / The caw of crows call me home.”

That’s not very good, but it’s a start. Then tinker with your words, letting them guide you. Substitute, change, rearrange. Use the sounds you hear in the rustling branches and the singing of the birds. Capture the cadence of running water, and the running of coyotes in the meadows in the rhythm of your words.

Poetry is about observing the world and describing the moments when your perceptions sharpen, insights come, and your life changes direction a little. Nature poets connect people’s emotions with what is going on in the mountains, the rivers, and the forests.

More important than writing is to experience those moments. Even if you don’t intend to write, go outside and pay attention to nature. Make John Burroughs happy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fools Along the Road

John Muir’s birthday is today. He was a fool for believing that the wilderness is our greatest national treasure and that we should do all we can to protect it. Long live fools! Long live the wild places!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Progress happens when people take blind steps into the unknown. They notice that something is missing and set out to fill in the gap. They turn their lives over to figuring out how to make their vision happen, moving by trial and error through possibilities, and putting up with people unable to see what they do, or who are trying to protect their special interests.

John Muir saw sheep destroying the flowering wilderness meadows of the Sierra Nevada, worked to save them, and help create the National Park system in the process. Rachel Carson discovered the devastating effects of pesticides and alerted people to the problem. Aldo Leopold tried out different strategies for reclaiming barren land in Wisconsin and kick-started the ecology movement. Sigurd Olson worked to save the wilderness, especially the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. Wendell Berry figured out how one could do sustainable farming, feeding people while doing minimal damage to the land. John Burroughs wanted people to see nature that exists around them, even in the city.

Stepping into the unknown involves taking risks because we don’t know where we’ll end up. Yet trying something new uncovers paths into the unknown areas of our abilities. The witness of the land prophets and elders who have gone before us tell us that this is the only way that change happens.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sitting on Porches

I like the image of my grandparents sitting on the porch after dinner, talking with friends about past events and people they knew, watching clouds slide over and shadows settle on Wisconsin as the colors of the sun set, and feeling connected to nature. Most of them grew up in farming families and were used to working with nature in all kinds of weather. Grandpa still maintained a large garden, as well as hunted and fished. Being outdoors was as natural and comfortable to him as sitting in his living room.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


When I hike in Yosemite, it’s not the destination that matters the most. It’s the journey getting there. While the view from the top of North Dome is spectacular, and I love to stand where three canyons meet, it’s along the trail that I discover something new and have the chance to interact with it. When I stumble into a small meadow, I linger and explore the landscape, its wildflowers, chipmunks, and birds. When I notice an old path leading off, I follow that and find myself at the edge overlooking the valley.

I want to be open to the moment and allow the unexpected to happen and teach me something that I didn’t know existed. When I’m reading and a paragraph blows me away, I want to set the book down and figure out why it has moved me, then let the words ruminate inside for the rest of the day so that I can let it lead me further. It might take me a year to read a good book this way, but I will understand a great deal more. I should read nature at the same pace.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Listening in Quiet Woods

In Illinois in midwinter the trees are bare and brown. The sky is generally gray, and on most days there isn’t enough sun to satisfy my cats. Without leaves in the way, I can see a mile over to the next hill where there are more brown trees. Brown doesn’t interest me much. I prefer green.

The woods are quiet as I walk through the woods, go around the bend where the creek has carved a path down into the land, and find a place to sit. Everything seems to be dead or frozen and waiting patiently for the warmth of spring. Yet when I look closer I see the forest’s patchwork of life. There are a dozen shades of brown in the trees and bushes, and the colors of lichen on the boulders slide from sage to yellow to orange. A slight breeze comes up along the creek bed and rustles the dry leaves. Squirrels emerge to dig for acorns. White-breasted nuthatches twitter in the trees, and a red-tailed hawk circles overhead checking the ground for food. From over the rise, a crow calls. A response comes from the other direction, and a laid-back conversation begins as each crow thinks before responding. Sometimes when I have walked through here, there has been an owl.

It’s helpful to have a physical place to go and listen for the sacred. Although I visit small, stone chapels and soaring cathedrals when I can, most often it’s in the woods where I feel a special presence. I don’t come here enough to sit and listen, but when I do, I realize how much of the living world I’ve missed.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Beginning - Kelsea Habecker

Kelsea wrote about her journey of listening to the northern wilderness of Alaska for the presence of nature and the nature of people to be revealed, for the gifts within them to be seen and drawn out of her. Kelsea’s focus on each hour of the day brings a journey back from my past when I paid attention and felt connected to the powerful movement of Life. Distractions of secondary importance tend to guide my days now, and unfortunately most of them are interesting and worthwhile.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that when we are doing the dishes, we should not think about other matters. We should be mindful only of washing the dishes. Hanh is speaking of being fully present to the moment, not just by listening and watching, but also by sharing ourselves with it. So when I am walking in nature, I should not be thinking about something else. I should listen to nature and let it speak to me as it wants.

Because of Kelsea’s words, I feel the pull to renew my journey by taking time each morning to open up to the day’s possibilities. Each night I want to reflect about the day, seeing where it has flowed, what insights were learned, and which people will need a compassionate word in the coming days.