Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Big Purge

At the end of the year I want to toss everything that I longer need or never used. I want to go camping and learn again how little I need to be happy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Silence of Holidays

The holiday season begins tomorrow with Thanksgiving, a star-wrapped and studded lineup of celebrations, parties, and endless shopping that will deposit me on January 6th feeling thankful, exhausted, and wondering if I am better for it.

The woods behind my house have a different idea. Instead of packing my schedule and trying to fit every event in, the woods beckon me to sit in silence. They call me to sit and think about what has gone on this year in my life. They call me to think about the lives of others and what they might need, not in terms of physical gifts, but in terms of presence, encouragement, and help with some struggle. The truth is, I don’t know if everyone really needs a new waffle iron this year. Sue might like a box of tea and an afternoon drinking the first serving with me. Steve might like to share a walk along Lake Mendota and catch up on how our lives have shifted this year. Jeff might like a helping hand for a day as he cleans up his basement and organizes it into a writing space that will enable him to finally sit down and write his book.

The holidays are not about the tinsel. They’re about slowing my activities down, not speeding them up.
They’re about listening to myself and to others. One evening after a worship service I walked around town as six inches of snow was falling, muffling the sounds of the occasional car going by. I walked by houses with windows and people inside lit up in warm light and celebrating. I kept walking and went down to the river and listened to nature, to the sounds of the water flowing past, to the ducks and geese in the distance, and the quietness of the trees. It was a silence filled with the most amazing sounds, thoughts, and feelings of hope.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


The trees, naked of leaves now in the woods behind the house, hold their bodies towards the sky, raise their arms in thankfulness to the Creator for the year that is ending, raise their arms in praise and prayer and supplication. The oaks spread their strong arms to the side and twirl like whirling Sufis, bringing the Creator to earth to feed the people acorns and protect them with their stout branches and trunks.

The seasons rise and swirl around us. As we notice, so are we blessed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In the Darkness

In the darkness before dawn, in the quiet of the hours before people rise out of their beds, before the traffic on the street picks up and sunlight wakes the birds to come to the feeder, there is silence. In the fullness of this silence, I open myself to everything, and believe that all things are possible today. Then sunlight illuminates my hands, and I’m ready to get to work.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Last week we had great Indian summer weather—dry, mid 70s, and filled with the rich smells of leaves and earth. I had a valid excuse to be outdoors for most of it, painting windows around the house from dawn to dusk. I didn’t like scrapping, sanding, and caulking, but the work needed to be done and the weather couldn’t have been better.

This week we’re in the 50s and 60s and it’s wet. It is not at all pleasant to sit outdoors in a jacket with the wind buffeting my hair.

And yet everywhere I look, there are dramatic splashes of red, orange, and yellows. Even the sky has its own drama going on as lower level clouds bunch up and higher-level clouds stretch out in long streaks and swirls that head in different directions. When the sun does poke through for an hour before the clouds flow back in, the blue of the sky is deep and mesmerizing.

I’ve formed warm-weather habits and expectations over the last six months that I’m not ready to let go. I don’t want to bundle up every time I go out the door. I know that I will mutter every time I forget my jacket and freeze as I drive to the store. I will scream when I neglect to bring my boots and a foot of snow comes down before I get back home. But I’ll adjust and begin to look forward to sliding around corners, shoveling, and hearing the quietness that only winter brings. And then I won’t want winter to end.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Frost - Edward Hirsch

There have been frost warnings the last two days, not that I’ve paid much attention because we did not plant a vegetable garden this year. But the news sank in and I realized this morning, as I looked into the intricate green lace of the woods behind the house, that soon it would be gone. One quick freeze and the green would turn yellow overnight. Then, with any kind of wind, all those yellow leaves would drop, leaving bare trees sticking up in the sun.

Poet Edward Hirsch spoke of the change of seasons this way: We suddenly “feel something invisible and weightless… It is the changing light of fall falling on us.”

Life changes quickly, faster than I want. Even with warnings, I’m reluctant to let go of what has become familiar, comfortable, nurturing. I don’t make transitions well. I settle into a season and expect it to stay that way. Life, meanwhile, makes adjustments every day, some large, some small, and I would notice this if I paid more attention. Perhaps I should wake up each morning excited to see what will be different today, instead of what is the same.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


We celebrate many events through the year. Some are personal, some are cultural or religious, and some are national. Quite a few, I suspect, have their origins in the celebration of the natural world, and involve spiritual connections that we’ve mostly forgotten.

Driving through the countryside two days ago, I realized how happy I felt seeing the golden cornfields being harvested, the green soybeans turning yellow and rust on top, the warm sun shining in a deep blue sky with a cool breeze filled with the scent of crispness. Everything looked, smelled, and sounded as if the season, and the year, had reached its fullness of life.

As I helped Jim bag the Native American multi-colored corn called Smoke Signals, I celebrated how good it felt to be alive in a world of such variety and beauty. The crop wasn’t as large as anticipated because more deer survived last year’s mild winter, but I rejoiced in getting my hands dirty and for the harvest being brought in.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Nature as Revelation - John Burroughs

John Burroughs wanted people to go outside and enjoy whatever nature existed around them, whether this was a forest, farmland, or a city neighborhood. He was concerned that people were staying indoors too much, and he wrote about this in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I think he’d be more concerned now when we drive everywhere. Our houses don’t have porches for sitting, our children don’t go outside to play, and new neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks.

We go into nature to be renewed by the fresh air, the openness, the quiet sounds.

We use the outdoors as a place to get much needed exercise—hiking, riding bikes, canoeing on the river, baseball, soccer, golf.

We consider the outdoors scientifically, measuring the developments of global warming and pollution, and work to minimize our impact on the ecosystem that sustains us.

We go into nature to be in a neutral place where we can think about our lives, a place away from the struggles at work and home.

We go into nature to be inspired by the beauty and wonder. Sometimes we see sparks flash off mountaintops during storms, tiny trout swimming in the river in spring, and a two-foot-tall owl sitting on a branch in the woods that doesn’t mind our presence.

We go into nature to touch the remnants of Creation, become aware of the presence of the natives’ Great Spirit, and to experience awe.

All of these reasons are good. There are more.

We can develop a relationship with nature, rising with the sun and going to bed when it sets. We can adjust our daily life to interact differently with each season. We can make nature a friend and share with it through the day.

We go into nature to encounter an entity that exists outside of us and outside our control. There is power in nature that we don’t control, a power that commands our respect, what moves us to awe and sometimes to fear. Nature reminds us that we live in its home, and we would do well to treat it with respect. The concept of Mother Nature comes from this. Nature will give us many of the things we need, but if we ignore its warnings, it will knock us down and paddle us good.

We also go into nature for revelation, to feel transcendence, to be transformed and reminded that we are part of something much greater.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Life is a Hankering

Life is a hunger, a hankering for what is just beyond my reach, a persistent drive to find Truth, Beauty, and Life. The Big Ticket items. It is a hidden quest of every person to find this place, these moments, to touch something eternal and forever, and then to linger in them for as long as they last.

When I went hunting with my grandfather, walking through the woods and hills of southern Wisconsin, often we did not raise our guns. Shooting something didn’t seem to be that important to us. We just walked in the beauty of dawn in autumn, listening to the dry corn shocks rasp against each other in the breeze, the scent of fall apples in the air, and feeling the cold bite of winter coming on. I think he liked to be outdoors because it renewed him, and I was happy to tag along. We seldom spoke, but his love for the outdoors was shared. I continue his journey, but I hike rather than hunt.

For some reason, I’ve always wanted to know the meaning behind events, people, and chance encounters. You may be like me in this, whether you’re an outdoors person, or someone who prefers to find transcendence through talking about life’s struggles with others. It’s not enough for us to simply exist and enjoy life. We want to know why.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Improving the View

I set up a second writing desk at home, this one with a view of the green woods. The woods aren’t visible from the desk where I typically write because the window is too high. You might think the change is an obvious decision and long overdue since looking at the woods inspires me, yet it’s taken me six years to make the adjustment. When we moved in, we put everything somewhere just to get the moving van unpacked. And that’s where everything stayed, with us arranging our lives around them.

How many other matters in my life have been organized in the same way, following patterns I set up quickly to simply to get me through today without considering what I’d prefer for the long run. Maybe I can also improve their views.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


It sounds odd that we don’t think it odd to regard silence as deficient and not as full. We fill our ears and the air with banter, music, news, and weather updates until we fall exhausted into bed, the sounds of the day ringing in our heads, and feeling unsatisfied because we have said much but heard relatively little that we want to remember. In the manner of the Quakers, we should remain silent until we have something important to say.

Words and music are powerful influences on us. The music playing in the background of a movie can heighten our experience of it. Often we use music to make life seem fuller, thinking that our walk down the street needs a soundtrack. Sometimes when we’re just chatting with friends, a wrong word is said and our friendship is suddenly put on hold.

It can be unsettling to be home alone without the TV or radio on to fill the spaces. We hear all the sounds of the house--the refrigerator coming on, the house creaking in the wind, the hum that comes from an unknown place, and we wonder if something is about to blow up.

It takes me a couple of days of camping before I can hear the different sounds of nature, and then to hear my thoughts beneath the surface chatter. I begin to know what I’m feeling instead of being led through a dozen emotions in quick succession by songs on the radio until I lose track of where I am. The longer I listen to silence, the more I hear the songs moving through my life and feel the rhythm that my feet want to dance upon the earth.

This morning I walked outside and thought I heard the quiet sounds of a creek trickling where I knew there was no water. Listening closer, I realized it was the breeze cascading over the surface of leaves in the woods.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Losing Track of Wonder

Do I learn not to see? After a week in the mountains, I no longer stand in awe of their majesty. Do I also learn not to taste? After the third day, I eat strawberries more for their nutrition than their fresh and exciting flavor. A piece of music moves me to tears on the first hearing, then becomes nostalgic, then quaint. Why?

I am always surprised by what is new, what exists outside my expectations. Sometimes I experience the new at the exact moment that I am open to it, need it to show up, or have been searching for it.

How do I keep my sense of wonder for the same beauty, the same grace, and the same love that I experience day after day? Perhaps by waking up expecting nothing. Then everything that happens becomes a gift.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

One Percent - Aldo Leopold

It makes a difference. The one percent.

You’ve seen the commercials. One person does something nice for someone, like picking up a package he dropped or holding the door. Someone else sees this and does something nice for another person down the street, and so on. A chain-reaction of helping others. But it’s more than a feel-good moment.

An experiment with the particle accelerator in Batavia, Illinois found a one percent difference between the number of muons and antimuons that arise from the decay of particles known as B mesons. This one percent more of matter particles than antimatter is the reason we don’t explode into smithereens.

Trying to save the natural world can seem like such a large task that we don’t even try. But we can save parts of nature in the cities where we live, whether this is blocking the company that picks up our trash from also dumping toxic waste into our landfill, creating a free recycling program, or convincing people to stop buying plastic water bottles. Aldo Leopold restored a sandy are along the Wisconsin River. His efforts led to the formation of The Wilderness Society and the idea that it’s often not too late to undo the damage we’ve done to nature. Others saw his work and started their own, like the effort to preserve sandhill cranes near Baraboo, Wisconsin.

In practical terms, what we do on the local level won’t slow global warming or save the glaciers from melting. Not by itself, but when our one percent is added to the one percent of others, we begin to have an effect on larger matters. And by working with our neighbors who may not agree with us but who trust us, we help change their minds and they begin to do their one percent.

One percent in the world is capable of changing everything.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Tree With Leaves

The woods behind the house now has hundreds of interesting trees with a variety of leaf shapes and colors. For months this winter I saw only bare trunks and branches that basically looked the same, so I looked right past them to the hill beyond.

People are like trees, and what makes people interesting are their differences, their peculiarities, their way of talking and thinking, the way they stir their coffee when they’re perplexed, or don’t drink coffee at all. What makes us valuable as friends is sharing how we see situations from a different perspective. Each of us is a unique combination of experiences, history, and influences, and we need to let others see us as we are--the sometimes sad or angry, the excited and funny, the creative. People want to know our emotions. I learned this lesson the hard way through grief. If people like us, they will be willing to put up with our negative aspects because they want us to be authentic. If they don’t like us, then they’ll leave us alone and we won’t have to worry about pleasing them.

Pleasing others. This is one of my hang-ups. I want people to like me. I also want people to know who I am. And while I think that we all have a responsibility to help others when we can, I don’t think that we have any obligation to be pleasant when we’re pissed. I want to be a real person with emotions, dreams, and skills. I don’t want to be the bare tree in a forest that no one sees.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Walking Free

Out walking this morning, I was shocked to find that the world had gotten along on its own just fine without me. I hadn’t been outside in a week, being busy with tasks inside my house. In the meantime, the trees had changed from empty branches to umbrellas of thick green, bushes and plants were flowering, and birds were filling the air with their songs. I remembered that I was part of the world, not the other way around. It felt enlightening to be outdoors again.

As I walk, my breathing speeds up to match the pace of the body. My thoughts slow down to move at the pace of my breathing. My mind and body reconnect, unlike when I sit still at my desk and work with my mind, ignoring the needs of my body until I stand up stiff, hungry, and dehydrated.

I try to walk without a destination, without an agenda, without worrying if I’m walking fast enough for this to count as exercise. I try to leave all thoughts of projects at home and walk just to see what catches my attention, what thoughts come, what feelings surface. I try to walk free, at whatever speed feels good.

By walking, I loosen up the ligaments of my brain that I’ve strapped down to get work done. I let it run outdoors and play, creating games and stories for what I see.

It’s irresponsible, I know, to walk around my neighborhood with no purpose at all, but I still do it. The neighbors nod at me as I pass, without a clue about what I’m doing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Spring has come to central Illinois, although it seems like summer because temperatures are in the 80s. In the woods behind the house, green dots push out from the ends of bare branches and unfold like tiny origami leaves. While there is excitement for what is coming, there is also sadness for what is leaving. The view through the trees to the hill on the far side will soon be curtained, as will my ability to watch dozens of squirrels chase each other up and down the tree trunks and leap from branch to branch like Cirque du Soleil acrobats. Soon there will be a canopy of green trees, flowers on the forest floor, and birds singing and zipping through the air.

I long for what is leaving. I also long for what is coming, but they cannot exist together.

Longing is a hunger, a search for what is deeper than what can be seen, a hunger for what connects the disparate parts of life, what brings meaning to the struggles. It’s a hunger that is never filled. Life is a long hike up the side of the valley wall and through the forest on the North Rim Trail that leads me out onto the top of North Dome with its commanding view over the length of the valley. From the valley floor, North Dome looks to be the high point. But turning around, I see Indian Ridge rise twice as high, and my hike upward continues, after taking a deep breath.

We long to arrive somewhere because we’re tired of checking to see if we’re on the right path, we’re tired of paying attention to every sound in the woods, and we wondering how much further we have to go. But if we think about it, we may realize that we don’t want to arrive, that we like being on the journey because we discover new things and learn more about life’s dimensions. This hunger is a gift because it keeps us from settling into a season that never changes.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Morning Fog

Fog fills the woods behind the house this morning, and it’s a bit gloomy. Yesterday we had sunshine and the early morning brightness brought energy and determination to get work done. As dawn rises, the grayness of the particles of fog changes to white, as if a fine snow is coming down. Then I noticed it. I could see the closest trees clearly. The further the trees were away, the thicker the veil that covered them, and I could see only one-hundred feet into the woods instead of a thousand. Yesterday all the trees in the woods were visible and none stood out. Today only a dozen trees are clear and I see each in an individual way, the patterns in each of their dark brown trunks, the way one tree bends slightly to the right before straightening, and the tree with broken branches from the ice storm last month.

Sometimes I need my day fogged in so that I notice what is around me. Otherwise I see everything, but in a blur and nothing specifically. It’s the difference between being at a party and talking to everyone, and sitting at a table with one person, looking at her eyes and seeing history that is not being spoken. It’s a sharing not just of words but of what we haven’t yet been able to put into words. It’s a relationship that deepens as we decipher each other’s faces.

We think that we want to experience and know everything, as if this knowledge will bring us happiness. What we really want is to experience something real each day. And we won’t do this until we notice what is standing in front of us.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


I’m doing nothing. Just sitting in a chair without moving, watching the woods outside my window.

The day is overcast without a breeze and the trees are still. The temperature is rising into the forties for the first time this spring and the snow is slowly melting. We’re in between seasons and something could be happening because two weather fronts are pushing against each other, but nothing is. Outside, a young squirrel that was carrying mouthfuls of leaves up to a hollow in the tree to make a nest has stopped its work to rest with its arms on the edge of a hole to watch the world go by.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Landscapes of Home - Seamus Heaney

There are many definitions for where home is. Typically people say it’s where you were born, or where you lived for more than a month, or where people have to take you in when you need help. For me, home is where I have a feel for the land. Seamus Heaney speaks of the importance of connecting to the land when we are young, otherwise we find it hard to do.

I grew up in the woods and on the lakes of Wisconsin, canoed in the Boundary Waters above Minnesota, sleeping on tiny islands, and lived in Edmonton, Alberta where summer lasted two weeks, but the winter snows were wonderfully deep and the aurora borealis spectacular. I also lived in the Bay Area and hiked on Mt. Tamalpais along the ocean, and now I help out on a farm in central Illinois. Each one is a place that I call home.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Beyond Food and Shelter

Two events this week remind that there is more to life than having a home and enough to eat. As important as they are to one’s physical well being, they don’t do much for the survival of one’s spirit. The earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were devastating, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

The evening news reported a concert this week by the Haitian Youth Orchestra. Out of eighty members, only fifteen played. The others were homeless or dead. And yet when they played in one of the tent cities of the homeless, the audience remembered how good it felt to smile, and they dance. Because of music.

Five years after its devastation, New Orleans is celebrating the first Super Bowl win of its historically hapless Saints. What was thought unimaginable has become reality, and the despair that New Orleans felt over rebuilding has became hope. Because of playing a game.

Humans do not need music or sports to survive, but they need such things in order to flourish. They need mountains, oceans, and forests to inspire them. Life is about feeling joy, love, hope, and excitement. As Zorba the Greek said, not to enjoy good wine and love, if they are here, is an act against God’s creation.

For those who have food and shelter, remember to sing and dance, or live as one of the dead.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


In listening to the symphony play Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memorium over the weekend, I was struck by several ideas.

First, silence is programmed into the score as part of the music. As in nature, silence is not absence, but presence. It is not waiting for something to happen, it is already happening, because we are waiting in the meadows, in the woods, and on top of North Dome, listening.

Second, when we come to nature, we often enter with our moods, and this colors what we hear. We should use the time we spend traveling to places like Yosemite to prepare to listen to nature’s different sounds.

Third, bells have a major voice in the piece. Part was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church where bells have a rich history of sounding over the mountains and countryside calling people to something significant. When the last bell rings in Part’s Cantus, after the strings descend through dissonance to resonate together, it’s like the sky suddenly clearing after the turbulence of a storm.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


It’s zero degrees out this morning. Zero. As if there was no temperature outside, and no life. There are no animals or birds or wind. Nothing is moving. The air is stiff. I breathe slow, not wanting to disturb the stillness, or the presence of thought and heart that is forming.

The heavy snow from two days ago blankets the woods behind the house with silence. No birds are at the feeder of sunflower seeds. No deer have broken the snow to follow the creek’s path up to paw the snow looking for something green to eat. No owls meditate on the black branches. The abandoned nests of squirrels are mounded over with snow. Are squirrels underneath?

This zero is a door between death and living. A synapse. Which way will this day turn? Some things will die today. What will be born?

Hidden deep in the unmoving trees are impulses of leaves waiting for spring. Beneath the snow, the mice, voles, and woodchuck sleep. The frozen dawn rises pink and yellow on the horizon, slowly warming the air from nothing to eight degrees. Crows slide silently across the sky, their black wings gliding on the frost-crystallized air. A cardinal comes to the feeder, his brilliant red feathers bright against the white background. Another cardinal. Then their brown mates. One jumps into the snow to retrieve a seed and, for a moment, is buried to its neck. Wrens show up to share the feeder. Then chickadees, and a Downey woodpecker. The chirping of birds brings sounds to forests brittle with life.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wandering Home - John Muir

I walk beneath the giant sequoias that John Muir loved, pick up three dark-green cones, and brush the snow off. Freshly cut down by Douglass squirrels, the sequoia seeds are tightly bound with the promise of new life to come.

At the end of this glorious winter day, even the sun is reluctant to set, its colors fading slowly from glowing orange to pink then the cosmic, cobalt blue. Constellations of stars string branches overhead with twinkling strands of lights. Muir said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

Everywhere I go in Yosemite feels like home, no matter where I sleep at night. I’ve eaten meals in many places and sat for hours at scenic spots all around the valley. The beauty of this place continues to surprise and draw me deeper in. There is so little time to be part of this wonder.