The “Season of Creation” is marked each year from September 1 to October 4, and is observed in many church traditions, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Methodists and many others.
Prayer in the Season of Creation. Loving God, we thank you for the gift of life in all its diversity and beauty. Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, we praise you that you came to redeem all of creation. Holy Spirit, we rejoice that you breathe in the life of the world. Grant us faith and courage to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus as caretakers of, and justice-seekers for, your beautiful and bountiful creation. For the blessing of your people, the sustaining of the earth and the glory of your name. Through Christ our Lord, Amen. (from the Convocation of [Episcopal] Churches in Europe newsletter 9/2020)
O heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty: Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer pg. 814)
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach… Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862
Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. John Muir 1838-1914
I rarely address God as “Father.”
Henry David Thoreau took his laundry home to his mother each week while living “deliberately in the woods.”
John Muir, I learned this summer, founded parks and wilderness reserves by pushing out and degrading indigenous peoples and people of color.
I suppose that in this, my annual “What I did on my Summer vacation” essay, “disappointment” is an apt way to begin.
Everything’s been changed by COVID. We’ve worked really hard to adapt, to learn new technologies and to find ways to be Church in this new landscape, but- and- it’s been really tough. My own exhaustion and readiness for some time away pointed very clearly to that.
The emotional labor of adapting to change and the survivor-guilt of knowing, still, how blessed I am- no COVID in our immediate family, no unemployment, nothing worse than a severely restricted social calendar and loss of a family vacation- it is complicated. I am feeling no right to complain… and, still, deeply disappointed.
Suck it up.
I will. I did. I am.
And, while I hesitate to publish such a self-indulgent essay, it is true. It is a snapshot of a life- or two weeks thereof. I wonder if my truth resonates at all with yours- and, still, isn’t that the hope? Of being heard and making connection?
So. Instead of traveling to Maine; instead of swimming in inky, icy waters and sleeping under warm, woolen blankets; sipping coffee in rocking chairs while taking in the mud flats of low tide and the morning call of the crows… instead of bouncing chubby grandsons on my knees and cooking up a storm for a happy family of 12… I (we, the two of us) took to the woods. The Pennsylvania woods.
I love hiking. I love backpacking. I love crunching up a hill with rocks beneath my feet, smelling the wet sweetness of chartreuse ferns, achieving summits with rewarding vistas, and the way that wood fire clings to one’s clothes as a smoky memory. I even love lying on the hard earth and trying to get comfortable, I love the sore spots on my hips at the end of the day from carrying a heavy pack, and the scratches and bruises that are testament to time spent doing something hard.
I hiked or walked almost every day of my two weeks off, settling into a daily rhythm of left, then right, then left again. One step and then another. My progress on the trail was punctuated by opportunities to study nature up close and to capture the wonder of creation with my camera: expansive fields of corn with tassels waving in the wind; vines wrapped around slender tree trunks creating spiral works of art; miniature blossoms offering small points of color in every moment- chicory, buttercups, black-eyed Susans; and the geometry of the forest- tall trees, snags and large, rotting logs- building angles and designs and offering shelter and places to sit along the side of the trail.
I hiked with my husband, with whom I am always ready to share a laugh or wonder out loud things like, “how, exactly do spiders spin their webs?” that we would google later on- if we remembered. We shared the work of setting up camp as we were each suited: He has a particular “belt and suspenders” way of setting up a tent with a tarp over it “just in case” it rains, and I am the wood-gatherer, fire-maker, and coffee-brewer.
Usually given to the creativity of the culinary arts at home as both a means of necessity and a spiritual practice, “cooking” on the trail doesn’t really interest me. We eat dehydrated dinners coaxed into edible entrees by adding a few cups of boiling water and then exerting great patience (9 minutes is a long time to wait for Chili Mac to reconstitute itself when you’ve been hiking all day and could eat a horse). A squeeze of almond butter from a pouch onto a flour tortilla and a warm, travel-worn orange has worked for us for lunch, and- true confessions- we have generally yielded to a local favorite for breakfast: the humble Pop Tart (made in Muncy, PA f.y.i.) with some good trail coffee. It’s not gourmet, but it works.
When I hike with my husband, I feel free and light and confident. I take time to look at the horizon, I identify flowers, grasses and trees, and my mind goes where it will. I love the serenity of a free and relaxed mind. I think about old days, about friends and family, about story lines of books that I’ve been reading, and plans for the future. It is a fertile time, though undirected. We don’t talk too much on the trail. The silence is easy. It is all a prayer.
When I hike on my own, I am focused, determined and, maybe, a little dogged. Fearful, too, sometimes. I don’t take many breaks when I hike alone. This summer some of my solo hikes were on trails that were new to me, and some of them were so poorly marked and maintained that I ended up getting lost. When you are alone and lost in a place with no cell reception you don’t have the luxury of panicking. There is a need to stop, gather oneself, consider the situation, weigh the options, and make a decision about the (best) way forward. Three times on this vacation I found myself not knowing the (right) way forward and I just had to move. I counted steps, looked for landmarks and tried to find my way out. I kicked myself for the rookie mistake of not having taken compass bearings before I left. A few of the choices that I made were not correct guesses, and so I had to try, try again. I made it. Of course. I am typing this now. When I hike on my own, I feel accomplished at the end of the day. As though I had subdued a demon that is working in the background to conquer me. Fear. I hike alone to become stronger.
There is a profound loneliness that I experience on the trail when I (we) arrive at camp. If it is a shelter on the AT, I am usually glad if it is empty, but the space feels hollow and uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because the shelters where I’ve stayed are far off the trail and usually situated in dense forest. It’s hard to get a feeling of spaciousness or perspective. When we arrive at a shelter and discover empty bunks and a fire circle full of cold ashes, I feel uneasy. Once we make camp, cook some food and get a fire going, it feels better. I remember “nesting” as an expectant mother, laying in clothes and diapers and bottles for the baby yet to come. I have watched dogs circle around a spot on a rug, circling, circling, circling until they finally lie down and settle in. That’s what it feels like when I arrive at camp. I collect sticks. I lay out my stuff for the night. I set a fire and boil water. Nesting. Getting comfortable. Making home.
We go to bed early on the trail- sometimes when it is still light out. We bring books and headlamps (it’s worth the extra weight) and sink into stories. This year, the cicadas “turned on” at full volume, as though someone had flipped a switch at dusk. They were SO LOUD. And CONSTANT. ALL NIGHT LONG. I have never heard such a thing. And, in the way that only the Great Creator could have designed it all, at daybreak the cicada switch flips off, and the morning birdsong turns on. It is like switching channels on a radio. It is that distinct.
The woods make a lot of noise at night. I am grateful for the presence of my sleeping husband next to me. Otherwise- fear. But together, it is different. What is that noise? Chipmunks, squirrels, deer, maybe a bear. Snapping twigs. Wind. Drops of … rain? sap? Airplanes. Helicopters. Trucks and motorcycles downshifting. Even in the wilderness at the top of a ridge, the noise of town is not far off. One night I hear a bugle playing a good night tune (not “Taps,” more like “Quarters,” I think) and fall asleep wondering what children’s camp would be open during COVID.
We did not hike long days- around 10 miles each day. But the days were long enough to lift us temporarily out of the havoc that has been our cultural milieu these past months. Pandemic. The Economy. Politics. Divisiveness. Violence. Racism. It didn’t go away, but to be honest, it was a nice breather. Nothing gets solved on vacation, but it provides the space for renewal and restores strength.
Being on the trail is holy. God busts out of the container in which I keep God at home: Morning Prayer at dawn, Compline in the evening, “arrow” prayers during the day, and study, structured reflection, and sermon writing. But God is all over the trail. In the wind, in the trees, in the views of the valley and in the blue, blue sky. God is in the core of my being as I find strength to ascend another steep hill, in the laughter of a shared joke, in the care of setting up a tent that will remain bone dry no matter what, and in the fern-mushroom-flower-rock-log-grass-poison ivy. Worship is not an effort or an act, but a way of being.
When we got home, we left our unpacked gear on the dining room table for a couple of days. We told ourselves that we were letting things air out and dry thoroughly before we put them away. I think that we weren’t ready to let it go, just yet. Not ready to say goodbye and to reenter the fray. I felt funny for a couple of days, as though I should be walking, not sitting. I missed the motion.
Now the gear is put away. Some of it is in the garage, some in closets, all carefully tended and readied for the next time.