Nature


Images from recent excursions.

Just came across this, in the latest Orion Magazine:

osprey1.jpg

Doctrine

I love the church
of the osprey, simple
adoration, no haggling
over the body, the blood,
whether water sprinkled
from talons or immersed
in the river saves us,
whether ascension
is metaphor or literal,
because, of course,
it’s both: wings crooked,
all the angels crying out,
rising up from nests
made of sticks
and sunlight.

– Todd Davis

Indeed. It sounds like it could have come right out of Aldo Leopold or something.

Some of the sights from our snowshoeing expedition yesterday at Salmon River, NY (click pictures for full size):

Trinity

Stillwater

Footbridge

Salmon River

White pathway

Falls

Falls, again

Through the trees

crows.jpgCity living doesn’t often provide the opportunity to sit in quiet and try to hear the sounds of nature in the stillness. This morning afforded me the rare opportunity, though. After getting ready for my day, I was able to sit in silence and enjoy some lectio before heading to the university to teach.

I read a short passage from the Psalter (Ps. 137). It’s an exilic Psalm, written by someone despairing of being away from home in a strange land, someone who wondered how to make the best of their new environment. I kept returning, over and over, to the first four verses:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

I have been thinking lately of New Hampshire, reflecting on the White Mountains, the former years of deep snows, the seacoast, the lake behind my house, the woodlot and swamp on the other side, and have been hearing songbirds perched in the giant white pines. This time of year the lake will, of course, be frozen over, and fathers will be taking their sons out to the ice to build a little campfire and try to reel up some perch, bass, bluegill, and crappies. I wish I could be out in my woods, trudging along the paths in the snow with my snowshoes, rather than holed up in a tiny apartment in the city, with nothing but the sounds of trucks, jet planes, snowplows, and arguments.

After I closed my text, I sat back in my chair, and suddenly noticed the silence. There were no trucks, no planes, no human voices, music. But it wasn’t silence. Instead, I heard what I have not noticed in my three years here. Outside my window, the clear call of a half-dozen black crows mingled with the chirping of house finches and sparrows.

I do not know where the crows live, but they are an ubiquitous presence here, often doing a better job of keeping our street clean than than property management or city workers. I do know where the sparrows and finches live, though; they live in the bushes surrounding my building and in the attic.

While I was sitting, enjoying the caw! caw! caw! of the crows and the unmistakable chirping and peeping of the smaller birds, I felt as if they were answering the question posed by the Psalmist. My feathered friends were singing the Lord’s song in an alien place. Crows and birds are not native to city apartment buildings. But they have learned to call this place their home, much better than I am these days. And so the two of us live in exile, one longing to return home, the other building sukkot, knowing that however long they stay here, they will be provided for and carry out their existence in the best way they can, in this place.

Powwow River, NH

Well, anyway,
you can’t clear a
forest and then
wonder where all
the deer went.

Just when you think you’ve seen everything, stuff like this reminds you of what Bruce Cockburn says: You’ve Never Seen Everything. For which, I guess, we can only be thankful. But here’s a new one, at least to me: Virtue Perfume, a new beauty product that the creators say was inspired by biblical ingredients and which is geared toward assisting the wearer, or the lover, as the case may be, towards spiritual attainment. $80 bucks gets you a chance to be biblical, spiritual, and sexy all at the same time.

Scent From the Bible

Obviously this kind of materialist marketing, capitalizing on obscure content from the text of the Bible, is nothing new. Pop-culture pragmatic evangelical products have been around for at least 30 or so years and include everything from rock music to visual art of biblical scenes and characters, Christian Tee-shirts that parody popular consumerist products and ideology, to Christian horror flicks. The Christian retail industry hit something like $4 billion dollars in sales three years ago, and this figure doesn’t even include sales of Catholic bookshops and gift stores that marked incense, images, and other such sensory aids to worship. So I suppose that the surprising thing is that it took so long for a Christian perfume to appear at all.

Now, while I find the consumer-capitalist junk products of Tee-shirts and other Christiany knick-knacks highly problematic, especially for the purpose of evangelism, I can definitely appreciate sensory, physical, and material elements in the practice of faith. The natural, physical world exists to be experienced through the senses, which can deepen faith for those who have it and can inspire mystical ecstasy even among those who profess no faith or who cannot intellectually assent to the Divine. There is nothing that inspires my experience of God so much as things that allow me to participate in the physical, sensory world of the Creation. So much that I find sensorily beautiful move me to tears and to stronger faith. And smells are one of these; food, for example, is a spiritual experience for me from time to time, as it engages sight, smell, and taste. The human body is also an inspiration to beauty that engages the senses. I love good perfumes on my woman. So the concept of something like Virtue Perfume as an aid to experiencing the sacred isn’t particularly foreign or offensive to me.

What I find ridiculous is the need to justify the spiritual value of sensory and bodily beauty to certain Christian groups by marketing the stuff as a religious product and, especially, by making it “biblical.” As if to say that smelling good and feeling sensual or sexy is sinf, unchristian, and unbiblical unless it can be shown that smelling good, feeling sensual, or being sexy is OK’ed by Scripture. The way Virtue tries to pull this off is by listing its ingredients as “biblical.” And so they are. But so what? In fact, the website even notes that one of these biblical ingredients, Apricot, was probably the original forbidden fruit. This would have been news to medieval theologians like Bernard, no stranger to sensual spirituality himself, who thought of the fruit as the apple, and of modern scholars who find it much more likely that the forbidden fruit was the pomegranate. But in any case, it is highly ironic that an ap-peal to the forbidden fruit in this very biblical list would be used as an aid to experiencing God.

The thinking is that “Christians won’t buy perfumes if they psychologically associate them with negative stereotypes of sexuality that most perfumes perpetuate.” And that’s probably the case. Why feed into the sex industry even more by buying products that perpetuate sexual imagery that is damaging and destructive? It is tough, I suppose, to avoid thinking of having wild sex on the beach if your schnozz picks up avirtue-perfume.gif whiff Nautica or whatever. Having a marketing image that provides an alternative to ads like Nautica’s or Calvin Klein’s is commendable, but to actually say it’s “biblical” goes a bit over the top. Some things can be good, and sensual, without having to justify it as being biblical.

Plus, its $80.00 bucks.

Cover of Davis McCombs, Ultima ThuleI’m sitting here doing a little reading from Davis McCombs’ Ultima Thule, a collection of the author’s poems inspired by Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Told from the vantage point of a slave cavern guide to tourists of Mammoth Cave in the 19th century, these poems are stunning reflections on beauty and provide some pretty awesome metaphors for life, spirituality, the whole bit. As a religionist and student of scriptures who also views the natural world in metaphoric terms for deep spirituality and community ethics, I was particularly taken by the poem “Tours:”

Tours

The services of a guide cannot, as a rule,
be dispensed with; we alone can disentangle
the winding passageways. I will admit
the tours for me grow burdensome.
How long must I endure their need to fill
with talk the natural silence? I have heard
it all before, their proposed improvements:
Widen the trails so that two carriages
may pass abreast … Here, a capacious ballroom.
Mere fancies. And yet beneath their words
I have discerned a kind of rough-hewn fear.
From drawing rooms and formal gardens
they come to me, from sunlit lives they enter
the chill, grand and instantaneous night. (Ultima Thule, p. 17)

This is such a striking metaphor for what we as educators do. It also speaks to me in terms of stewardship; like the poet, we have all heard of proposed improvements to just about everything from Bibles to Bayous. Despite my vocation, I do feel moved to sometimes just turn off the exegesis, turn off the exposition, the discussion, and just let the text/landscape speak for itself, in silence.

And the rough-hewn fear … yeah, for both student and educator, laity and pastor, reader and expositor.

To do this poem justice, I must cease now, and let it speak to you in the silence.

View of Crater LakeRecently I have been reflecting on what it means to try to live a real life in a world that strikes me as becoming increasingly unreal. Our world aspires now to unrealistic expectations of “progress” on the one hand or to the imminent advent of a salvific messiah to bring us to an eternal utopia on the other. Beauty is commodified and objectivized, to the point that we can no longer tell the difference between what is authentically beautiful and intrinsically good and what is a commercialized copy to serve ends that are anything but good. Seems like we have somehow exchanged genuine love for the beautiful and the good for a crass faith in fakes, as Umberto Eco puts it. Even when an occasional prophet comes along to expose the idols we have constructed, we typically have no idea how to restore, or re-create, an original beauty that can deconstruct our original sin.

In a recent post, Audrey (of saintsophia.wordpress.com) expresses her desire to be able to recreate in a way that gets her away from the pains and horror of the ugliness of real life, what Merton would call the “dread of emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity” that results in the “experience of boredom and of spiritual disorientation” (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p. 25). I have been feeling exactly the same, and the recent events in Blacksburg, Virginia, as well as the student’s self-proclaimed justifications for his actions, demonstrate how much the faith in fakes has taken over. Like Audrey, I also seek to recreate and to develop a spirituality and consciousness of beauty and goodness and ingenuity that can combat the faith in fakes wherever we find it (and this includes, let it be said right now, our churches and communities of faith). How do we live a real life in an unreal world? How do we life a life that seeks creation and recreation, that consecrates the beautiful and cherishes the good, that names the holy and recognizes the sacred?

 

Diane Ackerman, “The Work of the Poet is to Name What is Holy”

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy:

the spring snow
that hides unevenness
but also records
a dog walked at lunchtime,
the hieroglyphs of birds,
pawprints of a life
tiny but resolute;

how, like Russian dolls,
we nest in previous selves;

the lustrous itch
that compels and oyster
to forge a pearl,
or a poet a verse;

the drawing on of evening
belted at the waist;

snowfields of diamond dust;

the cozy monotony
of our days, in which
love appears with a holler;

the way a man’s body
has its own geography –
cliffs, aqueducts, pumice fields,
but a woman’s is the jungle,
hot, steamy, full of song;

the brain’s curiosity shop
filled with quaint mementos
and shadowy antiques
hidden away in drawers;

the plain geometry
of you, me, and art –
our angles at rest
among shifting forms.

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy,

and not to mind so much
the pinch of words
to cope with memories
weak as falling buildings,

or render loss, love,
and the penitentiary
of worry where we live.

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy,
a task fit for eternity,
or the small Eden of this hour.

Read this deep last night (or is it this morning?).

Tigress

THE LIONESS

The scent of her beauty draws me to her place.
The desert stretches, edge from edge.
Rock. Silver grasses. Drinking hole.
The starry sky.
The lioness pauses
in her back-and-forth pacing of three yards square
and looks at me. Her eyes
are truthful. They mirror rivers,
seacoasts, volcanoes, the warmth
of moon-bathed promontories.
Under her haunches’ golden hide
flows an innate, half-abnegated power.
Her walk
is bounded. Three square yards
encompass where she goes.

In country like this, I say, the problem is always
one of straying too far, not of staying
within bounds. There are caves,
high rocks, you don’t explore. Yet you know
they exist.
Her proud, vulnerable head
sniffs toward them. It is her country, she
knows they exist.

I come towards her in the starlight.
I look into her eyes
as one who loves can look,
entering the space behind her eyeballs,
leaving myself outside.
So, at last, through her pupils,
I see what she is seeing:
between her and the river’s flood,
the volcano veiled in rainbow,
a pen that measures three yards square.
Lashed bars.
The cage.
The penance.

Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language, 1975

There is so much in this poem. Just so much. The pure physicality of the lioness, the way it conveys awe over its beauty and the fear of the viewer by trespassing its space; the power of rivers, seacoasts, volcanoes, to inspire the same, the innate power beneath the beauty of her body. The irresistible danger of straying into her territory, of the desire for the inaccessible caves and high rocks among the seas, the rivers, and volcanoes. Metaphors, all of them, I can physically feel, for sexuality and spirituality both, and for relationships with the human and the divine, the body and the spirit.

canandaigua-lake-ice.jpg

It was only a week ago that
we were out here walking this path, the
firm steps we took yielding to nothing.

But how different things can get, how
much things change in the blink of an eye.

What was once unyielding, solid and
firm has now become a raging torrent,
shifting this way and that, threatening
to drown out every last bit of solid
footing that only last week we were
so certain would hold us up.

I abandon my foothold and let
the new current bring me to a new
spot, or maybe even the same spot.

Only God knows.

One thing is certain.
If I fight too much,
I will freeze and drown.

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