The beginning of my summer has been filled with long, glorious days on the homestead. Settling into this place and learning the way the sun and moonlight bounces off the contoured land. Familiarizing myself with the habits and voices of those that share this hill. Slowly working and dreaming alongside Mark with nothing marking time but the turning of the earth and the liturgy of the hours.
Most of this post I wrote last fall. With each day I don’t get in my car, the longing for intimacy with this place is both satisfied and continues to grow and deepen. When I read an article in the Northern Woodlands magazine this morning, I knew I had to dig out these words.
More soon on what my hands have been doing during these long days, but first an update from my heart…
“Whh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh! Whh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh!” “Mmeeep! Mmeeep!” These sounds accompanied our meditation one evening last October as the day transitioned into night. Our friend and neighbor, Tom, was with us and as we eased back into conversation, he and Mark (my husband) began to comment on the unusual sounds. They knew exactly who the wing flutters and calls belonged to – the woodcock. The sounds themselves were not unfamiliar, rather the time of year is what was odd. The fluttering of the woodcock’s wings and his piercing call is part of the springtime’s symphony, not the fall’s. As the woodcock called out, Mark and Tom, who have been witness to Vermont’s rhythms for 20 years and 30 years, respectively, had the feeling of spring in their bones even as we sat under a warm October dusk.
I, however, being new to northern New England did not have the same experience. I heard the woodcock, proudly knew it was woodcock, but had no idea what was so significant about its presence in mid-autumn. In my two years of lived experience in New England, woodcocks fly and sing in the fall just as often as they do in the spring. The next time I hear a woodcock in October, I may now know in my head that woodcocks aren’t typically around in the fall. But I will never know the original rhythms of the woodcock the way Mark and Tom do. I will never know it in my bones.
Over breakfast this morning, I read the Editor’s Note in the Northern Woodlands – a quarterly magazine about the northern New England woods. The author, Dave Mance III, wrote about the recent news that the Emerald Ash Borer was found in Vermont. This news is a 5-10 year death sentence for a whole genus of trees. As a professional forester, he writes about his grief – “like loving someone with a terminal disease.” He tells of a black ash basket-maker in Minnesota who made a “burial basket” in her mourning. He wonders about what his daughter’s memory of the ash tree will be and how we will begin to explain the loss to the coming generations.
The title of the article is “Bearing Witness.” (You can read the article by purchasing the current issue – Issue 97: Summer 2018 of the Northern Woodlands Magazine. It’s only $6.00 and WORTH IT.)
Bearing witness. Listening. Fostering intimacy. In the wake of environmental crisis, I believe these are the ways we must turn back to the earth. We must welcome the rhythms, the joys, and the sorrows of the land into our very bodies – into our bones. Local ecosystems are already changing as the earth’s temperature rises. I have already lost the opportunity to know deeply the old rhythms of my Vermont home, but I can begin where and when I am. With each passing day, season, and year, the wisdom of the earth, even the earth in a rapid state of change, will seep into my body.
In June and July 2017, I had the honor of co-guiding a 40-day pilgrimage down the Connecticut River in which we prayed with the land, honored sacred sites, and mourned places of desecration and destruction at the hand of our species. On the morning of the fifteenth day, I woke up with a sense of intimacy with the created world in general, and the Connecticut River in particular, previously unknown to me. I realized all at once, as if waking up from a dream, that the river and I are equal players in the same story. We have the same Creator. We have the same home. Our stories our intricately interwoven with each other in such a way that I cannot thrive, or even survive, if she does not thrive. We will live together or we will die together. I could feel the river’s life, her pain, and most astutely, her patience with humanity. Throughout our shared history – the river’s and my people’s – she has literally carried the burden of our sins in the form of trash, factory run-off, eroding topsoil, and stagnation-inducing dams. That day, she became for me an image of the body of Christ, bearing all things in gentleness and in love.
In the same moment, I saw another face of her patience, a forbearance of our inattentiveness. I have come to glimpse, incrementally and in the gift of sacred moments, that our most destructive habits as humans cannot be solved by recycling, electric cars, wind power, or our favorite green initiatives. The human behavior most destructive to our precious home and our fellow earth-dwellers is a pervasive culture of inattentiveness. Our fractured relationship with the earth is not simply a result of what we have done (and are doing), but of what we have failed (and are failing) to do.
That beautiful July morning, waking up to the river flowing as she has for millions of years, I turned to the natural world in a new way. I realized that our species will continue to be a destructive force until we turn back to our rivers and our land, engage with them like the keepers of wisdom they are, and seek to be their pupils. We must know in our bones the way in which this world turns.
This is why we live the way we do – in an off-grid 314 square foot yurt on a Vermont hillside. We sold (or in our case – bought) the farm for this one audacious hope– that the world’s hope rests in individuals, and then communities, turning their full attention to the earth and to her Creator.
This is why we lead people on wild pilgrimages where we pray for and with the land, bless and be blessed by the natural world as we move slowly through it. We pray this helps more and more people turn to the earth, allowing her wisdom to seep into their bones. I believe the future of the world – the trees, the birds, the rivers, and the people – depends on it.
As we listen, as we let the wisdom of the earth seep into our bones, our behavior will change. It has to, because it is then that we realize our well-being cannot be divorced from the earth’s wellbeing.
But first, we must pay attention. We must bear witness. We must listen, for the earth has much to tell us.