The Heron and the Despair

The Heron and the Despair
Rev. Douglas Taylor
January 13, 2013

 

In the Qur’an it is written:

Behold!  In the creation of the heavens and the earth;
In the alternation of the Night and the Day …
In the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth …
[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise. (2.164) 

All the world over, in scripture and in poetry through the ages, people proclaim not only how good the earth is and how blessed but also how we can learn from it.  “[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise.”  In various scripture we see reference to the natural world not only as a place to uncover lessons for living, but also as a wilderness that will test us.  Nature is sometimes cast as the place of temptation or a place where we get lost.  Nature is also presented in fairy tales as a dangerous place yet also a place where we must go to grow up.  The mountain top, the desert, the woods and the wilderness each carry a metaphoric or mythic tone that the actual natural locations can truly convey. 

I have always loved nature, and growing up I spent a lot of time out in the woods.  My woods were not dangerous or challenging, however.  My woods were a source of centering and healing. 

I grew up among the glacier carved hills just south of Rochester NY, in a place called Bushnell’s Basin.  Across the street from my house the neighbor’s back yard dropped down several dozen feet to a broad lowland of trees and clearings that we called The Flats. Every spring and fall the Flats would become a maze of flooded creeks and overgrown puddles. The land was not useful for development and so was left to go wild with trees and shrubs, left to grow wild for the imagination and exploration of children. Once I was old enough to be outside on my own, I spent nearly every nice afternoon down in the woods.

In Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman describes how it sometimes felt for me.  He writes:

THERE was a child went forth every day;  And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.   

There is something about the words of poets like Whitman that can capture and articulate my spiritual yearning in ways no theology or dogma can grasp.  Unitarian minister and activist John Haynes Holmes writes:

Nothing any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me very much, but everything that the poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas and the saviors of the race, and God – whoever God may be – has at one time or another reached my soul.

For me, finding the writings of Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold, Walt Whitman and Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver and Chief Seattle, has lead me to a deeper understanding of my spirit.  Naturalists, poets, and great orators through the ages help me to articulate and integrate my experiences of the natural world and the rumblings within my own soul.  Yes, the words are often about flowers and birds and sky and sea, but they are also about my spirit and about God and about life lived with a fullness.

THERE was a child went forth every day;  And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.  

Those woods around my house became an indelible part of my soul for stretching cycles of years.  What have you looked upon?  What has held your attention and therefore defined some of who you are?  What do you feed you soul?  Or, what do you feed your soul when you have too much of the world.  For me, as a child, it was mostly the Flats.  It feels like I spent years down there, like it was an extension of my own home, like it was a second home.  When things were chaotic at home – or more often just empty at home – I would go out to the woods.  I was having a share of the chaos imprinted on my soul, and the emptiness.  It was good for me to also have a base of nature imprinted there as well.

I don’t want to paint my home life growing up as all bad.  There were moments; but I think over all I am a fairly typical ‘adult child of an alcoholic household’.  Time spent in nature became my spiritual touchstone. 

Last week I was talking with one of the groups here at the church about the sermon I delivered last month, “Faith for the hard times.”  Our discussion went into specifics, “What do you do when you are in the midst of the hard times?”  Well, if we give theologians the day off and let only the poets and naturalists speak, I think Wendell Berry’s poem about the heron and the despair gets as close as possible for me. 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I do that from time to time.  I wake at night worrying, fearful of the trouble and danger in the world, concern for ‘what my life and my children’s lives may be.’  I worry some nights about the world my children are growing up in.  For me, as is implied in Berry’s poem, the extra concern for the lives of my children is something that puts it over the edge for me into the realm of despair.  I had despair for the world growing in me before I had children, don’t get me wrong.  And I don’t think people without children don’t understand or experience this sort of anxiety and heartache.  But for me, it was having children that raised my worry to a level that included others.  It became about more than just my own private fears and concerns. 

Because ultimately what I’m talking about, what I think Wendell Berry is talking about is bigger that the fear for my life and what my children’s lives may be.  It’s about the world and what’s gone wrong.  Dealing with greed and injustice, heartbreak and cruelty is hard enough.  Helping my children learn to deal with it too is that much harder.  And as an outgrowth of that, my concern grows beyond myself and my children to include all people around me that I care about.  I want to make the world a better place for everyone I care about, and I also want to strengthen everyone I care about to be better able to get through the hard times. 

So Wendell Berry feels this too, and what does he do? He says:

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests
in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.

I remember doing that as well.  I didn’t have herons and drakes there in the Flats.  But I remember going out to those woods around my house when I was old enough to think of it as ‘communing’ with nature. I would go with the express purpose of calming down and getting grounded.  I did find wood drakes and loons, though, in the Stillwater lakes around Camp Unirondack.  And the heron … I’ve probably told the story a dozen times of the time I was up at Unirondack as a young man, sitting on the dock in the early morning when a heron flew onto the lake and nearly settled on that same dock where I sat meditating.  It glided past me less than a foot from my shoulder while I sat breathless.  I could see the blue feathers, the curve of its neck, the black of its eye as it swept silently past me and sailed low over the water back across the lake away from me and out of sight.

Even just remembering the experience brings to mind the profound feelings I had of connectedness and peace in that moment.  Annie Dillard, after experiencing something like that with a tree of lights wrote, “I had been all my life a bell, and never knew it until that moment I was lifted and struck.” (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) I think I have spent a good portion of my life since that encounter stopping at lakes and looking for birds and listening to the ringing in my soul.

What is it about such experiences that change them from seeing another bird as you go through your day to seeing through to the depth of living?  Perhaps it is simply an openness on our parts that might fit any moment that can slip in and crack us open all the way.

This morning outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything holy now

 I have had a handful of encounters like that which have changed me, transformed me, or deepened my sense of the world and my place in the world.  Peter Mayer’s song says it so beautifully.  I do see that everything is holy now.  And I want to talk about God in everything; but the word ‘God.’ on the tongues of too many people, is too small a word for what I need it to mean.  I suppose, as I explained last week, “I could tell you, but only in Arabic.”  So for today, let the theologians hush while the poets speak of grace and suffering, beauty and despair.  Let the poets tell us something of what this experience has meant: the peace, the presence, the abiding sense of place that I find with the heron in the face of despair.  

Despair is an isolating experience.  Misery and worry turn me inward, cutting me off from my otherwise natural resources.  Experiences I carry in my heart of being in nature open me up, open me outward, open me to my connectedness. Wendell Berry’s poem says

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. 
I come into the presence of still water. 
I come into the presence of that stillness and that stillness calms my soul.

 At the end of this month I am going to retreat with my Unitarian Universalist colleagues in ministry.  We will be down in Florida, in Saint Petersburg near Tampa for nearly a week as January rolls into February.  Part of me feels a little guilty, like I’m sneaking off to balmy Florida while Binghamton freezes.  But another part of me is so grateful to have our retreat be at a place where there will be beauty that is new to me.  Whenever I am on retreat I make an effort to go out and find a wild place.  Usually this means woods and lakes where I can wander around.  I’m not sure what to do with beaches and the big expanse of ocean or gulf.  My spirit has always been well nourished by green branches and big hills, rambling creeks and still water.  Wendell Berry’s poem talks of coming into the presence of still water.  I’m not sure what I will do with such wide open, ever-rolling water, expansive, breathing water that is never still.  I’m not sure, but I am looking forward to learning – for I know my spirit needs this also.

The peace and calm that carries me through my trouble and drains my despair of its power, that peace is not simply the peace of still water and the memories of quiet, idyllic nature.  The real power of such experiences is in tapping into the rhythm of life itself.  It’s not the stillness, though it can feel that way for me at times.  It is not the stillness; it is instead the even rhythm.  The motion and the stillness belong to each other, the song and the silence together.

This is the lesson I learn from the natural world.  It is not the only lesson it has to offer.  But it is the healing one I learned to trust as a child.  Where have you gone for healing and renewal?  Your spirit needs nourishment, what do you feed yourself of beauty and love?  Where do you turn when worry and despair creep too close to your heart?  Wendell Berry goes to where the heron feeds; he goes into the presence of still water.  “And I feel above me the day-blind stars,” he writes, “waiting with their light.”

What an illuminating metaphor, “the day-blind stars.”  What guides do you seek out that are normally hidden.  The stars are here all day long, shining their light, hidden by the brilliance of the sun.  A life of the spirit can be like that too, present within you all the time though hidden within the ordinariness of living. What do you do to rediscover your center?

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests
in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. 
I come into the presence of still water. 
And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Grace.  I rest in the grace of the world.  I need more grace in my life.  Let all those simple meanings of the word pour over you when you hear this line: grace as the gracefulness of a dancer, grace as the gratitude offered before a meal, grace as the extra time offered beyond what is expected, grace as a gift.  For a time I rest in the grace, the extra time, the gratitude, the elegant dancing movement, the gift.  I rest in the grace of the world. 

When I rediscover my center, I rest in the grace of the world.  When I feed my spirit on beauty, I rest in the grace of the world.  When I find healing and renewal then I rest in the gratitude, the elegant movement, the extra time, the gift – of the world, and am free.  When despair for the world grows in me I know what I can must do to be free.  It is not fail-proof, but it works often enough to be nearly so. 

All the world over, in scripture and in poetry through the ages, people have proclaimed not only how good the earth is and how blessed but also how we can learn from it.  “[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise.”  Take the time to step aside to rediscover your center.  Perhaps for you as it is for me, there is grace to be found down by the still water where the wood drake rests in his beauty and the great heron feeds.  Perhaps for you as it is for me, there is memory and poetry and calm to be found just a breath away from the turmoil of the day.  Perhaps when despair comes creeping into your heart, and fear for what your life and the lives of those you love may be, there is yet a way for you to let the fear slip by and the despair to leak all its power away because you have found the way back into the woods where your spirit is nourished and your heart is healed and you can rest for a time in the elegant movement of life, and be free.

In a world without end,

May it be so