Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike. (John Muir)
As a young pastor in Fresno, I became steeped in the words and life of John Muir (little did I know that I would later spend time in Scotland, the land of his birth; and Wisconsin, the land of his youth). Through a colleague and people I came to know as ‘old time mountaineers’ – I was introduced to the amazing insight, passion, activism and poetry of his tireless work to help us appreciate not just the beauty of our wild spaces, but the deep and powerful spiritual nature of those spaces. I came to appreciate and value in a much deeper way why these kinds of places were so sacred. And healing. And necessary for us as a people. Many of my mentors in that time were deeply imprinted by their experiences in the same Sierra Nevada Mountain range that Muir was. They lived with a sentiment he expressed well:
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. (Muir quoted by Samuel Hall Young in Alaska Days with John Muir (1915) chapter 7)
I find that same joy, and cleansing upon hearing the sound of the loons of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. My wife Tammy finds that same connection upon seeing the waving grains of the Dakotas on a fall afternoon. You undoubtedly have your wild spaces, what Kathleen Norris so aptly called our ‘spiritual geography.’
Many of us resonate with the sacred words of poets like Wendell Berry
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.
© Wendell Berry, The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
Or Mary Oliver
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA
But, it was in the summer of 2016, that I heard author and activist Terry Tempest Williams speak about a new book, The Hour Of Land, she’d been commissioned to write to commemorate the 100th anniversary of our National Parks.
Williams is the author of 15 books, is a committed environmental activist and is a native and life long resident of Utah. Her life flows from the complexities of our country’s public lands and the struggle we have with them. Her father and brother have made careers out of working with and for the energy companies – including oil pipelines. She’s from a Mormon tradition and speaks positively of it and her loved ones still a part of it. But in her own life she’s been honored by the Sierra Club, conservation organizations, and other environmental groups.
She draws on the wisdom of the ancients – including our texts from Job and Psalms and John Muir. In all of these we see sentiments that acknowledge and respect the wisdom of the land, the earth and its creatures; and their ability to teach us, lead us, shape and soothe us.
She began her interview with a familiar sounding statement – the National Parks are the ‘soul’ of America. Her vision was similar to Muir and others, but she’d also added the collective. 300 million people visit the parks annually, she said. We don’t just yearn for the wild, we do so collectively.
This was reinforced for me when I visited Niagara Falls again last summer. Listen to how others talk about the Falls, and you’ll often hear one of two things.
The power of the water.
The craziness of the crowds/tackiness of the town.
Standing before that pulsating water – 6 million cubic feet per minute – day in and day out – I was mesmerized. I was moved. I was speechless and didn’t even want to find words for what I was witnessing.
All the while, standing on the Canadian side, I was aware of the nick knack shops and casinos behind me; the tour busses and the flyers for zip lines, helicopter rides and Imax movies (for once Canada is tackier than the USA!)
But something else hit me too. Of all the wild places I have been, Niagara seemed to have the most diverse, eclectic group of visitors I’d seen. People of all colors, all sports team allegiances (noted by t-shirts and ball caps), all kinds of clothing. While there were certainly people from around the world, there were also Americans of every kind –much more so than in Yosemite, Arches, Yellowstone or Muir Woods.
Was it because Niagara is more accessible to the vast populations of the East Coast? Was it because it didn’t require much encounter with nature to get there? I don’t know – but it tapped into something Williams had said – this is the soul of America – all of us – the vast and complex and beautiful and complicated populace that is “us”.
These experiences in the wild are profoundly personal – often defying words. At the same time they are completely universal – transcending race and language and class. Standing atop Niagara Falls – a wild area I had poo-pooed for years because of those very same crowds – I was reminded that these spaces, and these experiences of the wild I so cherish are not protected for me.
There are protected for us.
In that one word change is a subtle, but profound difference
Whether we are talking national parks, neighborhood green spaces, beautiful Wisconsin waterways or planet earth, we would do well to think in plural terms. Our wild spaces. We would do well to consider why these spaces matter to so many people.
But Williams then went further than anyone I had heard before. She chronicled how these dear and precious parks were obtained or developed. Through theft from native peoples, secrecy on the part of wealthy land barons as they bought up farmland from poor peasants, through back room deals and patronage and outright deceit.
These lands we love, she reminded her readers, are another part of the soul of America. If the wild places themselves represent the vision we have for our world and our connection to it; the way we’ve set them aside represents our feet of clay as a people – stumbling, bumbling and tumbling our way through the thickets of class and race and providence and faith. If the setting aside of these lands is beautiful, the process of getting there has often been ugly.
Recognizing, accepting and wrestling with this complex set of contradictions as a people, she posits, might be the way forward in the midst of our deeply divided, deeply racist, and deeply flawed ‘us.’
Could they help us ask the question, “who are we becoming?” as a people and a nation?
What if our national parks and monuments (and other protected wild spaces) became places of conscience instead of places of consumption? How many more T-shirts can we buy…How many more forms of recreation must we create to assuage our adrenaline addictions…Is it not enough to return home with a fresh idea gleaned while walking in a new territory? As I have been visiting our national parks, I keep asking myself: Who are we becoming?
354, The Hour of Land, Terry Tempest Williams
In the end, it may be solitude that the future will thank us most for conserving – the kind of solitude born out of stillness – (be it the stillness of John Muir’s wild walks or the stillness of Cesar Chavez in the midst of labor struggles in the deserts of California). It is the kind of stillness that can be found in (all of our wild spaces) where a quieting of the soul inspires creative acts.
Might they be a pathway out of our intense and divisive polarities? Speaking about the tension over who should own or have access to the wide open spaces of home state of Utah, Williams writes:
What are we do with this kind of polarity of vision within the United States of America? How might we begin a different kind of conversation so that our public lands are seen as our public commons instead of the seedbed of rancor and violence? As John Muir once wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” (358-9)
The wilds of the west are connected to the cries for native justice in the Midwest, which are connected to the problems of understanding Confederate history in the south, which are connected to questions of health care, economics and police brutality. The connections go on and on and on.
What if our time away in the wilds were to dual purposed.
Stillness for our soul; and a creative reflection on who ‘we’ are as a people.
While it is easy to bemoan the number of tourists at a place we cherish; what if we allowed ourselves to see them as fellow seekers? As we seek to ‘get away from it all’ – what if we acknowledged all people – consciously and unconsciously – are struggling under the weight of an ‘it’ that lacks the natural beauty and inspiring creativity we need as a people? What if the stories we cherish from decades gone by in the places we visit – stories of courage and valor and strength – where coupled with the stories of the ‘other’ people who have shared or continue to share this earth with us. Native people, immigrants, urban dwellers with little access or experience of star lit nights, loon calls, or mountain rivers? What if the stories we recite about these places included their stories – of losing land, losing their own home, of the tyranny of too much noise and too much light? What if we took seriously that ‘we the people’ all want and need these wild and protected spaces?
Might we have arrived at the hour of land? Is this the hour of seeing the land as more than just as a source of solace from the crazy world (as much as it is!). In claiming this is the hour of land, we recognize that treating our lands and waterways differently might open us ALL up to new ways of thinking, compromising and creating.
Acknowledging this is the hour of land, or the time to listen to the earth, may include a much more intentional effort to ponder stories on and about the land from all people – especially indigenous people who have mostly been wiped out. Visiting Mt. Rushmore with our Presidents and the nearby Crazy Horse monument remind us that our history is richer because of both sets of stories.
Acknowledging this is the hour of land means we will continue to build connections between green and wild spaces and urban people. Be they the urban poor or the urban hipster – we will remember that the souls of us all yearn for a connection to the wild – even if we can’t articulate it. Helping neighborhood youth see how things grow or helping them experience the quiet of the woods are but just a couple of examples.
Acknowledging this is the hour of land invites us to think creatively with residents, travelers, companies and governments so that we find win-win solutions to the use and protection of the creation around us. I’ll never forget that my first vote as a Wisconsinite was for a referendum to raise funds for Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program – that program established in 1989 to preserve valuable natural areas and wildlife habitat, protect water quality and fisheries, and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation. What floored me at the time was that the referendum had the support of city and county government, the real estate/developer lobby, the conservations groups and the DNR. Of course, I know this program has suffered in recent years – but having lived in California I couldn’t imagine all those players supporting anything together. It gave me a glimpse of what is possible.
United Farm Worker organizer and famous activist César Chávez once said ‘After 30 years of organizing poor people, I have become convinced that the two greatest aspirations of humankind are equality and participation.” If we can learn to listen to the land, we can learn to listen to each other. (.364)
Like humanity, the American landscape has many voices. It has seen splendor and tragedy, tears of joy and tears of decimation. Like our family stories and the journey of our people – how every we define them – the land’s history is a container for so much pain and so much possibility.
Not mine, but ours.
Not for my people, but all people.
May we listen for hope from the land,
may we heed to power of our waters to heal,
may our attention to the air, the creatures and the stars strengthened our ability to pray, to connect and become repairers of the breaches of our day. Amen.
Texts for this sermon
“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
John Muir (The Yosemite, page 256.)
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.