"The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing —
to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from —
my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing,
all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back."

~C.S. Lewis


Friday, March 16, 2012

The lovely prison paths

Life isn’t made for people who go off the roads. The park’s paths were nice, it is true: they had lovely asphalt paving and lovely elderly bridges and lovely helpful signs and were so desperately lovely you couldn’t stand them for more than ten minutes. Too much loveliness and real beauty dies, and there was so much beauty today to absorb.

It was one of those afternoons where the heavens of God come down and touch the meadows of earth, but when I look, the scene glimmers with so much glory I can no longer discern the thread between them, though perhaps there never was one. I walk along the lake, escorted stoically by two Canadian geese, and I see the clear glaze of the water next to the sharp wave of the ice and wonder how both could exist side by side. Winter embraces summer, and we call it spring.

While Minnesota winters confine chatty girls to coffee shops, where they watch lace fall from heaven and feel steam rise from cups, prairie springs push them outside—outside onto the parks and the paths and the light and the sun. White face, pallid arms, ashen hands, we are glowing wraiths, or, perhaps, sleepy caterpillars emerging from our cocoons, ready to be transformed by the kiss of a passionate spring.

We were being kissed scandalously today, for the giggling March weather was playing dress-up in June’s best summer clothes, and my friend and I had made our escape to the park and the paths and that Canadian goose lake, and we were unfurling our mottled monarch wings under the sun’s approving rays. It is good to fly.

But those too-lovely paths keep us uncontrollably safe, for as our words fly along faster and faster (two girls energized by the drug-dealt high of spring), our feet keep having temper tantrums like small children not allowed to touch the glittered toys on the shelf. There is glitter in the fir-laden woods, in the crushed ice water streams, where the hills swoop down to touch the prison paths and beckon their inmates up higher to where the true beauty lies. But there are no paths there where the sunshine is mottled and the breeze is shy—no paths, that is, unless you listen for them.

Yet, somehow, we hear them calling. In the midst of our riveting discussions of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs and Harry Potter love scenes, suddenly, we stop. To our right, or our left, or perhaps we just imagined it, there is a small famished trail, starved for eyes to see its beauty. It is our duty to rescue it, no? I point to the lonely path (Harry Potter temporarily forgotten) and pronounce it an epic place to sojourn, and with a dramatic recitation of Frost’s poem—after all, the trail does make all the difference—we flit off into the sweet spiced warmth of this unknown woodchip path.

Yet it is sobering to walk on the dead. Those sacrificed trees remain largely untrodden, forced to turn their graveyard path into a mountain range. Our speaking slows as butterflies turn to sherpas who now wish for too-tight snowshoes to float them over these foothills of Everest. Through our sandals bites the dying wood, needles of penance punishing us for going off the Lovely Paths, spearing through thin soles and uncalloused feet.

But pain is part of beauty. Onward we move through it, until dead trodden tree bits turn to dead soon-living dirt clods, and we finally enter Narnia. The snow’s dripping music sings off the birches, causing the startled trilling chickadee to harmonize too loudly and wake the water nymph, whose leap touches us with a spray of hope. Spring is coming. The Lion must have shaken his mane.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The nature-learners

My education may well be right; yet nothing I heard in school, nothing I’ve read, no lesson reached by logic has ever convinced me as utterly or stirred me as deeply as did that red-tailed hawk… I learned from the land itself.
Scott Russel Sanders, “Buckeye,” p. 8

It was fuming at me, the snow was. It didn’t, always. Sometimes it seemed to have woken up in a pleasant mood, presumably having had an uneventful trip down from Canada and arriving at our barn door in quite enough time for tea. But some days, the prank-playing prairie birds gave it poor directions and the snake snow fence of my father’s caused a traffic jam and the brash blaring winter winds gave it a headache and by the time it arrived at our red barn door’s stop sign, my shovel was just the last straw.

It was angry today. I couldn’t exactly feel the snow, what with my nuclear holocaust body armor on, and I couldn’t exactly hear it, what with the pack of rabid dogs shrieking inside the barn, but I sure had to deal with it. The barn door, I had to free it, it needed to be rescued. Punch through the crust, heave out a shovelful, toss it a foot away, get it blown back in your face. Whack out the ice, scrape along the concrete, breath-thaw the frozen handle, kick free the frost-frozen door. Don’t stop, it’s your job. Do it.

The child, the shovel, and the snow. And the barn door. Every morning, every day, every week, all month, month after month after month until Minnesota finally got sick of winter and made it go away. That year I had been tasked with shoveling out the barn door, and, unlike when I was Morning Chores Person, my assignment didn’t switch off every week. Every day, no matter how upset the snow was that morning, I had to shovel out that barn door, crusading valiantly against the worst drift on the farm during the worst winter we ever experienced.

I rescued the barn door that year, but what I didn’t know is that it also, in a way, had rescued me. It had been speaking to me all winter but, like a voice carried back to you on the forgotten wind, I didn’t hear its whisper until I had left it years behind. Instead of going to school in nature, I left it for education in the city. And my fellow classmates, they often puzzle me. The December walk to chapel—I hear bitter complaints of the “cold.” Cold? You think this is cold? The early morning talk with a friend—I listen to grumbles about waking up seven minutes before class. But you don’t have any chores, think of that! I feel I don’t fit in here, where I get my education; I went to a different preparatory school.

Nature is a teacher unique among men because it does not follow any rules and speaks with an unadulterated voice. The blessed who grow up in nature, in wide-open spaces and far-flung skies, they think differently, live differently. They work because they have to, because there is no choice, but they are rarely bitter. They are not bitter because nature always reveals the beauty in the pain; that is the way of God. The furious snapping snow bites only because it is made of a trillion sharp diamonds and the sun only burns because it is filling your life with a million bright lights.

I did not find many of nature’s students in my new school, but there are some. We always do seem to find each other, the nature-learners. It is good to be together, to share the experiences of the snowy barn doors and the dragonfly wings and the red-tailed hawks wheeling where earth and heaven meet.