When climbing down a 200 foot ladder in pitch black, there is only one way to deal with the terror of the unseeing and unknowing. Take it one rung at a time. Left hand releases its grip while the left foot drops to the next rung. Left hand and left foot secure, right hand releases while the right foot drops to the next rung. And so on.
And soon you’re into a pattern. The rhythm of it is a comfort. The left / right repetition, or cadence, is a kind of brain gym that keeps the mind busy while opening up and relaxing your heart and body to just do what needs doing. You’re into a flow.
Not a bad way to get thru a tough day. One rung at a time. Using a metaphor like this can be a lifesaver. It’s the power of the imagination.
The power of imagination is a divine gift. I would go so far as to say that it is THE divine gift. It is imagination that makes us more than our brother birds and sister fish. It is the ability to imagine that differentiates us from our four legged cousins. While they have tails – it is the tales we tell that makes us divine. When our imaginations engage – we connect with the power that creates, destroys, and begins again.
Thomas Berry, in the foreword of Bill Plotkin’s “Soulcraft”, awakens me to a wider deeper, heaven and earth-embodied definition of soul.
“Soul is fundamentally a biological concept, defined as the primary organizing, sustaining, and guiding principle of a living being… Soul, in all its diversity of expression, enables the flowers to bloom in the meadows. It enables all manner of living forms, the birds, the fish, and other living beings to find their way through thousands of miles on their migration journeys back and forth across the continents and in the dark depths of the sea…”
While we might think that it’s soul that connects us humans uniquely with god, Berry re-grounds us in a more ancient understanding of the soul. If soul is the air we breathe and the ground we stand on. If “soul” is another way of talking about the underlying organizing principles of life’s emerging, embroiling, encircling creativity. Then it is our human ability to imagine that engages us in that soul process.
Above all, this larger context of human existence was a caring world. It provided food and shelter, and healing in time of sickness. Beyond economic needs, the natural world in all its wonder provided inspiration for song and dance and poetry.”
These days are so short that by the time we get the fire going and the food unpacked and we make it out for an afternoon walk in the woods – the sun is already low. It’s sending its last strong rays across treetops to the hilltop we climb to say good bye to another day.
We were planning to walk the rail trail back to where it meets the road and circle back along the river. But as soon as we hit the rail trail’s gravel, Lynn wanders to its edge and says “Hey! What’s that down there?” and she’s gone down over the edge.
I call out a warning about the dangers of leaving the beaten path, about sticking to the straight and narrow way, and all that. I might as well have been preaching to the stones. She’s already halfway down the hill. So I plunge after her – needing to sustain a pretense of mighty male protector – even in her wake.
We crash through the underbrush and come upon a marshy meadow that’s filled the gap between two hills. At one end of this valley a beaver has constructed a wall of mud a good six feet high and fifty feet across. There’s a wigwam sized den smack in the middle. But instead of a pond behind the wall, there’s a meadow. A quick-running creek meanders and gurgles its way through the boggy grasses.
I’m still inspecting the dam when Lynn says “OH LOOK!”. I turn, expecting a moose or something wild and large. What I see is definitely wild and large and … it takes my breath away. “Holy Shit” I exclaim.
Like a dinosaur skeleton standing in a museum, there, in the middle of the football field-sized marsh, with no other trees around, lays a fallen giant white pine. It’s fully intact from root-stem to treetop laying the length of the marsh like a giant angel felled in some cosmic battle. But what strikes me first – what takes my breath – is the great circle of interwoven roots standing upright. It’s twice my height and twice my arm’s width.
With a sense of reverence, as if approaching an altar in a sacred temple, I slowly pick my way across the marshy grasses towards it. I am stopped ten feet away by the creek three feet deep and three feet wide that winds its way around the uprooted stump. From here, I examine the great web of roots – not in a big clump with taproots going down – but every root splayed outwards in an interwoven flattened circle. It was as if the roots could not pierce down into soil but spread out reaching in all directions for nourishment.
Part of this tree’s wonder is that it seems not to belong here. No other trees, living or dead, are within thirty yards of it. Why wouldn’t that great circle of roots have been able to pierce down into the marshy ground? It is as if some great hurricane hand had plucked it from a granite hilltop and placed it artfully here – for us to discover and adore.
Leaping across the creek’s threshold I enter into the holy of holies, stopping every second step when I see a new combination of curving root and twisted branch that appear crafted by an artisan’s skill.
Like a boy I run around behind the great circle of roots. I follow the trunk up along its length to a place where it has descended enough so I can scramble up onto it. I tightrope walk back up – down the trunk – to where I can see through a gap in the roots. I call to Lynn to snap a trophy photo like some tourist visiting a cathedral.
I walk back down the trunk to join Lynn as she comes close. We’re like a couple in an art gallery examining a masterpiece. We’re ooing and awing at every subtle facet of this wondrous work of art.
“The winds, the mountains, the soaring birds, the wildlife roaming the forests, the stars splashed across the heavens in the dark of night: these were all communicating the deepest experiences that humans would ever know.”
Everywhere we look – our eyes are drawn into the detail. Our imaginations intersect with the soul of this wild expression of the Maker. The swoop of grain here reveals the howling winds and storms endured. The twist of root and branch tell of creatures and claws and wings and limbs that walked beneath or lived within the tree’s tall branches. These roots hold a tapestry of stories from the centuries.
Though dead and decaying – it is alive. So alive. Though ever so slowly returning to the bed of the creek, from it’s the bearded thick moss on its trunk grow two tiny young pines. They rise up from the stump as if from a forest floor instead of a suspended eco-system five feet above the ground we stand on.
“The entire universe is shaped and sustained in all its vast interwoven patterns by the mysterious powers of soul.” Thomas Berry
Magical, mystical, storied, we long to capture it in digital images. We want to take it home and possess it. And at the same time we know that photos cannot capture this sense of awe we feel. (These words I write are a mere echo of the artist’s voice that struck deep chords within us.)
Like the disciples on the mountaintop experiencing the Transfiguration of Jesus – we want to build tents and make permanent this fleeting wonder. We want to bottle it and offer it as a potion to our friends. We want to distill it into dogma and call it “ours”. We want to take it and use it – with good intent – but its gold will turn to dross in our hands.
The best we can do is point our friends in the right direction. The right direction being – to see the wonders beneath us, above us, beside us, before and behind us. We can invite them to awaken – again and again – to resonate with the wonder born within us each day. Born like Christ in mystery and wonder amidst earthy companions. The fecund smell of straw and shepherds filling our senses and making us one with the angels as our hearts join in the divine chorus of love, thanks, praise, and peace.
The light is diminishing quickly on us now and Lynn begins to hurry us home. I trail behind her, lingering and wondering, and not wanting to let the enchantment dissipate. She gets us back on the beaten path and home again to tell the tale.
On our descent, off the beaten path, we discovered a deep wonder. Beneath the surface all is interconnected, interdependent, intriguing and inviting imagination. Rung by rung we descend deeper into the untellable mysteries hidden in the dark. Yet once our eyes grow accustomed to seeing – a new light shines now from within the surface of things.
I can see in the dark – using the mind’s eye of imagination – that “I am” as much a part of what’s growing and becoming – of what’s dying and decaying to begin again – as all that comes from the great “I am”. Running in my veins, beating in my heart, is the great “I am becoming” who spoke to Moses from burning bush to let him know “I have heard the people’s cry”.