Being a visiting minister here for a short while has made clear for me my priorities in making myself at home in a new-to-me town, if just for a few days at a time.
I try to find a place to drink good coffee and people-watch, hopefully one that is Wi-Fi-ed.
I look for routes to safely take walks by myself, getting those 10,000 fitbit steps in. And if there are lovely, well-tended gardens — filled with all manner of roses, hostas, brown-eyed susans (or are they black-eyed susans?), an unexpected stand of apple trees, and a variety of architecture, so much the better.
And I search for wilderness. I am grateful for the congregants who have helped me find my way to Brown’s Farm: its rolling pasture, its gliding hawks, permanently protected now from subdivisions and soccer fields. For a Saturday afternoon drive to the New River, where there is passable bass fishing and Friday night undergrad beer parties, but also secluded banks from which you can just watch this long stream meander or rush, depending on the rapids.
To be — for a little while each day — a transcendentalist, an eco-feminist, participating, at least spiritually, in the reweaving the world.
To be a Jewish person in nature, which defies some old stereotypes and self-concepts among those of us who are just one or two generations away from cobbled ghettos and crowded tenements. From great grandfathers who spent hours davening in cramped schuls — little houses of worship — or huddled over their Hebrew bibles and their Talmuds, engrossed in scripture from morning til night.
This next week begins the Days of Awe in the Jewish source of our living faith tradition, a time of introspection, of soul-searching, or seeking and accepting forgiveness for transgressions, of casting away “sins” — those wounds — of the past year. And beginning again in love.
For those among us who either grew up within Judaism and have moved away entirely, or like most of us, still retain and observe some of the usual practices and holy days, the High Holy Days may be filled with memories of being (confined) within a synagogue, indoors, for many hours during Rosh Hashanah — the birthday of the world — and Yom Kippur — the Day of Repentance, broken at the end of the long day of traditional of prayer and Torah portions by apples and honey, wine and bread.
Rabbi Mike Comins, founder of Torah Trek, promoting the connection between Judaism and nature, tells a very different story about the celebration of the Jewish New Year, especially a day in September 1996 when he was camped snugly, as he writes, in his book Wild Faith, about “camping snugly against the cliffs of a canyon in the desert mountains above the Israeli city of Eliat.” Wrapped in the early morning cold in his tallit, his prayer shawl, he listens to the birds for inspiration, feeling fully exposed. Far from humans, he remembers, his heart sheds its burdens, his prayers of atonement and teshuvah — turning towards the good, turning his life around — flow.
It is a superb Rosh Hashanah, he writes. A lifetime hiker and camper, suffocated from books and buildings, he had returned to the source of his first spiritual feelings, to wilderness. Yet he feels torn, as a rabbi in training, between his need to be out of doors, to have a deep and direct experience of awe and wonder — and his conflicted and conflicting commitment to deep and direct study of holy books and conventional rituals.
The wilderness Jew or the Religious Jew? Either/or? Both/and?
He has to move past the notion that the God of Judaism is a God of history, not a God in nature, ignoring all of the roots of preset day Jewish worship in the earliest Pagan festival rituals that focused on blessing the land, both as a means of sustenance, a source of agriculture, and, as so-called adventure Rabbi Jamie Korngold tells us, awesomeness. The God we discover in rocky high places, in stark deserts, on the shores of ancient seas.
He has to overcome a stereotype that even secular Jews are wilderness rejects, as he writes, that Jewish things are done in a city and under a roof. The assumption that wisdom comes from books, and insights from a mind that need not be exposed to fresh air, to natural places, to other living things.
This split in consciousness, even sense that the outdoors has not much to offer theologically, is of course not restricted to Judaism and Jewish people. Our own Unitarian Universalist faith tradition has carried with it, at times, a bias toward pursuing and parsing scripture: whether classical or great literature, or reports on public radio. And indifference or even avoidance of what have become two of the sources of our faith: the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life — and spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which instruct us to live with the rhythms of nature.
Dismissing those who would challenge an exclusively intellectual religious life. A literally interior life.
Wilderness teachings versus rationalism and biblical truths.
Starting with Henry David Thoreau and others in his circle of New England Transcendentalists, whose nature-seeking mysticism has waxed and waned as threads of our tradition.
If my growing years in Unitarianism were anywhere near the norm, Thoreau was not there, at least not on Sundays. While there was a piece of driftwood on the altar in one of my childhood congregations, our hymnal readings contained only one from Thoreau, and my father and brothers fled the windowless sanctuary most weeks for worship in the salt flats or in one woods or another, counting birds, finding spirit in the wild.
Walden, the book and the pond it was named after, went missing. As did the other liberal religious clergy and philosophers who were captivated by the notion of divinity being inside and all around us, knowable in the leaves of grass, in a lupine meadow, a starry sky.
Thoreau died of tuberculosis May 6, 1862, in Concord, Massachusetts, at the age of just 44, eight years after writing Walden. He had been battling the disease for many years. Christened a Unitarian with family ties to the Concord congregation, Henry had long since deliberately disconnected from any church membership, before others, including twenty-some Unitarian ministers, found themselves under increasing attack for their shift in sensibilities and beliefs.
Our colleague, Rev. Barry Andrews, one of our primary Thoreau scholars, in his sermon written on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Walden’s publication, spoke about this work, and others by Thoreau’s fellow Transcendentalists as a form of modern-day scripture, an alternative to the truths in biblical text to which the liberal Protestant but still exclusively Christian Unitarians of their time still adhered, the proof found in miracles and all. Thoreau, and other young challengers of a young Unitarianism, critiqued what they saw as too much focus on what they termed “lifeless things,” not enough on the inward pious life and what some call direct, mystic experiences of the divine. Too much dependence on the senses, and not enough on the intuitive. A religion of dry bones and a thin porridge of pale negations.
Andrews tells us that Thoreau — and his fellow Transcendentalists — were often scolded for their religious views, considered too pantheistic — worshipping the spirit that revealed itself in and through nature, shocking some by their elevation of Buddha and interest in other forms of Eastern religion.
Critiqued and marginalized on one hand for their rejection of what might indeed be called Unitarian creed and on the other for what was seen as a Romantic rejection of the new secular scientific methodology, Thoreau and his colleagues found themselves largely ignored, if not actively shunned.
For years, Barry Andrews tells us, more conservative Unitarians sought to exclude Transcendentalists and their teachings and writings on the basis of their rejection of (or more accurately, their religious expansion beyond) Christianity, even while the philosophy and its practices gained acceptance , even adherents. Within a short time, fewer and fewer identified themselves as being in the Transcendentalist fold.
Since the beginnings of the ecology movement and then what has been called a spiritual revitalization movement in the 1980s, a new “transcendentalism,” a mysticism, a theology of interdependence and immanence, has been steadily growing with UUism, described in one associational study as a slightly updated version of the spirituality espoused by Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and others. More than a quarter of us now identity this way.
As we rediscover Walden and its author, as we delve once more into this source of our living faith, Barry Andrew writes that there is a natural congruence between Unitarian Universalism and Transcendentalism, a source of a uniquely and authentically UU spirituality, with its possibility of a rich, deeper inner life and a stronger sense of religious identity.
It has been a summer for me of living — part of the time — a kind of Wilderness Jewish, Thoreau-leaning spiritual life, especially learning lessons about the value and practice of resilience from my experiences in wild(er) places. Which in some ways has taken me full circle back to my childhood, where I escaped the storms in our cramped home and the dark corners of our neighborhood by spending some part of most days in the woods behind the houses across the street. It was a small remnant of Eastern forest (or even Southern piedmont forest), with a grove of white birch and beech and red oak and maple trees. For me, it was a haven — sometimes slippery, with patches of poison ivy, with biting insects, with burrs and nettles. But despite these slight and even delicious dangers, it made me feel safe and secure. There were jack in the pulpits that companioned me. This is where I could find my strength — feel totally myself and totally connected.
I doubt if that woods, my woods, is still there. The acreage is now too valuable in that area for me to believe it has been spared the backhoeing and the grading. I think I do not want to know.
This summer I was one of a number of artists, musicians, and in my case poets who are part of a series of performances in the wilderness taking place across the country to recognize the 50th anniversary of the National Wilderness Preservation System, protecting at least a modest portion of our public wild lands, some 100 million acres, allowing them to remain mostly untouched, natural and free.
Making a dent in the American Manifest destiny, the territorialism and greed that has pushed thousands of species into extinction, has desecrated so many of our naturally holy places. Most of this rescued land is in the West or in Alaska, but there a few areas in my home state — in the North Georgia mountains and the Okefenokee Swamp and in Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah valley.
My setting — the site in which I have walked and sat on rocks overlooking an old creek bed, learn its history from a naturalist, scribbled notes and verses, snapped smart phone pictures — is not an official federal wilderness. It is a city-owned second and even some first growth forest that somehow and somewhat miraculously escaped over-plowing and clear cutting. It is a small protected wild space that has seen its share of bloodshed and hardship: a place where Native People were led away to Oklahoma; where a civil war battle was fought, leaving 2,000 dead, where human waste poured into its waters. A place of ghosts and tears, where you can still look for arrowheads and spent bullets.
Stunning in its endurance, its resilience despite the chain saws and the sewage dumping and the mounds of old tires, garbage, and plastic bottles that blanket creek banks. The invasive plants: the English Ivy and Privet and Chinaberry trees that were brought here for decoration, for erosion control, dozens of species that are literally smothering the natives, the plants that have persevered, even regenerated in the living soil of a nearly extinct forest. I have learned about and come to appreciate the flexibility of what we might just see as flawed, even deformed trees — chipped away by beavers, blackened by lightening, wounded by axes — badly bent by winds. Healing themselves, finding the essential light, sending out trailers, self-creating new growth.
The wary coyotes who still patrol their territory. The frogs and toads and herons that find the remaining clean running water, the almost hidden springs. The watchful resident birds and the migrating warblers who still nest and rest from their long journeys there, despite human incursion, degradation and care-lessness.
Last Sunday’s Roanoke Times, in an issue with front page stories about NFL bad news and Al Quaida terrorist cells, there was an article about invasive plants in the nearby Buffalo Mountain Wilderness Area: Japanese Meadowsweets and Spires that threaten the native purple blazing stars and Blue stern grasses. Reminding us that these species can only survive so long before they are overwhelmed.
As a poet in the wilderness, I have been persuaded, in the words of novelist Tina Welling, that the practice, as she put it, of writing wild, shows us the interconnectedness between the earth’s creative energy and our own personal creative energy. Which has been a great spiritual gift.
I have re-learned something about resilience from this time and these places. How living things want to live. How a centuries’ old tree, a lucky accident of survival, can generate and sustain new life. How limbs may flexibly bend and not break, but even when limbs break, life can refashion itself. Gaping holes can shelter magnificent mushrooms. Streams can change course in an afternoon.
Much of this can happen without us and some of it has to happen with our loving nurturing, as we pull out what should never have taken root, clean up, walk gently, speak softly. Take only our rightful place. Think in terms of thousands of years past and hence.
What we will gain is inspiration.
What will gain is wisdom.
What we will gain is the experience of the interconnected web of all existence.
What we will gain is awe.