This essay is reprinted from Holy Ground: A Gathering if Voices on Caring for Creation, recently published by Sierra Club Books.
Sometimes we must lose ourselves in order to find our way.
I live in a small college town near Lexington, Kentucky. One summer, my wife and I and a couple of friends were invited to share the evening with a group of families who dwell together in an intentional manner, about sixty miles from our home.
The road there narrows from four to two to even fewer lanes. A blue mailbox comes up on the right. Make a left, and then proceed up the drive, whose high spots are blazed by the low-hanging undercarriage of cars like mine.
A dog comes up to greet us. Overdressed for these hot evenings, he pants and accepts a rub on the brow and a scratching behind the ears. I watch his tail sweep arcs of canine fellowship on the dusty ground.
Adults come out to greet us, and their children appear from places in the yard and barn. These children are different. Their point of intersection with life is not a touchpad or a screen. Because the adults in their lives are worried about the death of nature, they are raising their children close to it.
It quickly becomes clear that these families spend much of their days in the woods, meadows, and gardens that surround this small cluster of homes. Children cannot protect what they do not know; they will not give up their convenience, much less their way of life, for what they do not love. I realize that these children are being raised as the guardians of tomorrow.
Before we break bread, Margie (one of the adults) takes us on a tour. She points to the roof of their home. Its long axis points south. The sun riseth, and goeth down, and hastens towards its zenith in the summer. In winter, when the sun is lower in the sky, it comes in their south-facing windows and provides free heat.
The term eavesdrop comes from hiding under the eaves of the house to listen surreptitiously to conversation. This is an eavesdropping home, but the conversation to be overheard is the chatter of rain. It flows from gutter to downspout to a cistern under the back porch. It is pumped up into the kitchen sink to wash dishes and then flows to the gray-water tank. Then the rain continues its journey downhill to the garden, where it hydrates the interstitial spaces in the lettuce of our salad, which we wash in the sink before dinner.
“How do you do it? How do you keep things going?” I ask this group of young and old, married and single, Catholic and Protestant people. The Lutheran pastor among them understands: I’m not asking about technology, or the lack of it.
Prayer: it is what has brought them through the beginning years of adjustment to living in community; through the illnesses, the job changes, and the roller-coaster ride of children entering their teen years.
“We share the legacy of the people raised to live alone but needing each other.”
“How?” I press.
“We’ll show you, if you’d like to join us,” they offer.
After dinner we retire to a room set aside as a chapel for vespers—one prayer book for every two people, a “novice” partnered with a community member. Hands slip back and forth between pages. Our collective voices sing songs written by French monks. We close with a period of free-form prayer, giving thanks, praying for mercy, and asking for help.
Outside, the children run about capturing grasshoppers, crickets, and other jumping things between cupped hands. Those creatures do not escape by the explosive movements of muscles coiled in their legs, but by quietly crawling through the whistle gap between the children’s thumbs.
Inside the chapel there is a moment of quiet. We sit with God and tilt the ears of our souls toward the eternal voice of reason. On the wall hang a crucifix bearing Christ’s body and a simple, unadorned cross, both symbols of suffering and triumph. For my part, I accept both. It is not by accident that Christ died on a tree, nor that he worked with wood in his father’s shop. Nor is it a coincidence that the word tree is mentioned more than five hundred times in the Bible. The human story begins with the tree of life in the garden. The last chapter of the Bible tells of two trees of life and an unpolluted river that flows between them. The leaves of these trees, we are told, will heal the nations.
It took us a thousand years to prove this biblical truth: that trees are, indeed, the breath of life. The transfer of life-giving gas from tree to human is not intuitive. Only in relatively recent human history was it discovered that oxygen comes not from rocks but from trees and photosynthesis.
God is not subtle about his feeling for trees. “I love the tall cedars,” saith the Lord. Abraham plants an oak. The symbol of Christ’s birthday is a conifer. We decorate them and sing, “O Christmas tree.” Essays are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree. The kingdom of heaven is “like a tree,” Jesus said. So, yes, call me a tree hugger. So was my Lord.
The prayer service is over; dinner dishes are washed, dried, and put away. We take a last look around for the breadbasket and food containers that go back to our house, make one last trip to the composting toilets, and get into our hybrid car, quietly crunching gravel under tire. Crickets call to each other, and we say our good-byes. At the bottom of the driveway, I decide to follow the global positioning system rather than retrace our path. The robotic voice tells me to turn left, not right, at the blue mailbox. Despite the lessons of the evening, I put my confidence in satellites and microchips instead of evening stars and friends.
The GPS takes us on the shortest path, which includes crossing the Kentucky River on the Valley View ferry. What the GPS does not know is that the ferry man is gone for the night and will not return till morning. We have no map—just a computer showing this impassable way. I fall back on the stars. We need to head toward the nebula in Orion’s belt, and then turn left at some point. On a dark single-lane road, I stop the car three-quarters of a mile past the last farmhouse to get my bearings.
We all step out and are at once baptized in the beauty of the place. Heaven will have no far-off highways roaring like oceans. It will be quiet, like these fields. The one on the left is cut and raked and ready for bailing. The hay on the right is waist high. Over both levitate the intermittently glowing abdomens of fireflies. Their luminescence joins up with the quiet, gentle chorus of the stars. The music of the spheres is a symphony, and the soloist tonight is the half-lit face of Sister Moon. She faces her brother the sun from a sidereal vantage point and hums a lullaby into the deep blue, star-filled heavens.
How strong is this faith and Bible I cling to? They have taken the families we visited from talk to action. They have planted a seed in my heart, to make me ache for nights filled with the peace of wild things in hedgerows, to make me long for the thousands of similar fields that have been plowed and planted with houses.
The fence in front of me wears a sign. It is too dim to read, but I imagine what it would say if Jesus owned this farm: Trespass gently. If your stomach is empty, come and share the harvest. If your spirit is hungry, come and pray.
C. S. Lewis, beloved creator of the Narnia series of books, says that if you know you are going down the wrong path, the shortest way to get back on track is to turn around and retrace your steps. We pile into the Prius, keeping the windows down so that we can smell the freshly cut hay as long as possible. Conversation dwindles, and fireflies continue to flicker behind the closed eyelids of my passengers.
We arrive home near midnight, saying a prayer of thanks before going our separate ways: Thank you for fields and fireflies and friendship. Thank you for faulty computers and the flawless beauty of your creation. Thank you for detours.
Sometimes we must lose ourselves in order to find our way.