This time of year, my heart is full. Everything that can bloom is blooming, or has bloomed and fruited already, like mayapple and shooting star and trillium and the flowering trees that line my street. All the plants are up. Every rain sees them shooting up another few inches. If you leave your lawn another week, aw, it’ll be fine, I can mow it Sunday, well, better bring a scythe. Out in the country they’ve already cut the first hay.
My allergies play up the most in this season, too, but I welcome them, crazy at as that sounds.
Today I’m thinking about two mysteries I inherited from my mother’s father.
I’m thinking about people, and how each one of us has a radiance of our own, detectible but not necessarily visible. Certain members of my family have … rather more of that radiance than most people. I’m not sure why. It follows a line through my mother’s father, a German whose forefathers came from Baden Baden, I’m told. Maybe that’s why we have this connection to nature as well. Those are the two mysteries that come to me from my maternal grandfather, then: this personal energy, which is so very powerful that some of us seem to walk around inside a weather balloon that extends far outside our bodies, and inconveniences people standing quite far away. The other mystery is what I’m going to call … our religion.
I shouldn’t call it that. Not only because it has no name and no rituals and no liturgy and no priesthood and no history, but because those of our bloodline have been careful never to call it that; we keep our worship secret, and our practice is disguised in a hundred little ways so that even we ourselves do not have to think, I could be burned at the stake for this. We just quietly and joyfully … do it.
The first time I ever heard it referred to as religion by a member of the family was at my father’s funeral, where I met my mother’s cousin for the first time. This cousin announced that she and her husband were evangelicals, and proudly told me of having visited my mother in her hospital bed after my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, and tried to sell her religion. Catching her when her fear of death was strong, like a good saleswoman. ”But, you know, Carol and I have always been…” a hand gesture “…on different planes, spiritually. Her and her nature thing.”
And there it was. Wow. Someone actually came out and said it.
In my twenties, I found out that there was official, actual, named nature worship, when I met some pagans. ”Pagan” is a very random word. It covers everything from ”people not like us” to “hicks” to “nature worshippers” to practicers of syncretic homemade religion and Greek revival. And so much more. I rather liked the idea of a religious denomination that didn’t tell anyone a damn thing about your beliefs and practices. It fit in with my own nameless, traditionless, secret faith.
But I began to pay a little more attention to certain aspects of nature in my adult years. Befriended certain animals, took certain plants deeper into my heart, as it were, than others. Or maybe I just recognized that those plants and animals had always been there, deep in my heart, beloved and trusted. With the example of my mother and her parents alive inside me, I could skim right past the world’s efforts to screw a name and a law onto the things that sustain me the most.
They can’t burn me for taking a walk in the woods, I would think. Or for gardening. Or for feeding the birds. Or for planting a tree.
My father worked nights, and my mother was forbidden to work or to have friends, so we were alone with her a lot. Her parents would pick us up and we’d load the dogs and us kids and my mom into the station wagon, along with a giant cardboard banana box full of provisions, and drive maybe an hour or so to a forest preserve in the Chicago area. There are hundreds of such preserves. Some are prairies, some are decorous parks with shaved lawns and picnic benches and cast iron barbecue grills, some are wild woods whose paths were, in those days, just dirt … no asphalt, no graveled jogging paths, just dirt. Mud, if it rained. It was heaven on earth.
I suggest you think about that phrase very specifically. It’s the key to everything real in my world.
The car door would open, we would lug the provisions and crappy aluminum folding chairs to the chosen picnic bench, and then my mother and her mother would turn us loose. My brother and I and the dogs would go helling off into the woods, following every path that offered, looking for edible berries and fruits, wondering at the fungi, hoping to see a raccoon or a skunk or a woodpecker, throwing sticks for the dogs, clambering up hills and down ravines, soaking our feet and finding crawdads in the creeks, or just running, running in the woods.
Nowadays I walk. I see and hear more. I smell the woods better. The woods enter me through all my senses if I’m standing still.
So, of course, do the mosquitoes. There’s always something.
That, I think, was a big part of what made nature realer to me than any religion could have been: the mosquitoes and the mud and rain and poison ivy and the things you shouldn’t eat. Nature wasn’t manufactured. It didn’t have all the sharp edges milled off and painted. No chrome cross, no smooth pew, no carefully printed and illustrated list of official prayers and songs, no indoor plumbing.
Nature pretty much ignored us. We yodeled and ran about and picked berries and climbed trees and nature paid us no mind. We marveled at lady’s slipper or jack-in-the-pulpit or mayapple, and we knew not to eat that one big green berry, and we were careful not to pester hornets or damage the big stands of mushrooms where they erupted from the soil. Nature could kill us, break our ankles, make us vomit, or give us a nasty rash, and nature wouldn’t even notice.
Instead, we noticed. We found the fallen sparrow. We looked for the rainbow. We attended the wars of ants, but we didn’t have to intervene in order to feel validated or loved by our creatrix. Knowing it was happening was our reward, our validation.
At the end of the afternoon, my mother would whistle for us, and we’d come back to the picnic table on the lawn with “squaw wood” to cook our weenies and marshmallows.
With my mother’s family gone, I share all this with my husband. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a building and a day where we could come together with other people and confess our love for all of this, sing some songs, eat more weenies and marshmallows. But that would be littlifying the enormity of nature.
She might poison us, or drown us, or carry our houses away in the wind, or bury us in molten lava, but she will never leave us, or threaten to put us out of heaven. Whether we die unregarded in a crevasse while mountain-climbing, or in a hospital bed surrounded by a lot of very expensive attention, we are part of her, and she is part of us. We can’t lose her. We can’t be excommunicated from her. Our faith in her and our understanding of her don’t matter to her. She knows she owns us. She takes us for granted. In death as in life, we are part of her system, which is so big that we are not the center of it.
It seems to me that some people cannot be comforted by this knowledge. They have to construct a different system, one where they are the center and crowning achievement, the end of creation. It often seems to me that all of human endeavor is an attempt to claim a bigger place than the one we were born into, to demand more attention than our species warrants, to devour all, to “find a use”–a human use–for everything, everything. We remake our environment until it is immaculately unnatural. Or we try.
So far, that’s not working. Thank goodness.
I’d still like to plumb the first mystery my grandfather left me. Why am I different? What can I do with this difference, besides try not to annoy other people with it?
But those are questions I think every human being asks themselves, at some time or another. Maybe an ant here or an ant there pauses in the middle of a war and asks itself, What am I doing here?
I suspect it wouldn’t be good for our egos to know.
Copyright 2011 by Jennifer Stevenson who has granted Kinrowan LTD exclusive online rights (except for her use on her website). All print rights are retained by the author as is any other use such as ePub publication. Re-use by other parties in any form online is prohibited.