The river is wind-rippled and sun-silkened, there are ducks along its banks. My husband and I paddle against the tide, ducking our heads under a low bridge where wind-chased leaves patter like footsteps.
Beyond this narrow passage, the water is wide open and we are the lone canoe—the waterfowl our only company. We watch as they glide low in the silvery ripples, unruffled by our presence. Above, the clouds are plump—at times covering the sun, but mostly framing it, like fat white oven mitts cupping a corn muffin.
The wind is gusty and against us, making our paddle strokes less than seamless. Our muscles burn. And when the river branches into narrow marshland, dense with cattails, we dead-end in a shallow channel, our exhausted arms drawing up paddles of muck.
We try to turn back, but instead, we stop—stunned by the whish of shoots and stalks strung like a bow in the wind. How to describe the sound? Ebullient worship in an unknown tongue? An extended happy sigh? A congregation set to clapping? The river channel has become to us a chapel, and we linger at its door, our heads bowed, our souls roused in the sudden splendor.
This seems like something familiar—a song from my childhood. I remember riding my bike along a mud-drenched marsh just like this one, finding it eerie and foreboding. The neighborhood kids and I always wandered freely in the local woodlots, but in the marsh, there was nowhere to set our feet, no trails to beckon. Who knew what lurked among those stalks standing six feet tall?
I often heard those cattails rustled by the wind on days just like this one, when the air was pungent with sea salt and wood smoke. I look back and I think of its beauty, yet I didn’t think of it as beauty then, or even as music. Rather, it was something spectral, disturbing. What spirits wove in and out of those reeds? I always looked back as I rode past on my bike, afraid of what might rush out to chase me.
I didn’t know back then that the wind-rustling was a metaphor for the Spirit. I didn’t know back then that the Spirit might be good, that the Ghost in the marsh, so to speak, might be holy. I hadn’t yet heard the words of Christ to the Pharisee who came after dark: The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
I also hadn’t yet discovered Christina Rossetti’s poem:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the leaves bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
When I was no longer a child, but an adult and a mother, I read Rossetti’s poem aloud to my own children, and in a fumbling way tried to teach them about the link between the poem and the Word, between the seen and the unseen, between what our eyes can look at in the natural world and what our hearts must discern in the spirit.
The wind, you see, is the thing stirring in the reeds, in the trees, I told them. The Spirit, you see, is the wind stirring in our souls. And all Christ’s children are born of the wind; they are Spirit-born.
Back in those days, after a canoe ride like this one, my kids and I would have gone home and read up on cattails, and we would have learned that their oblong heads are really clusters of tiny brown flowers, and that those flowers are vehicles for seeds, hundreds of thousands of them to a head.
At maturity, those head-clusters burst, and all those seeds take wing, dispersed in all directions by the wind. Eventually, they fall into the water, where they float to some resting place, some spot where they sink down, take root, and hopefully flourish. A parable of replication, of life born by the wind, of life drawn up from the mud.
Time passes. How long? I’m not sure. But when my husband and I pry both our canoe and our hearts from the channel-chapel and turn around, we have the wind at our backs, rushing us back toward the dock at double-time.
Before we know it, we’re racing under that walking bridge again, and when I hear a crowd of leaves pattering across its bowed wooden surface, I can’t help but turn my head and glance back, the way I used to do as a kid. The Spirit in the marsh is good, I think, and this time, I need not be afraid.
Cover photo by Paul Jarvis.