Mystery first waylaid me as a young boy of eight or so. I was lying on my back in the grass one morning with my four beagle mutts who ran free at our old farmhouse in Indiana. I noticed the early morning sun peeking through the leaves of an old maple tree. I watched, enchanted by the dappled light. I couldn’t look away. It was as if the light was nudging some secret hollow in my soul, gently urging it awake.
Then a switch was flipped in my tender consciousness and everything I laid eyes on was shockingly vivid as if, until that moment, the lenses through which I observed the world had been out of focus. The outline of every maple leaf stood out in sharp relief as though cut with an X-Acto knife and pressed under glass. The violet lilacs were set aglow as if lit from within. Bees buzzed my mother’s peonies in synchronous patterns, weaving an invisible web that netted me and every last creature on the wide earth. The lush grass was an exquisite velvet, every blade set right. Rotting crabapples smelled of fecund life regenerating itself. An ant hoisted himself up onto a twig suspended in the grass. He walked to the very tip and extended a front leg into eternity, and then turned around to find another way.
When I looked up, the unveiled beauty was gone, the world back to its old self. How I wished it wasn’t so! A heavy blanket of melancholy pinned me where I lay. I don’t remember what I did next. I wonder if my first instinct was to gather myself up and run into the house to tell my mom. But what would I have told her? How could I have even begun to describe that mystical moment? I have spent a lifetime chasing after the bit of light revealed to me that morning, trying to grasp the invisible, to name the unnamable.
When I stumbled upon Black Elk Speaks in my teenage years, I grew certain I had been born into the wrong tradition. A white kid in 1970s Indiana, I longed to be led by my elders on a vision quest deep into the healing spiritual powers of the natural world. Then Thoreau’s description of the kinship of all created things struck the same bass chord. A hope began to take root in me that all of nature whispered of a coherent force that bound us together.
I remember reading Thoreau in my bedroom one afternoon when I decided I needed, there and then, to step out into nature with a degree of awareness that transcendentalism required. I headed to the patch of trees along Dry Branch Creek where I had idled away countless hours as a kid. As I walked over the gravel sand bar, I tried to tamp down my self-consciousness over the mini vision quest I had embarked upon. A dusting of snow laced every tree limb with finery and hid the trash that collected in the eddy below the bridge. A soft blanket of quiet muffled all the hard edges. The stillness tingled with an electricity that crawled up the flesh of my arms. The water rippled with glittering shards of light as it flowed over sandy shallows. Newly forming ice, clear as glass, reached into a still pool. Minnows darted in and out from beneath the ledge of ice.
Deer tracks were scattered alongside the creek. I traced them with my eyes to a trail winding through the scrubby trees. I followed quietly, walking into the darker woods. I was only a few steps into the trees when I spied her—a doe just six feet from me. She was already looking at me, her supple neck turned in my direction, the fear in her large brown eyes piercing me. “No, no,” I whispered, “I won’t hurt you,” holding my hands open before me in an instinctive posture of reverence. Still she stood, our eyes locked, something tactile passing between us. And then she turned and leapt, a high bounding leap, flashed her white tail, and was gone. She lit a candle in me, a calming point of flame I would return to many years later.
In my twenties I graduated with an English degree and bullshitted my way into a “real” job in a bank management training program, lying about all the imaginary accounting classes I had aced. I found a dingy apartment in a not-so-nice part of Indianapolis and worked hard to convince myself and others that I was in control and executing on my plan. Somewhere along the line, I lost the hope that whatever was whispering to me from the natural world would reveal how I was supposed to fit in. Maybe at some point I realized I would have to leave that romantic notion behind. I was no Thoreau, and the shabby East-side apartment complex was no Walden. I resolved to settle into the workaday grind. Just another young man killing his heart in order to get by.
I developed multicentric Castleman’s Disease, a rare, allegedly fatal illness, in my early thirties, upending my little family—Julie, my wife of little over a year, and my five-year-old step-daughter, Michelle—and landing us in church. Never much of a church-goer, I was not impressed by Felton Presbyterian, a seventies-style building designed on a tight budget and populated by perfectly ordinary-looking people. Not the sort of place I expected to encounter God. I was surprised when the Sunday routine became a comfort, something I found myself looking forward to. The pastor spoke of a love that was real to him in a way that made me want to get a taste of it. At times it felt like the words he read from the Bible were meant specifically for me.
During that time the natural world gathered me back into her arms. Julie and I spent many evenings in Santa Cruz Mountains where she leased a horse. She would head into the barn to tack up for a ride, and I would grab a metal lawn chair and carry it out into the field. And then I would sit and watch.
The disease and the chemo had cleaved the reaching and striving from me. I was thirsty for the low angling evening sun setting the weeds and brush aglow. Wisps of fog whispering down from the ridge above, veils of white against the purpling sky. A big bee whose body seemed too fat for his overmatched wings buzzed from one yarrow flowerhead to the next, their stems flexing with the weight of their chubby, rapturous suitor. I spied a spider web woven into a spiral of silk just inches above the ground, somehow preserved among the thundering hooves. Way down below were silent streams of cars flowing like army ants between the pods of buildings where the titans of Silicon Valley were toiling to create the next great gizmo that would change the world. It was a relief to be detached from that frenetic grabbing. I was grateful to be rocking gently in the battered metal lawn chair, taking in the great gray expanse of the bay and the East Bay hills beyond it, singed golden red by the setting sun.
Over the next few years I had two extended recoveries from my illness only to relapse again. By the time I was facing a stem cell transplant—a Hail Mary, last ditch procedure—I was clinging to those Sunday services at Felton Pres the way I clung to my beloved family and friends. Broken down and tilled up, I was fertile ground for the words of the itinerant teacher who walked his ancient desert paths two thousand years ago. The songs we sang together soothed the ragged edges of my fear. And I knew those people were praying—praying hard—for me and my girls. That was new to me, a sip of comfort late at night when I was parched for sleep.
A love was wooing me in that humble church with its shag carpet and cheap tinted glass. It felt a lot like whatever was tugging at my heart in the silence of golden meadows and the song of a cheerful creek. I was thirsty for it, seeking it in the early morning sun playing through the needles of the pines, pouring over Jesus’s words late at night beside my sleeping wife, amped up on prednisone, the glow of my booklight the last sign of life in the wide earth.
One morning I was walking on Bean Creek Road. Feeling good. Not well enough to run, but strong enough to walk a few miles. Walking the winding road beneath the towering Redwoods felt like passing down the nave of a magnificent cathedral. The voice in me that always wakes up once I get outside was happily singing, my eyes taking in all that lay before me. The white brush dabs of the flowers as I passed the rhododendron farm. A patch of blue peeking through the fog above the softball field at the Salvation Army camp. The shadows of the bridges dancing in the rippling water. Spooky mist rising from a pool in a dark bend of the creek where three old-growth Redwoods loomed.
I followed a trail leading into a ring of redwoods near the camp’s entrance, passing into the darkened interior walled by trees where I found a rugged wooden cross fashioned from old beams. Six benches cut from redwood trunks were lined up in two rows of humble pews. Wisps of fog danced high up in the ceiling formed by the canopy, wafting in and out of the cylindrical space. A simple altar—packed dirt floor and rough-hewn wood—placed in this hidden warren to worship a knobby-footed God strung of sinew and bone. I eased myself onto one of the benches and opened my hands palms-up to pray, grateful to have been led there.
Looking back on that moment now, it feels choreographed. A moment when the siren song of the natural world joined in perfect harmony with the melody Jesus had set loose in me. I don’t remember when I realized that the beauty whispering to me from wild places had been Jesus all along. It must have snuck up on me the way a new love does—you wake up one morning to discover that you have fallen in love with that person you have been seeing. A new thing has grown up in you and everything has changed. It was Jesus who first ambushed me that morning I lay with my dogs on the lawn of our old Indiana farmhouse. He pierced my soul again from the eyes of a silent, supple doe that snowy day at Dry Branch. He was speaking to me now from the ancient tales in the worn Bibles in the racks on the back of the pews at Felton Pres. He teased his way into my heart like a coy lover, offering up tantalizing glimpses of the light that blazes behind the veil, and pursued me over a long, circuitous courtship.
I don’t remember what I prayed that morning on the bench in the cathedral of Redwoods. I am sure I prayed for healing, a prayer never far from my lips. I imagine a prayer of thanks was in there somewhere—for my girls, for getting me that far. I do remember the sunlight suddenly blazing through the trees, the fog misting heavenward through the shafts of glorious light, shimmering like translucent veils. I remember smiling. Jesus was putting on a show for me again. He is the love who chased me down through the decades, wooing me, calling me home. He is the candle—the calming point of light—to which I have returned again and again.
Cover image by Daniel Tong.