Three years ago I bought Karisse a Sulcata Tortoise. She was about 5 inches from nose to tail. Now she is fully a foot long and probably weighs ten pounds. When she poops she leaves piles twice as large as our dogs! We have come to call her “the dinosaur.” Sulcata Tortoises are from sub-Saharan Africa. They do not take cold weather well, in fact, a freeze could kill her, even as large as she is. So far, she has wintered in the house, but now she is large enough we have to make other provisions. Last night I installed a “turtle house” in the yard with a heat lamp in it. The brick floor will absorb the head of the lamp and give her a place to escape the cold. If it really gets wintry we’ll have to figure out something else.
It’s a lot of bother, but in a sense, it serves us right. If we had been satisfied with the local desert tortoises we wouldn’t have to worry. They burrow underground and sleep through the cold months. But no, we had to get something exotic, and it takes exotic management of the environment to make it OK for her. It’s an odd partnership. But do we not have such odd partnerships all around? Cattle replace bison. Wheat replaces corn. Apple trees, lawns in the southwest, cities in the desert, roads across cliff faces, it’s all around us. We could even say that white people adapted to northern Europe, replace brown people, adapted to this climate. And we go to exotic efforts to “make it work.”
One exception comes to mind. God is native to the human soul and to all of creation. If accommodation of the Ground of Existence in our living feels exotic it is not due to the exotic nature of the partnership, but our own unexotic ideas of ourselves. Perhaps when we finally get it right within, the sense of “coming home” is among the truest things we ever feel.
Yesterday was the last day of Fort Bayard Days. Fort Bayard was an outpost in southwestern New Mexico established during the Indian Wars in 1866 and manned mainly by buffalo soldiers. It then became a sanatorium for Tuberculosis patients. Now many of the buildings are in disrepair, but a valiant group of history buffs are working to make it a destination worth visiting once again through the yearly Fort Bayard Days festival. For the second time now, we have held our late service there on Sunday. The Arizona Territorial Military Band was there, a volunteer group of musicians who play in typical military style. They gave a mini-concert beginning at 10 and then played for the service as well. We sang Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus and other songs with rather military imagery. I preached about army chaplain Frederick “Ted” Howden from New Mexico who died in the Bataan Death March in the Philippines because he gave away his rations to keep his men alive. For me, though his context was military, his work was Gospel, and he followed the way of his master who gave his life for his friends…
The day was a delicate balance of history, military tradition and Gospel. Some would say the first two have nothing to do with the last, but I differ. History is our story—the essence of the Christian Gospel is a story. The tradition of military chaplaincy goes back to the days of the Revolutionary War. Until the 1960’s more than half the military chaplains in the U.S. Department of Defense were Episcopalian. Whether we like it or not, that is our story, that is what brings us to the present and gives it context. If we do not know our history we are bound to repeat it—and there is plenty in our history that should not be repeated. Hence the Gospel should be brought into conversation with history and military tradition. How can people of faith be the conscience of the nation if we do not address its history? The differences between what we might say, one person of faith vs. another, is in a sense only cosmetic. The fact that people of faith bring the moral question to the story of our people is enough to make us engage it. If we do not engage it then we, as people of faith, have abdicated our responsibility and left the nation with no moral anchor.
Gospel MUST speak to history!
OK, so I dug a 3X3 foot pit and we planted a new peach tree. Then we watered the little guy until water didn’t seem to be seeping down into the hole anymore. I have this mental image of the whole, filled with soggy dirt, while the dirt around it remains dry and hard. Yesterday I dumped a bunch more water in there, and then it rained an inch over the last 24 hours. This little sucker ain’t gonna dry out even if it wants to!
Water is essential for life, and living in the desert makes that especially poignant. Watering things, then, is nurturing, life-giving, the quintessential expression of goodness. In the Amazon, where it often rains 200 inches in a year, water is not such a symbol. To bring people in out of the rain under the protection of one’s roof is nurturing, life-giving, the quintessential expression of goodness. In a land of shadows it might be to bring someone into the light. In the land of eternal sun a bit of darkness might be welcome! Water is essential for life, yes, but nurturing is relational. Relational means human. Martin Buber wrote,
After an hour’s work last night, I had a hole 3 feet deep and 3 feet wide. It was time to plant the new peach tree. Its root ball was in about a 3-gallon bucket, so it seemed overkill, but such were our instructions. The native soils of southwestern New Mexico are not known for being rich. Down went a layer of gypsum, then topsoil and compost mixed with regular soil, bone meal, more compost—we filled half the hole up again with “good stuff” for the young tree. Finally, more combination of compost and soil until it was at the right level and anchored in on all sides. Then we flooded it with water. As I put tools away the thought dawned on me that we were planting under a growing moon—an auspicious sign. It felt like we were bringing home a newborn baby! We weren’t here when the original tree was planted, but I wonder if it had such an ambitious start. It was certainly not in good health when we arrived, and its demise can’t really be a surprise. This new one, however, at only a fifth the size, with “good dirt” under it to last a few years, may do better. We can only hope. As we finished Karisse said, “My heart is happy.” We had planted a tree.
Oak trees to the ancient Irish were the axis mundi, the axle of the world, so to speak, whose tops reached for the heavens and whose roots touched the underworld. Similar poles are planted by people who haven’t lost their roots around the world, linking all the levels of being and providing access to them. Being “planted” is more than just getting one’s roots in the ground, and it’s more than being stable and located. It means being connected. The psalmist describes the righteous as “trees, planted by streams of water, whose leaf does not wither.” (Psalm 100.) In the book of Revelation, the vision of the new Jerusalem includes a river flowing out from under the throne of God, along which twelve trees are planted, whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations.” Being “planted” is about grounded relationships with those around us, both human and otherwise, living and (so-called) not living, of knowing who you are, and at the same time being open and connected in your relationships.
I have moved a lot in my life; lived in a lot of different places, but if I am “planted” then I’m good.
This Spring I looked at our ailing peach tree and decided on drastic action. The branches had become so long and spindly that two of them broke under the weight of fruit last year. It was oddly shaped and hard to net against marauding birds. I decided to take the chainsaw and bull-horn it. Karisse was appalled. “You killed it,” she said. It turned out she was right. Nothing sprang from the tips of the branches, and over the summer it became the stark residue of hard decisions.
Last week Karisse came home and said, “I bought a peach tree. It needs a hole 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep.” I figured it was time to root out the stark residue and plant new beginnings in its place. With a lot of grubbing and some hauling with a strap and my truck, the fading rootstock of the old tree bade farewell of its rootedness. There was still life in it, but we could see that it was dying as trees live—slowly. I have to admit to an inner pang of loss. Then the work began: chopping out roots, digging in hard soil, trying to enlarge the hole the old tree had left. My muscles sang and then lamented. My mind got frustrated with the slow progress. I now have a well dug 3 feet across and only 2 feet deep, but it feels like I’ve dug to China and back. This evening I’ll finish it up.
What of death and dirt? Anthony Bloom says that the word “humility” comes from the same root as “humus.” Humus is rich earth, that has swallowed up our refuse and turned it into fertilizer. Humility is the result of rooting out the residue of past decisions, well-made or otherwise, and converting the refuse to fertilizer. It involves making space in the middle of the earth for new life. Dirt is a doorway from the death of the past to the possibilities of the future, the common ground of us all from which we spring and to which we return.
Dirt is holy when it swallows death and makes fertilizer.
I just got back from a successful two-week elk hunting trip in southwestern New Mexico. It was not easy. I lost six pounds, wore blisters on my feet, got thumped and jabbed by countless cruel dead branches that knew instinctively that my one-time hair-protection on my noggin is long gone. I walked miles and miles every day, none of it flat, and most of it far from it. I got lost and spent a night on the trail. Some days I saw no elk at all, and then I flubbed an easy chance—the only one I had.
And so, I was discouraged, going through the motions but with no success, when I by chance looked up at Black Bull Mountain, towering to 8000 feet above me. I turned and looked around. I realized that I was in “the high country,” (defined locally as over 6000 ft.) and that beauty was all around. It was more than beauty though, or maybe beauty in the ancient classical sense as a gateway to Truth. My mind went back to my youth (when I did have hair-protection) and the weekends I used to spend in “the high country” (defined locally as over 12,000 ft.) when I learned that when my legs and chest seemed to be at their limits there was a life in which I shared that empowered me on levels no muscle or lung can. I remembered that there is something profoundly living in the mountains. That life came vibrantly present to me again, and a grin that started in my gut impishly challenged my discouragement. I remembered again why mountains are for me great doorways to the axis mundi that open up for the humble heart the profundities of life. Really, the more I write about it the less adequate my words feel.
So, yes, it was successful—highly so. I may not have brought back an elk, but I brought back my heart.
One would think I had enough books! And this isn’t even all of them. There are more in storage and on my Kindle I have another 152 tomes. O, I haven’t read them all, but I’m sure I’ll get around to it sometime—if I live to be 150. And to think that I just added my own contribution to the stack with five copies of my doctoral thesis that just arrived in the mail last week. Clearly, I don’t even have shelf-space for them all.
So why do I have so many books? Well, you know how it goes. I’ve collected them over the years; textbooks, interesting books, gift books, books I just gotta have, books I’ll “read someday when I’m done with all the other reading I have to do.” It’s almost a fetish—one that I just might (oh heavens!) share with academics and others too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.
Books are a status symbol—they make others think I know something about something. Books are security—if I just can’t remember where I got an idea I can always take a while and peruse them, looking for just the right quote about it. Books are ultimately food for a deep-set hunger to know, sometimes for its practical value, but sometimes for the sheer joy of knowing something. It’s a hunger that has not been satisfied by all the books on my shelves and at home and on my electronic devices.
Augustine of Hippo says all desires are ultimately a desire for God. “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”1 Maybe I secretly hope that somewhere in all my books there might be shreds of the great Divine Wisdom that will draw me more fully into the Divine Heart that I just know can be found in those around me, both human and otherwise.
1St. Augustine. The Complete Works of Augustine (48 Books) (Kindle Location 715). Amazon.com. Kindle Edition.