I rolled out my sleeping bag on the wooden planks of the log cabin porch at Morgan-Monroe State Forest in Indiana. Nestled in a wooded valley next to a loudly gurgling brook, the cabin was a century old, but I was barely thirteen. I felt much older because the other Boy Scouts and I had hiked twenty-five miles that day. The back-country sheds and shacks we had passed, with roaming cows, pigs, chickens, and assorted other creatures, must have been like the little farmsteads my people had come from many decades before in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Virginia, unlike the treeless prairie in central Illinois where I was born. The autumn splendor of the trees and hills surpassed anything I had yet seen.
The night was cool and star-studded, and the porch was more inviting to me than the dark interior of the cabin. Wherever we chose, we lay down to sleep. The attempts to whisper inside the cabin were just audible. They thought I couldn’t hear, and they were talking about me. They were telling a lie about something I had done, poking fun at it. It was something important to me, one of the first things in my life that I was really proud of doing. I was angry and ready to go in and set them straight. But the plank floor was too comfortable, and the stars were shining brightly, and I asked God how I should defend myself, and all I heard was the music of the stars and the distant whippoorwill.
The next morning I awoke before anyone else to a misty sunrise filtering through the trees. To my surprise there was a doe and fawn drinking from the brook barely twenty feet from the porch where I was lying. I had never before seen deer in the wild. They finished drinking and the doe wandered toward me and stopped at the railing and looked at me, our eyes meeting. Then she slowly turned and nudged the fawn and bounded away.
Life was good, and life has remained so. Some things are so beautiful that they erase all thoughts of the ugly. I no longer felt the need to correct the misinformation that the boys had spoken about me. Nor did I tell them about the deer. I just proceeded to fix the best breakfast outdoors that those fellows had ever eaten, and I said the blessing.
Here in the last days of autumn I look at the variety of leaves remaining on the trees and marvel at the multiple colors. Hidden within the leaves under vibrant greens thoughout the spring and summer were all of these shades of yellow, orange, red, and brown.
This is a bright sunny day for redheads. First to arrive were the little Downy woodpecker and its mate, with their black and white barred coats. Then the large outrageous Pileated woodpecker came, appearing to be the remnant of an ancient lineage. Next came the regulation Northern woodpecker, its mate wearing a rather plain tan coat except for that fierce black triangular breastplate. All of them work with amazing determination and skill, flying straight down, straight up, perching upside down, beating their heads against the grain, finding all of those tiny moving morsels, ugly to me but appetizing to them. The redheads of course include the cardinals and the tanager, whose mate still wears a luminous green coat, which I thought she would have shed for a less noticeable coat in these woods that are revealing all of her hiding places as the leaves fall.
I wonder what the insect-eaters would do with that red and yellow centipede I found yesterday? A mean-looking creature, five inches long, scurrying with uncountable legs, with biting pinchers and stingers that intimidated me. A too close encounter would send any sensible person to the Emergency Room. Would the birds have digested it, enough for several meals, or would they have left it well enough alone? More friendly encounters occur with the preying mantis and the humble walking sticks, affixed to anything stable, enjoying the last warm autumn hours. They appear to be dead until you tease them, then they will slowly respond. At six to nine inches long, the walking sticks do resemble branches, large enough for the birds to perch.
With all of these decorated creatures hanging around, I am transported to the scene last night, when the curtains of clouds suddenly revealed themselves as no clouds at all in the northern sky. They were lights, Northern Lights, shimmering in that rare dance of sunspot rays that fills the northern sky, first with the white light, that I had mistaken for clouds, then gradually revealing all the colors of the rainbow. They danced in splendor.
In a few weeks we will decorate for Christmas, but with all that we do, and as pretty as we can -make it, how can what we do compare with the extraordinary display that is already in place for all to see? Glory to God! Glory in the Highest! And the lowest.
With many record-setting warm days in a row, I’ve had an opportunity to try some of the many new trails in Northwest Arkansas. On cold days I hesitate to go where I might get lost or take a long time to return to where I can rejoin Jan. On warm days I can wander. There are more than forty miles of trails and 700 miles of roads in Bella Vista, not counting the golf course paths, and there are even more miles of trails in the contiguous cities to the south, so there are plenty of places to explore.
A new favorite is the Hidden Springs Trail that navigates a narrow steep-sided valley known as the Slaughter Pen, presumably because it was easy to drive herds of cattle from the broad plain at the top of the valley into an ever-narrowing channel until a herd would be compressed into a fenced neck before the valley broadened again. A fast, full current of water pours down the creek in the center of the valley, and the developed concrete and asphalt trail runs beside the stream for more than two miles. The stream looks and acts like one of the cold cave spring-fed streams along the Current River three hours east of here, where millions of gallons pour out of the ground every day, so it is an invitation to follow the stream until one comes to the “hidden springs” that give the trail its name.
The stream joins a couple of others below this valley where I have run for years, around Bella Vista Lake and along Little Sugar Creek. Amazingly in a couple of spots all of that water disappears below shelves of limestone, and then reappears a few hundred yards farther. Along the Hidden Springs Trail the water flows on the surface all the way and pours down some three and four feet tall falls in a few places, made even more lovely by the woods and shrubbery around them. Along the base of the rocky outcrops that line both sides of the valley, bare dirt bicycle paths run, and in several places the bicycle paths run half-way up the fifty to hundred foot cliffs or even along their top edges, providing a challenge to the experienced rider. It would be challenging enough for me to walk them, when I knew no bicycles were coming down those narrow paths, but I am content to keep walking the center until I find the source of all that water.
As I explored every day I ran a little farther up the developed trail, reaching the point where the busy stream was joined to a lazy, slower stream, and following the active one in my search for the hidden springs. Since the entry to the trail lies a half-mile beyond the parking lot, and the point where the streams converge is already a mile and a half upstream from that trail entrance, my three mile daily goal was easily surpassed in the quest. The early spring flowers, birds, and critters made it interesting, so I kept going. After two more days I could see that I was finally nearing the goal, three miles from where I started, where water poured into the creek bed.
A great blue heron stalked the small turbulent pool that fed the stream, and there was little bubbling or frothing of the water, so it must have been clear of most of the chemicals that saturate the groundwater these days, which was surprising. The source of the stream, instead of being the hidden springs I sought, was a series of large concrete vessels that served the Bentonville Sewage Treatment Plant.
I was ready to start the weed chopper and mow the strip at the sides of the Shepherd’s Gate house and driveway. Two or three mowings a season is enough to keep new trees and plants from encroaching “my” space, which is fifteen to twenty feet around the perimeter of the house. The rest of the surrounding acres remain wild woodland and take care of themselves. The engine started well, but the mounted mower whiplines did not engage. Turning off the engine I found the belt had slipped off its pulley. If I had not already been thinking about my father, this could easily have reminded me of the many times some piece of equipment broke down and delayed the work of planting or harvest or general farm maintenance.
When it came to tools my father was not the most organized. Keeping the right tool in the right location was a challenge, and as a result there were usually a dozen places where that tool might be. The tool house was well-organized, thanks to the my older brother’s intervention, but tools tended to migrate from there to every tractor, barn, crib and shed which had its own specialized tool collection. It was always frustrating to run into a task that required the tool that was somewhere on the other side of the farm. In my case on this day, the small tool box I had with me held only pliers, inadequate to the task of removing the cover to reinstall the belt. The plumbing kit, ready for the bathroom fixture installation tasks that I had planned for this trip, had wrenches that were much too large to reach the bolts I had to loosen.
Then I thought of the small toolbox Dad gave me to use at Shepherd’s Gate. It had a few well-worn basic tools. Did I remember that it had a driver and socket set? I looked and it had only two sockets, but what were the chances that these were the ones that would fit? I took them out to the chopper, and one fit the larger bolts, and the other one fit the smaller bolts perfectly! Thereafter the job was a snap. Thanks, Dad.
This is hardly evidence convincing to anyone of a surrounding cloud of witnesses or an angelic host. Plenty of times I have had to learn from my oversights, go out and buy or borrow the necessary tool, or take that extraordinary amount of time to complete the simplest task. But this time Dad was definitely present, patiently gazing over my shoulder, and chuckling, so I add it to the list of revealing moments when I speak my grateful dues and recognize the continuing influence of the unseen. Thank you, Abba!
For forty-some years I took church youth groups on trips, accompanied by several adults, of course, on short trips, long trips, and in-between trips, for service, for learning, for recreation, for fellowship. The trip that took us to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park included some of all of these purposes. We devoted four days to work on houses that needed help—painting, repairing, building a wheelchair ramp. Then we had one full day and two nights in the Smokies.
We stayed in the national park campground. I gave the usual warnings, that included not keeping food of any kind in your tent. We would even keep the food we prepared together locked in the cars, out of reach of the bears, we hoped, though we had heard stories of bears breaking into cars. I repeated those instructions several times ahead of the trip, put them in writing, repeated them before we entered the park, and in the campground before we set up tents.
Shortly after we had our tents and equipment set up, sure enough, a bear came ambling through the campground. Everyone scurried out of the way, into the cars or behind them, giving the bear plenty of room. That bear seemed intent on a mission, heading straight toward one tent, which he circled for several minutes, stopped at the front tent flap, and poked his nose through the flap into the tent. He seemed to be pondering whether he should enter it or not, whether he dared to get into trouble with the park ranger or not, whether it would be worth it or not. Finally, he withdrew from the tent and continued on his way toward the deeper woods on the other side of the campground.
I gathered the group together at that point and asked the girls, whose tent it was, what food they had hidden inside their tent. They shyly admitted that they had candy bars stored in their knapsacks.
“Didn’t I tell you that there were bears here, they had a keen sense of smell, and they enjoyed candy best of all?”
“We thought you were just kidding,” one of them answered.
Hiking a mountain trail brings to mind distant stunning and beautiful vistas, but smaller sights near at hand can also impress. A tree-shaded slope covered with ferns as far as the eye could see was my first unforgettable vista. On another slope bright red strawberries were growing everywhere; being wild they didn’t have much flavor, and the fact that they were overgrown by a beautiful three-leafed, red-stemmed vine also made me wary to enter the patch.
Look closer and you see the varieties of color in wildflowers, each adjusted to different altitudes in the landscape, and in a seasonal succession. Trillium in red, purple, pink, yellow, and white, in various sizes, some as large as a foot and a half across, are always easily identifiable. The daisy family is well-represented almost everywhere. Others need that reference book that is too heavy to carry on a long-distance hike. What was that 1 ½ inch, four-petaled, red blossom with a yellow center, that stood on a four feet tall stalk, with leaflet whorls every eight inches? I don’t know, but there were a lot of them half-way up Burnett’s Mountain.
The lichens that make their homes on boulders are as impressive on a miniature scale as any multi-acre landscaped garden. Every color is represented in the microcosm, and the boulders appear to be covered with these multi-colorful furs, velvet black underneath where something has peeled a section loose.
From a distance we saw what looked like a kindergarten of plastic children’s toys. The objects were perfect primary colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple, in rounded and flattened shapes. As we came closer we saw that they were varieties of mushrooms clustered in this one damp, warm area. We just stood and looked at them in amazement.
The birds deserve attention in the arena of smallness, though the vultures, hawks, owls, and falcons are often sizable. The birdcalls of early morning resonate throughout the woods like an orchestra. Most of the sounds then and throughout the day remain nameless to my untutored ears. Bluebirds, tanagers, pileated and downy woodpeckers, grosbeaks, and warblers were easy enough to recognize, when we took the time to look at them.
A copperhead was the only snake we saw on several trips, though he had been sunning himself on a forest service lane, run over by a truck, and appeared to be dead. We didn’t check too closely. My notes make mention of only one insect—a two inch long, one inch wide, black beetle, that rooted and dug into the ground at every foot of its course, as if surveying the ground; it was headed away from our tent, and I was grateful.
Our Arkansas Ozark house stands on a promontory in the midst of several wooded acres and tree-lined ravines. The area was mostly clear-cut over a hundred years ago, and the old fence-lines and ruts from the lane of a farm still stretch through the land less than fifty steps from the house. The land was mostly abandoned for natural seeding and return of the oaks, maples, cedars, southern pines, sassafras, wild cherries, redbuds, and dogwoods that now dominate the area. Ferns and mayapples cover the forest floor. Where there are small sunlit clearings, black raspberries, tickseed, red poker, and dozens of other wildflowers bloom their hearts out.
The raspberries filled with white blossoms this May, more abundant than ever, although I never saw a pollinator buzzing through all the days that I stayed there. I wonder what kind of harvest we will see from all of those blossoms?
Rains finally came in substantial amounts in May, filling the old valley lake eight miles upstream, when it had previously shrunk to the level of a few small ponds joined by the old course of Little Sugar Creek. The herons seemed to enjoy the return of abundant water, along with a variety of geese and ducks. As I ran around the lake path, all varieties of birds seemed to be singing their gratitude for the water.
The last six years have seen perennial droughts in the area, and the most obvious casualties are the oldest and largest of the oaks. Six red, black, and burr oaks within sight of the house must have sprouted soon after the deforestation years, and stood for the hundred years since. Their progeny surround us with their smaller, younger trunks, six to ten inches in diameter. That the roots of any tree can grab into the cherty clay and grow large seems a wonder. The drought has left the smaller trees, but each of the older ones have died, leaving their huge trunks as hulking memorials.
Meanwhile, more pines have sprouted, seemingly hardy in spite of the drought. They appear to be saying to us, “We were here first, and we shall return.” The old photos of the valley show the dominance of Southern Yellow Pine, and here and there one stands that must have escaped the ax, but who knows what the next forest will look like, as hotter, drier temperatures intervene?
I would like to have kept the woods just as it was when I first entered it sixteen years ago. Now it is markedly different, and I recognize that nothing that I could have done would have halted the inevitable change that each year brings.
At Camp Quest in 1963, I was a church camp counselor in charge of an open-sided “hogan” full of junior-age boys. I was 16. Recruiting older folks to serve as primitive camping counselors was difficult; I was recruited in the last days before the camp began. I had a lot of camping experience for a 16 year old, but I was still a green recruit. Getting ready for the night’s sleep, I had not reminded the boys to put their candy or foodstuffs into a suspended container in a tree, away from the hogan.
Campfire over and extinguished, last group walk through the dark woods to the latrine accomplished, boys and girls separated to their own hogans, boys bedded down, lights out, quiet hour imposed first, second, and third times, we entered into what may have been my favorite part of the day—sleep time. Not to say that spending sixteen active hours with 9, 10, and 11 year-olds wasn’t fun, after a fashion. One of the older counselors, a minister in his fifties with a dozen children at home, said that the slow pace of this camp in its rustic natural setting made this week one of his favorite in the year. He had volunteered for it several years in a row. I wouldn’t have described the camp quite that way, but it was O.K.
That night I woke sometime after midnight, as I often did, and lay on my cot quietly, enjoying the soft snores of my nestlings along with the crickets, tree frogs, cicadas, and a distant whippoorwill, when I also heard some rustling under one of the boy’s cots. The moonlight shone into a corner of the hogan, so it was not difficult to see when I peeked out of my sleeping bag over the edge of my bed. The black fur was nearly invisible, of course, but the white stripe was quite obvious. The skunk evidently enjoyed the treat as it rustled its wrapper, and then moved on to another knapsack to find something equally enticing.
If my prayers with the children up to that moment had been rote, forced, uninvolved, and lame, they gained a new fervency. May none of these boys wake up. May the skunk eat its fill and leave as uneventfully as it came. May the children’s dreams all remain blissful and undisturbed. I don’t know how long I remained in that state of sanctified solicitation, but it seemed like hours. Finally, the skunk moseyed away. I added my thanks and relaxed. When the boys woke up the next morning and discovered that an invader had devoured their candy stashes, I had to tell them what had happened.
I didn’t have any trouble persuading the boys or the girls to put their secreted snacks into the tree storage container the next night. Of course that also meant they had to share what they had hidden away.
A colorful bird, a little smaller than a cardinal, landed in the oak tree near the bee’s nest. Bright red and round-headed, shading to orange then to yellow on its back and underside, its wings were definitely green mixed with gray. His bill was light colored, almost white, concave underneath, and he used it effectively to snag bees. If not for the standard bird shape, I would have thought he was a parrot escaped from the tropics.
He ate his fill before he left, and I proceeded to consult the books. A juvenile summer tanager, they said. When he will reach his full growth, his coat will be bright red with black wings. That I would have recognized, though I would have had to look carefully to distinguish him from his scarlet tanager cousin.
I thought I had seen the last of him, but he made several more visits. Later that day, when I had backed the car from the garage, he flew down in all of his glory and sat on the ground next to the car. I rolled my window down and heard him say, Pik-i-tuk, very quietly, so I tried to say the same thing back to him. Pik-i-tuk-i-tuk, he said, and so did I. Then, quite a bit louder, as if freed by having an audience, he said, Pik-i-tuk-i-tuk-i-tuk-i-tuk-i-tuk-i-tuk-i-tuk-i-tuk. He didn’t seem to mind that I lost track of how many i-tuks he spoke, so we continued talking for a while. He and I had reached an understanding. Day by day he continued to visit, though our conversations dwindled; they never had quite the spark of the first one. Still he seemed to be glad for the contact and the meal.
Perching on a branch near the hive, he practiced his craft, measuring the flight of bees, their speeds and trajectories. First he would dive and miss, or sit with his beak bobbing back and forth in time with the passing bees. Soon his fluttering wings would create “Z” and “W” patterns in the air as he managed to outfly the bees and catch up with them. You could see him learning to strategize his approaches.
I appreciate any friendly contact with an adolescent, and it seemed that having a readiness to listen and try to stay abreast– so to speak– with his willingness to talk, or not, was something he appreciated too.
Day by day his color seemed to change, more red, less orange and yellow and green, and darker wings. We watch respectfully the maturation and experience and, we hope, the gaining of appropriate confidence to match the needs of the day. At points we can remember when we’ve been in the same place; at others we understand that they have been where we never have been, and we learn as children from them.
This was more than a bright spot in these days, when other moments were not soright or encouraging. Thank you, God, that you find ways to refresh the spirit! Such grace that a visit from a young summer tanager can fill a person up.
May 17, 2008, on the Appalachian Trail
Bob and Shelly joined us last night at the Woods Hole Shelter, and spoke about their experiences hiking the Pacific Rim Trail and the Rocky Mountain Trail. They labelled the Appalachian Trail the hardest of all, and Bob’s working on his third completion of it. We took him at his word. Fifteen to twenty years younger than Dave and me, Bob is a musician and a teacher by trade. He published a book of camp songs titled Hiking a Round. The problem with the AT, he said, was the impossibility, most of the time, of seeing the vistas and the horizon, due to the large amount of forest cover, and the moisture in clouds and fogs, unlike the drier and sparsely forested West.
Dave and I hiked from there to the top of Blood Mountain, one of the places and one of the clear days that contradicted Bob’s claims. Blood Mountain has the reputation of being the busiest section of the Georgia AT, and this weekend lived up to that. All the way up and down, we met assorted hikers and groups of all kinds. If there was anything between us and the gorgeous views of the distant landscape, it was more likely to be people than trees or clouds.
We ate our lunch on the mountaintop, broad enough for hundreds of hikers to find secluded spots and limitless views, enjoying the sunshine, lying on the rock shelves, and listening to the music of birds and breezes, punctuated by people sounds, of course.
On the way down the north slope, we met one extended family group of about twenty, with their grandpa bringing up the rear. As we passed, he said to us, “We ought to be old enough to know better, but I love doing this.” Huffing and puffing his way up, he and everyone else in his group appeared to be carrying heavy loads of picnic gear. I asked how heavy, and he said about seventy pounds. That made our thirty-five pound backpacks seem a lot lighter.
On the whole I was glad we had taken the opposite route to theirs, as well as carried half the weight. The ascent of the south slope was gradual, green and flower-covered, and much easier. The descent on the north face was steeper and rockier. After the spectacular scenery of the first several hundred yards, the rest of the descent was tricky, with improvised steps and steep sections, so we were both glad to be going down, not up, with just ourselves, not a group of kids to supervise, with light packs, not heavy ones. Their descent would be back the same way they came, and a lot of what they carried would be inside them, not in their packs. More power to them! We all would have a fine and full day.