A Soft Place to Land

Most hikes, I am looking up, scanning for birds or other unidentified tiny fliers, but if the snow is deep underfoot, my eyes tend toward the ground directly ahead. I’m not as steady as I used to be and find each year brings less willingness to fall; more caution and dependence upon, not one, but two sturdy walking poles. What lies beneath could twist an ankle or cause a slip, maybe a slide, so I look down, and before I know it, am distracted by the beauty at my feet and thoughts of personal calamity fade – for little while.

I have taken an obsessive amount of photos of seeds and their pods, feathers, lichen-coated twigs, and leaves that have fallen on snow.

Many times, I begin to trudge past reminding myself I already have too many pictures of these things.

But, a few steps forward, and I stop, roll my eyes over my weakness for all things golden, brown, soft, hard, and squishy against a sparkling white backdrop. I shrug, turn back, position my camera, focus and shoot a spiny pod,

a swollen green cluster of lichen,

or the luminous leaf of Fagus grandifolia – the American beech.

Beech leaves are a winter delight. They are hangers-on. If you’ve ever walked in a cold Ohio wood and felt surrounded by a glow, or stopped to listen to the clatter when the wind picks up, you’ve likely been in the company of beech trees.

It’s called marcescence when a tree holds its leaves through the chilly seasons, and beech trees aren’t the only ones to do it, they just happen to be my favorite.

Beech leaf-keepers are usually young. In the fight for their lives, surrounded by tall and spreading behemoths, some as old as 400 years,

the little beeches know what they need and that they’ll have to be savvy to get it — light, food, and air aren’t just handed to a small tree in a big, old forest. Grandparents make for stiff competition but these whippersnappers are ready.

Like a camper, banging pots and pans to keep from being devoured by a bear, young beech clack their leaves in the wind, causing winter-hungry deer a degree of uncertainty about munching any part of them.

A young beech surrounded by its own leaves and others.

Like me, these trees know it’s wise to save a snack for later. I don’t know about you, but the only time I don’t really consider snacking is, pretty much, when I’m asleep. I break my fast after about eight hours, but a beech stands dormant for many months. Those brown and brittle leaves, don’t look like much of a treat, but come spring, when the tree needs fuel for growth, they’ll be laid to rest and all the nourishment stored inside will seep into the earth in just the right spot for the little tree’s roots to soak it up.

Speaking of soaking things up, those winter leaves also collect snow that melts and follows the path of drooping leaf to the base of the tree. Could be those stubborn adherents are the perfect watering cans.

But, not all leaves hold fast. Some lose their grip and fall, willing or not.

I have fallen a few times. Once, in younger days, when I used to run through the forest instead of hike, more focused on swimsuit season than the glorious mysteries around me, I tripped over a tree root and slid downhill. Well, I bounced face first over the rest of the tree roots in my path. When the ride ended, I crawled to the base of that very tree – I think a beech, actually – and sat with my back against it, loyal dog at my side, until I felt able to stand and limp back to my car.

As I said, my steps are ginger these days, the thought of falling, terrifying. I know a tumble now won’t just mean a day of soreness but could crack a hip or knee; could bring the end of hiking, altogether. I’ve experienced a long period of being unable to hike and admit to a fear of facing that loss again. It was a years long illness the first time. I used to lie in bed, close my eyes, and visualize familiar trails. I tried to picture them one step at a time, not wanting to forget a single landmark. As I mentally traced those paths, I remember tears making paths of their own, tracing my cheek, pooling on my pillow, marking my agony.

Hard times come for all of us. We all get sick or injured, lose jobs, lose those we love, relationships fail. We want to hang on and hold fast to our faith – to God – in those times, but often grow brittle, clacking against our circumstances, making noise, being irritable and short-fused in a twisted effort to protect ourselves from more pain. We fight to hold on to things we know were always temporal, wanting to drink in every last drop of the only life we can see, taste, and touch. I admit, that was often my response to illness. My forced confinement to the little indoors sparked frustration and anger. Everyone else was still attached, still part of a group, but my life became, of necessity, isolated. It was difficult to know what my purpose was. I did nothing, and I did it for days, weeks, months. I was cold. So cold, it hurt. My toes and fingers felt like they might snap off. And I complained. I moaned, cried, and, when I could muster the energy, pounded my pillow,

Today, I am back on the trails, and see in those bright leaves the way I wanted to be. The way I want to be.

In winter, when things are cold and quiet, when light is scarce, beech leaves can still find a soft place to land.

Alone, on a bed of snow, fallen well before their companions, they appear at rest, and just looking at them, calms me. In their brilliant, peachy phosphorescence, they light the way.

Some say life is fragile, but I don’t think so because I walk through forests and pay attention to things like leaves. No matter a leaf’s circumstance, it’s all about life, not just its own, but that of its mother tree, the ones surrounding, the ones that emerge with help from the nutrients it adds to the soil. It fell earlier than others but not before it was supposed to, not before it was necessary. Its purpose remains, which was, and is, life.

I was fallen, well before my companions, just as beech leaves can’t help but let go, submitting to sickness was not optional. It overtook me. I couldn’t see it, but even in – or especially in – that state, my purpose hadn’t changed. To glorify God and enjoy him forever, I didn’t need to be healthy. I didn’t need to hike. It really, really felt like I did, but I didn’t. I just needed to rest and teach those around me to do the same.

I needed to love the Life-giver more than anything else. I look back, and fear I didn’t light the way for my kids, didn’t teach them how to handle adversity with grace, joy, or gratitude. I fear I was only concerned with myself and not those around me, those I claim to love deeply. I know, sometimes, I was a hanger-on, hanging on to all the wrong things.

You’ve seen a leaf fall. It’s a gentle descent and a soft landing, but not an easy process. Like everything in nature, it’s about survival. Leaves are expelled, excised from the tree — pushed away. In autumn, cells grow and collect where the leaf stem meets branch forming what’s called an abscission layer. Even the name sounds harsh. But think what would happen if trees refused to let go. The water inside those leaves’ cells would expand and rupture when frozen, so no photosynthesis come spring, that would mean no food. The weight of snow and the strength of winter winds blasting against those leaves would cause branches to fracture and break away. By end of summer, many leaves are suffering insect infestations or other kinds of disease, dropping them is tree pandemic 101.

I think Christ is offering the same to me – not an easy process, and okay, maybe a rough descent, but the promise of a soft landing does wait for me, and I am meant to hold fast to this.

There is much in my life, that needs to be abscised, excised, pushed away, things that weigh me down, keep me from real and full life. Maybe beech trees wish they could cut those leaves loose. I often wish I could do that with my sin – just cut it off, cut it out, and walk away, never to be scarred by my actions, thoughts, or desires again – never to scar anyone else.

Isaiah 48:4 is God’s message to the people of ancient Israel, but this verse in particular seems apropos of little old me. “Because I know that you are obstinate and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass . . .” Stubborn, stiff-necked, and hard headed, I hang onto things that damage me, things that rob me of nourishment and growth. But, somehow, even those things, God uses for my good and his glory. Somehow, he makes beauty from ashes, and mourning, he turns to joy.

All the difficulties we endure are like those dead leaves, they seem useless but aren’t. They protect us from thinking we’re all that. When God allows that extra weight, that constant rattling for a time, we remember that we aren’t really in control. It’s so easy, in our day-to-day, to forget that. We choose and schedule our work and leisure. We plan our pregnancies, college, weddings. We’re in control, right? Nope, not even a little, and that shouldn’t be hard to grasp, but, unless you know God, and sometimes if you do, it can be hard to find comfort in it.

Isaiah 48:10 says God is using the afflictions of his people to refine them. Beech trees don’t waste the death that dangles from their branches. Those leaves protect, water, and eventually feed and allow them to mature. As we endure, we store up grace and mercy for others and learn ways to help those around us when their time of struggle comes.

A soft landing, water to keep us pliable, to expand our hearts and refresh those around us; food to keep us growing. All this, God gives so when our time to suffer, even our time to pass from this world, comes we will still be all about life. — hangers-on, clinging to the One who made us and sustains us, who uses us for His glory and the good of all. Christ never lets go. Even when I am dormant, not growing, not drawing near, he waits and pursues.

We cling to Christ to protect our hearts from doubt, pride, fear; to gain wisdom to serve and to sustain ourselves in a world full of foolishness.

We cling to Christ until we are so full of living water that it has to spill out, follow its determined path to quench the hearts around us, and return again and again to the source, so we never run out.

We cling to Christ, but, inevitably, we fall. Even in our descent, we stay close and keep looking up. We don’t lose hope because we land in a place of charity, a place of the sweetest mercy. Even in our failures and weaknesses, that bed of grace will allow us to light the way, to nourish the weary hiker who feels the next step may be too much.

We fall, succumb, and in doing this, let go our fear. We rest, drawn into the source of life.

Makers, All

In a cave in Indonesia, hand prints embellish a wall. Child-sized and full grown, compact and stocky, long and graceful, all captured in an earthy-red collage. Thousands of years ago, maybe a family like mine, stretched out their fingers, pressed their palms flat, and painted around each digit, hand, and wrist. When I look at photos of them, I of course, remember pressing my own palm onto paper, fingers stiff and still as I sealed the shape inside a wiggly line of waxy color.

I wish I could place my, now grown, hand over their prints; imagine the warmth their hands held in life, the scars, callouses, and wrinkles. I want to acknowledge what I share with them and with everyone from all of time and every place.

We are makers, giving color, form, and representation to the things we dream up.

Turn on the television, browse social media, and you’ll find makers competing, instructing, and inspiring. Even now, in the midst of a global pandemic, craft stores declare themselves essential and thrive as people weave, stitch, glue, and nail together to help alleviate the feeling that everything may be coming apart.

Making is a soothing motion. It frees the mind from dense and despairing thoughts or expresses pain too heavy to bear, and helps us endure suffering.

It’s also often an act of whimsy, of pure, silly joy.

We produce from new materials, thrilled by a clean canvas, neatly wrapped skein of yarn, crisp yard of fabric, or a bare, brown piece of ground.

We restore and repurpose. When presented a worn piece of furniture, we’re eager to scrape off the old and brush on the new.

We create from paper, wood, metal, toilet tissue rolls, macaroni – nothing is off limits to the innovative, and we’re certainly that.

We carve out nooks, filling them with more supplies than we’ll use in a lifetime and designate these dens of possibility, “makerspaces.”

We love potential, hope, and renewal; are exhilarated by mistakes or failures transformed to beauty. These things are our stories, after all, the stuff we’re made of.

When I make something, I begin by hovering. Like a Bombyliidae – or as it’s more commonly known, a bee fly – suspended over a flower, I am moving but not going anywhere.

I hang, shifting only slightly, thinking about my next move, about color, shape, usefulness, and style. Only when ready do I execute the first cut, cast on the first stitch; only then, do I drink in the sweet pleasure of making.

But also, like the bee fly, who is not really a bee, I’m an imitator, a maker who has been Made, a creator, Created; Imago Dei — in the image of God — a God who hovers and starts with a blank slate:

The earth was formless and empty and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of them. (Genesis 1:2)

A God who begins with new materials:

For I am about to do something new. See I’ve already started! Don’t you see it? I’ll make a pathway through the wilderness.



I’ll create rivers in the dry wasteland.

The wild animals in the fields will thank me, the jackals and the owls too, for giving them water in the desert. Yes. I’ll make rivers in the dry wasteland, so my chosen people can be refreshed. (Isaiah 43:19)

A God who delights in transforming damaged goods into treasures, and deep, deep sorrow into happiness and hope:

To all who mourn in Israel, 
he'll give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of grief,
festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they'll be like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory. (Isaiah 61:3). 


But especially it seems, a God who loves to restore the old and worn: 

In his kindness God called you to share in his forever glory by means of Jesus. So after you’ve suffered a little while, he’ll restore, support, and strengthen you, and place you on a firm foundation. (1Peter 5:10)

You have allowed me to suffer much hardship, but you’ll restore me to life again and lift me up from the depths of the earth. (Psalm 71:20)

These similarities between his making and mine are, in part, why I believe I’ve been dreamed-up and designed.

Goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, my vision and skills pale in comparison. While I can lift a stone from a creek bed and paint it, I can’t make a stone. No creation of mine will ever breathe. As I said, I’m an imitator. And, unlike God, my making – and yours – can’t always even be called “good.” Our creations indicate something about what we treasure or want, and we don’t always treasure or want the best things.

But, Romans 1 says that God’s creation tells us something about him too. His invisible qualities, his character, are expressed through his making, and his stuff is good, in fact, very good. I never spend time outside without seeing something that reminds me of him, his gospel, or my own walk of faith, and I spend a lot of time outside. It’s easy to surmise, from creation, what matters to God.

The heavens proclaim his glory; the skies, his craftsmanship.

Night after night they make him known.

Day after day they continue to speak;

without a sound or word; their voice is never heard.

Yet their message has gone out to all the earth,

and their words to all the world.

God has made a home in the heavens for the sun.

It bursts forth like a radiant bridegroom after his wedding.

It rejoices like a great athlete eager to run the race.

The sun rises at one end of the heavens and follows its course

to the other end.

Nothing can hide from its heat.

(Psalm 19:1-6)

Wordlessly, creation pours out evidence of design, and by default, Designer. It displays power, compassion, and intimate knowledge of every creature’s need. These are the things important to him — his glory is for our good.

Winds are his messengers, ruffling our hair, filling our lungs, thrilling and scaring us, grabbing our attention.

Flames are his servants, purifying forest and prairie – nothing can hide from his heat.

Water rushes through ravines reaching all the thirsty creatures. Birds congregate beside it to fluff, sing, and drink their fill. He gives grass for livestock, trees for food and beauty. He lets us garden, reaping good things to eat, to make us happy, soothe our aches and pains. Day and night, it never stops – the provision, the proclamation of the presence of a Maker. It tells us God treasures everything he’s made and that he longs for all of it to be fully alive. (Psalm 104)

According to Scripture, we’re to master creation. But what does that mean? For Christians, as in all things, we’re to be like Christ, so what sort of master is he?

Come to me, all who labor, who are burdened, and I’ll give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you; learn from me, for I’m gentle and humble,

and you’ll find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

(Matthew 11:28-30)

If honest with ourselves, we’re not often motivated by a desire to see creation flourish, but mostly, to sate our own insatiable cravings. Though imitators of one who is love and truth, as with all imitations we’re imperfect and often use our abilities in selfish, destructive ways.

Remember the Bombyliidae? If you’re like me, after you read this, you may be curious and do some research. concluding that every metaphor falls apart when you learn the bee fly is, kind of, ruthless. They hover over bee nests, and with a flick of their abdomens, drop their spawn inside where their offspring devour both the nourishment the bee has set aside and the babies it was meant for. Bee flies, like all of nature, look out for number one. And yes, I believe my metaphor holds.

Sometimes, I’ll write about the ways we’ve distorted our role as caretakers and how we can do better. It ought to be humbling to know we’ve been favored, given the necessary gifts to care for the life that takes care of us. Nature is surely vulnerable to our choices, but arrogance forgets that we are vulnerable too, dependent upon the water, air, and soil; reliant on the tiniest insects.

I Love Hiking!

Wait. What about hiking? I love hiking!

I will write about it. Not a guide to the best trails, no tips about difficulty level, length, or which spots have flushing toilets versus those holes-in-the-ground, but I’ll write about the things I observe, like lichen, sparrows, dirt, grass, feathers, and Bombyliidae. I’ll wax about Sycamores, ravines, dragonflies, and hummingbirds. I’ll indite the virtues of prairies, bats, grasshoppers, tadpoles, and spiders.

A final fyi — I believe God created. I don’t know how, though, so if you’re here for an amalgamation of current scientific theory with the narrative of Scripture, you’re going to be disappointed — or relieved — when it never happens. I love science, I’ll share my limited knowledge of it, but Genesis 1 and 2 don’t discuss photons, cell division, photosynthesis, or the gaseous content of the air, so I won’t ever feel the need to use science to try and “prove” God created. As makers, we like to know how, but I don’t think “how” is the point, not the Bible’s point, anyway. God’s relationship with his creatures, his friendship with us, and our response to him, to all he’s made, seems the point to me and will be my focus.

So, this is my guide, my creationist’s guide to hiking; to how we have – sometimes – stone-cold, bee fly hearts, but by grace, can be dragonflies, escaping our hideous exoskeletons to fly lovely and free. I’ll walk through exhibits of God’s work, tour his makerspace, and think out loud about what it all means — how flora, fauna, and faith connect.

Every created thing tells the story of its Maker, and I’m no exception. I hope you’ll read my stories.

Amy

Emerge, rise up, reach up, find warmth, cool rain,
Stretch low, deep down into soft, quiet, dark.
Find nourishment, grow, expand,
Spread Out!
One branch, only one, weakens,
Wind strengthens, breaks you, 
just a little at first.
Summer comes and you are brave again, 
feeling forever is yours.
Autumn is here -- death tries to hang on, 
you push it away - for awhile - it floats, rests at your feet.
A crack, split, jagged break,
In your height, you grow hollow, 
but you are a home.
Fuzzy, feathered babies blink big eyes, warm in the hole left by your suffering,
Soon they'll fly because your affliction made room for their life.
You fall, over time sink into damp, become loamy earth. 
You emerge, reach up, rise up, stretch out. 
New seeds, new green, new life.
You nourish, 
You live always.