A friend involved with regional efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay once told me of a meeting she attended in which representatives of area organizations and advocacy groups stood one by one to enumerate their steps and actions in the cause. After quite a while of this, it was the turn of a rabbi from a local environmentally concerned congregation. She stood at the podium and began her remarks, “Well, we work way upstream…we work at the level of soul.”
Walking in the woods near the end of an extraordinarily rain-drenched summer, I hear Mary Oliver’s lines, “When I am among the trees…. I would almost say that they save me, and daily.” The greens are varied and lustrous, the moist leaves undulating in a shimmering dance, the whole forest like an arced and glistening cathedral. Only the tupelos are turning. Each dropped ruby tear is a bright harbinger of autumn in the humus. Soon after sunrise on a misty morning, wide shafts of silver light pierce the canopy, illuminating the tangled barberry bushes, the spirea and pawpaws, and the shining grasses like a renaissance painting.
It’s not been an easy summer for our community at Rolling Ridge. The needs for harvesting, weeding, hosting, and maintaining increased exponentially with every rain- and sun-soaked day and with each visiting relative and friend. Times with distant family, while joyful, opened heartaches that had been dormant or hidden for months. And in addition to the weight of our lives, we carry the burden of the realization, hurtling at us daily from every newscast and post, that the edifice of our society, governance, and culture is rocking, and nature is off balance.
We need to step back, breathe, and dive in again way upstream.
Michael Meade often notes that when things are unraveling, it is soul that is missing. He refers to soul in the unique, individual sense and in the deep, essential, universal meaning. The two are threaded together with invisible, tenacious, and eternal filaments. Meade says, “If we want the world to change, [if we want] the healing of culture and greater balance in nature, it has to start inside the human soul.”
This is when living and walking around in more than a thousand acres of forest on a small mountain between the Appalachian Trail and the Shenandoah River becomes a sacred trust. Those of us here have a holy and joyful responsibility to hold space and hospitality within this green and shimmering incubator of soul. We have been handed the opportunity to assist in creating the vessels that can carry people into a wilderness where awareness buds and opens.
Bill Plotkin, in his latest Soulcraft Musings, writes:
Nature—the outer nature we call ‘the wild’—has always been the essential element and the primary setting of the journey to soul. The soul, after all, is our inner wilderness, the …terrain we know the least and that holds our individual mysteries. When we truly enter the outer wild—fully opened to its enigmatic and feral powers—the soul responds…
The shining trees are more than scenery for appreciation and reflection. They, and the mushrooms, wine berries, squirrels, woodpeckers, and the rest, call us humans into a conversation. They are waiting for our attention.
Not so much collectively, but singularly: this slender maple with the scarred bark, this orb-weaver whose web is stretched delicately across the overgrown path, this piece of fallen oak teeming with inner life. People here on retreat share stories of these encounters, of the unexpected turns, the astonishing contours and openings. These are the surprising, intimate conversations that illumine the threads tethering us to the vast communion and belonging way upstream, at the headwaters, where the world is always ending and beginning again. Thus the trees save us, and daily.