Some wise old person, whose name I cannot remember, was living in really bad times. Bullies were corrupting the environment. The people felt powerless. Some very sad folk came to the old person for advice and solace. There was silence. And then he or she said to those people, “How is your garden coming?”
Perhaps it is a little late in the year to be thinking about our gardens, but you get the general idea. These are times when hope for the future lies in the joys and sorrows of ordinary people. Sometimes we all need to be reminded of that.
This Friday Reflection will hop around from place to place but it has to do with remembering that there is something more universal than the problems we're facing. Some of my friends will ask, how can I say that about something like extinction by the climate crisis? Maybe they have a point, but I want to share my thinking with you about little things that are possibly really big things. I will start with an apple.
Here at Starcross we had a huge apple harvest which has more or less come to an end. However, yesterday I looked out the window and saw an apple fall from our oldest tree, one that is held together by wires to keep it from splitting apart. The apple fell on the path starting from the chapel, passing where I write, and ending down at the barn. It stayed on the path making all the curves and picking up speed. Sometimes it would hit a bump, jump up in the air, but eventually land safely back on the path. Its energy is coming from something that I rarely think about — gravity! That invisible force that is more powerful than anything I can see or produce. Someone may pick the apple up and use it, but until that time it will just keep following its course.
There are times when it is wise for us to follow the example of that apple. What is the spiritual gravity that pulls us along our path in difficult times? My mother would have called it “grace.” I do not know a more secular term — perhaps one occurs to you. Still I know there is that force, and I am satisfied to let it remain nameless.
Our present political and social climate is not simply unpleasant, it is toxic, and poisons every one of us in some fashion.
Several nights ago I was up at 3 AM for a few minutes. I looked out the window and saw a beautiful sliver of an Autumn moon. Then, much to my surprise, I caught my first glimpse this year of the constellation Orion. This meant a great deal to me. It was a very clear reminder that there is something in the universe larger than our problems down here on earth. There is a favorite haiku of mine written by Issa (1763-1828), How lovely it is
to look through the broken window,
and discover the Milky Way.
Much about our world today is very broken and, if we fix our attention on that, it is easy to be disheartened. However, if we look beyond the window we will see things that have remained in their orbit and exhibit great beauty — and perhaps hope.
Turning back to Orion, I remember many years ago when I learned of a custom among the Hopi in Arizona. Their livelihood very much depends upon corn. At the end of one season they put the seeds for next year's planting down in a Kiva, which is a sort of underground chapel. There are a number of ceremonies that take place, but down in the Kiva an adolescent girl sits with the corn seeds, and prays. The girl and the seeds represent the hope for the future of the people. On the ground above, the Kachina dancers and the elders watch over her. When the girl can see “the belt,” the three stars in the middle of Orion, up above her in the opening of the Kiva, the past is over and the future begins. In such a moment there is always hope.
My home at Starcross is a beautiful, simple, rustic place. There are lots of green trees, rows of olive trees, gardens and wonderful vistas. But to me, when I first came, it lacked the Autumn color that friends rave about in New England. Autumn in Northern California is rather subtle, to put it mildly. So, 42 years ago I thought I would improve on the situation. Up on the little hill where the chapel sits I planted a tree that had been my mother's favorite. In Louisiana where she grew up it was called “Sweetgum.” In my Garden Book there are eight other names listed, but the scientific name is Liguidamber Styraciflua. It is known for its beautiful Fall foliage. The same Garden Book makes it very clear that it does not grow well in Northern California. I planted one anyway — it did not do well. It hardly grew upward at all, and its foliage was green, then brown, then fell off! That is how it went for a couple of disappointing years. Then I was moved to the irrational conclusion that I should plant more Sweetgums. There were soon four twig-like things surrounding the chapel!
The next summer all four of them almost doubled in height. When Autumn came they were beautiful with their red, orange, and gold leaves. They have become over 70 feet high, and in the Autumn they stand out like four blazing torches that can be seen for miles.
So what does this all have to do with the current crises that we face in culture and in nature? I'm sure a scientist could explain what happened to our Sweetgum trees, but to me it's a lesson in hope. I had hoped for some beautiful Fall colors. In order to get them, there needed to be a community of trees. In order for us to survive, we also need communities of hope.
Recently we received a letter which said, “I feel like Starcross is a family and I am part of it.” That is exactly how we feel here. There are going to be some challenging times ahead but we must never let our hope die. And so from time to time we must ask each other,