Because you are only a seed, chestnut tree, autumn, earth, water, heights, silence prepared the germ, the floury density, the maternal eyelids that buried will again open toward the heights the simple majesty of foliage, the dark damp plan of new roots, the ancient but new dimensions of another chestnut tree in the earth.
~Pablo Neruda from “Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground”
Each May the horse chestnut tree in our front yard transforms for a week into a Renoir painting. It explodes into hundreds of bright clusters of delicate orchid-like blossoms, forming cone shaped floral candles illuminating the spreading branches. However, its setting is more peasant than romantic, as the tree stands in common company between a pine tree and a poplar lining the rural driveway into our barnyard. This is an exceedingly humble spot for a tree bedecked with such majestic lighting, its tender broad leafed branches brushed and broken by passing hay wagons and shavings trucks.
Although its graceful beauty seems more appropriate along the Seine River, during the summer it fits perfectly in its spot near our haybarn. Its verdant foliage provides deep cooling shade during hot sweaty days. The branches that were once lit up with scores of pink and white blossoms become leafy respite for a dusty hay crew gulping lemonade in between loads. Horses snooze in the paddocks under its shadow. Birds nest well hidden. The tree becomes sanctuary within and below.
By fall, the tree forms its fruit within unpretentious capsules covered with spines and prickles, visually spiked yet actually soft and pliable. There are few natural things so plain and homely as the buckeye horse chestnut husk. These are shed by the hundreds in autumn wind and rainstorms, and they shower down, cobbling the driveway, eventually to break apart underfoot.
Only by leaving the tree can the deep brown nut be revealed from its hiding place, its richness exposed. From exquisite bloom to shady haven to prickly husk to mahogany harvest, this chestnut tree’s changing palette needs no canvas, no frame, no museum gallery showcase. Instead it’s a year round exhibition is for free, right in our front yard.
The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.
For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.
“Longing,” says the poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.”
I am easily lost in a horizon of blue mountains
or a vivid sky with clouds
or the innards of a blue iris~
these are landscapes in my mind
forever beyond my reach,
where I can never go,
but dwell nevertheless
simply by opening my eyes to see,
my heart forgets me not
my soul, once lost, now found.
Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time.
Let it be.
Unto us, so much is given.
We just have to be open for business. ~Anne Lamott from Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers
I have the privilege to work in a profession where astonishment and revelation awaits me behind each exam room door.
In a typical clinic day, I open that door up to thirty plus times, close it behind me and settle in for the ten or fifteen minutes I’m allocated per patient. I need to peel through the layers of each person quickly to find the core of truth about who they are and why they’ve come to clinic that day.
Sometimes what I’m looking for is right on the surface: in their tears, in their pain, in their fears. Most of the time, it is buried deep, often beneath a scar I must search to find. I need to wade through the rashes and sore throats and coughs and headaches and discouragement to find it.
Once in awhile, I actually do something tangible to help right then and there — sew up a cut, lance a boil, splint a fracture, restore hearing by removing a plug of wax from an ear canal.
Often I find myself giving permission to a patient to be sick — to take time to renew, rest and trust their bodies to know what is best for a time.
Sometimes, I am the coach pushing them to stop living sick — to stop hiding from life’s challenges, to stretch even when it hurts, to get out of bed even when not rested, to quit giving in to symptoms that are to be overcome rather than become overwhelming.
Always I’m looking for an opening to say something a patient might think about after they leave my clinic — how they can make different choices, how they can be bolder and braver in their self care, how they can intervene within their own finite timeline to prevent illness, how every day is just one thread in the larger tapestry of their lifespan.
Each morning I rise early to get work done at home before I actually arrive at my desk at work, trying to avoid feeling unprepared and inadequate to the volume of tasks heaped upon each day. I know I will be stretched beyond my capacity, challenged by the unfamiliar, the unexpected and will be stressed by obstacles thrown in my way. I know I will be held responsible for things I have little to do with, simply because I’m the one who often acts as decision-maker.
It is always tempting to go back to bed and hide.
Instead of hiding, I go to work as the exam room doors need to be opened and the layers peeled away. I understand the worry, the fear and the pain because I have lived it too. I know the limitations of a body that wants to consume more than it needs, to sleep rather than go for a walk, to sit rather than stand.
Even now in my seventh decade of life, I am continually learning how to let it be, even if it is scary. It is a gift perhaps I can share.
No matter what waits behind the exam room door, it will be astonishing to me.
I’m grateful to be open for business. The Doctor is In.
I’m a bit wary of looking out the window these days as I am so easily swept away and then am useless to accomplish anything else. The landscape is exploding with layers of color and shadow and standing too close, I too am ignited. It is impossible to witness so much unfolding life and light and not be engulfed and singed.
It lures me outside where flames of green lap about my ankles as I stroll the fields and each fresh breeze fans the fires until I’ve nothing left of myself but ash and shadow.
I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
~Acts 2:19-21 The Holy Spirit Comes At Pentecost
Come, Holy Spirit, bending or not bending the grasses, appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame, at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow covers crippled firs… ~Czeslaw Milosz from “Veni Creator” inSelected and Last Poems
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.
And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs— Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”
The cows munched or stirred or were still. I was at home and lonely, both in good measure. Until the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing my feeble beam, a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying: but the cows as before were calm, and nothing was burning, nothing but I, as that hand of fire touched my lips and scorched by tongue and pulled by voice into the ring of the dance. ~Denise Levertov from “Caedmon” inBreathing the Water
Today, when we feel we are without hope,
as mute and dumb as cattle chewing our cud,
when the bent world reels in blood and violence,
as we remain in hiding:
when faith feels frail,
when love seems distant:
We wait too stilled
for the moment we are lit afire ~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known
forever burning in our hearts deep down,
brooded over by His bright wings
We are His dearest, freshest
in this moment
and for eternity.
Reflecting on, and with respect for, the courage shown by Tanzanian park rangers and my kidnapped research colleagues on this unforgettable day 43 years ago — I’m reposting this again as part of my Gombe saga from when I worked as a student research assistant for Jane Goodall in western Tanzania in 1975.
At first glance, Gombe National Park in Tanzania felt like paradise—a serene piece of the earth filled with exotic and fascinating wildlife, an abundance of fish and fruit to eat, and the rich unfamiliar sounds and smells of the tropical jungle. It was a façade. It was surrounded by the turmoil and upheaval of political rebellion and insurgencies in its neighboring countries, inflamed even more by the fall of Saigon in Vietnam a month previously due to the earlier pull out of the Americans from that long and tragic war.
Only a few miles north of our research station in Gombe National Park in western Tanzania, there had been years of civil war in the small land locked country of Burundi. When the wind was just right, we could hear gunfire and explosions echoing over the valleys that separated us. Escaping refugees would sometimes stop for food on their way to villages in Tanzania to the south, seeking safe haven in one of the poorest countries in the world, only a decade into its own experiment with socialism, Ujamaa.
There was also word of ongoing military rebellion against the dictatorship of President Mobutu in the mountainous country of Zaire twelve miles west across Lake Tanganyika.
Morning comes early for field studies of wildlife, as the research day must start before the chimpanzee and baboon subjects wake up and begin to stir. Before midnight, while we slept soundly in our metal huts scattered up the mountainside, a group of armed soldiers arrived by boats to the shore of Gombe National Park.
Storming the beach huts housing two unarmed Gombe park rangers and their families, the soldiers seized one and demanded to be told where the researchers were. The ranger refused to provide information and was severely beaten about the head and face by the butts of the rifles carried by the invaders. The armed soldiers then divided into smaller groups and headed up the trails leading to the huts, coming upon four sleeping student researchers, tying them up, taking them hostage, forcing them into boats and taking them across the lake back to Zaire.
Asleep farther up the mountain, we were wakened by other researchers who were fleeing, hearing the commotion. No one really understood what was happening down lower on the mountain. There were shouts and screams, and gun shots had been heard. Had someone been injured or killed? There was no choice but to run and hide deep in the bush at a predetermined gathering spot until an “all clear” signal was given by the rangers.
We hurried along barely familiar trails in the black of the jungle night, using no flashlights, our hearts beating hard, knowing we had no defense available to us other than the cover of darkness.
That was the longest wait for morning of my life, sitting alongside Jane holding her son Grub. A hand full of other students had also made their way to the hiding spot, none of us knowing what to think, say or do. We could only barely see each other’s faces in the darkness and were too frightened to make any sounds. We carried no weapons, and there was no way to communicate with the outside world. We had no idea how many of us may be missing, or possibly dead.
Jane held Grub in her arms, endeavoring in vain to keep him quiet, but his eight year old imagination was ignited by the events that had just unfolded.
“Will they kidnap me, Jane? Will they come for me? Where will they take us? Will they shoot us dead?”
Jane, her face hidden by her blonde hair loose about her shoulders, sat rocking him, cradling him. “Shhh, shhh, we don’t want them to find us. We’re safe staying right here. Everything will be fine in the morning. No one will take you from me.”
Grub began to sob silently into her shoulder.
When the morning of May 20 dawned, the park rangers located us, and pieced together the events as best they could–the soldiers were Zairean rebels living in remote mountains, fighting an insurgency against the Zaire government. Seeking funds for their cause, they saw a kidnapping of Americans and Europeans as a way to raise quick funds and world publicity and sympathy. Four of our friends/coworkers were missing, the camp was ransacked and the rangers beaten but with no life threatening injuries. There was no way to remain safe at the Park, and our colleagues needed whatever help we could offer for their rescue.
We were able to send a messenger to a nearby fishing village, and a radio call was sent out to the small town of Kigoma, then relayed to Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi. Help arrived within a few hours, when a United Nations boat monitoring the civil war activities in Burundi pulled off shore near our camp. We were told we needed to evacuate Gombe that day, and would be taken to Kigoma, and then flown by bush pilot to Nairobi, Kenya to cooperate in the investigation of the kidnapping.
In Nairobi, at the US Embassy, I met CIA agents who viewed our wild primate studies with suspicion. Each of us were grilled individually as to our political beliefs, our activities at the camp and whether we may be somehow involved in subversive actions against the Zaire or Tanzanian governments. We were dumbfounded that our own countrymen would be so skeptical about our motives for being in Africa. It became clear our own government would be no help in resolving the kidnapping and bringing our friends home to safety. The agents did not shed any light on whether they knew our friends were alive or dead.
We were then hustled into a press conference where we were interviewed for television and print media by the worldwide news agencies, and my parents saw me on the CBS evening news before they actually heard my voice over the phone. I flew back to Stanford the next day, spending 24 hours on a plane that made six stops up the coast of West Africa on its way back west, to tell what I knew to Stanford President Lyman and other administration officials as they prepared a plan to locate and free the students. I then returned home to Washington state to await any news that came too slowly from a place so far away that I remain astonished to this day that I was ever there at all.
It took over three months, private negotiations and ransom money to free all four of our friends back to safety. They remain close to each other and the remarkable man who helped free them, Dr. David Hamburg. We have had several reunions together over the years to remember those days of living in a place that at one time seemed like paradise.