This reflection was written after participating in a land-based exercise assigned as part of a course on the Wilderness Prophets and Climate Crisis taught by Laurel Dykstra.
During this season of unemployment, a break from pastoral ministry, and processing what transpired over the past year regarding the traumatic blowup of the church community I served for 9 years, there have been several days when I’ve been alone for hours while kids have been at school and my wife has been at work. During these pockets of solitude, I’ve been drawn to sit down on the wood chip blanket that covers the ground under the oak tree in our backyard.
In a state of numbness, I’ve sat turning small pieces of trees that have been cut down by local arborists and dumped in the form of wood chips in our driveway. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time dragging the chips’ ragged edges across my fingertips and forearms, eager to feel anything and to be present in the moment instead of rehearsing events of the past in my mind. Aware of the risk of being too dramatic (a real temptation for this enneagram 4), as I’ve sat among the wood chips, I’ve thought of the line in Job that describes him sitting among the ashes scraping himself with a potsherd. (Job 2:8).
I’ve thought of the line in Job that describes him sitting among the ashes scraping himself with a potsherd.
After class last week, I took my position among the wood chips once again. However, following Laurel’s prompt to place our hand “flat hand open on the land” I pressed my palm against the wood chip bed instead of picking at the shards. My palm began to move back and forth clearing away the larger more jagged chips and revealing smaller pieces of wood that have begun to decompose. These damp bits form a transitional layer between the large dry top chunks and the soft soil underneath. Crawling with land crustaceans, these soft particles keep the earth around the oak tree moist. As I sifted the chips with my hand, exposing this dynamic loamy layer full of both life and death, I uncovered a number of small animal bones and patches of fur.
A pair of barred owls make their home in the laurel next to the oak. At dusk they perch in an oak branch, readying for a night of hunting. Below this branch, we often find pellets, regurgitated oval masses of bone, tiny skulls, jaws, and teeth. The owl’s gizzard sorts through devoured prey, allowing soft tissue to be digested while gathering together indigestible and hazardous parts into pellets to be passed back up through the digestive system.
With my palm to the ground, I am viscerally aware of the earth’s capacity for living with death. Through time, and a sophisticated web of interdependent relationships, life gives way to death and death is composted, broken down, and transformed so that it feeds life again. The owl’s ability to excrete the harmful elements of death and to absorb the nutrients preaches hope that trauma too can be metabolized. With time, a web of relationships woven with strands of tree, plant, and animal kin, friends, and professionals – bodies can sort through the harmful events we have had to swallow.
The ground gives me good news. Sharp shards do not have to stay lodged inside, they can pass through bodies and into the soil to be softened, broken down, and returned to dust where they become part of a rich seedbed for new life. And there are nutrients to be absorbed in the form of hard-wrought wisdom waiting to be integrated into one’s life.
My palm, soft from the soil’s moisture collects a handful of fresh wood chips made from recently trimmed stems of snowberry and branches of rhododendron. Particles fall between my fingers, descending back down to the ground, a gift for the grounding I received.