July 19, 2022
It’s an old game I’d often play with my students to jog them into writing, especially in Spring Quarter as we moved into May. We all get a little restless indoors by this point in the academic year, sitting in a sterile classroom; we start to feel some warmth rising up from the earth and can imagine again a life beyond the rain and cold. So I’d ask: if you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be? Tell me about it—make me feel it in your words.
My own answer would vary. I dearly love the Gulf of Mexico and the beautiful white beaches of Siesta Key, just as at certain moments I might choose the Left Bank of Paris early in the morning as the bakeries were opening, or even certain quiet streets in the old city of Jerusalem at dusk. But it’s clear to me that my own preference finally lies with the Cascades. So many memories up there—so many hikes and backpack trips with Judy and Kate over the years, and with the hope and expectation of more to come. And of course part of the pleasure is coming to know these places fairly intimately after numerous trips. For me the Cascades are specific: among many other sacred spots I think of Dishpan Gap, just north of Lake Sally Ann on the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT), or Meandering Meadows, still further north by a few miles and a mile below the PCT, or Macalester Pass, a few miles north of Stehekin.
Of course all of these spots are beautiful, but I could have chosen others which are clearly more picturesque. So what is it about these places? It’s certainly that sense of truly being out there—in the mountains, far from roads and cities, far from Starbucks—but it’s also being out there with people whom I love. And so the memories of those places are filled not just with glorious mountains and deep green valleys but with people.
This awareness of mine may well mark a difference from when I first wrote about these mountains in a book called Rapture of the Deep: Reflections of the Wild in Art, Wilderness and the Sacred. Back then, fifteen or twenty years ago, I was focusing on the connection I felt between my experiences on these trips with Judy and Kate and what I knew from my life teaching great literature and from my experience with contemplative and mystical spirituality. All of these, I argued, have something to do with the kind of depth of power we feel in wilderness—in the mountains, the desert, the ocean—as Belden Lane has written about so often. In my Introduction to the book I talk about this literal and metaphorical place into which so many of us are drawn, where we might well feel both fear and wonder. Writing of the ancient Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, I say that (metaphorically) “he has known the rolling waters of the sea, the great silence of the mountains, and in those places has felt something so huge and beautiful that he’s ready to surrender everything to be part of it.”
I still can feel this desire, and acknowledge that it remains central to my understanding of Christ and my own spiritual longings. But what’s curious is that, even as I look back through this book of mine, what moves me most are those passages where I’m with Judy and Kate. At the beginning of the first chapter, for example, I describe a moment with them on our first backpack trip when we did a loop around Stehekin, making our way to Macalester Pass where we spent a night in our family-sized tent. Kate was eight at the time; early in the morning I was out listening to the howling of wolves to the east of us and in my mind making some connections to those beautiful animals and my daughter. And then I wrote: I remember this moment nine months later as I stand on my front porch and watch my daughter walk down the sidewalk, lunch box in hand, to her carpool. She turns, smiles and waves, then vanishes from my sight.
This was a moment in time that is now more than thirty years ago. It’s long gone, as of course we both—we all—will be long gone in what is really just a blink of an eye. And yet I’m convinced that in some other sense, or in some other understanding of time—Kairos versus Chronos—this moment endures. It’s these tiny threads of love, these connections we have to people and to places. Suddenly I’m aware that it’s not just the magnificent mountains that surround us here beside the Salish Sea that last, but—perhaps even more—it’s the tiny mycorrhizae, those threads that weave all things together beneath the forest floor and, as we now know, that connect those trees into one magnificent community.
Into, I might say, another part of the body of Christ.
And so yes, I do still experience that fear and wonder up there at Dishpan Gap or camped down in Meandering Meadows or up at Macalester Pass; I still feel the sense of adventure setting out down a narrow mountain trail. All that I wrote about decades ago is still true to something in my own spiritual journey. But now, gratefully, gracefully, there’s also this—all those years and memories with friends and family, memories that I see now are their own form of mycorrhizae, spiritual threads woven through time and space connecting us to each other and back to parents and grandparents and forward to the generations still to come. “Fibres of love” Blake calls these connections, and like love, as love, they endure.
We are dust certainly enough, but we are also, as Joni said long ago, star dust.
Longtime Saint Mark's parishioner and former vestry member Doug Thorpe is Professor Emeritus of English at Seattle Pacific University.