The resilient witness of nature

By the Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, Ed.D.

My husband and I will soon be moving to a new home — the first house we’ve ever owned. We’ve opted for a modest, affordable house a half-mile outside of town that affords a quiet and countrylike setting.

For the past two years, we’ve lived in an apartment complex situated at the intersection of two highways. The back door of our unit — which we selected during a difficult departure from the congregation my husband had served for six years — faces an on-ramp. Somehow, we didn’t notice the constant drone of traffic that closed windows, white noise and ear plugs combined cannot assuage until we took occupancy. Nevertheless, we believed we were directed to this temporary home for healing and we, therefore, dedicated ourselves to intentional spiritual practice.

A Wednesday-evening meditation group became central in our lives, as did daily practice outdoors. Rain or shine, heat of summer or rawness of winter — and despite the cacophony of roaring tires, squealing breaks and sirens — we sat daily for 30 minutes, focused on the rise and fall of our breath, seeking to open our hearts to God’s healing presence.

Early that first spring, we noticed a huge old tree, one of the few left behind when the acreage was cleared to make space for the apartment complex. While the others in that copse announced spring’s arrival, the branches of that tree remained empty, and we worried she was dead or dying. Eventually, though, her leaves unfurled, and she became a grand presence towering above her companions.

Over the months of meditation, the life that teemed in the little strip of land between our tiny concrete patio and the on-ramp brought us solace and joy. Sparrows, chickadees, blue jays, cardinals and other winged friends tweeted and danced in the bushes, while squirrels and chipmunks scolded and scurried from branch to branch. Bunnies breakfasted on clover, and there were occasional visits by skunks, a fox and a couple of deer. Overhead, geese bade us farewell in autumn and squawked return greetings in early spring. From time to time, a hawk perched high in a tree, and the run-off pond teemed with croaking frogs in summer. The road noise — which was bothersome during work hours and made sleep a challenge — consistently faded into the background during meditation.

Moments during my “sits” (as I’d learned to call them), I sensed the presence of God. However, it was when I began open awareness — a practice that invites us to simply hear what we hear, see what we see, smell, feel, taste and be present — that I began to experience God present in all things. My tears, my laughter, the pain in my heart and of my aging hips, the wave of the cattails, the morning mist, the call of the herring on his way to a pond somewhere beyond the highways, and “my” tree all bore witness to a loving creator.

In recent weeks, I have come to believe deep in my soul that the tree beckoned to us upon our arrival and has stood not only as silent witness to our journey but as a participant in our healing.

Genesis declares that God paused after each stage of creation to declare it “good.” Goodness or “God-ness” was invested in all things created. Divine energy is instilled in and shared by all members of the created order.

Scientists have discovered that trees lend their strength to one another. When one is chopped down, nearby trees will provide nutrients to the remaining stump to strengthen it. I believe the tree provided strength and energy to me and helped me to heal. So, as thrilled as I am to move into my house, I grieve knowing that I will soon leave her. Tears have accompanied recent sits as I’ve pondered my farewell and how to thank this dear friend.

When we first moved to this area nine years ago, the acreage on which the apartment complex stands was a field filled with tall grass, bushes and many trees. Today, in my stillness, I sensed the tree’s sadness and grief over her loss. She and just a few others remain — remnants of the beauty that was once here. No wonder she understood the depth of my loneliness. I decided to acknowledge her sadness — the loss of her home — to make way for what would become my temporary home. I thanked her for that sacrifice and for the generous presence she’s shown us.

Mainstream Christianity has largely lost the cosmic aspects of creation, fall and redemption. We’ve narrowed faith to individual salvation and future destination. And, yet, the God incarnated by Jesus is the God of all creation and the God of the here and now. The hands that fashioned human beings did so from the soil of the Earth, and then placed them in a garden — a garden with trees, water and other living creatures, all of whom were also divinely created. The fall of humanity affected all aspects of the created world. Correspondingly, so, too, must the redemption wrought by Jesus.

Nature turned my heart toward God when I was a child. These past two years, it is nature that has opened my heart to God’s healing. I will miss my tree and be forever grateful to her, as I am grateful to the God who created us both.

The Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, Ed.D. is American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ national coordinator of Discipleship Ministries. “A Matter of Stewardship: Eco-Justice in Biblical Perspective” (#920C), a six-session study that explores our call to stewardship of creation, can be downloaded at > Resources and Publications > Workshops for Church Life and Leadership.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.