This sermon was for the July 19th, 2020, service for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick. Text below.
I can always tell when a writer doesn’t actually spend much time outside. I’ve read so many stories where the forest is described as quiet. Even in the middle of winter, quiet is not a thing that happens in forests very often. There’s a constant symphony of bird calls, the rustling of small mammals through the undergrowth, the hum of insects, trees dropping leaves and branches, the wind sighing and groaning through the canopy. When I’m presented with a story referencing ‘the silence of the woods,’ I know that the writer probably loves the idea of the forest rather than the reality of it.
My best friend lives in Arizona. Like me, she’s an avid hiker, so I’ve had the opportunity over the years to go hiking in the desert. Even there, silence is not a thing. It’s quieter, certainly, but the shifting of sands, the crunch and slide of small creatures passing over and under the ground, and the whisper of the wind through the white sage, palo verde and saguaro still creates a tapestry of sound.
There are probably a handful of places in the world where silence reigns, but I suspect they are quite difficult for humans to get to. I think part of why people consider forests quiet is because the sounds there have to do with a bustle of activity we are not consciously a part of. Possibly also because those sounds cloak a world of actions that would make us uncomfortable. The beautiful birdsong is generally either a bird declaring itself the sole owner of the tree it is on, actively yelling at passersby to see if anyone wants to make some eggs, or sending up a warning that danger is near.
Out where the sights and sounds are only tangentially related to our concerns, it’s easy to assume they mean nothing. To consider the forests, deserts, and plains to be quiet, empty or boring. We’re willing to ignore a lot of activity simply because we think it doesn’t pertain to us.
I think it’s interesting that in the face of staggering problems for humans, many people are naturally gravitating toward the world of feather, leaf and vine. More and more people are going hiking or spending time outside. They are probably discovering the same thing I have: the activities of the wild world may not center on us, but they are still important. And the act of observing the natural world, spending time thinking rather than doing, can reveal something else: we were wrong about internal quiet too. Almost everyone I know is struggling. Stress brings out the shadows and we are finally noticing their presence. Maybe we missed it before because we assumed the occasional tumult within was like the birdsong outside – irrelevant.
As an extrovert deeply rooted in community, this time of physical separation has taken an extraordinary toll on my mind. The system I had previously used to keep my mental health stable proved ineffective against a prolonged separation from those I love. I am rebuilding and discovering new support mechanisms. One of the most important ones is trail time. I live a little further afield, so the trails in my area are not as popular or crowded as the ones near Frederick. Prior to the pandemic, I did go hiking. I’ve always loved being outside. But it was a weekly activity rather than a daily one. Now, if I want to be able to function, I need to go walking every day.
Part of me rails against it. I’m investing a lot of time in the trails and I do not have a body of work to show for that investment other than spending the day upright rather than hiding underneath a pile of blankets. I feel like I’m doing nothing. My family prizes activity and we, as a group, tend to be chronically overscheduled. I’m starting to wonder if I actually had my mental health stable before the pause, or if I was just so busy that I could conveniently ignore it.
A month or so ago, my stepdaughter was over having dinner with us and we heard a cacophony of birdsong suddenly rise. A few houses down, on top of a telephone pole, a crow found a nest of baby birds. Perfectly outlined against the sky, what followed was difficult to watch. My stepdaughter was understandably horrified. But I know it is just the way of things. The Disney version of nature sometimes leaves people unprepared for the reality of it.
We noticed the tumult and drama of life and death playing out because we were having a leisurely dinner outside. We were not buried in work, focused on our phones, or otherwise operating from a place of distraction. As without, so within. When we are simply present with ourselves, larger patterns can finally surface to be recognized. The birdsong sounding the alarm can be heard.
Just as the ‘quiet woods’ is a misnomer, the phrase ‘doing nothing’ is misleading as well. My hours on the trail produce no tangible reward. They are not useful in any capitalist sense of the word.
There is a strange kind of healing and stability through these slower, less monetarily based ways of connecting. As a community, we are learning that ‘doing nothing’ isn’t a failure of character or a misuse of time. Sitting in the garden or under the trees, we are witness to the mad symphony of life around us. The normality of nature is the beauty of plants growing. It’s also the brutality of predators preying on the weak. It’s knowing that the rich scent of good earth requires the death of living things. It’s knowing that the silent woods…isn’t.
We are learning that doing nothing…isn’t either. We are discovering more about the soil where we have grown roots. We are finally noticing the forest around us and figuring out new ways to get the nutrients we need. We are doing some much-needed pruning and tending. And all of that looks like nothing from the outside.
But just like the birdsong we usually ignore, there’s actually a lot going on.
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