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RANDY HUFF: As Pilgrims We Must Listen, To Learn, To Live

It is past time to write of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek again., and I can’t do it justice. There’s a force of nature going on in this book and yes, that’s a play on words.

Who knows this much about nature? Annie did her homework, wedding observation with research and notes and long musing. The detail of insects and plants is mind-numbing if you’re in a hurry, which is no doubt the easily-missed point.

Of a newt (I wasn’t even sure what a newt is) she speaks thus: “The concave arch of her spine stretched her neck past believing; the thin ventral skin was a bright taut yellow.” And that’s one of many sentences on newts, these creatures around us in spring that we never see or imagine it matters whether we do.

This does remind me of something like newts in my own life. We called them tadpoles and they lived in mud puddles in Big Bow, Kansas. I never examined their “thin ventral skin” but we would sometimes catch them in a jar for who-knows-why. I remember wondering how they became frogs – or did they? And what happens if the mud puddle dries up too soon? Western Kansas is a long ways from lush Tinker Creek.

But Annie is far from done with the newts. Did she never tire of being in nature? I can believe the long time in the middle of it all, seeing instead of taking pictures, made awareness possible. Of course it did, but who does it, and what is the benefit?

Chapter Seven – Spring – gives a veritable catalog of nature scarcely imagined by the layman, which accounts, I suppose, for most of us. It wearies my dull mind but I dive in, needy.

• Flowers: redbuds, sassafras, tulips, catawbas, and pawpaws. Who knows these things by name?
• The leafing of trees, Annie insists, is a thing. Surely, though, the leaves just appear. How could it possibly matter how it happens or how they look up close? Leaves give rise to words like etiolate, translucent, lambent, minute, pale. And that’s all in one sentence.
• The seal in the Bering Strait gets audience in Annie’s imagination and reading, and she shares: the hunt, the seal habits, the hunter’s success find their place in the telling of all the wild scenes we knew not, of glaciers calving and “water sky.”
• She spends time with algae required by its reality, which is a lot. The frogs try to jump out of the algae-covered pond and can’t quite. They become “jumping green flares” about the pond until finally they find an open place and break free.
• And when the happily unobservant are ready to move on already, Annie takes us deeper in the pond: midges, snails, turtles, herons, muskrats, bladderwort, diatoms, insect larvae, nymphs are there she says. Who knew?! And there was more . . . much more.

Annie isn’t done until the microscope comes out and the smallest life is known to the eye. And one wonders – maybe – if this is going too far. How would I know? I wouldn’t.

In it all there is slight tribute to the forest of the trees. She says, for example, “There is a muscular energy in sunlight corresponding to the spiritual energy of wind.” Few things are larger in our life than sun, so I rejoice for relief from the tiny things. And she speaks plainly of the necessity of this sun “fashioning a new and sturdy world,” always, so that the pond can be “popping with life.”

It’s a delightful, mysterious read: an American treasure. And more than once in this chapter she throws a bone to those who ignore the proverbial trees because we imagine we already know the forest. Trees transform dirt, gravel and water into beauty. A large elm can make six million leaves in a season, she says. “I can’t make one.” A tree may use a ton of water in one day. And these mysterious creatures live among us by the millions, replenishing the earth, doing their thing quietly, unheard, unnoticed, vital.

Makes me wonder what we can do – the human body, soul and spirit. We often have to make much of naught, work with faults and pains and confounding nonsense. And then enter other people. Can we make something beautiful? That’s the dream, and if I go there I land in a place to which Annie amply alludes: I land in life itself and the gift of children.

This almost undoes me as I try to reflect humbly on the amazing work of art that is Tinker Creek. Friends might say I just leapt to the most obvious. But induction lets things rise to the surface and this rises. Trees make leaves in miraculous ways. People make people, and the miracle is beyond wonder.

It is the gift of life that sneaks in when we ask ourselves, “What can I do that is beautiful? What gravel and dirt can I turn into something that answers the unspeakable gift of life?” I may be able to create a life to bless the world – that is, I may become a parent, and then game on!

Perhaps more fundamentally – for not all can or will become parents – we can dare to believe, paraphrasing Solzhenitsyn as he reflected on the dirt and gravel of his imprisonment, that “the object of life is to become a beautiful person.”

Are you becoming beautiful? Am I? I wondered what benefit there was in Annie’s minutia. It leads me to this question and inspires a hopeful answer.

I think life itself does that if we stop long enough to listen and learn.

And that’s more than enough benefit for today.

Randy Huff

Randy Huff and his wife lived for 5 years in Roanoke (Hollins) where they raised 2 sons. Randy served as Dean of Students at a Christian school and then worked in construction. For the last 9 years he has served as pastor of a church in North Pole, Alaska.

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