A Place Held in the Palm of Nature
Delivered at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on February 7, 2020.
I spent the summer of 2018 in a rustic one room cabin on a small pond in Western Maine. It was the best summer of my life. I walked to the mossy spring at the bend in the road to fill jugs for drinking water; I had only intermittent cell phone reception; and my daily bath was a brisk dip in the pond.
Two things made that summer special.
One was a story-collecting project. The pond seemed to me a microcosm of the larger world, where people from different backgrounds, political affiliations, and socio-economic strata are trying (and often failing) to live in harmony. As in the real world, pond residents disagreed about things: Should speedboats be allowed, or did they make too many waves which eroded the shoreline? Should beavers be allowed to build dams in the bog, raising the pond water level, or should property owners be allowed to intervene in order to save their trees and avert flooding? I wanted to see if story-telling could defuse these tensions.
I made my way via canoe or on foot to 32 different households on the pond. I asked two questions: How did you come to the pond, and what is most precious for you about this place? For my neighbors, I realized, just as it was for me, Locke Pond was a sacred place. Many of them wept as they told me their stories: about raising their children on the pond, back when kids ran around barefoot all day in their swimsuits, ending up at who knows whose house for lunch; about sprinkling a loved one’s ashes in the pond’s waters; about coming to the pond after a traumatic divorce. It was a place to be held in the palm of nature, a place to be left alone, a place of peace and quiet, a respite from a world that was too fast and too busy. There we all were, all expressing some version of the same special connection to this little pond in the middle of nowhere. I began to feel a thread, as light and almost invisible as a piece of spider’s web floating on a breeze, connecting me to my neighbors—me and my partner Ruth connected to the guy who can fix anything and works double shifts at the paper mill, to the retired university English professor and his poet wife, to the owner of the appliance store in town, to the school teacher from Indiana, to the judge who worked at the Hague. There we all were. Connected by a place.
A second thing made that summer special. In the hours I wasn’t interviewing, I walked in the woods, or sat in an Adirondack chair with a pair of binoculars, a bird book, and cup of coffee. I listened to the birds—finally recognizing the song of the red-eyed vireo—"Here I am in the tree here I am look at me.” I watched chipmunks with stuffed cheeks moving caches of acorns from one secret place to another. I watched pickerel frogs hop about at the water’s edge. I noticed an abundance of northern water snakes among the rocks on the shore. I collected dragonfly nymphs and watched them hatch out and dry their wings in the sunshine. I watched sunfish making circular nests in the sand at the bottom of the pond next to our dock. At night I heard coyotes. I even encountered a black bear! The woods seemed bursting with life!
The secret to this summer of abundance was the oak tree. The fall of 2017 was a mast year. All over New England oaks dropped acorns in record numbers. Come summer, more acorns meant more chipmunks, squirrels, and mice. More rodents meant more owls, coyotes and even bobcats. More of everything! Here again, was a thread, like the almost invisible spider silk that connected me to my human neighbors, connecting trees, birds, turtles, frogs, snakes, dragonflies, chipmunks, squirrels, porcupine, fungi, fish, water, sun, moon and stars. There we all were—human and more than human—connected through a powerful and paradoxically fragile, precarious harmony.
Prayer: Great weaver, thank you for this miraculous, complex and stunningly beautiful world. Help us as we try in our own ways to maintain the fragile harmony that allows all of your creations to flourish. Remind us to talk to our neighbors and receive their stories with generosity. Remind us to sit still as often as we can and bear witness to the ways every being is connected.
February 11, 2020
Photo: Courtesy Gretchen Legler
Gretchen Legler, MDiv candidate, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on February 7, 2020.