Thursday, January 1, 2015

Earth's Crammed with Heaven

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more, from the first similitude.

--Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book VII

My father was a poet, from a family of poets. His generation of Andersons wrote many things in verse. At holidays and birthdays, gifts were usually accompanied with a bit of verse, written especially for the occasion and recited by the giver before unwrapping could commence. In my memory, these poems had an archaic quality to them, sounding very turn-of-the-twentieth-century; but it was the principle, more than the form, that mattered: giving thought to the significance of an event, a gift, a holiday, then translating that significance into couplets.

However profound or mundane their own attempts at poetry might be, the Andersons appreciated the poetry of others. My father’s generation of preachers often included poems or hymn texts in their sermons. I’m sure there were many he used, but the only one I can recall is those six lines by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, preached often in late August to commemorate the blackberry harvest. At the time, I always thought they were an ode to the difficult but rewarding task of wading into a briar patch armed with only a bucket and some pruning shears, emerging an hour and more later with the bucket full of berries and, if we were lucky, our skin and clothing stained only with berry juice—though it was not uncommon for us to be bloodied by our quest for late summer sweetness.

In fact, though, the blackberry pickers in the poem are denigrated for their blindness to the wonders all around them. Those thorny vines are, in fact, crammed with heaven. The sweetness of the berry is a reminder of the presence of God in every living thing. It would be wise of us to take a moment of Sabbath there in the bushes, soaking up the transcendence all around us.

Elam J. Anderson, Jr., Eagle Scout at 14.

My father understood this from an early age. In an age with requirements far more rigorous than they are today, he earned his Eagle Scout badge at 14. He was a member of the Order of the Arrow, a fraternity that honors Scouts who are gifted in outdoor lore. In his 20s, Dad worked with an early version of the Job Corps in the high Sierra, supervising juvenile offenders as they performed forestry work.
 
At work in the High Sierra, c. 1950.

Vacations for our family followed this pattern, as we camped for weeks at a time. Part of the reason for this was practical—we simply couldn’t afford the cost of travel and admission to Disneyland, and staying in a hotel was a luxury we rarely experienced for the same reason. Instead, we’d head up into the mountains, or down to the coast, park our travel trailer and, once the family outgrow the trailer, pitch a World War II army surplus tent for the older boys, and there we’d stay, cooking over a fire, skimming rocks on the lake, building sand castles, attending ranger-led campfire programs, working on whatever outdoor merit badges we could. Dad taught us about wildlife, plants and trees, constellations, the history of the rocks and mountains, the impact of Ice Age glaciers on the landscape. He showed us how to cut wood, build a fire, clean out the trailer’s septic tank, cook using a solar stove. He loved being out there in the wilderness, and loved even more sharing it with his sons.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t always love it back. The biggest challenge of a vacation to me was being sure I packed enough books to see me through. And while I did enjoy exploring the marsh land, skipping rocks on the lake, wading in the surf, picking huckleberries, and especially roasting marshmallows for s’mores, what I wanted most on these trips was to be left alone to read. On blustery days at the coast, I would shut myself in the car and read for hours at a time, wishing I could be home, where the reading was much more comfortable.

I finally awoke to the wonders of nature in my 20s, and when I did, I quickly came to regret all those hours I’d spent hiding from the outdoors rather than exulting in it. In particular, I can’t help wondering how much I could’ve learned from my father. Many of the skills I possess today I had to reteach my adult self because I just wasn’t paying attention when Dad demonstrated them to me.

Learn them I have, though; and even though my own Eagle rank was earned with the absolute minimum of outdoor merit badges, I can now say that the natural world is to me every bit as sacred as I believe it was to my father. This is something he always seemed to know: that the awesome beauty of a mountain puts any human-built cathedral to shame; that the fellowship experienced around a campfire is inherently far more powerful than any communion that can be known in one’s Sunday best; and that the sermons preached by a forest trail render the most powerful human oration mute.


It’s just as the poet wrote: earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. Now please pass the blackberries; I’m ready for some eucharist.

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