“How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing, it is irresistible.” ~C.S. Lewis
Friday, March 16, 2007: Gibbon, Nebraska
I cut out of work early today. Struck by another irresistible case of wander lust. I left at 2 p.m. with my little red cooler packed full of strawberries, summer sausage, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and my favorite treat: a Green and Black dark chocolate candy bar with Hazelnut and Currants.
The sound of hundreds of thousands of Sandhill crane’s wings fanning the air over my head as the sun set, crimson and mauve over the Platte river was exactly what I needed. I arrived at the Platte river late in the afternoon. It seemed the birds wouldn’t come that evening. I had driven for four and a half hours in steady two-lane traffic against a raging wind. I hadn’t seen a single crane the whole way.
When I arrived at Gibbon, I hid myself in some reeds at the river’s edge where a thick cloud of tiny black flies rapidly descended on me. I sat in the mud wondering, “Did I come all this way for nothing?” Before the sun had set, the cranes came– swooping in from everywhere, filling the air with their haunting calls.
There are things about life’s pilgrimage that confuse and deter me. But one thing I have learned: I have decided that beauty and mystery are a salve for sorrow. Creation is holy. To be alone in it – to pass through it with your eyes and ears wide open – is to drink from an eternal spring of renewal. With the quenching of our spirit’s thirst there come an imbued sense of largeness, solidarity, grandness and peace.
Life can not always be full of doing and arriving. Our hearts implore us to take them down paths we have not traveled before ..to simply wander…and when we do we cannot help but exalt the God who makes all things beautiful and places us among His creation as His crowning joy.
St. Patrick’s Day 2007 (Day 2 of Sandhill Cranes trip)
I woke up every hour during the night anticipating the alarm I had set for 5:15 on my cell phone. I arrived at the viewing area well before dawn surprising myself with my inability to have noticed it the night before when I was sitting in the rushes! I did at last manage to arrange my tripod and camera and join the other spectators staring across the Platte river. Not being a morning person, I had wondered if this early viewing was really worth the extra effort. As it turned out, I was humbled to find out I had been in entirely the wrong place at the wrong time yesterday. If I had turned around to go back home last night thinking that I had seen all there was to see, I would have missed one of the greatest things that can happen to us in this life; the surprise of finding something to be more marvelous than expected.
It is so easy to stop expecting wonderful things. The temptation to not show up is tremendous. We don’t know what we should be looking for. So we restrain our hearts from having to bear the weight of suspense and possible disappointment. I would rank the spectacle of this mornings uprising of the cranes from the sand bars as one of the most breathtaking events I have ever had the pleasure to witness.
Has anyone has ever questioned what God’s favorite song is? What is that holy “hum” or divine melody that all of the redeemed will utter compulsively at the sight of His majesty? I believe it may resemble this song:
The song of a thousand songs to the percussion of wings beating on the morning air combined into what I only know to describe as a “sacred scream”. That moment in time when no individual notes can be heard. The low and the high voices – the trills and staccatos all melding together to form one penetrating, feverish, soul piercing cry: HOLY!
We don’t know this song yet. Or perhaps we knew it once and we have all forgotten it. but when the rush of wings is heard, that which is deepest in us will be called forth.
March 14, 2008 Canada Geese Migration
I’ve never known how to deal with obstacles. Religious people always think that obstacles and things or people- all pawns of the devil –will rise up to oppose you when it is definite that God has called you to do something. Satan the great sabatoger. However – I’ve never learned to distinguish between being attacked by Satan or being told by God that the proverbial door is closed. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do if Balaam’s ass was blocking my path. Do I rebuke an enemy or beat the ass?? I’ve encountered a few such obstacles to writing and photographing this portion of my story. Driving to work last week I wrestled in my heart with the value of the words I had penned. Maybe God had nothing to do with my so-called spiritual thoughts. Or maybe my doubts were a so-called “attack” of a spiritual enemy. I struggle with the sense of being alone in an endeavor that feels so eternally significant.
Gazing off into the horizon I watch as an immense flock of snow geese emerges from a blue mist over the Missouri River and my heart emerges from its own mist of longing. The geese continue in formation in their Northerly direction towards me. I fix my eyes on the goose at the point of the “V” as she strains forward. Wings beating strong and constant. Neck outstretched. Voices calling to each other -resonating on the morning air. When I think of the miles they will cover – not alone- but together, and the reason they do it, because they are meant to so that they can endure and push on. Together. The fog of confusion in my heart condenses into large teardrops. I recognize that there is something grand and mysterious about that compulsion that God puts in His creatures so that they know to pursue that …something. It is something that requires everything from them and yet fulfills and perpetuates their species.
In contrast, I witness on my morning drive, a solitary goose. Domesticated. She stands near the road at the end of the driveway to a farm where she is dependant to be fed. She will never take to the sky in heroic flight like her wild counterparts. Indeed; she can not. The age-old compulsion, inherent in all wild geese, that tells them they are part of a great collective journey: a life-giving journey; that knowing is buried under layers of corn-fed fat and clipped feathers. She is a tame goose without need of a flock or field. She can’t even feel in her breast the thing that wild geese feel that tells them to rise up at dawn and go a specific direction for 200-500 miles a day.
Sometimes I think that domesticated goose is me. Sometimes I believe it’s the church. More though, I believe it is all of our materialistic society. America. We are fat, corn-fed, visionless, grounded and have no need of one another. My thoughts return to the stories I’ve written and my hopes and ideals for relationships. In spite of all of the obstacles I feel something rise up inside me in anger and defiance. Like some part of me believes I can make things work if I ignore the problems and questions. Watching the wild geese migrate I suddenly understand that this desire to share the stories and to call for truth and commitment in relationship is my migration sense. I am called to it. It is a particular thing inside me that says : “Yes! Get up and go do this. See it before you and let your whole being, your heart, will and spirit be bent towards it.” It’s not a thing that has to be told from outside. It is not a thing which I must encourage myself to do. I feel I must. I feel I cannot live unless I do. I feel like the doing of it is in fact life. it gives me life and I put life back into it. It perpetuates me and the life God put inside of me. But what if God isn’t in it? I want Him to be but I may not be able to sort that out at the time. Absolutes are not worth waiting for and are often wrong. I must go with what I have. The stories and experiences, the doubts and fears and the vision of what could be. It’s not all perfected or purged of self-centeredness and ego. The wheat and chaff exist together. But that is not my business. I must go with what I have and ask God to use it, advance it, or thwart it as He sees best. Wild birds do not ask if they should migrate. They just go. Maybe the stories are only for me. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. I need to do what is in my heart. In my heart I believe I am supposed to finish this story at the Platte river and God will show me why.
March 31st, 2008 (My second year photographing the Sandhill crane’s migration.)
There have been times when I have used the word “holy” and not completely understood it. I have to admit that it is a word often used in the wrong context which has made me bristle. To hear some speak of holiness immediately conjures up ideas of severity, discipline, perfection and sinlessness. The essence of it, to me, had always been, an unattainable state of being which was a requirement for my acceptance before an omniscient Judge. Frustrated by this kind of life and thinking, I gave up striving for holiness as I understood it. As a result, I think that some of the church and maybe some of my family think I’m lost.
I am not lost though. I am on the back roads. I have decided to take the long way home.
I’ll get there though! I’m sure of it now. I had let religion tell me I wasn’t holy. I couldn’t have believed it was possible for me to be holy until God showed me what it meant on the Platte river sleeping with cranes.
As a photographer you hope for all of the perfect conditions. You want the light in just the right place and the cooperation of your subjects. You are meticulous about your equipment and willing to sit and wait or to try again and again and again for the chance to capture a moment that has captivated your heart. It is an art and a science. It is almost impossible to do it perfectly and yet I derive infinite pleasure in simply trying.
The night that I stayed on the Platte river, the conditions for photography were dismal. It was overcast, dull and colorless. The North wind was gusting and making my eyes water which in turn created enough moisture and warmth to fog up the viewfinder on my camera. I took what pictures I could and then sat back and enjoyed the escalating symphony of crane wings and crane songs as the birds flew in from the nearby corn fields and congregated on the sandbars. At dark I crawled into my sleeping bag believing the experience was over until dawn the next day.
I had visitors in the night. The first was a mouse I assume. I didn’t actually see him but he made his presence known by stealing a corner of my beef stick and then hoisting the remaining package onto my head. After being made aware of this late night heist I had much difficulty getting back to sleep. On the other side of the thin plywood wall I hear bird sounds: A soft, quiet chortle, distinct and astonishingly close. Cautiously I wriggled out of my three sleeping bags and peeked through the window. More visitors! My breath caught as I saw a mass of silvery gray bodies bedded down next to my tiny shack in the reeds at the river’s edge. I felt frozen in time. I could have reached my hand out and stroked one of their feathers, they were so close. Their bodies were all touching, with no ground visible between them. It was very dark and yet a meager light from somewhere, diffused by the fog, was creating a surreal effect on that throng of shimmering feathers and curled necks. it was an unspeakable beauty. Upon seeing it I felt myself grow weak- nearly delirious with joy – and unable to move with the shock of their nearness. I remained spellbound- transfixed to the spot for a few seconds before I started to wonder if I could somehow “keep” this moment and I began to fumble for my camera. I moved very slowly, in micro-movements, toward my camera bag. when my fingers found the zipper in the dark I stopped. How would I go about my 4×8 foot plywood blind setting up the tripod and changing the lens without making a sound? How would I even press the shutter release button without alarming them? Even if I managed all of that, the light from the LED would give me away in an instant. As these thoughts started to take shape, a crane turned its head toward me. I drew back further into the dark and gently replaced the hinged window in the closed position. Kneeling in the center of the shed, I put my hands on my knees and bowed my head. I was calculating. “I want that picture.” I thought to myself. I started to feel frustration and a hint of disappointment. Wasn’t I supposed to “be the photographer” and come up with a way to “capture the moment”? The soft vocalizations of the birds and rustling in the grass brought me back to the present and I opened the plywood window once more. This time when I looked out into the dark I became aware of a third, unseen Visitor.
God was with us.
In a section of the Platte river designated as a sanctuary for Sandhill Cranes, my photo blind had come to represent the Holy of Holies for just that moment. Through that experience He was showing me exactly what holiness was. I didn’t desire to move. I scarce dared to breathe.
Once I accepted that I wasn’t going to get a photograph of that moment, there were no ‘works’ left to perform. With that realization I felt a sudden wash of relief and purity of being.
Me. God. And 400,000 Sandhill cranes. All resting in each other’s company on a sandy river bank. I needed to do nothing. In fact, doing anything would have detracted from the experience of being there. As a result of being there, my idea of holiness was re-defined. It was not about a meticulous performance or a flawlessly executed action. It wasn’t about being really, really good at something. It was about being really, really close to someone and not needing to take anything away from it at all. Holiness was about respecting the relationship between me and them and a healthy fear of not wanting anything to jeopardize our ability to remain close. Holiness is relationship in its purest, most selfless state.
Holiness is being all together in the nearest possible proximity with the heart transfixed by greatness and the will intent to do no harm and cause no dismay.
It should be pursued but it cannot be captured. “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness…without which no one will see God.” (Heb. 12:14 NKJV) It doesn’t mean that you are banished by God for living a sinful, imperfect life. I believe it means, if you aren’t able to let yourself be quiet before Him, how will you ever be able to see that He is there? It is we who prevent ourselves from being able to see Him. God does not prevent it nor does He desire to. By “quiet” I mean an absence of striving rather than a cessation of physical noise. We are not accustomed to this way and we have been told wrong. It feels unnatural and somehow unproductive. But at all costs one must find this way to God, to nature and to one another. Holiness is constraining in a sense but not in the sense I had formerly thought. When you find yourself in that place you will gladly give yourself to being held by it. It is surpassing wonder and captivating beauty. It is a moment of rapturous joy, free from all forms of taking. Holiness is not something, if we can begin to fathom it, that we would ever say to ourselves “I should work on being holy.” If you ever get a taste of it – to glimpse it for even a second – you would truly find it is, as C.S. Lewis stated, “Irresistible.”