I live in a city famous for air pollution, across the river from a horrendously run-down section of Detroit. My neighborhood is decorated by abandoned shopping carts and graffiti. Two years ago the city workers went on strike for nearly the entire summer, and as weeds grew waist-high in our public parks and walking trails, the air was filled with the buzz of flies and wafting smells from temporary garbage dumps.
Yet, several times a year, into our man-made world of steel and smog come flocks of wild geese in their migrations. They fly overhead in perfect Vs and gather by the Detroit River, flocks of black-cheeked Canada geese with the occasional white interloper in their midst.
Their arrival makes me aware of a greater world outside of my own, a world of mystery and beauty where God feeds and directs all His creatures for His glory and pleasure. This is the world of sunsets and thunderstorms, of lightning and snow, of the deer that graze boldly along the highway through our city, and the insects that buzz in the summer trees.
Genesis 1 speaks of a week of creation, seven days in which man took up only the last: six days before that of earth and sky, water and stars, birds and beasts and beauty. It’s a world held together by incredibly precise and complex forces, a world scientific and mathematical, yet a world breathtakingly artistic. “What do I make of all this texture?” Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
What does it mean about the kind of world in which I have been set down? The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.
Wild geese in the city are a reminder to leave my little world behind, to abandon for a while my careful mental and social and emotional constructs, and to plunge into the wider world God created and said was good — to go and look at it, listen to it, breathe its air, feel its imagination, and worship God in it.
I plan to come back to my own circles, of course, but I’ll bring back with me something of bird song and starlight when I do.
The good world is never far away, though it is fallen now. Even in the city I can see it, flying overhead in the wings of the geese, spinning a web in my window frame, building a nest over my door. It’s there in the moon that shines down at night and glints off the river; it flows between my city and the one across from it, flows and swims and floats and shimmers there. It’s there in the parks, wooded and grassy, which I seek out. It’s there in the countryside, only a drive away. Forty-five minutes from my house is a national park. I pay for an annual pass so I can go and wander among the trees, covered with vines and leaves as though they were a jungle, so I can stroll along the boardwalks and watch rabbits and skunks disappear as I approach. I go so I can sit on the sands of Lake Erie and watch eagles fly over the marsh.
Last year there was a meteor shower, and my family and I loaded into our vehicles around 11 p.m. and drove to a nearby city park with a hill. We climbed the hill and spread blankets down on the top, and we lay there and watched the stars fall.
It’s a very biblical practice, immersing oneself in nature. “Go to the ant,” Solomon said; Jesus drew our attention to birds, flowers, and seeds, and spent time on mountains, in gardens, and walking on water. David stargazed. Psalm 148 revels in creation and calls it to praise:
Praise ye the LORD . . . Praise ye him, sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light. Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens. Let them praise the name of the LORD: for he commanded, and they were created.
Praise the LORD from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps: fire, and hail; snow, and vapours; stormy wind fulfilling his word: mountains, and all hills; fruitful trees, and all cedars: beasts, and all cattle; creeping things, and flying fowl.
Let them praise the name of the LORD: for his name alone is excellent; his glory is above the earth and heaven. (Psalm 148, abridged, KJV)
In the book of Job, when God at last came to speak with Job, rather than explaining His actions, He turned Job’s attention to creation:
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
“Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no man is, on the desert in which there is no man, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground sprout with grass?” (Job 38:22–27, ESV)
To go into nature, to hide away in a park or under a dark sky ablaze with stars, is a reminder that God is great. It is a reminder that His work and His hand extend beyond our cares and concerns to “where no man is,” that His thoughts are high above ours. Nature has the power to evoke powerful emotions in us, to make us feel something of the spiritual, to hear the answer to a call “I do not remember calling,” to train us to “the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.”
My life, like my city, is prone to smog and graffiti, to confusion and bad smells. I experience the fallenness of creation in myself every day. It is easy, in such a place and such a condition, to feel that after He said, “It is good,” God must have withdrawn. But such is not the case, Jesus tells us, drawing our attention back to nature, “Not one [sparrow] will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29–31).
In Celtic tradition, the wild goose is sometimes used as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. The picture is apt, in some ways: Geese, like the wind, come from far places we cannot see and go where God directs them, mysterious and wild in the midst of a domesticated world. When my grandmother died, a flock of Canada geese flew over the cemetery at her burial, a striking reminder that God’s work goes on, that His creation continues, that His purposes, those close at hand and those remote and wondrous, are still at play.
Wherever we are, nature surrounds us. God is always at work. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote of a swallow’s breathtaking free-fall, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
To be there, to know awe, and to sing the praise of our Creator.
Copyright 2011 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.