Updrafts from the Rio Grande Valley pounded a white anvil against the stratosphere as the jet moaned over New Mexico while I looked out the window. I’d just finished reading the letters of Everett Ruess (in “A Vagabond for Beauty”, edited by W.L. Rusho), a graduate of Hollywood High School, who disappeared into the Utah wilderness in 1934 at the age of 20. He started filling himself with the emptiness of the West on long sojourns, usually with no other company than his pack burros, at 17. From Monument Valley he wrote a friend: “I have constantly known beauty so piercing as to be almost unbearable.” When some Utah Mormons asked him what religion he professed, he replied that he was a “pantheistic hedonist’. To another friend he wrote: “I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the red sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world. I have rejoiced to set out, to be going somewhere, and I have felt a still sublimity, looking deep into the coals of my campfires, and seeing far beyond them.”
This was my return flight to Los Angeles from Pennsylvania, where I spent a long weekend on a farm with my wife and our grandchildren, ages one and seven. We chased butterflies. We watched a wren feed her babies. We walked in the woods. We opened milkweed pods to see what was inside. Rumi, the older of the girls, pointed at golden glowing stalks of grass ahead of us on the trail next to the cornfield, lit from behind by the setting sun. “The sun is so close, even though it’s far away!” she joyfully exclaimed.
That brought to mind the book I finished on the flight to Pennsylvania: “The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: The Mystical Diary of Opal Whitely” (Opal Whiteley and Benjamin Hoff). In the early 1900’s, a precocious girl about Rumi’s age, enthralled by the natural world that surrounded her in the Oregon woods where she lived as a lumberjack’s daughter, began to keep a diary. She listened to the poetry of the trees. On the way to school, she fed her lunch to the animals and insects that she counted among her best friends. Regularly she worshiped in a “cathedral” of trees in the forest, accompanied by her menagerie of animal companions. She gained an encyclopedic knowledge of flora and fauna at a remarkably early age. As a teenager, she became a sensation in Oregon as a speaker about nature, spirituality, and religion. She rode the train to Hollywood and made a failed bid at acting in the very earliest days of the film industry. At the age of 20, her childhood diary was published and became an instant literary sensation around the United States. The book was sought particularly by mothers living in cities who wanted their children to have an appreciation for nature. But Opal appeared to suffer from symptoms of mental illness, perhaps schizophrenia, and the manifestations of it resulted in her book being discredited. She then wandered the world, claiming to be a French noblewoman, befriending and living with a noble family of India, moving to England penniless, and spending the rest of her life in a mental institution there. In her diary she wrote: “Then I do take a reed for a flute. I climb on a stump – on the most high stump that is near. I pipe on the flute to the wind what the lichens are saying. I am piper for the lichens that dwell on the grey rocks, and the lichens that cling to the trees grown old.”
Everett Ruess and Opal Whiteley could be described as outliers, oddballs. And there’s truth in those characterizations. But in poetic prose they cast thunderbolts of wonderment that echoed beyond them. The very extremism of their lives still cuts through the chainstore stripmall eggmcmuffin flatscreen humdrum that passes for so much of our existence, and calls us back to a romance with the natural world that is our source and sustenance. Nature is so close, even though it seems far away. It’s as close as a weed growing in a sidewalk crack in the middle of the city. Opal Whiteley would have crouched down and sung it a song. Everett Ruess would have followed the source of the seed from which it grew, all the way to the middle of nowhere. The last signs that the searchers found of him were inscriptions on red rock cliffs in a remote canyon that said “NEMO 1934″. Nemo is a Latin word for “nobody”. His life appeared to end in an out-of-ego experience of oneness with nature.
So from my seat on the airliner I blessed the woods of the Eastern uplands, revered the ordered rings and rectangles of the flat American heartland, adored the wrinkled landscape of the high plains, worshiped the thunderhead over New Mexico, and honored the sinuous canyons of the Southwest. I fell in love again with the earth, and all that is in and on it. Just knowing the facts about the environmental crisis is not enough to move us to change how we live, including curtailing the kind of jet travel that I indulged in last weekend. Divine love for the earth, Everett’s and Opal’s and ours, is the hope of this fragile planet.
With our senses attuned to nature’s rhythms, may we all become pipers playing the songs that the earth sings in hope for its preservation.
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California