My friend Jane often misses church in summer… and fall… and spring. “We were worshipping in the green temple,” she’ll say later. Meaning, of course, that she and Garon were outside on Sunday morning. In which case, I’ve been church-shopping vigorously: in the Rattlesnake, on Mount Jumbo, on Sentinel, in the Elkhorns, up to Glacier Park. I am fickle and can’t commit to any particular congregation. I aim to join them all.
Strange to say, I can walk all day and not feel bored. Training for the JMT is a perfect excuse to do a lot of that, loaded up with gear or not. It’s not always pleasant in all ways, but that’s what it’s like in the green temple. Especially when I let go of counting miles and hours, of dreaming about my next snack, of caring that a fly’s circling my head with missionary zeal… and listen:
Ambling down an unmarked trail as the temperature rises into the hundreds and sweat slicks my neck, the unmistakable sound of moving water comes softly, from underneath all the other sounds of the woods: a tiny spring, hidden by ferns and old branches. Zamzam, I think.
Zamzam is the name of a friend I met when working in refugee resettlement many years ago. In the break room one day, she told me the Muslim tale: Hagar and her infant son Ishmael were left in a desert valley without water. Hagar scoured the valley, climbing every mountain, praying, until in exhaustion she set her child on the hot ground. Then, miracle: fresh water sprang out where his feet touched. Zamzam explained that her name is really more like “Zam! Zam!” (“Stop! Stop!”), for the spring flooded with such generosity that it overwhelmed even parched Hagar. The awe that elicits Zam! Zam! is understandable: even a slow trickle in midsummer, water purified by earth and brought back to us to carefully enjoy and revere, is a miracle indeed.
It’s not something I’m exactly proud of: I find the divine spark more easily in inanimate objects than in people. There is no such thing as an ill-tempered rock or an unlikable tree. There are no moods, only endless variety of forms. There is no love, conditional or otherwise, wanted or wanting. There is nothing to do but observe and appreciate.
My favorite way to do this, alone in the woods, is comedic impressions of trees. They jut, they creep, they rocket, they burl, peel and clench. I want to point at their dramatic survivalism. (Rocks also have character, but they’re much harder to impersonate– er, impetronate). The trees are doing what they were born to do, shaped by the shade and the fire and the wind, and with what flair they manage it. My mimics aren’t anthropomorphism, but the other way round: dendromorphism, let’s say. Homage to foliage: well done, good and faithful servants!
Early morning, before the heat comes into the air, I jog a few miles up the trail at Logging Creek. The path passes in and out of burned zones springing back into the life cycle: aspen, fireweed, small firs amid the hulls of old growth and deadfall. The unburned forest smells of vanilla, another thing I learned from Jane: the smell from the bark of old ponderosas means one can identify a stand with eyes closed. What is it about this intimate knowledge that feels like memorizing a book, a Good Book, the Good Book of learning that will never end? The world is a small and perishable place, but everything stands for something else. Ponderosas may well stand for eternity, fire cycle notwithstanding.
From the sunny ridge of Waterworks Hill overlooking Missoula, I drop into the sheltered ravine on the far side, lined with shrubs, spike mullein, and a few meadowlarks. The white noise of interstate traffic and the busy town dies as quickly as I step below. My ears hadn’t realized they were deadened. Now they hear the muted dance of grasses, and though the world has shrunk, it feels at once endless and holy. It’s divine. No matter how much I think or read or even pray, god has always been to me only a sense of wonder and unknowing amid vastness. Lots of folks feel certain (or convicted, as they say) about religious matters, but not me. I think I’ll never feel secure that way. But that’s OK. Mystery is underrated, and no amount of scientific or philosophical investigation, while worthwhile, can diminish the mystery of the world and all that is beyond. Tucked into the pocket of Waterworks, I sit in the trail and listen thirstily to less, drinking in the space, one clueless and content iota.