When I don’t pass myself off as a Secular Chaplain I sometimes say I’m a Nature Chaplain (I’ll say more sometime about why I consider people like John Muir and Walt Whitman to be Nature Chaplains). Here are some hints at what this means, at least in the wild thinking of my mental wilderness.
Today it is raining, which it hasn’t done here in the Far West in a very long time. Immediately the robins were singing and fluttering about with a sense of winged joy. Wave after wave of Canada geese glided into the pastureland out toward The Bay. Pure white egrets followed, all seeking the fresh green shoots sprouting from the soaked soil. I couldn’t help but wish I could be on the wing in the wild wet. In a little while, I’ll be out there to breathe the washed air and draw in the joy.
Yesterday it was warm and sunny. Along my usual walk by the “river” (actually a creek that rises and falls with the tides), I was delighted to see one of my friends and we stopped to have a conversation. I didn’t expect to see her out so soon in this season. Normally she sleeps a lot this time of year. My friend had been in an accident and had a head wound. She lost the sight in one eye. As I bent down to speak with her, I touched her back. She squirmed a little and flicked her tongue at me. I know my friend doesn’t really hear me or know what I’m saying. I have no imagination that there is “communication” or an “understanding.” But I often crouch to speak with creatures along the paths I choose, I try to be silent and still and let the two-way fear dissolve in respectful fascination. At least I wish it to. And now and again my friend the gopher snake appears on the trail, looking like a twisted stick or discarded rope tossed across the dirt. And she is always a welcoming sight. A gentle touch of her back touches something in me that remains ineffably pleasing.
A jogger stopped to ask what kind of snake. A power-walker stopped to say he’d seen a rattlesnake nearby. I doubted his story and made a doubtful face before he “powered” on (not hot enough here for rattlers, and I’ve never seen or heard of one, but lots of gopher snakes). I left my friend with a nudge to move off the trail, and I mindfully meandered on, jogged in mind and powered by the nonhuman community I have entered.
I looked back and saw some folks stopping to look. I felt protective and hoped they didn’t harm my friend. Imagining their questions about the snake I thought I would say, “Unless you’re a gopher, you’re probably safe.” Circling back around, I scanned the area for her. There she was, not so easy to see now; coiled defensively in the camouflaging grasses. I wished her well and sauntered on, smiling like a fat gopher who knows this snake isn’t feeling up to the chase today.
One other companion greeted me along my warm walk before the rains. I saw him down the trail and off a little to the left, sitting on a rusted pipe where flood waters would drain. He’s black as the depths of that pipe, but as full of sunlight as. . .well, as the sun. The breeze seemed to be ruffling his feathers a bit, but what I heard made me stop in my tracks. My friend was lowering his head and coughing, at least that’s what it sounded like. Again and again, he put his head down and made a gutteral sound. I asked him, “Are you Sick?” I don’t think he heard me as he was coughing again. This was puzzling; I’ve heard ravens and their cousins the crows, make many odd and delightful sounds, but this was different and caused some concern. I wished him well also, and walked on, hoping that he too would be safe and find health and live a long wild life.
These encounters with my “friends” are enjoyed day by day, season by season, year by year. The endless wonder and lessons, like so many interactions with humans, “friend” and. . .the rest. . .remind me time and again why it is so Good to be Secular, to be a part of this present, interesting, curious world, in relation with it and no other, sharing it with my fellow inhabitants, and why it is so good to be Alive on this teeming earth, to hear the songs (and the coughs), to see the ones who fly (and who die) and to touch the fur and fuzz and scales with those who are awake even when they shouldn’t be, and I awake with them.