I rest here in this Lenten time between winter and spring, this “time of tension between dying and birth” as T.S. Eliot says, this time where the green energy of the world is just beginning to seep upward, out of the frozen ground and into tender blades of grass, flawless shoots of leaf. I rest here in the last light of the day pondering the bare twisted branches of oaks. I can still feel the warmth of the fading light on my face, but the breeze is getting cooler as the sun rolls to some other patch of earth.
My whole being craves the light, the warmth, the energy seeping back into foliage. Like a moth, I shift out of shadows, fluttering towards ribbons of light, drinking the warmth into my every fiber, every cell. We still have a number of freezes and frosts to come, but we are finally, finally past the hard stuff of winter, and spring’s coming now feels inevitable.
The branches are still stripped and the ground is still brown and brittle, but only for another week or so. The trees know in their bark, in their bones, when the days grow longer. They, too, crave the warmth, sense the lengthening light. Ever so patiently, ever so silently, they wait, they pay attention. Put out the shoots and buds too early and they may freeze, wither, and fall to the ground. So they wait, naked and cold, dry sticks trembling in wind, reaching toward light.
I went to Radnor Lake this morning to walk the trails for the first time since early last fall. I went seeking the sound of the coming of spring, the quiet song of a world waking up. I went seeking Sabbath and looking for a sign. It felt so good to move my legs, abandon my phone, explore the trails. The only trails I’ve walked this winter are not strewn with fresh mulch or flanked with signs seeking the preservation of the “fragile beauty of the forest” like those at Radnor. No, the trails I’ve walked this winter are foot paths that lead to outlawed encampments along abandoned, overgrown plots of land, along embankments, train tracks, and wooded slices of the city with enough winter coverage to shield blue tarps and tents from police and passers-by.
Yes, the signs we looked for all winter were different signs of life—fresh tracks, fresh trash, and the scent of campfire smoke. We went further on old foot paths and discovered new ones, found both crude and skillful makeshift homes beneath bridges, in the rafters beneath train trestles, in old water treatment facilities, in tunnels beneath railroad tracks, up the sides of cliffs, in caves. What we found was the underside of Nashville—hundreds of men and women living off the grid in the most hidden, primitive, and bewildering sites: old refrigerator boxes insulated and covered with plastic, forts made from pallets and used mattresses, carefully laid branches and tree trunks tied and set into the skeleton frame of a house in the woods off a busy road. The structures we found were aimed to shield and protect, to keep out the dangerously biting air, the unbearable cold.
One campsite had a fake house plant, a rug, and a miniature ceramic nativity set just outside the tent, but in the nativity, Joseph was missing his arms and the manger was empty. Yes, in this season of frost, baby Jesus is all but gone, for he has grown into the same men and women who shiver now with only makeshift places to lay their heads. The manger was an omen saying this life will bring you hardship, inhospitality, filth, disease, and death. I know why Mary weeps, why the bags are so dark beneath her eyes. And then, on the bottom of a “State Property, No Trespassing” sign, we found the words “forgive us” scratched with a finger in the dust. Yes, forgive us indeed, for we know not what we do.
On one of the coldest days of the winter in mid-January, Derrick and I walked for what felt like miles on tracks south of town, switching our footing from sharp gravel to the splintered wooden beams of the tracks. A gentle snow and quickening wind followed us and a massive train, with tons of metal and maybe a few travelers, screeched passed. We found three sites I had never seen before, one with a man living in the carefully wrapped and insulated refrigerator box, a mattress-fortress, and the shell of an old industrial site, mossy and derelict from the outside, charged and vibrant with street art and graffiti on the inside.
On our way back, as we were walking on the wooden beams, peering through the snow, talking about tattoos and graffiti, I suddenly jumped off the tracks and my heart jumped into my throat. I gasped and grasped my hands to my chest to keep my pounding heart from leaping out. I had come within inches of stepping on the lifeless body of a coyote. The dead creature lay on its side in the middle of the tracks on the wooden beams between the rails, frozen, shriveled, still intact. I shuddered. It was much smaller than I would have thought, the size of a small dog or large fox, lean and gangly, with rusty gray fur matted to its cold body. I’ve heard of coyote sightings in the city, but never imagined them to be this small, this frail, this destructible. Stunned and a little shaken, we walked on, mostly to get out of the cold, but I wish we would have buried it somehow or moved its tiny body off the rusted tracks into the brush, at least. But we walked on.
Radnor Lake was created in 1914 to serve as a reservoir to supply water for steam engines, stockyards, and livestock that were shipped for hundreds of miles across the country. Men and horses spent countless hours carving out the lake bed, reshaping the hills, moving tons of dirt and Tennessee red clay from here to there. After the operation was complete and the stockyard and engines were sufficiently supplied with water, migrating birds in need of rest and food began flocking to the lake. Today, very few signs of past industrial activity are discernible. The tracks, beams, and rails are gone. The steam engines have rusted or rotted or disappeared and the air is now fresh and clear. Most of the people walking these trails seem to be middle-to-upper-class, listening to music or words through ear-buds, looking for exercise and reprieve from the busy rush of life.
The rolling hills of Radnor have been well-preserved as a sanctuary for nature and animals and no camping is allowed. You will find no tents, no tarps, no crushed coyotes on their grounds, no Christ-less nativities, no campfire smoke, no insulated refrigerator-box-homes. The hidden winter footpaths we walked, however, were a different kind of wild where the natural world still intermingles with the industrial, the urban. The invisible and unknown people on those trails are just trying to survive another day, another winter, just trying to stay out of sight, out of mind, lest CSX or the police remind them of their trespasses.
The sign I asked for from God at Radnor was a weasel, like Annie Dillard’s, or a hawk. Just let me see something wild with black, bottom-less eyes, I thought. On my first five minutes on the trail, something indeed caught my eye: not a weasel or hawk, but the round, soft, enormous body of an owl sitting on the thinnest branch of the smallest tree less than 10 feet away from me. Was this my sign? I stopped quickly, afraid to move too much. It was nearly 10 o’clock in the morning in broad daylight and the owl was peering into a small creek bed, cleaning its claws. Before I knew it, I could hear a family approaching, talking loudly. My heart sank, my silent encounter was about to be shattered. Oh no, I thought, just another minute with this creature, please don’t ruin this moment! The owl heard the commotion, too, and looked to me and then to the direction of the voices and shouts. It looked and looked, weighing its options. And then its heavy body dropped from the thin, low branch, spread its soft and mighty wings, and coasted like a paper airplane to a nearby tree, higher up, further away. The family saw this and started shouting louder, “An owl, an owl! Look, a real owl!” “Quick, take a picture,” yelled the father. “It’s like Harry Potter!” exclaimed the mother. “Look baby, look at the real owl! What does the owl say?” “Woooo, wooo!” answered the child. “No, whhooo, whhooo!” corrected the mother. The owl looked at them, almost amused, and posed for several shots before coasting deeper into the forest.
The grounds of Radnor are covered with fallen trees, their once-live wood hollowed out, loosening their rigid flesh, sinking back into the earth, silently giving in to their own decay. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? According to philosophers, that is up for debate.
Last week during one of our emergency warming shelters, Lauren received word that a young couple who was camping saw an elderly man who had fallen and was lying on a hill in a patch of woods. He was unable to get up, unable to move, hungry for warmth and trembling like a bare branch in the wind. She took a few volunteers with her and set out to find him. Sure enough, not too far from the tracks, was what she called “a tiny waif of a man” who was babbling incoherently and had been lying in wet clothes and his own filth for four days without even a blanket. If a man falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear him, does he make a sound?
This fragile man of skin and bones couldn’t remember his name, the year, or what city he was in. Like the fallen trees at Radnor, he had resigned himself to sink back into the earth, to die alone on the wooded hill. They carried him into the van and took him to the shelter to survey his condition. They found severe exposure injuries to his feet, legs, arms, and hands, and ulcers on his body from lying on the ground for so long. He was dehydrated and in a state of shock so they took him to the hospital. Lauren stayed with him all night in the sterile, sleepless room while his old dry skin was poked and prodded, while his wounds were dressed and warm fluids were pumped back into his hollow, withered body.
If a tree, if a man, falls in the forest, if a wild coyote dies on the tracks, if a human being lives in a discarded refrigerator box, if an owl drops from a branch that trembles in the wind and no one is around to hear or see them, do they matter at all? Do they make a dent in our histories, in the harsh and gracious fabric of our world? Had the couple not stumbled across the waif of a man, he would have made no other sound but the silence of his dying as his ulcers pulled him back into the ground. Trees fall, humans fall, living things struggle, suffer, approach death. Will we listen for the sounds they make? Will we lean our ears closer to the ground and listen for the carrion voices of our brothers and sisters, of creation? “It is important that awake people be awake,” writes the poet William Stafford. Dillard says the earth turns on this kind of death, this harsh and gracious cycle of life—that every plankton and barnacle and horseworm has a place, a role. Yes, let us be awake and embrace our corner of mystery in the world with open ears and eyes. Let us feel sorrow and joy amid the cycles, let us be ever mindful of the fallen, ever longing for the coming return, the coming resurrection, into spirit and soil. Yes, in this season of Lent, we remember how we are marked. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.