All Creatures Here Below

Original Photo by Adam Whipple

The road to the lake is so twisted that one stretch is named “The Dragon’s Tail.” Our truck, bristling with canoes and kayaks, yaws through the tight curves like a ship coming about, far too sluggish for the thrill-seekers swarming thick to challenge the dragon. Motorcycles and hot rods stack up behind us like a trail of creeping ants, and when we turn off the highway they gun their engines, freed. The boat launch is quiet though, the dusty pebbled road lazing with its concrete toes in the water. We load canoes as close as we dare to the sinking point, the grind of the final push giving way to sudden silent weightlessness as they slip into the water, gunwales low to the murky green.

On the water we’re sluggish again, but there’s no wind today to shove our burdened convoy backward. There are also no jellyfish beneath us, as there were in the early years of these trips–quarter-sized wisps pulsing through the dim, impossible as faeries. It’s silent here, but for the murmur of water, the subdued splashes of our paddling, and our jests tossed from boat to boat. An excess of sky seems to have pooled between the mountain ridges, rippling with wet laughter, so there are clouds above and below us. We taunt each other across a mile or so, and with shoulders burning, we make landfall. The Island.

Our advance scout rolls lazily out of the silken cocoon of his hammock to greet us as we clamber up the shifting rocks. Joe made the journey alone, by moonlight, to claim this ground before any rivals. He accepts our praise with a bleary smile. Without his midnight quest we might have been forced to camp somewhere other than this, the magic spot. We heave gear up the steeps, amid head-sized stones that turn over to gnaw our ankles. Thirty feet from the water a fringe of gnarled pine roots reaches out into empty air, marking the border from bare rubble to stubborn forest. We sling our hammocks between leaning grey pillars on the edges of the island’s narrow wooded crown, leaving open a dirt patch around the firepit. There are a few among us who can’t sleep with so much air between them and the earth , so they grub among the roots and rocks and sloping ground for the least bad place to lie down tonight, and wedge tiny tents into what gaps the island has left them. All the activity startles gray-brown lizards who dart into stony crevices or up tree trunks, where they turn invisible on the bark.

There are coals glowing dull amid the pale ash from our morning fire. Dug in, we fall to feeding these into crackling life. By tradition there must be meat cooking as often as possible, and we need to start making inroads on the absurd amount of beef and pork in our coolers, or we’ll have to haul it out when we leave. While marinated steak sizzles on a black iron griddle, contributions to the island library begin lining up on the long plank spanning two flattish boulders, with smaller rocks pressed into service as bookends. Lewis and Chesterton have made the trip with us, along with Dostoevsky. Golding has not been forgotten. Every genre is accounted for on the dusty plank, where leather-bound, gilt-edged tomes snug up to creased paperbacks with only remnants of coversan ephemeral Alexandria in the wilds.

Others arrive in twos and threes, until our chatter spreads out and goes spilling off down the rocks. A swimming creature is sighted. No, it isn’t a beaver, it’s Dave, come without a boat and swimming all the way in. He arrives with eyes red and swollen from the cold water, and we older ones reminisce about having the energy of youth. From there the conversation turns to the year an armada of wild boar swam from the nearer southern shore and landed on the island; and the tale is told once again, with much gesticulation.

We fill our bellies with steaming pork in memory of the boar as evening draws in. Small and innocent looking flies snatch mouthfuls from the backs of our ankles, leaving a welling drop of blood each time. A breeze carries them off and palavering goes on without further predation. Pipes and cheroots are lighted and fragrant smoke wafts amid conversations of fatherhood, books, authors, church planting, the correct pronunciation of Pinus strobus, third-party candidates, the kid who was seized by the head and pulled from his hammock during a bear attack half a mile from here, impending marriages, and how long you think you could live alone on an island, far away from mankind. We gather gingerly on the sharp rocks as the sun sinks between framing mountains across from us, setting the lake aflame. As the last gleam flares a harmonica appears in old Maynard’s hand to sound out the Doxology, and we join our voices to the familiar strain and the unheard song of the emerging stars.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” we sing, especially those of community and camping, among nature’s wild imagination.

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From Dust To

The Lord God, our Word, pressed round wild David,
Brought to bloom within the cathedral of Mary.

He is Spring reigniting—the glory of impossible
YES, a sapped ointment cooling the leprosy of NO.

He is instructor and extractor of self,
Plumb-line Thought and lush-dipped Feel.

Selah—my blood and marrow under chatty inked skin
Draw no distinctions, as no formal presence

Contains my name on His breath—sung
Beyond and before my family’s embodiment.

To live is Now and Then—Silent and Blistering,
Water in mooned cycles melting mountains.

You and me—Exhaled into dust each one—
So content claiming Genesis in the wind.

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On Starting from Scratch

I spent a lot of time when I was younger wishing that I could do certain things. My older brother is an artist who works primarily with metal via blacksmithing. My dad is a lifelong commercial carpenter who, in my mind, can build just about anything. To see them create things with their hands was, and is, incredibly inspiring. The idea of creating something, anything, whether practical or artistic, has been deeply imbedded in me from birth.

What was also imbued in me from birth was a wonderful sense of self-defeatism.

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Charging the Congregation

I sat in the passenger seat of my friends’ car as Indiana beamed under a rare mild July day outside. Cornfields sped by and washed into an impressionist blur. Stephen was driving, and Rachel sat behind me. The Greatest Showman played in the background for the kids.

“When you’re careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself,” said an actress.

The adult dialogue up front felt similar. We talked about divorce among our friends. In my short marriage thus far—thirteen years—being close to divorced young people has been not only an emerging theme, but a cup of great frustration. I wrote a song about the relative pain of it years ago; it’s emotionally nauseating merely to hover near the situation. Looking in, I can’t imagine the soul-wounds sustained on the inside of the upheaval. Once you’re so close to a person—intimately, emotionally, dependently—there’s no way to completely extricate that person from your heart. Divorced people know this, and the rest of us can guess. My most pressing complaint during our Indiana drive was different, however, because I remember my cousin’s wedding.

My uncle was officiating, and he took the opportunity to lay out the reason for an old tradition.

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The WordPlayers Present: Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë’s masterwork Jane Eyre is something most of us read in grade school. We remember the gilded Victorian prose laid over absolute reams of paper. We remember, perhaps, vaguely liking parts of it—the curious figure flitting about Thornfield Hall, the fire, the mystique of the rolling moors—but having rather a difficult time with the pacing and the oppressive atmosphere. I may have to revisit the novel, though. Firstly, of course, I’m older. Secondly, I spent a delightful afternoon viewing the WordPlayers’ rendition of Paul Gordon’s and John Caird’s musical stage adaptation, playing this coming weekend at the Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville.

The cast gives life to the characters in such a way that I wish they had been there for me in high school Senior English. After leading last year’s Little Women to great effect, Casey Maxwell returns now to play the steadfast, stoic Brontë heroine with evocative depth. Coke Morgan’s Mr. Rochester is the perfect cynic, giving you just enough reason to dislike him even while drawing on your sympathies.

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Self Love: A New Gospel

It has occurred to me that in a lost culture that largely doesn’t know where else to place its faith, self-love campaigns, inspirational memes, and the self-empowerment movements have become our new gospel.

I wake up in the morning and scroll through my Facebook and Instagram feeds, which are littered with political commentary and hatefulness in a culture that claims to love. I suppose to reverse the effects of all this negativity, inspirational memes like these are created to spread positive vibes and cozy thoughts. I understand where these inspirational thoughts are coming from. And I would much prefer to see this positivity on my news feed than all the hateful and destructive things going on in the world. Understanding who you are and how to interact with life is important. But from a spiritual standpoint, in these inspirational memes, sneaks an underlying falsehood that is oh-so-well disguised. These inspirational ideas that our culture is coming up with are being cultivated from a ground that is human powered and self-focused. A ground that does not recognize the joy of God as a savior or a place to find solutions.

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