What Nature Teaches: On Suffering and Steadiness

by Judith Dupree May 08, 2015

I live in the southwest, or, more particularly, the far southwest corner of this great, rugged-ragged hunk of earth―where it ends in an endless seascape. It―San Diego County―is an unordinary panorama, with its potpourri of terrains and neighborhoods and breathtaking shorelines.

Further inland, beyond the continuous clots of habitation, a long, slow rise unfolds―undulating hills and creviced valleys peppered with flocks of live oak and manzanita, strewn with sage, the "heather" of our terrain. And yes, this nearly-uni-season haven―daydream of many an east coast "survivor," is also an ongoing, four-season lesson in durability and fragility…endurance and defenselessness.

Some days ago the wind lashed at us again: It comes as a thief, a wild beast racing free, pouncing, devouring, sucking the lifeblood from all things green, sucking the soul from life. Conjuror of fiery death. Santa Ana, they call it. Or devil wind, appropriately, breeder of fire. Oh, they are not frequent, but once a lifetime is many times too often.

We who live in the sprinkling of small villages that cling to the backcountry hills―savoring their timeless simplicity/eccentricity―have learned to live with our ears tuned for this telltale roar. The howling voice of nature gone insane.

In one of these fires, a friend lost everything but her life, and nearly that. She has written a book that takes us through the fear, the horror that she experienced―and deaths too grisly to describe, too near and known to forget. Ultimately she has come into abundant life. The transformation from victim to "victor" was not, of course, quick and easy. But today she celebrates the new radiance of living, and we feed upon the richness of her testimony!

Twice through our years here I have been paralyzed with such fear, watching the great trees beside (and fringing) our house groan and teeter with their incessant whipping, felt the crescendo of crashing limbs upon our shattered deck, inches from our windows. I have seen the dark bloom of smoke on the near horizon, the way it flares to crimson and consumes the sky. I have coughed incessantly in the acrid air. (And yes, we have fled, wisely, when the wind turned its dark face toward us.)

And so I have become, gradually, both "tenacious and tentative." I have forged something akin to strength, to endurance―qualities I never claimed, never fully understood.

Nature teaches us such stern lessons: Seek its beauty, solace, incomparable inspiration. Memorize and celebrate its great and small particularities―treasures beyond description, beyond the artist's brush or camera lens . . . and carry them lightly. Holy sustenance. Let them "feed the stream" that feeds us, that balances us when all the smallness and dailyness, the shriveledness of life closes us in. That gives us breath when we are sour with despair.

That teaches us, over and over, to inhale and release. Love and let go.

Now each sunrise and sunset that my friend experiences upon that once fiery mountain is a radiance of a new sort. The gift of endurance and its wordless wonder is born from the ashes of utter defenselessness.

I have seen, and known, this life-taught gift again and again.

There are many heartbreaks, a slight or brutal chain of them draped upon us all. To live is to come to terms with suffering, to come to birth in a new landscape. Whether or when we are brutalized by the weather of nature or the nature of mankind, or the distorted nature of our own cells, we may search out a way to see beyond the rubble.

All losses are not finally, ultimately, losses. A house and its heritage, our history, is not our life. We cannot understand the heights of wholeness, the miracle of eternal Now, until we know this.

Daily we face the endless unraveling of life across this haunted earth, and across the street, and in our sometimes haunted homes, and our throats choke up. We have to mourn; it is a gift and a tithe and a demand that God lays upon us―and yet, soon or later, we turn/are turned once again to the delicacy and clumsiness of that dailyness we live in. Of course! It must be so; we are not meant to mourn our way through the days.

No, Christ mourned merely for a moment before the tomb of His friend Lazarus―wept with his grieving sisters. And then . . . He turned back to the tomb and called out: "Come forth."

Another dear sister discovers that a fire is raging through her body. It is not benign. Her new Landscape is both uncertain and quite certain. I am mourning for one long moment with/for her. Her eyes crinkle with uncontained love for all the varied dear ones sharing time and bread and written-down words and pungent herbs. There is a Table spread before her. She is living to the uttermost, readying for the eternal Now.

The call to us each, I believe, is to come forth. To fully live―in but not for the things and ways and means that have necessarily engaged us, and yes, entombed us. We forbid them to define, to engulf, to drive us to fear the frenzies that drive the world. The gift is to learn to dwell with steadiness upon the desert of smallness, wade steadily through the swamp of misery. Without becoming small. Without allowing pain, loss, to devour the holiness of this-day-given.

We can live broken-mended on the raw edge of life―without edginess, knowing cell-deep that all, all of life, is both durable and endurable. Fraught with peril, seasoned with grief, and raucous with joy. Timeless . . . and so very fragile.

We are created to embrace and release, over and over. To find a way to face the roar of wind without collapsing. To rise from a fearful crouch. To stoke our wounded soul on sudden sunrise.

Judith Dupree
Judith Dupree


Judith Deem Dupree's first nonfiction book, Sky Mesa Journal, was published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in 2016. She also has three prior volumes of poetry. Judith founded and directed (1996-2010) Ad Lib, a retreat and workshop for persons of faith engaging in creative arts. An establishing member of the San Diego Christian Writers Guild, she served on the board for many years, teaching locally and nationally. Judith also created and co-directed Mountain Empire Creative Arts Council in eastern San Diego County. Her current projects relate to completing work in fiction, music and drama, and always, poetry.

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