Fairies are nesting in my trees. Right there in my front lawn, at the very top of my tulip poplars.
In the wintertime I can see them cleverly posing as seed clusters perched at the end of the trees’ highest branches. Sometimes they look like golden chalices, or crowns, or stiffened gowns hung upside-down. When the wind is right you can hear them whispering, as if conspiring about the next mischief they will play on the deer.
My backyard is enchanted too. Nestled among our thickening forest of maples, black gum and tulip poplars are the young, boastful beech trees. The two adult beeches in the yard have sensibly dropped their leaves by now and stand stoic and naked against winter’s cold. The young beeches, though, are all puffed out, shimmering with their golden robes of rustling leaves. They may be outshone in summer by the foliage of the grown-ups; but in the winter, they are the stars of the forest.
I didn’t always see woods this way. Usually the only whimsy I entertain is reserved for the tooth fairy. But given the unfortunate rift between humanity and nature that continues to plague much of the modern world, and given the utilitarian, commodified and mechanistic approach that we take toward nature, maybe the best way to restore an appreciative, awe-filled relationship with her is to re-enchant her.
Imagining playful, vulnerable, even dangerous denizens populating the natural world is one way to do that. Bereft of science, our ancestors did so. To them, nature was sentient, responsive — a pulsing presence, not an inventory of resources waiting to be mined. Native hunters addressed their prey, thanking them for giving of themselves so that the hunters might live. Houses were built to deflect the demons, honor the directions, the winds, the elements of life. There was no sense of entitlement; little sense of domination. Rather there was an awareness of mutual dependence and appreciation.
The difference between those ancestors and me is that I have come to see the enchantment of nature not as a surrogate for modern science, technology, medicine and knowledge, but as enhanced by them. It began in earnest with a guided tour of the trees and lichens and fungi of my own backyard, courtesy of the Natural History Society of Maryland. It was deepened through my hands-on work of sawing and splitting and burning wood, through seeing how trees that stand stock-still, unable to dodge predators or pursue food, somehow manage to do both. And in recognizing the dendritic pattern of tree branches repeated in rivers, arteries, nervous systems, neurons and Darwin’s evolutionary tree of life.
Through all this, nature has turned from stranger to what the Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler calls the “theatre of grace,” a majestic mystery of which I am honored to be a part, and for which I am privileged to serve as witness, at least for an infinitesimal amount of time.
To see all this is to see that nature’s greatest mystery lies not just in the awesome ways of life but the very fact of life.
Caring for the earth is the bedrock of what we are called to do. As the earth goes, so goes humanity. As botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey wrote 100 years ago: “One does not act rightly toward one’s fellows if one does not know how to act rightly toward the earth.”
Genesis Two captures this in its creation of humankind: Eve (havah: meaning “life” in Hebrew) is taken out of Adam (adamah: “earth” in Hebrew) who was taken out of earth, signifying that all life — everything we see and know, everything we build — emerges from our one indispensable, irreplaceable Earth.
So I see fairies in my forest, not because they are really there, but because they capture a sense of re-enchanted nature, a nature that rightly celebrates its own being. And that awareness helps me imagine my trees, their birds and squirrels and bugs, this watershed, this piedmont, this continent, this world, as a miracle beyond belief. And if we are not awed by it every day, if we do not care for it as the unbearably precious declaration of Life that it is, who will?
A thousand years ago, a medieval Jewish commentary on Genesis Two captured this idea of enchantment and warning: “When God created Adam, He led him around the Garden, pointing out the plants, trees and animals. ‘See how lovely and awesome the world is. All this I did for you. Be careful that you do not spoil and destroy it, for if you do, there will be no one else after you to set it right.’ ”
The views of columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.