By the way: It’s not a “spill” or a “leak.” It’s a full-fledged cataclysmic disaster. No matter how the BP executives or others may want to spin it.
For most of my adult life, I’ve been a hiker, bird-watcher, lover of nature. I used to live in Atlanta, where those lovely habitats were an easy drive from me. Better yet, my Atlanta job let me travel to some of God’s most beautiful areas.
If I could turn back the clock 30 years and re-enter college, I’d pursue a degree that would let me become a park ranger or some similar career as a naturalist.
In my hiking and amateur naturalist avocation, swamps and marshlands have been my favorite habitat. I have spent much time in the ecosystems along the Gulf coast. They are – or used to be – beautiful, delicate, subtle, and unspeakably rich worlds. They were worlds in which I spent time with God, even when I was very far estranged from Church and from God.
I remember spending nearly an hour in the Everglades with a friend and a great blue heron … quietly … just watching the heron be itself. Had I been a churcher then, I would have removed my shoes, knowing I was standing on holy ground. I have seldom had such holy moments. Far from church in those days, I knew I was with Some Holy Thing.
Of course, I didn’t have liturgical language in those days. And I wouldn't have talked about "God" in those moments. The "church" had beat God out of me -- had convinced I was dirty, unworthy, "not fit matter."
Another time, and later, in a “dark night of the soul,” hiking alone in the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, I wanted only two things. I wanted to see a roseate spoonbill. And – full of despair, and at the end of my rope – I wanted to die. I intended to realize both on that trip.
In those days, my work took me often to the swamps and glades where one might expect to see roseate spoonbills. But they had eluded me for years. They weren’t present, or they were nesting just beyond the focal length of my binoculars. … So I went again to Ding Darling, hoping to see some roseate spoonbills and plotting my death. I walked and walked, seeing many of the creatures I loved in the habitat I loved. But, of course, yet again … no spoonbills.
It was getting on toward dusk when I heard a call above me and looked up. Though I couldn’t see them clearly, I knew it was a pair of spoonbills.
I changed course, moving in the direction they were flying. As I walked, I saw more and more pink forms in the evening sky, moving in the same direction.
Pretty soon, I came to the marshy pond where they were landing, and I sat upon the bank. At first, I tried to count them. Ten. Twenty. Forty. A hundred. Wave upon wave of spoonbills came landing in that little pond, in pairs and small groups. I quit counting when it got over 140.
And they kept coming. Filling the little pond … almost close enough to touch … though I would not have tried to touch them. I sat silent and motionless on the bank … watching them … grateful for that experience … and literally weeping at the beauty and grace that was spread out before me. Though they were simply doing what came naturally – eating at the end of the day – I was transfixed by their beauty and grace. Especially by their beauty. And by the simplicity of their lives: eat, fly, enjoy ... I might now even say "exult." And I was transfixed by that gift that had been given to me – I who had hoped to see one or two spoonbills, now sitting on the waters’ edge with hundreds before me.
In that evening, Nature brought me back to God … after church had beat God out of me.
As I sit here now in flyover country – very far from the lands that I love to walk – all I can do is watch and listen to news of the devastation happening along the Gulf coast. I still remember that evening with the spoonbills, who delivered me from death. And I wonder if we have destroyed that world forever.
* About the photos: I did not have a camera at the events I described here. The photographs I used here are from the Web, with credits.