Eastertide: Out of the Church and Into the Trees

A family of Lesser Goldfinches Nesting in the Arizona Ash Tree overhead

I could not wait, anticipation climbing with each step up and into the Catalina mountains in the Coronado National Forest near Tucson. Like a growing number of naturalist Christians, I am tracking God in nature these days, not in church, even on Easter.

My hunger for the great outdoors has become acute and commanding. The place I am most reliably replenished waits for me around the next bend. I come away from my encounters with the natural world feeling as if a thirst I didn’t know I possessed has been utterly quenched.

Nature is no substitution for church you could claim and I may agree. I am a Benedictine Oblate accustomed to solo devotions yet church holds the promise of communion and sanctuary.

But oh, wandering the firmament! Pitch-perfect bird song surrounds me on this day, rivaling the best church choir. Spring breezes rustle through an amen of cottonwood trees shading the banks of the arroyo and the air is as sweet and redolent as I feel the Holy Spirit to be. I stride like a resident bobcat, smooth and instinctual, reveling in the God-given power of my able body.

Walking the trail along an arroyo is like walking down the aisle at a wedding with giant bouquets of bright wildflowers as tall as church pews on each side. I am mad for wildflowers, simply overcome by the diversity of shape and runaway migrant color.

Sonoran Desert wildflowers straddle the Arizona-Mexico border. This year, I think of them as Guadalupe’s Wildflowers in honor of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a mother from Phoenix, deported this year to Mexico. The wildflower’s ephemeral flowers mirror Guadalupe’s fragile beauty, the night I.C.E. took her away.

Wildflowers: an Easter Resurrection, the annual triumph of life over death. The first to catch my eye on the path were spiky lavender Thistles and Miniature pale blue Wooley Stars. Then, dark blue Arroyo Lupines deepening in color and spreading to a carpet of purple Owl’s Clovers.

Miniature pale blue Woolley Stars

Halfway into the hike, we stopped at cool water meandering down the arroyo, maybe the last water we’d see until late summer monsoons. As we ducked into a spot of shade under an Arizona Ash tree just greening out, a small commotion erupted in the branches overhead. A streak of yellow shot past us, landing on top of a snag on the other side of the creek bed. With binoculars, we identified a Lesser Goldfinch, one of a pair.

The couple’s nest, tucked into the tree canopy over our heads, brimmed with four big-headed chicks. Later, I learned that the seeds of the lavender thistles spotted along the path, are the favorite food of the Lesser Goldfinch and thistledown: the favorite lining material for their nests. Landscape connectivity provides all the conditions to support life: food, water, and shelter.

There is life everywhere here. The key to opening the wonder hidden in plain sight is patience; the quintessential contemplative practice. I sat as still as possible on a smooth boulder in the center of the stream, adjusted the zoom on my camera, and caught the baby birds in the nest, craning towards their mother’s return, mouths stretched open as wide as their heads.

The Lesser Goldfinch Father of the nested chicks

Many minutes later, my companion pointed out a gray Canyon Treefrog, perfectly camouflaged next to me on the boulder. Down the stream, a healthy foot-long desert lizard sunned itself on another boulder. White, gold and black butterflies dotted the corners of my vision and bizarre looking insects skimmed the top of the stream. The air felt soft, blurred with winged things.

I dug a copy of the New Testament out of my daypack. Opening it to John 20.11, I read and wept with Mary at the loss of her son and then wept some more, this time with joy as I imagined Mary discovering him alive. Cupping my hands, I scooped up cool water from the stream, poured it over my scalp, and cooled the hot skin on my face with wet palms. My tears melded with the waters from the stream and I was refreshed and made calm.

Still Waters

Hiking back, we noticed the white flowers first. Daisy-like Fleabane and Tufted Evening-Primrose. Then, pale yellow Paper Daisies and orange Arizona Honeysuckles.  Loveliest were snapdragon-like pink Desert Penstemons, a favorite of hummingbirds and bumblebees.

The Catalina mountain’s high desert plant species, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals are protected by sturdy American Environmental laws that manage our borderlands. Organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity implement those laws, especially critical now with a border wall in the making that would split all biological connectivity.

I believe, the urgent wilderness call I hear is no accident, but part of a greater calling. I’m reminded of Frederick Buechner’s oft-quoted “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Over the Easter weekend, faith leaders from a whole host of religions spilled out of churches and into the streets, linking arms in front of a Detention Center in Los Angeles to pray for our broken immigration system and stand for those who have been silenced. Recognizing that God has no Borders underscores a larger truth: To desecrate any one thing – the land, the animals, or the people – is to desecrate all god’s creation.

Church is everywhere these days, the scent of sacred activism perfuming the air like wildflowers, drawing us closer. It’s up to us now… we who love the land, the animals and the people, to link arms and stand for the most vulnerable among us.


2 thoughts on “Eastertide: Out of the Church and Into the Trees”

  1. Valerie. A wonderful collection of inspiration and insight on that hike which supports the notion that nature is transformative. The photos of the birds and flowers nicely accent the piece.


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