Sunday, June 20, 2010

SERMONS IN STONE: A FATHER'S DAY REMEMBRANCE


                                 "And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
                                  Finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks,
                                  Sermons in stones, and good in everything."

                                                           Shakespeare

My father was a plain-spoken man who knew little about the works of Shakespeare. I am certain, nonetheless, that he would have smiled in both recognition and delight if he had discovered this little meditation on nature from As You Like It.

An avid fisherman, my father spent most Sundays of his life "floating the creeks" that snake through southern Mississippi in route to the Gulf of Mexico.  The creeks were his churches, he often told me, places where a man, unadorned in Sunday finery, could go and worship in silence -- not by talking, not by petitioning -- but by listening.

Black Creek, Mississippi

Some of the local gentry in our community, particularly the local Baptist minister, were highly suspicious of my father's rationale for not attending church on Sunday mornings; in their view, the mere suggestion that fishing had a spiritual dimension was evidence that the fisherman had grown delusional in his search for the elusive large-mouth bass.  I knew better, however, because I had joined my father in the church of his choice on many occasions.

One trip, in particular, stands out when I remember my father on this Father's Day. It was a trip when I was about ten or eleven years old and just beginning to pay attention to what my father had been saying to me for years.  As I recall, we pushed our skiff into the creek just after sunrise, with my father sitting in the bow seat, while I -- grateful to be invited to join him -- directed the boat from the stern.  As we drifted slowly downstream, my father's fishing rod remained placed in his lap while he surveyed the sky, the trees, and the water gliding beside the boat.  "Look at the water," he said, " and tell me what you see."  When I replied that I saw "just water," he looked puzzled for a moment and then tried again.  "Look deeper," he said, "look at how the colors of the water change with each change in the depth of the creek. Yellow-orange means shallow water, deep orange a little deeper, and black means you're in the deepest part of the creek.  And pay attention as we reach this bend up ahead; watch how the water picks up speed in the eddies and sends pretty little whirlpools dancing downstream."

Before I could digest the relevance of what my father was showing me, he had moved into the tree life. "Look in these trees up ahead," he said; then, noticing that my response was less than awestruck, he continued.  "Not at the trees, George, in the trees.  Look at the specks of red and blue and gold that move about so quickly that you can hardly focus your eyes. Those are some of the most beautiful birds in the world -- cardinals, bluejays, goldfinches -- and if you listen closely, you will hear the sounds of another kind of bird, sounds that move back and forth across the creek. Those are whippoorwills, and they will call back and forth to one another all night long."

Finally, my father proceeded to fish, and in keeping with his reputation in the community, he soon caught enough for our weekly needs.  As the day was fading, however, he cautioned me to remain quiet for a few more minutes as we approached a pool of deep, black water behind a cypress stump.  "Quiet now.  I know he's in there.  Just watch the figure eight of my line as it curls around your head, and then follow the fly to a point about six inches above the water, where the magic will happen."  Before I could even look upward, there was a sudden explosion in the water as a large bass jack-knifed and grabbed the fly in mid-air.  "Just like I said, son. Just like I said."  He then reeled the fish in, brought it aboard, and laid it down on the middle seat to show me its contours and colors.  "Have you ever seen anything in nature quite like that," he said, and then gently released the fish back into the water.  "We have enough," he said. "Never take more than you need."

At that point, my father put his fishing rod down and we just drifted down the creek to the bridge at which we would "take out."  The sun began to fade, herons fed along the shadowed sandbars, and my father remained silent, but for one whispered admonition: "Don't make noise with your paddle, son.  We're in no hurry.  Just slide the paddle blade in the water and use it as a rudder to keep us in the middle of the creek while we enjoy the beauty of this place."  He did not want the silence of his church to be disturbed by any human commotion; nor did I.

So this is what I learned from my dad on that memorable day many decades ago. Pay attention to the miracles of life happening before your eyes in every moment; listen to the rhythm of life in all of its many forms; and honor creation by traveling lightly and taking only what you need.  I will always be grateful for these lessons, and, whenever possible, I try to honor my father by finding "tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stone, and good in everything."

Happy Father's Day, Dad.  I hope you are spending this day on a creek somewhere.

P.S.  I have just returned from my coast-to-coast hike across England.  Today's posting in remembrance of my father was written before I departed and saved for this Father's Day.


16 comments:

  1. A moving and beautifully written tribute to your father on Father's Day, George. What lessons he taught you!

    Welcome back.

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  2. excellently put. I looked at rivers as just water until my friends took me canooeing here ... Tramp

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  3. To Solitary Walker,

    Thanks, Robert. The coast-to-coast was one of the greatest experiences of my life, stunning in its beauty and life-affirming with its challenges. I will be posting some articles and photos about it in the coming days. During the meantime, I look forward to reading the postings you have made while I have been away. Hope you had a great trip yourself.

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  4. To Tramp,

    Thanks for the comments. Haven't heard from you in a while, so I trust that you are doing well. I will check out your site to see if I have missed some postings while I have been away.

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  5. Welcome back George.

    What a sweet, touching tribute to your Father. How blessed you were to grow up under his wise and loving wings.

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  6. What a beautiful tribute to your father, George. I find it quite stunning. Fishing as communion, nature as a cathedral, finding scripture written in creeks and trees; no preaching, just seeing and feeling. I'm saving this to reread a few more times I'm sure.

    Looking forward to hearing about your trek.

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  7. To Bonnie,

    Thanks for the nice comments. I know that I was blessed to have a father with keen insight and a wise heart -- and I remain blessed, for which I am always grateful.

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  8. To Lorenzo,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and generous comments. I especially like your observations about fishing as communion, nature as a cathedral, and finding scripture in creeks and trees. I look forward to checking out your site in the next few days to discover postings that I have missed during the past few weeks.

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  9. George, welcome back!

    I was thinking, yesterday (having not been online much over the weekend), that you'd be back soon. What a nice, nice post about your dad. I was struck by the dynamic of an elder teaching a younger person about the benefits of being observant (and seeing below the surface) and encouraging the awareness of the intricacies of relationship with an environment and its other inhabitants.

    I would have liked that. Thanks for sharing.

    :-)

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  10. To Neighbor,

    Thanks for the kind and thoughtful comments. Now that I am back, I look forward to catching up with what you have been writing about.

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  11. Thanks, Ksam. You're very kind.

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  12. I'm glad Lorenzo brought attention to your Father's Day post at his wandering Eye, since this post was before I started reading here. I really felt I was there with you and your dad, gliding on the water, feeling the chill of the bottom of the boat.

    As a child of a Baptist minister, who loved nature but did believe it was essential to be in a church building on Sundays (and Wednesdays), it touches me to read such a loving essay (an apologia, of sorts) about the church I go to now (and always wanted to, truth be told). Very soul satisfying, your writing.

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  13. To Ruth,

    Thanks for the kind and generous comments. It's nice to know that some of the things my father taught me continue to resonate with other people.

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  14. George!! This is beautiful! And you are so right--your Dad sounds a lot like mine. We could be relatives. Ironically, I think you posted this right before I met you, because I don't remember seeing it. But I do remember your coast-to-coast hike. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention. I love it.

    I especially love how your father took the time to notice the details that are important--like the different colors of water which are different depths. He sounds wonderful.

    When I read your wish that your father is spending time on a creek somewhere, it brought tears to my eyes. As the song says, I know my father will have a cabin in the corner of Gloryland. That's all he would want. A cabin, woods, and water.

    I also love your Dad's lesson to never take more than is needed. That is such a good lesson to learn. Thank you again for sharing your father with us here. This makes me feel so good today. Three cheers for thoughtful, plainspoken men.

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  15. To Julie,

    Thanks so much, Julie. I thought you would find some similarities. We have both been blessed with "thoughtful, plainspoken men."

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