Beside still waters: hiking and spirituality

John S. Mercer
John S. Mercer

This is a Sunday sermon delivered by lifelong friend John Mercer at the First Religious Society on March 13, 2016. It’s a great read, several reads actually. — TDR

Opening Words

Let’s begin with a bit of heresy from 1863 written by the startling Miss Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts: I reckon – When I count at all – First – Poets – Then the Sun – Then Summer – Then the Heaven of God – And then – the List is done . . .

But, looking back — the First so seems To Comprehend the Whole — The Others look a needless Show — So I write — Poets — All —Readings

I have two readings, both poems, heeding, as I do, Miss Dickinson’s evaluation of poets. The first is by her, written in 1858:

It’s all I have to bring today—

This, and my heart beside—

This, and my heart, and all the fields—

And all the meadows wide—

Be sure you count—should I forget

Some one the sum could tell—

This, and my heart, and all the Bees

Which in the Clover dwell.

The second reading is by Robert Frost, his sonnet called “The Oven Bird,” published in 1916.

The Ovenbird

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

“Beside the Still Waters”

When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

I dedicate this sermon specifically to several people at the FRS: Will and Sherry Rogers, Susan Ricker and Bill Zarakis, Peter and Kelly McNamee, John Dodge, Megan and Steven Lichty, Christina Spurling and Andrew Trepanier, and Florence Mercer – and to all others in this congregation who are fellow travelers of the rough northeastern trails.

= = = = = = =

As I have mentioned in a previous sermon here, I have been an on-and-off meditater for over forty years, and often what I put in my head for meditation is somehting out of the King James version of the Bible, something like the 23rd Psalm. While choosing the King James version does doom me to the sexism of King James’s guys in the 1600s on top of the sexism of the shepherd culture well before the common era, I do have the comfort of meditating with the words that I first heard as a child.

So those are the texts, and I let the words drop one at a time into my mind, as if they were pebbles into oil. Now you can’t do that over forty years without the words beginning to imply more than they actually say. One day not long ago I realized that the Psalm had become for me practically a bullet list of how to find the spiritual.

First – the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want – you should put your trust in the idea of the divine

Second – he maketh me to lie down in green pastures – you can find the divine by metaphor in nature

Third – he leadeth me beside the still waters – in nature you can discover the peace of the spiritual

Fourth – he restoreth my soul – in the peace of the spiritual you will be renewed

Fifth – he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake – the result of renewal is recommitment to pursuing what is good

The magic of this Psalm occurs right at this point, where the “He” turns into the “Thou,” and the rest of the Psalm is about the results of the foregoing. Or put another way, trusting in the divine, seeking it in nature, discovering peace in the seeking, being renewed, and pursuing what is good gets you past the knowledge of death without fear, gets you a feeling of protection while being aware of evil, gets you cared for and fed, and gives you trust that there is a future.

In a round of the Spiritual Authobiography program here at the FRS, I discovered that I associated spirituality most directly with steps 2 and 3, the nature steps, the green pastures and the still waters. With that in mind, I wrote a poem, called “Preparing for a Hike.”

Preparing for a Hike

consider the season

in the spring, pack some sandals for water crossings

in the fall, an extra space blanket

for the unplanned night out

consider the route

imagine your way through the good route

and also the other route,

the less preferred,

the one you’ll need when the first proves impassable

consider what to carry in your head

do not listen to sappy music before setting off,

the sappier the music the more it will stick and repeat,

repeat and stick,

the more you will resent your own brain;

don’t worry about what to do with your head

when coming out;

your head won’t work in the latter part of the hike

consider what you’ll be passing through

know your trees, your ferns, your mushrooms,

your wild flowers, both the garish and the shy;

know the birds by their calls,

and distinguish the chickadee

from the white-throat sparrow;

mind the oven bird;

take joy in the winter wren,

your most tireless companion

keep in mind the obvious thing a trail teaches—

that others have gone here safely

and keep in mind the obvious corollary

when you’re bushwhacking

and far from any trail

and dangling perilously from a rock ledge–

that maybe no one has ever tried

to do something like this here before.

and be ready,

with the first step,

to give up all this grip of control

and let the journey unfold on its own,

as it most certainly will.

Let its accidents become opportunities,

its challenges become triumphs;

let it enter your heart and inhabit you;

let it sanctify you,

let you and the journey and nature be one,

as you most certainly are.

In my readings, I used the Emily Dickinson poem, “It’s all I have to bring today,” and Frost’s poem “The Oven Bird” to give two different views of nature. Dickinson’s gives us a very 19th Century view: nature as powerful and abundant:

“This, and my heart, and all the Bees / Which in the Clover dwell.” But now it is harder for us to think of bees as figures of abundance. We are likely to think instead of Colony Collapse Disorder.

Frost’s poem is not exactly about a diminished nature, which is something we might write about today, but instead is about the natural diminishment season to season – “mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.” But his ending words, “The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing” haunt me every time I hear an ovenbird piercing the northeastern woods. He or she gives the call over and over, always in the same repetitive cadence.

In fact, a previous generation of northeasterners named these birds “the teacher bird,” giving a good idea of the kinds of teaching they’d been subjected to and of their low esteem for teachers. But I hear in the call as well “what to make of a diminished thing.”

Another poem of mine called “Hiking beside Myself,” describes a process of the hiker entering nature and nature entering the hiker:

The hillside angles up. The morning sun

is blinding, streaming as it does atop

the ridge. The whistling wind won’t stop,

and birches shimmy in a way the prim would shun.

At trailside, white bunchberry abounds

as does the mountain sorrel, pink veined

and tangy sharp, and ferns where it had rained

still carpet hollow rooms from bound to bound.

The tracks and scat show passage, markers of the trail

more accurate than blazes, a freeway up

and over, down again, encircling pond or mud.

No separating this from that—

that’s the tale

of nature: it’s everything we see

and I am deep in it and it is deep in me.

The title of this poem, “Hiking beside Myself,” is the most mystical thing about it, for that is the feeling to me of the divine expressed within the woods on a hike, the feeling of being not myself, but out of myself, beside myself, a calm observer beyond myself. Who knows? Maybe it’s endorphins, which sometimes produce a feeling of uplifted well-being during vigorous exercise.

Our view of nature has gone through an enormous change in the last 150 years, gone from a view of nature as powerful, abundant, sometimes scary, something to be opposed, to be carved into to allow for community – to a view of nature as something fragile, in distress, something that needs shepherding and protection.

Most fundamentally, we have moved from a view of nature as affected only by forces well beyond the power of human behavior to something much affected and challenged and put at peril by human behavior. Such a change of view certainly changes the metaphors we make of nature and thus the kind of spirituality we find in it.

We move perhaps from feelings of awe at the grandeur to something more tender, such as the protective feelings of a parent.

Some radically dark thinkers assure us that nature itself is not under any particular threat; but humans are, they airily assert. Such assertions give no comfort at any level; most important, it seems to me, that without humans to react, no being will know that there is the possibility of finding the spiritual within nature; in fact, no being will know that there is nature at all.

Such dark thinking drives me back to important Harold Babcock territory – the importance of this day.

Soon after the Spiritual Autobiography program I wrote a series of poems on Robert Richardson’s list of Emerson’s ten guiding principles:

Principle 1: “The days are gods. That is, everything is divine.”

If divinity must be

it cannot differ much from me

cannot take wing

or transmute self,

must be clear for all to see.

But divinity won’t show so obviously,

won’t come to lunch

or hold the hand

(whose hand it does

we know enough to keep away from).

This day, this hour, this everything

is all there is,

and after that is nothing,

not even sense of nothing,

just nothing,

a vacant space with nothing.

This day is God

and every part of it


It is thus I answer darkness.

So even with this change in cultural view, still I seek the spiritual in the green pasture and next to the still waters, as in this poem called “The Spiritual Life.” To make sense of it, you’ll need to know that I have been for much of my hiking career a “list hiker,” working my way through lists, for instance, of the 115 peaks in the northeast over 4000 feet or the New Hampshire 52-with-a-view.

The Spiritual Life

Here’s how it works:

the list gets you to the map,

the map gets you to the trail,

the trail gets you to the mountain top,

the same trail gets you back.

It’s simple, the spiritual life.

Somewhere in there,

the breath enters,

the spirit arrives,

the language not of words

not of images

begins its alluring motion.

Somewhere in there,

the ‘w’ questions disappear

where is the top?

when will I get there?

who have I become?

and especially why do I do this?

they disappear entirely,

and the out-of-breath breathing

becomes the breathing of the hike itself.

The hike—

not its distance but its motion—

gets larger and larger,

overcomes the other clamor from within.

And questions of self and how fast or how far all go away,

and you become the hike, it you.

The limbs do what they must to keep the motion going,

but you’re almost outside yourself or not yourself,

or maybe your a-self,

your unself,

your being alone with your body

and the motions it is making.

It’s interesting:

that the aerobics on the trail up

should allow the mind to loosen grip on self,

should let you simply be,

let you become the hike.

Spirit, from spirare,

what with its breathing,

has cognates rich with suggestion:






So those ‘w’ questions, especially “the why,”

yield only the normal answers:

the view

the check-off

the aerobics

the fauna and the flora—

but none of those is near the core of it.

They are the things one answers with the intellect,

but it is the diminishment of intellect,

the diminishment of normal feelings

as you know them,

that you seek.

You seek the top to take the trip

that gets you out of yourself,

beyond yourself

above yourself

without yourself.

And that,

that sense

of simply being,

of being without the prop of intellect,

of being without the feelings

that you ought to have,

that feeling,

that space,

is spiritual.

It breathes through you

in relaxation.

So as pleasant as is the social hike,

the friends all joking and gabbing up and down the hills,

even singing songs or reciting,

you still prefer the single-hiker hike.

All those moments when you throw off

the chains of normal thinking,

when you are both observer and observed,

when judgment takes a holiday—

they are spiritual.

And what breathes in us then?

What but the thing that makes us human,

much less knowledgeable,

much less historical,

much less concerned—

much more a sensibility along for the ride

but not guiding the ride.

So all the winter and into spring, you say,

almost as mantra:

The list gets me to the map,

the map gets me to the trail,

the trail gets me to the mountain top,

the same trail gets me back.

The spiritual life, it’s simple.

Alain de Botton suggests that the spiritual within nature comes from a somewhat less athletic encounter, in his fascinating book, “The Art of Travel,” published in 2002. He writes, “Sublime places gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events. It is not just nature that defies us.

Human life [itself] is as overwhelming. But it is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us. If we spend time in those spaces, they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.”

And speaking of dust, my dear friend and hiking companion John Case once wrote to me that he hoped he had the wit, when on his death bed, to put into his brain one of the fifty or so hikes we had done together, most of them off trail in wilderness. He was thereby putting in the same frame the ultimate existential moment and walking in the woods.

I responded to him with a sonnet called “Me, Too, about the Deathbed.” In this poem Knoblock, Cobble, and Santanoni are names of remote peaks:

Me too about the deathbed, what to put

into the brain before the final hike.

I’ll think of Knoblock, Cobble, or the like,

or those we walked each fall up Walker Brook,

or maybe that first trip up Santanoni,

the one with Paul—the heat, his yell: “Hot Tang!”

The rain that night crushed down the tents; it sang

and drenched my laughing college crony.

So, yes, if blessed with knowledge of my death,

I will, like you, call up to vision there

some lovely hike we’ve taken to thin air

and taste again a stunning alpine breath.

But let’s, instead, give up this dreary graveside track,

make up light lunches, put on our boots and packs.


Readings: “It’s all I have to bring today” by Emily Dickinson

“The Ovenbird” by Robert Frost

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