Monday, September 30, 2013

Glories of the Great Spirit*

Last Sunday, I shared with you a personal narrative of a forty-year friendship and a hike to the windy summit of Doubletop Mountain in Baxter State Park. That friend was Nat Bowditch, who passed away in 2008.

While I was editing my story, I was in touch with Stan Tag, a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Stan wrote his Ph.D thesis on Henry David Throeau and the 19th century Maine woods narrative tradition. Thinking that he might enjoy my narrative, I emailed him a copy.

When Stan saw the name that was the subject of my memorial tribute, he was startled. He thought that I had written about another Nathaniel Bowditch who, with his father, and three of his cousins,  had climbed Katahdin as a sixteen year old in 1856. That Nat Bowditch later died of battle wounds at Kelly’s Ford, Virginia in 1863, having served as a Lieutenant with the First Massachusetts Cavalry.

Nathaniel’s father was Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, a prominent Boston physician, abolitionist, and an avid outdoorsman. As a physician, he pioneered the use of the stethoscope in the US, promoted a public health system in Massachusetts, wrote a pamphlet advocating an ambulance system to care for the wounded in the Civil War, and with Julia Ward Howe and others, came before the state legislature year after year to urge suffrage for women, refuting the idea that they were physiologically unfit to vote.

He wrote a narrative of his 1856 ascent of Katahdin, published in 1958 and 1959 in two issues of Appalachia, the journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Henry Bowditch was my friend Nat’s great-great grandfather. In all the years that Nat and I hiked in Baxter State Park, and the three occasions that we climbed to the summit of the great mountain, we were unaware that his ancestor had been one of the first to climb Katahdin and write about it. Some years before, Henry David Thoreau had famously written about his September, 1846 ascent of the mountain, an account of which was later published in his book The Maine Woods.

Henry Bowditch was a Christian, though his theological views were progressive and ecumenically broad. While studying medicine in France and England in the 1830’s, he was profoundly influenced by the writings of the Anglican William Wiberforce—whose feast day is commemorated in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church—a single-minded crusader for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. Bowditch came home a militant abolitionist. He was proud to count among his friends, the escaped slave, memoirist, and great orator, Frederic Douglass.

Years before, when Henry was ten, his mother Mary gave him her Bible on her deathbed, which he carried on all his many journeys abroad and at home, even during his fourteen day expedition through the wilds of Maine, an enduring emblem of his piety and faith in God.

Stan Tag writes that, at a time in the 19th century when many adhered to the strict observance of the Sabbath—even, if not especially, the several clergy and their companions who climbed Katahdin—for Bowditch, the religious experience of being in the natural world, in the wild realm of God’s creation, was more important than keeping any particular day holy...Bowditch believed in making each day as much a sacrament as any other day.[i]

On Monday, August 11, his camping party saw Katahdin from afar, and Bowditch exclaimed, foretelling the praise of present day travelers who approach the mountain in awe: To the East arose in solemn silence, with his head veiled in clouds, the glorious Katahdin! I would that I could express in words one tithe of the emotions that arose within me, or give even a faint idea of the combined loveliness and grandeur of the scene.

Suffice it to say that here I enjoyed one of those rich communings with Nature & with men. Such as are not often felt... In silence I worshipped the Great Spirit, the Father of all, who watches over the Red and White Men and blesses all alike who seek [God] in reverential step amid the magnificence of his works.[ii]

Tag writes: Bowditch traveled through the Maine woods “with [a] reverential step”of his own, believing that the rivers, mountains, and trees expressed the glories of the Great Spirit. [His]narrative combines a wealth of details and observations about the well as a deeply felt religious awareness of his place in nature and his relationship to God.[iii]

Bowditch realizes that his deepest experiences in the Maine woods come not in keeping the Sabbath holy, but in recognizing that it is God who keeps us, and the world we live in, holy. For [him] traveling into the Maine woods is as much a journey of the spirit as of the body. Katahdin and the Penobscot River become sacred ground and holy water, places to commune with, and be baptized in, by the spirit of God.[iv]

I wonder: are we fast losing that felt sense of nature as being sacred ground and holy water, places to commune with, and be baptized in, by the spirit of God?

The Maine author, Henry Beston, thought so, though he might have phrased it differently. Do we really see as Beston saw, with a keen awareness and focused attention? Or what Bowditch so reverently observed in his many trips to Maine and the Adirondack Mountains? Have we lost the art of insight into the mystery of God’s creation? Has God’s creation become merely a backdrop to our mental machinations and increasingly fragmented lives?

Listen again to Beston’s exquisite paean of praise to a winter night sky at his farm in Nobleboro: The sky was less a sky of earth than interstellar space itself revealed in its pure and overarching height, an abyss timeless and remote and sown with an immense glittering of stars in their luminous rivers and pale mists, in their solitary and unneighbored splendors, in their ordered figures, and dark, half-empty fields.

It was the middle of the evening and in the north over a lonely farm, a great darkness of the forest, and one distant light, the Dipper, stood on its handle, each star radiant in the blue and empty space about the pole.

On Friday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth report. The report serves as yet another warning that without dramatic and rapid cuts in emissions of global greenhouse gas emissions, primarily emissions of carbon dioxide, the consequences of climate change could be disastrous in many parts of the world.

The report states that it is now extremely likely (extremely being a very precise word, meaning a 95% certainty) that the rise in global temperatures over the last sixty years is due to human activity. It further notes that projected sea level rise is 50% higher then last reported by the panel in 2007. Finally, it states unequivocally that the window of opportunity to do something about it—to overt potentially catastrophic results—is closing rapidly.

All this, yet we do little, as the “greatest” nation on earth, to avert what is perhaps the moral issue facing us today. Instead, we fritter away our days squabbling in Congress.

I wonder what Henry Bowditch would have us do? A spirited, resolute, and intelligent activist, a devout man of faith with a keen awareness of the sacredness of human life and of creation that translated daily into practical acts of healing, compassion, and justice, I think he would have been appalled at our indifference and inertia.

Learn to listen to the still voice of Nature as it speaks to our hearts, he would say. Pay attention. Give thanks. Act.

Under no circumstances have I heard that voice sound so solemnly or so sweetly as during this voyage down the Penobscot, he wrote in his diary, as his 1856 trip to Katahdin came to a close. It comes up before me now like the cadences of a great choral hymn.[v]


* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church; The Third Sunday of Creation Season; September 29, 2013 


[i] Tag, Stan “Growing Outward into the World: Henry David Thoreau and the Maine Woods Narrative Tradition, 1804-1886”; 1994 Dissertation (University of Iowa); pg. 45
[ii] Bowditch, Henry Ingersoll, “A Trip to Katahdin in 1856,” Appalachia, 1958, 1959, pg. 337
[iii] Tag, Stan; pg. 46
[iv] Ibid.; pg. 49
[v] Bowditch, “A Trip to Katahdin,” pg. 348

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Love Only is Eternal*

It had rained the night before.  We were soaked up to our thighs as we pushed through the wet underbrush and bushes that crowded in on either side of the trail.  The day, however, was clearing and a warming mid-summer sun promised to dry us out when we reached the north peak.

This was our third trip to Baxter State Park in northern Maine.  On our first two excursions, we had scaled Katahdin and stood triumphant and exhilarated on Baxter Peak. This year – it was 1991 – we began a series of explorations of the surrounding mountains and so spent the night in a lean-to at Nesowadnehunk Campground, setting out early the next morning for the summit of Doubletop Mountain.

Doubletop is a gem among the mountains of Baxter, its symmetrical shape and steep cliffs strikingly evident from Nesowadnehunk valley where the tote road wends its bumpy and rutted way around the park.  The views from its twin peaks rival those from Katahdin, with green forests as far as the eye can see and the surface of blue lakes and ponds and streams sparkling down below.  And to the southeast, mile-high Katahdin—the great mountain—rises up from the valleys and plains between the east and west branches of the Penobscot River.

My hiking companion, Nat, had been my dearest friend since childhood.  These trips were our means of reconnecting; an open space apart from our increasingly busy lives.  Three or four summer days in the wilderness rekindled the flame of our friendship.  Quiet talks by the campfire, tramps through the woods and strenuous hikes up steep mountainsides, paddling in the ponds of the park and, at the end of the day, invigorating swims in any number of ice-cold mountain streams strengthened the bonds of love and affection that drew us together.

Nat and I saw no other hikers on our way up the slopes and shoulder of Doubletop. We had the mountain to ourselves.  On that fine day, the crowds, no doubt, were amassing atop Katahdin, making cell phone calls to friends down below, huddled away from the wind. We reached the north peak in two hours time and ate our simple fare of cheese, bread and fruit, content to take off our boots, stretch out our legs and linger in the sun, enjoying the whole world spread out before us.

A favorite photograph of that day shows us standing arm and arm on the summit – that expanse of green forest and blue lakes in the background beyond us.  Nat had a thick two-day growth of dark beard and a navy blue cap perched on his head.

But there was more to our ascent of Doubletop that July—a discovery that would intrigue and fascinate us for years to come.  For as I traversed the mountain from the south to the north peak, I saw a gray rectangular plaque affixed to a large granite boulder just off the side of the trail. 

A six-pointed star with rays extending outward crowned the inscription. Beneath the words was a sculpted oil lamp, the eternal flame clearly evident. The plaque faced south, and the sun, having risen high in the morning sky, illumined its face, throwing the letters into sharp relief.  It read:

JUNE 10, 1872--APRIL 25, 1926
And beneath this the words:

I called Nat over and we gazed at the memorial, wondering who this man was and, even more so, who the remarkable woman was who scattered her husband’s ashes to the winds as the sun set over the mountaintops and daylight began to fade.

Many years later, I began to unfold the story of their lives.

Keppele Hall was a Princeton graduate who became a successful electrical engineer.  He married Fanny Hay in 1896 in Trenton, New Jersey.  The Halls lived briefly in Maine – where they retained ties over the years—before moving to Ohio, eventually settling in Cleveland.

Fanny Hay Hall was a community organizer, a peace activist, and a progressive and liberal woman of faith. She was a member of the Ohio delegation that marched in the 1912 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. She was the first American woman to serve as foreman of a grand jury.

The Halls moved to New York City in 1926 where Keppele died during a flu epidemic.  He was fifty-three years old.   Fanny continued her activism until late in life, turning her attention to women’s prison reform. She died in Brattleboro, Vermont, in June, 1968, at the age of ninety-four.

In 1926, the year of her husband’s death and the scattering of his ashes on that windy mountain summit in Maine, Fanny was fifty-four. The trail to the south summit of Doubletop from the Kidney Pond Camps—the camps then being privately owned—is just over four miles.  The lower part of the route, due to the occasional confluence of stream and trail, is often wet and muddy. Higher up, the trail climbs a steep, timbered slope to the summit. 

The Appalachian Mountain Club estimates that the hiking time from pond to summit via this trail—somewhat different than the one Fanny would have used—is three hours, twenty minutes.  Even with today’s lightweight, high-tech clothing and gear, that’s a moderately challenging climb for a fifty-four year old.

But imagine walking the trail in 1926, carrying your loved one’s ashes in your rucksack.  We may wonder: was she alone? If not, who accompanied her?  And what was said as she gave her husband’s ashes to the winds?  Or was the call of a raven cruising the mountain slopes, and the rushing of the wind on the summit, sound enough for such a solemn occasion as this? We’ll never know.

The long walk down the mountain and back to the camps was through the woods at dusk, in the fast waning light; perhaps a Swainson’s or Hermit thrush serenaded her on the way.  Cabin lamplight in the dark, and a sumptuous dinner—such as only the old wilderness camps could have provided—would have welcomed her on her arrival back at the pond.

On that strikingly beautiful July day in 1991, Nat and I lingered on the mountain.  After lunch, we made our leisurely way back down the north side of Doubletop to our lean-to at Nesowadnehunk Campground.  Libations liberally dispensed followed and a meal, perhaps not as splendid as that which awaited Fanny at Kidney Pond Camps, but delicious nonetheless.

For the native Americans of the Penobscot tribe, the Katahdin wilderness is a sacred place where the Spirit roams freely and powerfully and where mother earth reaches out toward the sky.  Dennis Kostyk, in his film Wabanaki: A New Dawn tells us:  “To be with the mountain is to make a commitment to participate fully in life itself, to encounter the forces of life and to be in balance with them.”

For all people, mountains embody a mystery beyond our control, just out of reach. Edwin Bernbaum, in his book Sacred Mountains of the World, writes:  “Floating above the clouds, materializing out of the mist, mountains appear to belong to a world utterly different from the one we know…Mountains have a special power to evoke the sacred as the unknown.  Their deep valleys and high places conceal what lies hidden within and beyond them, luring us to venture ever deeper into a realm of enticing mystery.  Mountains seem to beckon us, holding out the promise of something on the ineffable edge of awareness.”

A woman stands on a mountain summit at sunset, as if at the edge of a great mystery, and gives her beloved’s ashes to the winds.

On the same mountain, two friends stand arm in arm in the warming sun, smiling at you and me.  A raven cries as it rides the gusts along the ridges and then veers off, out into the vast open sky.

The author of the book of Job interrogates us: Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts and makes its nest on high?

Creation humbles us, makes us feel that we are but one strand in the web of life, and brings us to awe-filled wonder and silence.

In the 19th century, there was a common phrase among the devout about going from Nature to Nature’s God. Which is to say, meeting Creation face to face—communing with the spirit of wild places—we encounter the Holy Mystery at the heart of Creation.[1]

Nat died in September of 2008 from complications due to multiple myeloma. Ironically, he was fifty-three, as was Keppele Hall.

I returned to Doubletop later that Fall, seventeen years after we climbed the mountain in 1991. Sukie and I stayed at the Kidney Pond Camps. She remained behind to paint on the shores of the pond.

I climbed the mountain alone and was feeling my age as I scaled the steep, timbered slope to the summit.  In the fifties down below, it was cold on top, with a strong wind blowing from the south.  But it was a cloudless day and the sun shone brightly and I was cozy under a few layers of fleece and a windbreaker.  I found the flat expanse of granite where Nat and I stood arm in arm for our photo. 

A Mourning Cloak, a large dark butterfly with bright yellow fringes on its wings, flitted across the ledge and was gone.  After lingering for an hour or so, I put my pack on and reluctantly headed down the mountainside. Turning once to gaze back up at the south summit, I bid a fond farewell to my unseen yet ever-present friend, Nat.

Further on, walking along an old logging road down into the lowlands, the trail was littered with fallen yellow birch leaves and, here and there, a red maple leaf.  The autumnal equinox was just hours away and the turning of the seasons was everywhere evident.  Mother loons had been out on the pond that week. In preparation for their coming flight to the coastal waters for the winter, they were busy feeding minnows to their now almost full grown chicks.

Just before 4 o’clock, Sukie greeted me with a hug back at the cabin.  It was time for a hot cup of tea. AMEN

* A Sermon by the Rev. David S. Heald; St Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; September 22, 2013

[1] Tag, Stan; see his 1994 Dissertation: “Growing Outward into the World: Henry David Thoreau and the Maine Woods Narrative Tradition, 1804-1886” (University of Iowa) 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bear Blessing*

Matt Dyer was glad to be back home. Recovering at his home in Turner from life-threatening injuries, he recently told the Portland Press Herald: I’m glad the bear got away and didn’t get shot. I’d have felt terrible if that bear got killed because I was there. Dyer was mauled by a polar bear in July, at Nachvak Fjord in the Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador. I know the place. I was there in the summer of 2010 on the second of two summer trips to the park.[1]

Last September, in my sermon on the First Sunday in Creation Season, I spoke about being awakened in the middle of the night by my friend Steve, his form silhouetted against a night sky alive with stars. He was gazing upwards. The aurora he whispered. Pale yellowish green, blue, and violet lights hung like curtains and flowed like a river across the sky. We had been sleeping onboard the deck of a long-liner—a sixty-foot fishing boat—anchored in Nachvak, a fjord carved out by glaciers millions of years ago, with the dark mountains rising up around us on every side in that vast wilderness.

Matt Dyer had been on a two-week trip with the Sierra Club when the incident occurred. Delayed by inclement weather, they were at last transported to the fjord by float plane and the group set up camp ashore. As a safety precaution, they encircled the site with an electric fence. Whether inoperative or merely a trifling annoyance to the bear, it failed to deter him. Dyer was attacked in the middle of the night and dragged from his tent. Flares set off by his fellow hikers frightened the bear and saved his life. A physician in the group did what he could to stabilize Dyer until rescue came at dawn.

On my first trip to Torngat in 2009, my group camped south of Nachvak, at another fjord, Saglek. Having spent the night on the long-liner our first night, our gear was brought to shore in a launch the next morning. As we were setting up camp onshore, the captain of the long-liner shouted: Bear in the water!

Out on the fjord we could see the white head of a polar bear, leaving a long wake as it paddled toward shore. Warning shots were fired from the boat but to no avail. The bear emerged from the water just below our camp. A flare was thrown in its path. But on it came and climbed the steep bluff above which our campsite was situated on a grassy plateau.

Those of us ashore, just beyond the sight of the polar bear, ran into a stand of low-lying willow shrubs. John Merkuratsuk, our Inuit guide and bear monitor, stood his ground and fired further warning shots, all without effect. On it came. His gun jammed. Calmly kneeling down, he pried loose the cartridge with his hunting knife and, taking careful aim, fired again. Several shots later the bear fell.

After being mauled by a polar bear, Dyer said: I’d have felt terrible if that bear got killed because I was there.

Our group emerged from its encounter with the bear safe and unscathed. But a bear had been killed. That it was terrible only touches the thin surface—the veneer—of how it felt. Gathered around the bear moments later, we were dumbstruck and in shock. But there was much more
—grief, humility, reverence, deep silence. Each of us took turns in touching the head of the still warm bear, as if in blessing.

Our experience cannot compare to that of Matt Dyer. Although it may seem so from this narrative, these occurrences are rare. Since the park opened in 2005, Dyer is the only person who has been attacked and injured by a polar bear. The prior incident with my group was the first such occurrence of its kind.

The Inuit at base camp dissected the bear later that day. It was a female. Her stomach was empty save for some tapeworms. There was no meat on her bones and her fur fell out in hunks. She was starving. This may have been mere happenstance but ominous signs are beginning to suggest otherwise.

Although the polar bear population at Torngat is otherwise healthy, the bear population across the greater Arctic is stressed and endangered. Climate change is wreaking havoc. As it melts, bear have to hunt further and further from the ice pack. Several have drowned, swimming huge distances to reach the withdrawing ice. They depend on it to hunt ringed seal, their primary prey.

But along with the bears a whole people, an entire culture, is endangered—the Inuit. The Inuit depend on the cold and on the ice to sustain their traditional hunting culture. John Merkuratsuk’s Labrador village, Nain, has one of the highest suicide rates in Canada.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier an Inuit rights activist who was a visiting scholar at Bowdoin College a few years back, says that her people are a climate change barometer. The Inuit, she says, are like the mercury in that barometer; their hunters are sentinels for the rest of the planet. As the temperatures warm and sea levels rise and ever more destructive storms devastate, we are all affected.[2]

Watt-Cloutier says that in Inuktitut—the language of the Inuit—there’s a single word that encompasses the whole of Inuit cosmology—sila. Strikingly akin to our biblical word spirit, it means air or wind or breath. And like our spirit it means more: Sila is the breath that circulates into and out of every living thing; it is the raw life force that hovers over the entire land. It can be felt as air, sensed in the sky as wind, and lives within us as breath. It is the fundamental principle underlying creation. It connects every person with the rhythm of the universe.

Interdependent in the web of all life, knowing in some deep way that we are more than merely skin-encapsulated egos, we grieve the loss and degradation of our natural environment. Ancient wisdom across traditions suggests that grieving this loss is the beginning of healing, that without it real and sustainable ecological restoration is impossible.

The poet Mary Oliver, in a recent interview with National Public Radio and whose poetry I read last Sunday at the beach, acknowledges this.[3] Her poems are steeped in the wonder and beauty and mystery of the natural world, and yet she says:

The concern I have for the natural world is a sorrowful business...because we’re not doing what we should do to preserve the world. The woods that I loved as a child are entirely gone. The woods that I loved as a young adult are gone. The woods that I most recently walked are not gone but full of... trails. The world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state, it is itself  [a spiritual act]. The world did not have to be beautiful to work, but it is...

Or Henry Beston, who sensed the beginning of a disturbing change even living on his farm in rural Nobleboro, wrote this heartfelt plea: The ancient values of dignity, beauty, and poetry which sustain it are of nature’s inspiration; they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world. Do no dishonor to the earth lest you dishonor the spirit of [humankind]....To all who love her, who open to her the doors of their veins, she gives her strength.

Touch the earth, love the earth, honor the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all...[4]

I can’t tell you how laying hands on that bear changed my life but it did. The experience haunts me even now and has taken on its own life deep in my soul, forever beckoning.

But I do know this: God’s creation is itself a holy mystery, and to those who approach with reverence and awe and wonder, she gives strength and boundless blessing. AMEN

Photo: John Merkuratsuk in the Torngat Mountain National Park

* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; First Sunday of Creation Season; September 15, 2013   


[1] Portland Press Herald; September 3, 2013
[2] Sheila Watt-Cloutier on Climate Change and Human Rights;
[4] Beston, Henry; The Outermost House; Henry Holt and Co.; New York

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


The acorns began dropping from the red oaks around our house in mid-August. Squirrels, high in the trees, shake the branches and the nuts fall to the ground. But they also fall on other surfaces—house rooftops, metal grills, car roofs, hot tubs, patio furniture, bird feeders, and...heads. I note the array of sounds they make: thwack, whack, and whap; ding and ping; bang and clang. Some are startling, sharp reports, like a rifle shot. Venturing out, I wear a cotton cap to cover my bald head, though a crash helmet would better suit the occasion.

My neighbor is very tidy. Every autumn I see her outside with a white plastic bucket, down on hands and knees, picking up acorns from her manicured lawn, one by one. When the bucket is full, she dumps it in the woods at the edge of her property. She has cut down most of her trees because they’re messy. Yet she cannot escape the acorns: they fall from our oaks onto her yard. It annoys her no end.

The Farmer’s Almanac reports that a heavy acorn drop foretells a snowy, hard winter. The jury is out, as it is still early in the season. And yet, even as a write, I hear them falling. Another neighbor walks gingerly across her driveway; acorns like ball bearings make her footing unsure. A nuisance to us, this harvest provides food for the squirrels and other creatures as they hunker down during leaner months. In the meantime, I look forward to cooler autumn days.