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

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