“What is it about a grassy hill in the wind that both fills and empties our minds?”
I’m not sure. That’s why I’m asking you.
My oldest daughter and I pulled into the gravel parking lot one Saturday afternoon. It was one of my favorite open space preserves, as it was nothing but mountains. After an easy walk down a wide gravel path, we turned up a side trail, into wild tall grasses. The path did not have any switchbacks: rather it ran straight to the top. This was going to be work.
I settled into a rhythm, puffing up the grade, scraping shoes over pebbles and crumbling dirt. Every now and again, my daughter stopped at a suitable rock to pour a small fistful of birdseed atop its face, like a dinner plate. She had packed a sandwich bag for this express purpose of feeding the birds. She thrived under her own express purposes. The mountain was treeless. At each birdseed stop, we turned and looked out at the view exposing itself steadily, like a hotel elevator rising in the city. We walked on. Eventually my gait slowed to a short shuffle and I hoisted the baby-pack higher on my hips. I looked up: the trail turned steeper still for the last 50 feet. Over my shoulder I coo’ed at the baby, checking on him, shrugging his face into mine. His cheek felt cold, and his eyes stood wide at the unfolding world below us.
At the top, the wind blew in stronger gusts. My daughter insisted she didn’t need to put on her jacket, tied around her waist. I unbuckled the baby out of the pack, and let him toddle towards an old wooden cattle fence nearby, making careful to stay downhill of him, lest he slip. The sky shone as blue as you have read in any storybook, with giant globs of clouds passing overhead. Now sunny. Now overcast. Now sunny again.
Far below the valley spread like a quilt – our town piled atop it like laundry. The far-away-ness of it all gave me the delicious feeling that I was a helicopter pilot: far removed from the dollhouse civilizations below. At home, my kitchen sink feels completely lifesized as I brace my hip against it nightly and pull another wet dish from the suds. I scrub and rinse off my home-cooked meals under the feat of indoor plumbing. My daily making and un-making, the ebb and flow of housework, all runs down the drain to the grey-water plant on the far side of town. Our house and our family, the gas burners and the couches within it all feel quite life-sized. But this mountain takes its hands off my eyes: I see that it’s all impossibly tiny.
My brain quiets. The waves of tall grasses below and beside me are beautiful. I’ve done nothing to make or unmake this scene: I’ve only shown up to see it. The wild world grows and the wide spaces yaw about me, whether I look or not.
What is it about this scene that both fills and empties me?
It’s having the space in the world to even wonder such a question. I need this: I need more space. We need more space. Some things in our brains were wired to crave to know the tinyness of our lives and the circles in which we twirl. We moms are busy with providing and nurturing, yes. The work is good. It is from the Lord. But we humans were charged with something more.
My daughter and I watched for the birds to come. Most seemed disinterested. But when she spotted a brown sparrow lingering atop one of her seeded rocks, she clapped her hands and twirled in rapture. Her express purpose was met. The day was a success.
When God commanded Adam and Eve to “subdue of the earth” it was a command to explore. And wonder. And feel terribly terribly small. And terrified. But do it anyway: have an express purpose. And feel braver for it. All of which are necessary.
Out there our lungs burn and our legs ache as we cover wide distances. We come to our end. We see what our bodies can, and cannot do. It all becomes very elementary: very clear, as we pare ourselves with the elements.
It’s a relief: I’m quite a tiny being atop a terribly tall mountain, standing short under these massive clouds floating impossibly weightless within an immeasurable sky. With each element in its place, I can play my part, live my life, knowing that my purview is quite tiny and manageable within the context of a capable God’s wide creation.