If anyone had ever asked me if I loved nature...all the wonderful things God has created...animals, plants, weather...I would have always told them yes.
I grew up with, and completely took for granted, a lovely yard in Virginia. We had terrific climbing trees, green grass that felt terrific on my bare toes, a gorgeous garden complete with a garden patch I was allowed to call my own from a very young age. We had rose bushes and a plum tree and at either end of the street where I lived there were grassy fields (we called them the "triangles" because of their approximate shapes) where the kids in the neighborhood could meet to play kickball or pick wildflowers or collect bugs. We had ditches with ivy-covered banks between which water flowed like a miniature stream, allowing us to race leaf boats. I had a sand pile and a swing set. Down the road from us were neighbors who had all sorts of lovely trees, including magnolias. Almost nothing is more beautiful than their large, creamy blossoms and shiny dark green leaves unless it's the feathery, powder-puff pink blossoms on the sweet-smelling mimosa trees, which also flourished in our neighborhood. A block or so away, we even had a patch of woods in which we could wander (sadly gone now).
I loved it all. But I never fully appreciated it until I didn't have it.
I've had other places of beauty besides that first neighborhood. I lived on two stunningly beautiful (though vastly different) college campuses, including one in the mountains of western North Carolina, truly one of the landscapes of my heart. In the first five years of our marriage, D. and I lived less than five minutes from a Pennsylvania national park that burst into incredible dogwood bloom every spring, a place where you would stumble upon fields of deer or quaint covered bridges when you turned a corner.
I didn't know I was going to grow up and be called to live in an urban setting. Cities, for all the fascination they hold, always felt like they sucked the life out of me if I was in them for too long. Too much concrete and glass and brick, too much rust and bustle. I didn't mind visiting cities, but I was certainly never going to live in one, and I would have said adamantly that I would never a raise a child in one if I had a choice.
And yet...here I am, here we are. In the post-industrial rust belt for almost twelve years, a tiny town of boarded up storefronts and too much traffic, completely yardless, my front "porch" a concrete step just a few inches above street level. Would I love to live somewhere else? You bet, except for the tiny little wrinkle that the Lord has apparently called us to be where we are for the time being and given us a love for this place and those who live here. If there was one other important thing I learned along with my love of all things green in God's world, it was that the very best place to be is the place where God calls you, no matter where it is.
So here I am, here we are. And guess what? In this remarkably dry and weary concrete land, I have found myself falling in deeper love, and in deeper ways, with the created world.
I think it's because we see so little of it, because I have to work so hard to find ways to share nature with my little girl. She has none of the beauties I took for granted when I was her age, no yard to run around in, no place to safely walk barefoot, no opportunity to just sit and stare for minutes (or hours) at bugs. Well, we do have those opportunities sometimes, but they come rarely and they have to be planned carefully, with visits to the yards of friends or nearby parks or the seminary lawn. I think what I am most wistful for is the deep sense of freedom and spontaneity that I had as a child, when I could simply wander outside (I can hear a squeak and the slim wooden frame of the back screen door slamming behind me as I write this) and toss myself down onto the grassy lawn with a good book. The sounds I took for granted were cricket chirps and cooing doves, not motorcycles and trucks. The smells I took for granted were sweet honeysuckle and pungent ivy, not exhaust fumes and the dumpster across the road.
So we've had to get creative. We've had to get passionate about learning as much as we can about every bit of nature within reach. We take nature walks here in our little city, picking wildflowers, crouching as near as we can to curbside gardens that don't belong to us, twining binoculars around our neck so we can peer at the birds nesting in the birdhouse in the yard of a nearby church. During the week hardly anyone is around those church grounds, so we sometimes sneak into their side yard for a few minutes and play. There's a long, cascading kind of willow tree there, a small one that blooms with beautiful white flowers in early spring, and the sweet girl calls it her "tree house." She hides beneath the branches while her Mom keeps a casual lookout for anyone who might be wanting to kick us off the property, trying to give her little girl a few minutes of the kind of quiet, green privacy she loved so when she was six.
And I am amazed at how much I'm learning. Do I still long to live in a place where I can these things for granted? Well, to be perfectly honest, yes. But having to work hard to find bits of nature means I value them all the more when I find them. I have learned the names of plants and trees and birds. I've never been particularly good at knowing specific names of things, so I've tried to get better. And as I learn them, I pass them on to the sweet girl. We're learning together to appreciate every bit of God's beautiful created world we can, from the ten sycamores across the road (whose buds we watch with such raw expectation every March) to the wonderful starlings that are nesting in the gap between the buildings across the street. Not to mention the tree sparrows that have their nest in the corner of our own building (we live over a warehouse) and the huge crow that struts his stuff on the roof across the way from time to time.
This past weekend we went to a nearby park for a picnic supper, something we try to do as often as possible in spring and summer. This was our first picnic of the year and it was a bit grey and chilly in the early evening, but still oh so beautiful. Robins were scattered on the grass in such vast numbers it was like they were having a Robin convention, or (more likely, I thought) deciding to field a few baseball teams. I counted 29 robins at one point on the baseball field, most of them congregating in the outfield.
And I was stunned by the surge of excitement and happiness I felt when a bright yellow blur tumbled by us, surfing the wind. I actually stood to my feet shrieking "it's a goldfinch! it's a goldfinch!" I was so thrilled to see that amazing bird I wanted to toss a handful of confetti or set off sparklers. D. had told us he'd seen one during his morning walk the other day, but neither the sweet girl or I had been able to add this particularly beautiful little bird to our spring list yet, and we were delighted to do so. He flew by twice (yes, it was definitely a he...we could tell by his colors and markings) finally alighting on the metal fence by the baseball field, and I simply stood on the other side of the fence, staring in awe.
Getting to know God's world in its particulars is a joy. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that it took almost a decade of lean years to get to me to the place where I began to passionately look and learn everything I could. Somewhere along the line I realized I had to stop majoring in wistfulness and get busy appreciating anything and everything alive and growing (or singing or flying!) that God put in my path. The beauties of green and growing things, the gorgeousness of the natural world, are never going to be something my daughter is going to be able to take for granted as I did. But that doesn't mean I can't teach her a deep gratitude for them, and a deep joy in discovering them wherever they are.