by M. Doretta Cornell, RDC
I’ve spent the past week away on retreat, at a beautiful place right on the Hudson River. Primary among the “spiritual exercises” of the week for me was just being outdoors most of the day, looking and listening.
The dominant feature of the retreat center is the trees – huge and small, in place for centuries or newly planted with careful strategy for sun, shelter and suitable soil and space to grow. There are several kinds of maples: red, sugar, Norwegian, all neatly labeled, and some unnamed varieties, as well.
Two huge sweet gums overlook the river at the top of a hill, with five-pointed-star leaves and small green seed balls with tiny bristles. A tall gray oak with twisted limbs and sparse tufts of leaves reminds me of a Japanese ink sketch. I marvel at a tree full of tiny hard pears and another with soft purple plums, and there are half-inch apples starting in the gnarled trees that are a remnant of a previous owner’s orchard.
All around the center are lush lawns, and, at the edges of the lawn, tan and white and lavender-tipped grasses grow uncut; a patch of marsh reeds grows near the top of the hill (how does it stay marshy up there, above the field grasses?).
Since I grew up in a Bronx apartment and later a small house with a tiny backyard and a single peach tree, all this green fills me with delight. Much of my time over the past four years has been spent in a small, windowless office, so I could feel my mind and heart expand as my eyes soaked up this 360-degree vista of trees and sky and river.
The river is another source of wonder. The Indian name for the Hudson is “river that flows both ways,” and here I can see the two! The currents today are moving steadily upstream. At other times, they flow downstream, and if I am watching at the right time, I can see a few currents moving up and others flowing down. As they mingle, there is a time when all movement seems stalled; the water shifts and glitters in the sun, waiting for one current to set a new direction.
And if this weren’t enough, there are the birds! Blue birds, especially, flocks of them wheeling incandescent blue, twinkling and swooping over the grasses, swarming into one tree or a patch of the lawn, then spurting back into the sky to whirl and then float on the air currents. Red-winged blackbirds hover in the currents and float sideways, then swoop on to the highest branches of the walnut trees and crow their own wonderfulness across the fields. Woodpeckers tap happily away; on the nature trail, I came on a dead tree drilled like a hockey mask.
Deep under all of this watching and listening, I felt deep peace. Each tree or bird, the river – each is just there, its own self beautiful and in place, existing not for me or for some commercial use, but just in itself. I sensed the presence and delight in variety of the One who creates and sustains it all, us all.
Two qualities of a sustainable biosystem are individuation and interdependence. Here I see the two in living harmony. Each part of this system – tree, bird, river, lawn – has a life of its own, yet each depends on all the others to flourish. The trees feed and house the birds, birds carry off the seeds to start new trees, the river influences the weather patterns and temperature of this place. If only all the Earth could be so undisturbed and well tended!
I felt myself relaxing and expanding into this place, felt all my anxieties and to-do lists pack themselves away, to be retrieved when I get back to work. In gratitude and praise, I could lean into the scene as into a current of breeze and allow myself to just “be there,” among the other creatures just being themselves, too, if only for a few days.