Matthew Dickerson: Frozen waters and white forests
The parking lot was quiet and nearly empty. The woods were even quieter. More than mere quiet, the woods were still. The stillness was both palpable and restorative.
It was late morning, middle of the week. Several previous evenings of occasional snow flurries had added up, and the conditions at the Rikert Nordic Center were nearly perfect. The trails with snowmaking offered a solid base with soft groomed powder on top. Even around the peripheral trails that lacked snowmaking, the conditions were good with only a few scattered patches where the snow cover was perhaps a wee bit thin.
We’d been up at the center three days earlier on a weekend afternoon when the parking lot had been full. The center has enough kilometers of trail that even with a full parking lot, the trails are only sparse populated, and one can glide for several minutes without passing another masked skier. And on this mid-week morning? Our only company was the birds.
The birds and also the trees. And also the peacefulness. That peacefulness is important to mention. Along with the occasional rattle of a woodpecker beak, or the soft whoosh as an evergreen bough releasing its load of snow, peacefulness provides excellent company for a pair of cross-country skiers escaping the realities of pandemics, politics, polarization and propaganda for a couple hours.
About 3,000 years ago there lived a Hebrew poet who wrote a beautiful poem about the restoration of the soul that comes to us in places that are quiet and still. The poet (whose name comes to us transliterated to modern English as David) started life as a shepherd. Not surprisingly, in his poetry he drew upon the imagery of a shepherd leading his sheep to green meadows and quiet waters where they are well fed and well cared for: places where they are given rest, peace and restoration.
Although this young shepherd eventually became a king, the journey was not an easy or straightforward one. The youngest of eight brothers, he was considered the unimportant one in the family: the “least likely to succeed.” As a shepherd he faced no shortage of danger and hardship from weather and wild creatures, likely also from robbers and bandits, all the while enduring disdain from his older brothers. He left his shepherd life to briefly serve as a musician in the king’s court — a role in which he could draw upon familiar pastoral imagery in his development as a poet and songwriter. After that, he served for a little while as a warrior, and faced one of the fiercest enemies of his day: a giant named Goliath.
It would be nice if this poet could have then transitioned peacefully into his role as a poet-shepherd-king. Unfortunately, the current king (a man named Saul) was something of a paranoid ego-centric dictator more interested in personal aggrandizement and loyalty to himself than in moral integrity or service to his people. And, although David had already been chosen to be the next king, there would be no peaceful transition of power from Saul. To the contrary, feeling threatened by David, Saul sought to have David killed. He sent thugs after him, and eventually led his whole military in a campaign to kill David and his followers. Saul was also ruthless toward anybody — even his own family members — whom he so much as suspected of helping David. He ordered a mob to slay a priest and his entire town because he wrongly thought that priest had conspired against him to help David.
Thus the shepherd-turned-poet-turned-soldier David had to live for several years as a fugitive on the run from a madman king, living in the wilderness and hiding in caves. Time and time again, his life dangled by a thread. He even had to pretend to be a madman once to escape a tight situation. In short, he endured no shortage of loss, hardship and uncertainty.
And so David — perhaps as well as anyone alive in his day, or even in hours — knew the value and importance of those soul-restoring times of peace and rest, of quiet waters, and green pastures. (You can read one of his most famous surviving poems that comes to us today as Psalm 23.)
I, by contrast, have never been a shepherd, or a fugitive. Although I appreciate quiet waters (which is one of the reasons I enjoy fishing, and find it such a soul-restoring activity) I can’t say I’m especially attracted to green meadows, at least in the way that sheep might be. But in the winter, when I get out on my cross-country skis, I do have a deep appreciation for the quiet stillness of frozen waters — particularly for water that is frozen in the form of snow, and lies still on the ground, on the branches of trees, and on the rocks and eddies of ice that punctuate the surfaces of the little creeks that flow through the woods. I love beautiful summer meadows filled with wildflowers, but I also love the beauty of a meadow blanketed in white with parallel tracks running off into the quiet stillness of a white winter woods. My soul, indeed, is restored.
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