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Porch Light

By Stephen Berg

In the sanctuary of pines and poplar


Thomas Merton, who wrote as much as anyone about the contemplative life, stated somewhere that nothing can be said about silence and solitude that has not already been said better by the wind through the pine trees.

The ancient Hebrew poets agree. When they ask us to contemplate the handiwork of the creator in the natural world we are not asked to tighten our grip on Intelligent Design theory.

Contemplation is not a mechanism for getting answers, or fashioning a strategy for life. It is simply the practice of clearing an avenue between the creative heart of the divine, or the transcendent heart of creation, and our own yearning hearts.

There is something in this understanding that keeps me coming back to the woods.

The city has its captivating delights and its conglomerate energy, but too long in its palm can jangle nerve endings, sear the ears, and stampede the pulse. Without a reorienting break, downtown’s ubiquitous plate-glass mirrors will surely distract, disquiet, belittle you; and too long in the suburbs will drain the colour from your imagination.

Without the fuel of reflection we yield to the competition spawned by comparison — the grand consumerist levelling.

There are, of course, many ways to find a place of centring and renewal. For me reflection is best found in the wild.

I used to find reasonably remote trails west of our city. Now, more often than not, I head to the few acres of bush I’ve been blessed with.

Resisting the impulse to tackle the wild and accomplish something, I try simply to take my news-hollowed mind and traffic-addled bones to where things like to grow on their own — to see what comes.

The late fall morning rumoured more rain, but by noon a breeze came up, the sky cleared, and the sun reached me through the trees.

I took down a poplar that was sick at the core. Carpenter ants had made a general go of it at the base of the trunk and had constricted sap flow. The tree was choking and, unlike the ants, would not last many more seasons. I notched the tree’s north side close to its natural lean, then with one slant cut on the south side it collapsed — gratefully I thought — along my intended path.

I built a fire, got up a sufficient base of heat and gave the branches, top, and decaying pieces to the flames. The rest I cut into splitting lengths and stacked between the trunks of two trees.

I spent the rest of the day clearing deadfall from a trail, tending my fire, watching squirrels and making peace with a pair of agitated northern goshawks whose territory I had obviously invaded. They flew to trees nearby and squawked at me at from above. After an hour or so they received me, or dismissed me — I was fine either way.

My sanctuary is here in the woods. I meet myself and touch something transcendent with the aid of hawk and squirrel, rain and woods, sun and blossom.

Here, not drawn and quartered by the arbitrary, or played by impulse and caprice, I taste, in some way, the domain of possibility.

But I’ve also dropped out, not taken the risk of self-discovery inherent in the risk of solitude. For it’s also possible to let distraction follow you into the woods — to bring possessiveness instead of receptiveness; to bring one’s insecurities to the woods, resent their capacity to engulf me, reduce me, and remind me of my incapacity and contingency.

But then there are times I stay still, lie on my back and watch the sky through the scaffolding of spruce and poplar and allow all this to wash over and away. I know then I’ve been called here to give up my gnawing need for approval, to accept my acceptance, relearn the art of listening and regain my love for creation and her occupants through what the monastics call otium sanctum, serious play, holy leisure.

Berg works for Hope Mission, a social care facility for homeless people in Edmonton’s inner city. His poetry and prose have been in staged performances and have appeared in such publications as the Edmonton Journal, Orion, Geez, and Earth Shine. He blogs at