Last month, in a hectic season, my wife Arlyne and I stole away to celebrate an anniversary, our twenty-fifth. There wasn’t time for a Mediterranean cruise, so we settled for one night in Concord and a walk around Walden Pond.
Henry David Thoreau, always a prankster with words, once described Walden as “mediterranean”—literally, “in the middle of the land.” As our evening waned, the winds stilled, and the unbroken surface of the pond absorbed the surrounding terrain, the hardwood reds and yellows vibrant enough to survive the dusk. A few egrets surveyed the silent water, now gray and melded with the granite stones along the shore.
As we walked, we carried our own stones to toss on the cairn that marks the site of Thoreau’s cabin. Not long after Thoreau died in 1862, visitors began bringing hometown stones to throw on the pile. Walt Whitman carted one from New York. John Muir left a scrap of the Sierras.
A contemplative stroll at Walden gave us a chance to reflect on the rapid pace of our last quarter century and to survey the mists before us. Most of all, it gave us another moment together, simple and sufficient in itself. “I am grateful for what I am & have,” Thoreau wrote to his friend H.G.O. Blake. “I live in perpetual thanksgiving.”
Provosts, I must admit, are not prepped for gratitude. More often, we feel pressures for continuous improvement; we sweat over what needs to be fixed, discarded or built. Show us marshlands and we see weeds. I live in perpetual reassessment.
So, returning from Concord, I decided on a new prompt for giving thanks this season—a regular walk around our own pond behind Gordon College. And Coy (Pond) is a reason for gratitude. As much as I love the fertilized soccer green at the foot of the library, I can’t imagine Gordon without the woods and wetlands. They are our best classrooms.
Especially if Dorothy Boorse, one of our resident biologists, comes along as your guide. She found wintergreen leaves for us to chew, traced lightning burns on trees, and scooped up duckweeds from a small bog. We found a coiled garter snake and felt the sphagnum moss. We paused at the native species—hemlocks, red maples, soft-purple asters, pepperbush, cattails and water lilies.
Along the way, Dorothy explained how all the water saved the land. It forced Gordon to cluster buildings, the wisest practice for sustainability. She also warned of excessive pruning. Dead trees may trouble the patrician eye, but when you cut them down you will chase away birds and deplete nitrogen. Dredge the lily pads and get ready for an invasion—most likely from a pernicious species, such as curly-leaf pondweed, which will fill the low waters and erode the habitat for wildlife.
“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness,” Thoreau wrote just before his death. “I have met but one or two persons in the course of my life who have understood the art of walking . . . who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.” And sauntering, in Thoreau’s quirky lexicon, was a journey toward “la Sainte Terre,” or holy ground.
I have always cherished that Gordon’s grounds include both a quad and the woods to wander in. As a faith-based institution, we do need a clear, clustered center, with some well-lined boundaries, like the best-kept soccer pitch. At times we may need to issue cautions, even red cards.
But native to this place is also a sense of joy in our uncultivated fringes—the chance to explore trails and tangents that may lead to a richer understanding of what is holy and good.
I am thankful—continually so—for the colleagues here who pause before slashing away at what others might consider untidy. Marvelous things can grow out of our own dead ends, like the beautiful white fungus that Dorothy discovered on a dry trunk. Christian colleges all too often succumb to fear. Policies and creeds, like commercial brands, become overly manicured. Websites are full of Stepford students.
But, at our best, we have trusted that one another’s journeys—sometimes born of wonder, sometimes born of sorrow and consternation—can enrich our own love for God and the world He has made. It’s a fragile ethos, this balance of freedom and faith, and certainly not perpetual, much like the ecosystems so easily overcome by bank loans and bulldozers. Preserving it requires care. But that care begins best by rejoicing that we can saunter together as God’s children.
Thanksgiving, as Arlyne knows, is my favorite holiday. But it should be a better habit. Two millennia ago the Apostle Paul—in a Mediterranean prison at that— extolled the young believers at Philippi to “Rejoice in the Lord always. And again, I say rejoice.” I don’t know about you, but I am often grateful for that second reminder.