Wild Spirits Knowing What They Know: Creation 5
Late August on the Coast, by Kenneth White
Standing on our back deck on Friday morning, just as the rain began what was to be a whole day affair, I heard a giant rushing sound, like someone pulling a sheet through the air overhead, “whoosh.” And I saw a swarm of birds flash past, flying low, heading for shelter together in a nearby maple. They knew it was going to be long, wet day.
I have been listening for the geese overhead, the music of our autumn, but so far they are mostly sticking around, congregating in the fields near Toots and Twin Brooks. Maybe it’s not time yet, what would I know about migrating south for the winter? (Clearly not enough!) But the geese know. As Celtic poet Kenneth White wrote in our second lesson this morning: so there you go through the wind, rain, the snow wild spirits knowing what they know.
It is the fifth day of Creation and today the skies and the seas fill with multitudes of living creatures. Today God creates in droves. Today everything is moving, flashing, darting, swooping. Today is animated, with creatures dancing through air and water, gracefully, creature-ly. Today is noisy, boisterous: the air is filled with the swarming masses, jostling for their flight position. Today is probably messy, too: water sloshing all over the place, as the fish and water creatures crest and dive.
Creation is becoming truly alive, vibrant and kinetic. Today is all about water and air and movement, and being in the midst of so many others, all kinds of others: creatures great and small, even the great Leviathan, though not humans. Not yet. We are not there yet. And yet there is so much going on, all happening without us. We are not necessary for them to live or become, which is good to keep in mind. Too often we think we are the center of the universe. Life thrives and teems, as wild birds and fish and other creatures know what they know, completely independent of us.
I spent last week at a retreat center in Mississippi. The Gray Center is beautiful, set around a small lake. In the middle of the lake there were turtles bunching up on exposed logs – competing for prime basking spots. When we sat on the dock we could hear fish sloshing around beneath us in the shallows. And the water birds were huge – great egrets, and a brown pelican, they would rise gracefully, slowly from the edge of the lake and circle once before departing for whatever was next. The pelican looked too heavy, honestly, but he managed just as the egrets had and was aloft in a few wing strokes, flying low along the water before banking upwards and off into the blue afternoon sky. Wild spirits knowing what they know.
What do we learn from the wild things? That’s one of the many compelling reasons for celebrating the season of Creation – to recognize that there’s a great deal we can learn
from the rest of creation. The central point of which might be as simple as: it’s not all about us humans, and the humility that comes with that realization.
Tragically, this week’s news also focused on our humility, particularly in the face of powerful storms on the sea. I took nothing but my phone in terms of tech to the retreat center – so I came home to scramble through news articles and reports about the ship that went down during the Hurricane.
On Wednesday morning, Ben Stevens, a student at Maine Maritime Academy, posted an article in The Working Waterfront, a platform for news of Maine’s coast and islands. Stevens, a senior at Maine Maritime wrote:
“As most people know by now, the TOTE Maritime ship El Faro was declared lost to Hurricane Joaquin on Monday morning, Oct. 5. The search for crew still continues in the wake of that announcement, including the four [Maine Maritime] alums who have been mentioned in the media: Capt. Michael Davidson, Danielle Randolph, Mike Holland and, a member of the class of 2015, Dylan Meklin.
Despite the desperate situation, we train for just such things. No matter how bad a situation at sea becomes, hope for survival always remains strong. The words of our Ocean Survival instructor, John McMillan, ring out particularly strong today in his Carolina accent: “If you tell yourself you can survive, then you can survive.”
Everyone on campus, from the president to the custodians, and the senior regimental staff to the freshmen, feels the wave of anxiety as it passes over the academy. But each one of us is a spark of hope. Each of us leans on the other. As the news continued to trickle in, a surge of courage and support emerged from the student body. Erin Donlon of the junior class sent word out calling for an immediate vigil and prayer service Monday evening. President William Brennan and his staff immediately organized a candlelight “vigil of hope,” which will be held Tuesday evening. In Rockland, where Randolph and Meklin are from, a vigil was held on Monday. Here at the academy, the commandant requested the regimental band be ready to play the Navy Hymn at the candlelight vigil on campus. The end of the first three verses send[s] a hopeful plea to heaven: Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea.
… President Brennan held a community update on Monday afternoon, speaking in person to a packed room of students. He spoke at length on the spirit of community we cultivate at Maine Maritime. …[saying,] “Our thoughts and prayers are with the crew of the El Faro and their families and loved ones. We are all shipmates. The name of the ship, El Faro, means ‘The Lighthouse.’ I ask this MMA community, a family that stretches around the globe to ships at sea worldwide: let us all become a beacon of hope for the safe return of her crew.”
The student, Ben Stevens, continued, “Few understand the work we do. Over 90 percent of everything in your house came on a ship like the El Faro. We will drive into some dangerous situations to keep our world turning.
Although few understand this, everyone in Maine can understand that when fear and doubt rear their ugly heads, the people around us are family enough to surround us with love and ride out the storm.”
The evening Ben Stevens posted this article, the Coast Guard called off its search and rescue at sunset. The 790-foot ship had two lifeboats capable of carrying 43 people each, five life rafts and 46 water survival suits. It’s not known if the crew could deploy them before the disabled, powerless ship sank near the Bahamas. There were 33 people on board the El Faro when she sank.
The storm that Ben and the others of this maritime family must now weather is not the one they had hoped for. But they weather it together. Family members of the crew had gone to Jacksonville, hoping that they would be bringing their loved ones home. Now that the search has been called off, they know that they will not be, not even to bury them. One of the mothers told reporters that if the crew couldn’t go home safely to be with their families, then it was comforting to know that they would rest in peace together with their ship family.
Maybe there’s grace in that – I hope so. I hope that is deeply consoling to those who feel the loss of these men and women personally and acutely. I think there’s something to be gained for us in this perspective as well. One that the wild spirits know, that we often forget. We are of a group, we are not isolated individuals, but one of many: like a school of fish, a flock of birds. We are meant to be together, we are more whole when we are together; there is insight and beauty in the movements of the whole. We are members of something greater than ourselves. There is strength and power in being members of a community, there is wisdom and safety there as well, and perspective and grace. And consolation.
As Ben Stevens assures us, “the people around us are family enough to surround us with love and ride out the storm.” Wild spirits, knowing what they know, assure us of the same. Being together with those God has created us to be with, is life-giving, sustaining, and consoling.
This week as we celebrate the fifth day of Creation, reach out and connect with those who give you life. When your life feels too heavy to stay aloft, match your flight to those around you. Feel the graceful gliding, effortless for you as one of the whole. And in turn, support those in need of support, be present with those who are lonely, and lift up those who are burdened, so they too might fly, even soar.
And God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.