prelapsarian thinker. The world needs no justi>cation. It simply is.
Sitting in my canvas chair, staring out at calm blue lake, I feel
this 2,500-year-old observation to be profoundly contemporary.
More to the point, I feel it to be profoundly necessary.
After a breakfast of instant grits and Vermont sausage,
I paddle from island to island, looking for other wild orchids,
hoping maybe to see a moose along the shore. Clouds cast blue
shadows into the pockets of green ridgesides that surround the
lake. Now and then the wind sweeps up a small chop on the
open water and my canoe cuts across the blue waves with a
cleaving rock of the bow. Then everything settles down again.
The loons issue their seemingly random calls from the middle
of the lake. A couple of mergansers lower their landing gear and
settle down on the water not far from my canoe. We all just ?oat.
There is a quiet intensity to a day like this. It almost makes
you shaky. I lie down ?at in my canoe with my head on my life
jacket and close my eyes. I imagine myself as a seed inside its
pod, a violin lying quiet in its case.
Thoreau wrote that, when ?oating on
Walden Pond, he sometimes stopped
existing and began to be. I think it is a
crucial transition, that move from
merely existing into an experience of
clarity and intensity that truly deserves
to be called being. Here I can read the
wind and the water from the stern seat
of my canoe. While I experience and
observe Heraclitus’s tenet that only
change is unchanging, I sometimes
feel as if I inhabit a moment with neither a past nor a future. I feel as if I
inhabit both time and space with an
intensity that in some way erases the
distinction between the two.
On the way back to my island
around dusk, I notice whirligig beetles
that look like little black seeds spinning across the surface of the
water. According to my >eld guide, each one’s eyes have two
parts, enabling it to see above and below the surface of the water
at the same time. It is as if these beetles inhabit two worlds.
“Eyes are better informers than ears,” wrote Heraclitus. When
I grew into adulthood, I often felt I would have been better served
as a child if I had spent more time in my grandfather’s canoe,
observing the ducks in the marshy coves around his parsonage,
and less time in his church, listening to dire sermons about my
woeful inadequacies before God. My grandfather was really two
di=erent men outside, in the unroofed church of his canoe, and
inside the whitewashed walls of his sanctuary. And since his
death >ve years ago, I have struggled to reconcile the master paddler, the man who loved the mountains and rivers of Virginia,
with the man who preached that we live in a fallen world from
which we are in desperate need of salvation.
About >fteen years ago, shortly after he retired from the ministry, my grandfather admitted to me something I never thought
I’d hear him say: he might have been wrong. “Sometimes I wake
up in the middle of the night,” he confessed, “stricken with the
fear that, all these years, I might have been preaching the wrong
thing.” Speci>cally, he might have been wrong to preach such a
punishing message of guilt, sin, and blood sacri>ce. Perhaps he
had been too hard on his congregation. Perhaps he had emphasized the Apostle Paul’s gospel of fear at the expense of Jesus’s
teaching of love and forgiveness. This admission both shocked
and relieved me. Finally, I thought, my grandfather and I might
talk honestly about religion and the inevitable doubts that
accompany one’s faith. I had my share of doubts, compounded
by a secret sense of guilt that I had
betrayed my grandfather’s religion,
and so betrayed my grandfather. And
for a while we did have interesting
conversations about whether Paul had
really understood Jesus’s message, or
whether he had distorted it into something Jesus himself would not have
But gradually, as my grandfather’s
health failed, as his relationship with
my only uncle deteriorated into a
tense, ugly silence, and as my grandmother drifted slowly into a quiet
dementia, I watched my grandfather
return to his earlier conviction that this
world is a realm of disappointments, a
toilsome proving ground where we
strive to earn admittance into heaven.
Late in life, he would bring himself to tears at the dinner table
when, during a rambling blessing of the food, he began contemplating the pain Jesus must have su=ered to save him, my
grandfather, from this sinful world.
By then, I had come to believe, as it says in the Gospel of Luke,
that “the kingdom of God is before us,” spread gloriously across
the natural world; but my grandfather had wholly abandoned
that idea and was hoping desperately for a kingdom on high,
something better than the mortal pain of this earthly realm.
Thirty years earlier, his son, my father, had committed suicide. He had followed his father into the ministry but never
Thoreau wrote that,
when ?oating on
and began to be.