I have a place. One of many, really. But alone among them.
There are wetlands. And giant old-growth oaks. Narrow, rutted roads with skinny pine walls. Brambles and untangled clearings. Reeds and upturned trees, with roots rising as centerpieces from swamp-set tables.
Life brims there in a thousand expressions from well-watered fertility. Lungs of the land exhale myriad plant forms, as varied as the colors of a dew drop at dawn. Hawks and songbirds flit and soar. Sloughs swim with bream, bass, crappie, catfish, carp, and that queer, dinosaurian creature called the bowfin.
At every trail turn, one is struck by infinite, multitudinous life.
Then came this drought of 2016. The last raindrop fell on that primal garden 54 days ago. The sourceless waters receded, exposing the gills of swamp bottom to air they were never meant to breath.
On a recent hike, I explored parts of the swamp I’d not been able to reach in the past, one of the uplifts of this dry time. The site was frankly awe-inspiring and soul-wilting all at once. Mammoth tree trunks with elaborate, gnarled root networks jutted out from newly-exposed banks. Geometric puzzle pieces made the nearly-parched swamp beds look like X-rays of tectonic plates snapped from satellite lenses. The leaf-carpeted slough floors popped and crackled unnaturally beneath each footstep.
Surprised, I stumbled upon a few small pools skimmed with green algae on top. The vibration of my approaching steps aroused fish that had been trapped inside those shrinking sloughs. This remnant stirred and swirled, turning to mud gray the emerald facade.
Trekking a bit further, I came upon an expansive bed several acres across, the deeper parts of which still contained water. I began to feel the tragedy of this scene. The trapped fish were no more than 100 yards from freedom, a source of water to sustain and nourish their waning existence. I knew couldn’t carry them through the swamp with my bare hands, even in its filtered state. So, I must soon return with a net and a cooler on a swamp search and rescue mission.
Life called. Work. Duty. Responsibility. I couldn’t get out there in the dark.
Still, no rain came.
Returning a few mornings later with a net, basin and cooler, I trudged briskly down the trail. Stopping by the only standing waters with any depth, I dipped out enough to half-fill a cooler and potentially sustain the fish in route to freedom, and hurried to the algae-draped pools.
Nothing quickened. Nothing changed colors. Nothing felt vibrations. Nothing needed saving now. The shrunken pools stayed as green as an emerald isle.
I stood there, in the only arid swamp on earth, alone, one creature under God, thinking of the water bottle I hadn’t even finished still sitting in my truck.
I sat on a log and prayed. Interrupted by a rising chorus of birds of many different kinds, I looked out across the face of this land that had been newly exposed to the world. And I felt a great hovering Presence there, calling forth something that couldn’t be seen, but that I knew was being lifted out of that porous, parched earth. My own dry ground felt the vibrations of it. Then my soul quickened a bit, and stirred.
On the way back through shadowed pine thickets and acorn-implanted foot paths, I pondered lessons to be remembered, to be learned anew. “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” from Ben Franklin. “Trust in God, and lean not on your own understanding,” from the book of Proverbs. “Behold, I make all things new,” from the Revelation of John on the Isle of Patmos. “There Shall Be Showers of Blessing,” from an old church hymnal. “Streams in The Desert,” by Charles Cowman. Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
Mindful of my own mortality, my own thirst, my own dead places as I headed home that day, I mourned for losses. Yet I knew – in a deeply important way, I knew – that what had mattered most was the urging that had been stirred inside me. The desire. The dance. The movement from the well of my life to water thirsting lives outside of myself. Vibrations had shaken my soul to action. Footsteps had been felt beside the ever-greening pools. And all of it had been given. Imparted. Not of myself arising. Yet, in some way, of myself subsisting.
Deeply, then, I knew: The One who makes these footsteps always comes in time to save.