Permanence. It is my only hope during these dark days in our country, when I see and hear a gleeful call to drill, cut, savage, poison and remove protections from our nation’s parks, natural wonders, burial grounds and sacred spaces. For more than one hundred years our country has had the good sense to preserve and protect the natural places, the plant and animal species and the unique areas carved by millions of years of weather. Millions upon millions have had a chance to enjoy these spaces, and we are a better people and country because of it. We escape to national parks for renewal. We need to support them because they support us, no matter what year it is or who is in office. The day to day is something else entirely. The day to day shapes us and it starts early.
My father and mother divorced when I was four. On visits with my dad, we would often go to a local park and sit on a hill, covered with flat sandstones. I learned the word cairn when we took some of those flat rocks, and put them next to and on top of each other, matching up the pieces until we had maybe 20-30 of them all fitting together. Then, we would place a note under the formation, sticking out slightly. It usually said something like, “to whomever finds this cairn, peace and happiness to you always.”
My father, the English teacher and hippie, was all about peace, harmony and love. It was the early 1970’s and I was 4. I thought this was just a normal thing all people did: wander; stack rocks, leave notes, spread love. And I liked the way the stones fit. I liked the harmony of it, how it was quiet and how I shared the quiet formation of it with my dad. The notes were a revelation though, even if I did not realize it at the time. People should love other people. Peace should reign. Acts of kindness that perhaps surprised a person having a bad day brought more love and kindness into the world. It was a small act that would shape me forever. It was the beginning of my appreciation of how man and the natural world can interact.
In my late teen years, I would have an occasion to live with my father and his family (which included stepmom and two stepsisters) for the first time in about 15 years. My father was slowly transforming his yard into an outdoor sanctuary with gardens, plants, brick patios, wooden benches, etc. He was all about the outside being as artistic as the inside (he was an art collector, and later the curator of an art gallery). I learned that he was still living the lessons of kindness, harmony and beauty that he taught me as a child. The man had been married four times, but somehow was calm, peaceful, and all about loving others, nature, art and the natural world. He was an eagle scout and had learned a great deal about the outdoors growing up. He roamed woods, pastures, forests and skipped stones on lakes, waded in creeks, and camped out frequently.
He would later, much later, divorce again. His depression and despondence was cured with a hatchet, hedge trimmers, a pair of gloves, a spade, old bricks and Quickcrete. He began to clear, by hand, the two acres next to his home purchased some years before. Sometimes he had hired help, but mostly he did the work himself.
He removed brush, marked out pathways in the dirt, and filled them with patterns of bricks that made more walkways though the trees, opened into circular mosaics, and then continued on. It took him years, but he loved it. He was transforming again, his yard and his soul as his depression melted away day by day, brick by brick. Everything was done with a purpose – the shape of something, led to the next shape, reflected or emphasized it. A color led to another color. A flower planted just so, bloomed and highlighted a specific shape in the bricks during a certain time of the year – harmony, color, form, purpose – ART!
After his last divorce, which coincided pretty closely to his retirement, he wrote in a journal that his retirement afforded him the time he had always lacked to think. He was now able to consider a thought, problem, design of bricks, a moral conundrum, a problem that had no current solution and think "all the way" about it. What caused it? What did it cause? How to solve – he could think through, around, inside and outside of anything, and, even if it took weeks or months, he could, in his words, “think it through to the end.” He did this surrounded by natural spaces, permanent spaces that he created and arranged. It was his way of being sacred, and I loved him all the more for showing that part of himself to me.
Whether or not there would be permanence, there was certainly communion. There was creation. My dad and the earth. My dad and his tools. My dad and his imagination and all of it driving out pain, loneliness, despair and all the while letting in light. I don't think he knew what would last of his making, but the idea of it - and the making of it - was a salve. We need to interact with the world, and need places, inside and outside to be able to do it. This is where the sacred becomes alive in us – when we use our senses to interact with the world, both man-made and God-made.
Whitman smith is director of admissions at the university of mississippi, a husband, father and lover of art and southern history. He still believes in leaving messages of peace and the power of nature to bind us with the sacred.