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The unchanging center (09/10/2006)
By Janet Lewis Burns

"The white man does not understand America. He is too far removed from its formative process. The roots of the tree of his life have not yet grasped the rock and the soil. Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers' bones." - Chief Luther Standing Bear, Lakota

In a country scene, an abandoned woodpile, perhaps leaning on a weatherworn shed or propped against the base of a dead apple tree, speaks more of passing-on than desertion. Is this image about sprawling grass roots of a mighty oak or the "grass roots" of forebears anchoring the human race?

"Heartwood" is defined as the nonliving core of a tree's trunk...a petrified soul. At the heart of man a soul lives, pulsing with ancestral endowments, the wellspring of family roots. No culture espouses the traditions and beliefs of their elders and ancestors as fervently as Native Americans. They recognize the spirit in each living thing on this earth.

If something deep within a person seems to die, the essence of that life has somehow been drained or is in limbo, yet the soul never succumbs.

Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," of the mid-1800s, became a hermit's heritage of parochial living to mankind. He wrote, "I played about the stumps which I had got out of my bean field." "...they warmed me twice - once while I was splitting them and again when they were on fire."

I often stoked the fire those years we burned wood all winter long in what is now our gas-burning fireplace. Carrying the weighty, acrid smelling wood that Pat and the boys had split and stacked in a corner of our garage on crisp autumn days gave me a keen sense of a human's continuous need of nature's offerings. (Also, a very sore back.)

The snap of a log engulfed in orange and golden flame leads to the crackle and howl of penetrating heat. I would squat briefly in the clutches of its embrace, the ignited bark dropping off in glimmers of ash. The end of the poem "Hidden" by Naomi Shihab Nye often flashes across my thoughts. "No one sees the fuel that feeds you."

Time continuously forced me back to the dull routine of bookwork, which smelled too much like confinement, ledgers of figures gone stale, and midnight oil, choking off the sweet aroma of solitude. Summer's flesh, paled and dry like stale embers, bristles within the abyss of winter.

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish where life ends and death begins. In a forest, the dead looms next to, or is shadowed beneath the living. A garden where cucumbers have gone to seed may be at the same time ripe with plump healthy muskmelon on the vine. A field of wildflowers, at any given moment of its season, harmonizes with both the full-bloomed and the drab.

In Kathleen Dean Moore's "Riverwalking," she speaks of her young son, a lone observer in the out-of-doors. Her touching account is one of many insightful moments throughout her book. "If you focused too closely on Jonny, he backed away and, as surely as a caddis fly larva, became only surface - the opaque details of a life. Better to stand beside him and look in the direction he was looking."

"Soon you would be drawn into his world, a place with hawks on posts and millipedes under rocks and, at the edge of the river, the smell of juniper, and tar on the railroad tracks. And then somehow you would feel closer to what is hidden, the unchanging center."

In the dead of winter, one's soul floats freely in warm white puffs released into the frigid outer atmosphere. He who breathes from the depth of his soul exhales a vibrant spirit...the lifeblood of a world gasping for air.

Janet Burns has been a lifelong squatter in this neck of the woods. She can be reached at patandjanburns@earthlink.net 


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