One of the things I love about reading is that, often without meaning to, I find similar themes and ideas popping up in the texts I’m reading for pleasure and for work. Most recently this happened during my preparations for this year’s Spring Term trip to Scotland and my time planning and teaching the British Romantics to my Brit Lit classes.
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the British Romantics, so it was fun to be able to teach an entire unit on their poetry. Fun for me, anyways—I’m not sure how excited my seniors were to read poetry for a few weeks straight! During the unit, I used a beautiful children’s book called The Lost Words as a way to start each lesson. The premise behind the book is that the Oxford Children’s Dictionary has been removing nature words from classroom dictionaries and replacing those words with more common 21st century words like “wifi,” “blog,” and “cut-and-paste.” This book functions as a way to remember and reclaim the nature words are children aren’t learning–words like “otter,” “bramble,” and “lark.”
After using this book in class for a week or so, I realized that the name on the cover, Robert Macfarlane, sounded familiar. Sure enough, there was a book by Robert Macfarlane on my “To Be Read” pile called The Old Ways. I purchased this book on last year’s Spring Term trip to the UK; it had been waiting on my shelf for the perfect moment.
Macfarlane’s book served as the perfect companion to a lot of things–my Romantic unit, The Lost Words, and planning a trip to Scotland. The book is about the old trails and paths that cover the UK’s land- and seascapes. And while the subject matter sounds strange and perhaps a bit boring, Macfarlane’s poetic and reflective style makes the book come alive. I found myself copying out long passages into my notebook, which is usually a sign that a book is a winner! Perhaps my favorite reflection in the book is this one about the power of landscapes on our imagination:
We tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are on them or in them, when they offer us the primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places–retreated to most often when we are most remote from them–are among the most important landscapes we possess. Adam Nicolson has written on the ‘powerful absence[s]’ that remembered landscapes exert upon us, but they exist as powerful presences, too, with which we maintain deep and abiding attachments. These perhaps are the landscapes in which we live the longest, warped though they are by distance The consolation of recollected places finds its expression frequently in the accounts of those–exiles, prisoners, the ill, the elderly–who can no longer physically reach the places that sustain them” (Macfarlane 198).
This idea of “recollected places” is not a new one; Wordsworth, the father of English Romanticism, wrote about the same feelings in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey:”
…how oft—In darkness and amid the many shapesOf joyless daylight; when the fretful stirUnprofitable, and the fever of the world,Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
In the poem, Wordsworth stands overlooking the Wye River and Tintern Abbey, and he is reminded how this very sight has sustained him for the last five years. And though he recognizes that he has “changed, no doubt,” in the intervening years, The sight gives him a sort of double pleasure because he realizes “that in this moment there is life and food / For future years.” Macfarlane and Wordsworth recognize the same principle: The places that mean most to us live inside us; we can draw strength from them even in our absence.
For me, a landscape that lives on in my mind is the wild, rugged beauty of Scotland. I wrote a little bit about how Scotland plays a role in my testimony, and it was for those very reasons that I was excited to go back, eight years later, with a group of students. It was my prayer that they would experience the same spiritual “mountaintop” experience I did by witnessing God’s glory in creation. I was excited to be back in a place that had meant so much to me, and I was hoping for some time to reflect on the last eight years.
I would say, looking back, that our trip was a huge success–everything seemed to go as planned, and every day was full of laughter and bagpipes. What more can you want from Scotland? We spent the first two days in Edinburgh, and then ventured out to Loch Ness, St. Andrews, and Stirling. After the first two day trips to mysterious Loch Ness and a beautiful, sunny St. Andrews shore, I’ll admit that the third day’s excursion to Stirling didn’t seem as exciting or eventful. We visited Bannockburn and Stirling proper, and then we ventured off to Loch Lomond. As it turns out, that last visit to a scenic place turned out to be my favorite single moment of the trip.
Our tour guide, John, pointed us to a lesser-known trail that would lead us up to an overlook of the largest loch in Scotland. With only one more stop on the way back to Edinburgh and only one more day in the city, we knew that this was likely our last chance to soak in the Scottish landscape. And even though I knew this, I’d be lying if I said I was excited about hiking up a hillside staircase after a week of trekking across Scotland.
But we pressed onward and upward.
And man, was the view worth it. Pictures definitely don’t do it justice, since part of the whole experience was the wind that wouldn’t stop blowing the whole time. It was perhaps the first time on the trip that we all collectively fell quiet, silenced by what we were seeing. And even when it was time to leave, we lingered. We made it down the hill, but stopped at a little dock on the loch. The conversations picked back up and we laughed and talked again, but I think there was some reluctance on all of our parts to get back on the bus and head towards the city. Like Wordsworth, we knew “that in this moment there [was] life and food / For future years.”
The best part of this is that all week during our devotions, we’d been talking about how what we see and experience can draw us to Jesus. We talked through the book of Philippians and what it meant to focus on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.” I read about how our citizenship is in Heaven, and was reminded by the view of Loch Lomond that there is one important landscape we should be focusing on in absentia, a landscape we’ve never seen, but one that still exerts a very real draw on the hearts of believers:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)
I think God gives us these moments here on earth to remind us of that landscape. This is one lesson I learned eight years ago in Scotland–if we live in a fallen world, yet we still have so much beauty, how much more beautiful will the New Heaven and New Earth be? Standing on a hill looking out over Loch Lomond was the perfect reminder I needed, eight years later, of this truth.
Of course, the second I landed back in Atlanta I felt swamped again by all of the things that need doing. That’s the hard part about mountaintop experiences–they end. And while my “to-do” list hasn’t shrunk over the last week, and no pressing questions in my life have been answered, I have had some time to reflect over the things I saw in Scotland, and the moments and memories of the trip are already serving as a powerful reminder of God’s faithfulness and beauty. I hope my students would say the same thing.
We talk our way up the trail,
breathless with the effort of watching
our steps for stumbling blocks.
Laughing in the easy way of travelers,
We dodge brambles and mud
to attain the overlook,
where we pause,
hands on hips, surveying.
Slowly our conversations fade
as we stand together and fall alone
into our own ways of witnessing,
this gathered silence the evidence
that we are unprepared
for the questions the landscape asks.
I can’t speak for them,
but I hear you whisper above the wind
that plaits tangles into my hair
and sweeps cobwebs of doubt
from the corners of my mind.
Too soon our watches remind us
of our promise to return,
so we wipe the wind-tears from our eyes
and set reluctant feet on the path
that leads away from this place.
The laughter swells again,
but in our hearts we reach
without realizing it
for traces of this peace,
pressing daisies and prickly gorse
into the palms of our hands,
picking up rusty nails of remembrance,
lying face down on the dock
to plunge our hands into the water,
taking with us any proof we can find
that we were here
and so were you.