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  • Writer's pictureMarisa Guerin

Every Common Bush Afire

October 12, 2021 – Marisa Guerin, PhD

In Philadelphia these days, it is Autumn. The last of the flower blossoms – a yellow one here, a pink one there – are bravely showing forth. The leaves on the trees are starting to brown and to curl. Apparently, the weather this year has not been optimal for a blazing riot of Fall color, but the subdued tones are lovely in their own way. The days are as often cloudy and moody as they are sunny. Plantings are going dormant, and the squirrels are dashing about for whatever they might collect. The seasons are shifting, the air brisk, and the days darker. The brown, quiet garden in the cold months seems like something empty, away, gone. It’s burrowed in, asleep and patient.

If I think of nature as a symbol for my and our human lives, this time of rest and emptiness can be vaguely disconcerting.

What do you mean, put the garden to bed? There are lights on in the house! There is a calendar’s worth of appointments and a to-do list worth of tasks! There are people to see and places to go, or at least sort-of (covid). Life goes on, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall. If we are safe from weather, we carry on, and that is good, of course.

But even in the bare months, a connection to nature is like the touchstone for all that is true and all that is hopeful. Even a city person like me is grounded by the air; by what grows or doesn’t grow outside my door; by the low sky or the baby street tree – a Jefferson elm – that is having its first winter with us.

I have come to learn that this link to a bit of the natural world is really, really important to me – because truly, when I check the news, it is hard to keep a steady perspective. The world is full of serious problems, the political process is frighteningly dysfunctional, and the tragedies are real, not fiction. To cope with it, to bear it, I need to be able to shift my time-perspective.

My own personal human timetable is measured in days, weeks, months, years. But nature’s timetable flows as seasons, lifetimes, generations, eons. The street tree at the curb is going to come into its strength in a dozen years, and it will last for decades – I may water it each day, but it’s on the long march.

Meanwhile, the conversations, the decisions, the votes that we humans undertake each day do matter. Some are also going to come into strength; others will cause pain. We don’t have a choice here…we make the world, and the world makes us.

Nature reminds me is that there is profound, deep goodness in the common stuff of the earth we live on, incredible beauty, majesty, power. Even grievous errors can and will be healed, over enough time. We have to do our best, despite the mess. What nature offers me is the patience to see through the winter to the summer, and then again through to the next cycle, paying attention to the bit of world I am to tend. Every little bit of it is a miracle.

Two, related, favorite bits of literature carry this message best for me.

The first is the vision of Moses, the gift he was given to see and to hold in awe this stunning power.

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

The idea of holy ground is intuitively true to me. It is all holy! That’s what Elizabeth Barrett Browning saw in her own mystical way when she wrote:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes…..The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.”

I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with sitting around picking and eating blackberries – but I think what the poet is trying to say is, “Whoa!!! Isn’t life amazing??!”

Even in winter. Even in the quiet, brown, sleeping garden embracing its fire within.



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