Please welcome today’s guest writer, Michael Messina. Michael graduated from Calvin in 2016 with a double degree in environmental studies and philosophy. He currently lives ten miles south of Aspen, CO, across the street from a ghost town. For work he leads interpretive nature hikes; for play he goes on his own hikes.

Aspen trees sprout along the mountainside, finally able to absorb the sunlight that they love so much. The new saplings blanket the angled meadow in a multitude of green tufts.

As time passes, the aspens continue to grow, and stark white trunks descend from underneath brilliant green caps. The trees allow dappled light to reach the forest floor, which gives way to a tapestry of color. Verdant grasses, vibrant red or blue columbines, lurking violets, and fragrant parsleys all become part of an arboreal garden.

What garden is complete without critters? Trout swim lazily in a nearby stream, surging to the surface at the sight of midges and gnats. Thrushes flit through the branches and to the ground, gathering nesting material. Mice and voles scurry through the undergrowth, building nests and collecting food. Black bears lumber through, foraging for berries, tubers, and grubs in preparation for a long winter rest. Herds of elk will pass through on their seasonal migration, eating the greenest and most nutritious shoots. Every once and a while a hiker will pass through, seeking community among the trees.

The aspen trunks, now full-grown, have scars from all the old branches they let drop to the ground, leaving dark notches shaped like human eyes. The trees watch the garden’s activity with passive interest.

Winter produces a great deal of snowfall in the mountains, collecting above the aspens. The snowmelt provides the majority of water for the area; too much, however, and the snow cannot bear its own weight. An avalanche crashes through the garden and a cacophony of groans, squeals, and loud snaps follow as the wall of snow and debris fells even the most venerable trunks. Within minutes, the avalanche razes the entire forest.s

The avalanche destroyed the garden, but the destruction is not permanent. The aspen grove’s root system remains intact, as it has for thousands of years. The nutrients from the trampled plants, along with the newly available sunlight, are just what this subterranean network needs to begin anew. New life springs from ancient roots, and the cycle begins again.

I like to term myself “religious but not spiritual.” I enjoy the trappings and rituals of church: the hymns, taking communion, post-service cookies (especially the cookies). I find it reassuring to participate in the same ancient customs as millions of people the world over. When it comes to spiritual matters (how has the Spirit moved you today? How is your relationship with God? Do you believe in life after death?), I am much more comfortable shrugging my shoulders, laughing awkwardly, and changing the subject. Spirituality is just not on my personal radar, and attempts to bring it there often only succeed in making me squirm.

Walking through and thinking about aspen groves, though, has forced me into a more theology-friendly state of mind. Their cyclical nature, hinging on the tension of life and death, and all supported by roots that can live for thousands of years, harkened back to Prelude at Calvin and discussions of creation-fall-redemption-consummation (we can never escape Engaging God’s World). The aspen grove begins with the creation of life, the tender shoots that grow into a full-blown forest, creating a montane Garden of Eden. Then, the avalanche crashes through the trees, literally causing the trunks to fall to the ground, razing the garden and seemingly eliminating hope of a lasting paradise. From this destruction comes new life: the snow melts and the trees return their nutrients to the ground, clearing the way for a new forest to grow in place of the old one.

There is no obvious consummation parallel in aspen groves, no easy vision of the coming of the kingdom. The aspen groves, just like the rest of the universe, are still waiting for the second coming. I always pictured that waiting as being similar to sitting in the waiting room of an auto mechanic: not wholly unpleasant—you hope the final verdict will favor you—but all you can do is hope and pray until the grease-stained mechanic comes out and says “you’re all set!”

Aspen groves provide a more dynamic picture of this wait: instead of a fluorescently lit purgatory, the period between redemption and consummation is a continual flow of creation-fall-redemption. Life, death, and new life continues on a smaller scale, echoing the larger narrative guiding all of creation. This waiting-as-flux is a much more compelling (and I think more accurate) description of what is actually happening as creation waits.

As the rest of creation waits, so will I. I still would not consider myself a spiritual person, but considering aspens has softened my stance. Maybe continued attendance at the “church of the trees” can further my spiritual awakening. The only downside is that I have to bring my own cookies.

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