Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Can I Get An 'Amen'?

Back in Newburyport a few years ago, one of our city councilors couldn’t believe I believed in God but didn’t go to church. She said, “Ryan, if you had to choose a religion, which one would it be?”

“I don’t have a favorite,” I told her.

“But say you had to choose just one. Which one would it be?”

“I don’t have to choose just one. That’s the beauty of it.”

“But say God made you choose a church to go to, which one would you go to?”

“I don’t think God would make me choose a church.”

She was now getting frustrated. “But what if he did? What if he said you had to choose a religion – which one would you choose?”

I paused for a moment, making her wait. I then looked her in the eye and said, “If I had to claim one belief I’d say I was a pantheist.”

This was too much for her. “You’re disgusting!” she said, before marching off.

A couple of days later I ran into her husband. “Why would you treat my wife like that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why would you be so disgusting to her when she was asking you about religion?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about and told him so.

“When she asked you which religion you’d choose, you said you worshipped panties.”

What my not-always bright friends who switched churches every few years, the last time because their church became open and affirming to gays and lesbians, didn’t understand was that like Christ, Mohammad, Buddha and Lao Tse, I find my connection to God through nature. I like it best that way; there’s no middle man.

So recently, during a moment of heartache, when a friend invited me to church here in Jackson, I politely declined and instead drove over to Black Mountain. We started out early in the morning and crossed the frozen field next to the parking lot. The air was cold, crisp and clean. Immediately I felt better. Atticus, healthy again, bounced happily along the white path, leaving his footprints in the frost.

It was wonderful to step into the woods and away from the world. We passed deeper and deeper into the forest, crossing a small stream, hopping from rock to rock, stepping through leaves dry and wet, across roots smooth and slick, and along the frozen trail. The forest welcomed us home and with each step the world let go of us.

Before I knew myself, November was my least favorite month. It followed the fiery colors of autumn when trees are at their finest, and preceded the magic of the first snow and the festive draw of December’s holidays. It seemed a lonely month; a void, if you will, between two special seasons. It’s taken many walks with Atticus for me to appreciate the magic of the November woods, when all pageantry is stripped away. There’s no foliage; no snow-covered conifers.

As we climbed Black Mountain that early morning hour we left behind the sound of cars and the hustle and bustle of the human world. We listened instead to the wind weave its way through trees bare but not barren. They swayed in the chilly air, creaking, moaning, whispering. As to what they were saying, I think that, like beauty, is up to the interpreter. I’m sure you’ve heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well, I think the same can be said for the message received from the song of the trees on the way up a mountain.

I woke that morning with heartache and on the way up the mountain that ache was replaced by the resolute beat of my working heart as it pumped blood to my limbs. The higher we climbed, the harder I worked, the deeper I breathed, the more my heart pumped. And there, there in the middle of our climb, I could feel Nature take hold of me and wash my worries away.

Nothing puts things in perspective quite like a walk in the woods. That and watching a little dog bound up the trail, pulling me along with a will that far outweighs his body. In the woods I become a student. Nature strips me naked, and then builds me back up again, putting things in perspective. And I’ve always felt that animals are far more at ease in the woods than we are – so what could be better than following my little talisman up that peak, into the heart of Nature, and out of the trials and tribulations that were weighing me down? He seems to know when I need the mountains and when I need him to lead me. And he takes his job seriously. He has a steadfast seriousness about him when in nature. Like it’s his job to see me to where I need to go.

There are two viewpoints on Black Mountain. The first is at a locked cabin (you can rent it out). Earlier this year the view from the cabin towards Mount Washington was cluttered by the trees. But here in November we could see through the woods. Then, on top of the mountain, there’s a more dramatic view towards Washington, but also towards the Wildcats, Carter Notch and the Carters. Most people approach Carter Dome from Route 16, but here in back of it, the view is far more dramatic and the mountain seems far more impressive.

As always we took our time on top, Atticus nudging me to lift him up so he could see over the brush. We settled into the views and our thoughts and stayed for quite a while.

A few days later the Town of Jackson held a Topping Off Ceremony where they placed a tree on top of their newly framed library. While there, I had my first chance to hear the minister of my friend’s church. He was enthusiastic, bold, loud and very animated. And I, still remembering my walk up Black Mountain, was thrilled to have chosen to listen to the song of the trees instead of his sermon in church.

In his essay “Nature”, Emerson wrote: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”

Can I get an ‘amen’?


Ari Herzog said...

I'll give you an "Amen" for the dialogue, a style I rarely see here. Keep writing dialogue. He said, she said, dog said.

LM said...

I enjoyed the dialogue also. Amen to the whole "write" or is it a "right" of Tom's? Either way it was fun to read. Write..., right on... march forward which ever way one (Tom) shall choose...