A Hidden Spring and a Secret Grief

By

The curse comes like the crack of rifle shot.

I finished The Yearling two days ago, and my heart is still heavy with it. The book didn’t wound me. The wound was already there. The book gave the wound a name, which is strong medicine. I remember my mother-in-law, who named her dog Jody after the main character of the book, telling me that it wasn’t until she re-read The Yearling as an adult that she realized the yearling wasn’t the deer at all; the yearling was the boy. I had caught wind of the fact that the book was sad, which only made me dare it to sadden me. I went into the story armed with the knowledge of its metaphor and its impending doom. And yet, it caught me unaware. I was a deer in the woods, minding my own business, feasting on the green grass of the story, when the shot rang out.

My son, Aedan, was given the book by his Nana as a Christmas present last year. I remember him telling me how much he liked it, that it was sad, and that he thought I’d really like it, too. I knew Rawlings was from my part of Florida, and The Yearling was lauded in Micanopy, a little town 45 minutes from my house, near Rawlings’s home. But I never read it as a kid. If there weren’t dragons, cowboys, or ghosts in a story, I wasn’t interested. My parents tried to get me to read it, but I resisted, and I’m glad I did. My heart wasn’t ready for it. Nor do I believe Aedan’s heart was ready for it. Oh, there’s no harm in reading it at a young age. Rawlings’s descriptions of life in the Florida wilderness are fascinating, especially if, like me, you recognize the Spanish moss, live oaks, alligators, rattlesnakes, magnolias, palmettos, and deep Southern accents she writes about so well. But it’s not a child’s book, strictly speaking.

Sure, there’s a terrible old bear named Slewfoot, and a hurricane, and more than one near-death experience—but even these events happen without the usual, conventional drama. There’s not much gut-wrenching tension; things just happen–good things, and bad things. It’s more than 400 pages long, with no real plot. It meanders (or seems to). Its passages creep by as silent and dark as the Suwannee River. From the first page of the book it’s easy to see Rawlings’s great gift as a writer. That’s why you give her your time and attention for those 400 pages. Not only are there small delights along the way, you get the sense that she’s leading you on a journey you need to take. The story is about the loss of childhood. That’s why Aedan only thought of it as a good, sad book and nothing more. How can you mourn the loss of something you haven’t lost?

But as for me and my heart, we grieved. I sat on the front porch at the Warren on a rainy day, read the last sentence, turned my head so my children wouldn’t see my face, and wept. I asked God, aloud, “Why must it be so? Why must it be so?” Why must the bright wonder and innocence of youth be shot and killed? Why must the little boy in me pass into the night, gone like a ghost? Why must I spend the second half of my life grieving that boy’s departure from the world, always seeking him, always wishing for a world untainted? Aedan saw me crying and came out to the porch. I tried to pretend I wasn’t crying, but he’s pretty smart. He hugged me, and I hugged him back, no longer grieving my own past, but his future. I thought of all my children, and the loneliness that will dog them all their days, and how I long to protect them from it. But the world is drenched in sorrow. For these precious few days of childhood the Lord grants us a glimpse of Eden, and as we age we are called back again and again to remember what was lost, and to reclaim it, to tell its story. We weep for the death, and hope in the resurrection, when Christ’s Kingdom of wise, old children may walk a healed world unharried by the looming certainty of death and more death.

The young deer is a metaphor for Jody Baxter, and Jody Baxter is a metaphor for the loss of Eden. And Eden? It was a real place, but is now the metaphor for the world that was, and will be, and is no more, the world our own world longs for. I walk through fatherhood with a secret grief for my children. They inherit a world teeming with graces and wonders and mystery—and yet they too will come face to face with the bear in the woods, or the dying, bloody gasp of the little deer. They will encounter the rattlesnake in the brush. They will see that this innocence so fine will fray.

In the opening scene of the book, Jody steals to a hidden spring and lies there for the afternoon, marveling at its beauty, at the sound of the trees, and the birds, and the water. At the end of the book he returns to the spring and finds the magic gone. He is no longer a boy. That time was a child’s dream, and now he must put away the things of a child. Ah, but Jody! Don’t forget. Don’t forget the bubbling spring that brought such joy. Draw yourself a map and hide it away. Show it to your child when he or she is young, or leave it on their nightstand without explanation. Keep the fire alive. And when you’re old, Jody Baxter, slip through the fronds and scrub oaks, down the bank of the old sandy road, and drink deep of the spring again. Lie down in the hollow and rest in the loneliness that is not lonely. Let the clean, cold water remind you that the magic you believed in was always stronger than the curse that bent you low.

I visited Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s home at Cross Creek last year, and took this picture.

mkrawlings

We have The Yearling available in the Rabbit Room Store.

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


35 Comments

  1. Susan

    I got about half way through reading your book review before I noticed the lump in my throat. Clearly my heart was aching because it recognised the ‘story’, even though I have never read the book.

    Susan

  2. Dieta

    And now I’m crying, and I haven’t read the book. I had an elderly woman at church who, despite the difference in our ages, became a precious friend to me. She had the gift of remembering the child. If I were starting to get too serious during our many Bible studies together, she would relate some funny Sunday School story about the kids, and have all of us laughing. She constantly wanted to remind me that the quiet is OK, even good. (family of 5 = lots of noise!) And she would call me and tell me to go to my backyard to see the red-tailed hawk hunting over our neighborhood because it was so beautiful and majectic. I lost her 4 years ago, but her lessons have rekindled a bit of the child in me. I see shapes in the clouds and marvel at the squirrels in my yard that seem to muliply daily. I am trying to give that to my kids. Thanks for the post. D

    t

  3. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    AP, The Yearling is one of my favorite novels of all time. I love the illustrations too. And this is surely the best thing I’ve ever read about The Yearling. You put into words exactly what I love about this book.

  4. Jesse D

    Andrew, I always figured The Yearling was like Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows – if you’ve read one or two of them, you don’t really need to read the others. I mean, how much variation on the having-to-kill-your-pet theme can there be? But this review gives me pause. I’ll more than likely pick this up now next time I’m in a used bookstore. Thanks for the review.

  5. LauraP

    AP – It’s always a good day when I pop into the RR and find something you’ve written. I love both the way you paint with words and what you reveal of yourself in the stories you tell. Somehow you always manage to point me to a bigger Truth in the telling.

    Such terrible sorrow and grief we all have to muck through in this world, there is no denying. And yet in music and story and the other arts, a reminder: “Don’t forget the bubbling spring that brought such joy.”… reminders of the hope and promise that the ending of the Story is already written… and it is spectacular.

  6. Kristen

    Thanks for this post, Andrew – on my 30th Birthday, no less! I haven’t read the book, but this brings tears to my eyes. I’m taking off early today to marvel at my own hidden spring and reclaim a little bit of what was lost.

  7. Tina

    I read the book last summer and Andrew, you just explained what I felt while reading the book. Thanks, from a mother of 5 sons.

  8. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    AP,

    The loss of innocence is really about the world pounding on a child’s ability to believe. I remember the first major disappointment in my son’s life. He was around 8. He had somehow gotten George Lucas’ business address and had written to the office about writing the next Star Wars movie (he hadn’t even seen the new ones at that point). The thing is, he really believed.

    We got an envelope a few weeks later. He opened it to find a very nice letter from a secretary saying they weren’t allowed to even read story ideas, so she was sending his letter back with some nice stickers.

    I had seen my son disappointed before, but not devastated. It seems like a silly thing to us, as adults, because we are used to not believing. We’re used to thinking, “There’s no way it’s gonna happen.” We hedge our bets with unbelief and don’t fully commit in faith as a dam against disappointment.

    My son was so disappointed that at one point, after doing my best to encourage and comfort and get him to understand, I walked outside and wept at how the world continually assails that kind of belief in a child until he “thinks rightly” and learns to hedge his bets all the time.

    But if we see it correctly – Biblically – this breaking of a child’s belief is a necessary part of beginning to connect to God. I see in my son a powerful faith-person – almost to the point of craziness. But natural attachments have to die; disillusionment must come in order that we connect in faith to the Real.

    I don’t like the way it works. But it works, and eventually his natural faith will be fully connected to God.

    I like George Carlin’s statement: “A cynic is just a disappointed idealist.” I see this in Joni Mitchell’s work – a growth from idealism, “I can change the world,” to a disappointed, cynical view that has sprung from seeing the world is not changing and is in fact growing worse.

    The only true change is in a rebirth of that childlike faith, but this time connecting it only to God – not people, or ideas, or desires, or things, or even “happiness.” Just God. Not “God first,” but “God only.”

    But – being a parent – it is hard to see the blows to innocence. The only thing we can do is soften the blows so that they are more gradual.

  9. Mike Brown

    My son who is 8 asked me what my favorite pet was and I told him about two possums I raised as a teen ager. He said he wanted possums as pets but I told him that he would only get possums if he were meant to have them. He asked me what that meant and I told him that if he were meant to have them they would come to him but we would never go look for them and take them from their mamma. For two weeks he thought of nothing but possums. He checked out books on possums and got to touch one at a wild-life preserve. On our way home from church three weeks ago we saw a dead mamma and one dead baby lying in the road. He cried uncontrollably until I reluctantly went back to check for more babies. We pulled three live ones out of the pouch of the dead mamma. We’ve had them for these three weeks. They ate well and seemed to be growing but a few days ago one died, this morning another and the last one is not well. I expect it to be dead when we get home today. He was sure that God had sent them to him. He was pitiful this morning, which made me pitiful. Thanks Andrew. This is very timely for a daddy who doesn’t really know what to tell his son. Growing up sucks for sure.

  10. Mike Brown

    Thank you too Ron.

    You said, “I don’t like the way it works. But it works, and eventually his natural faith will be fully connected to God.”

    I told God this morning that I really didn’t like the way He did things. He said He knew but it would all be OK.

  11. DrewP

    Wonderfully written Andrew, I remember reading this book as a boy. Looks like it’ll be on my night stand before long.

  12. Alyssa

    The grief you talk about is something that I had begun to be aware of in my own life, though I had yet to put a precise name on it. I’m watching my 1- and 2-year-old kids in constant discovery, the world unfolding to their eyes day by magical day. And I’ve begun to fear the day they are dealt their first blow of stark reality. But I think if it weren’t for the children and how they remind us of our own loss, we would be in danger of forgetting we lost it at all. And to forget would be far worse than the grief.

  13. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Alyssa,

    I would call it “the day they are dealt their first blow of stark unreality.” It is their faith that is real; it is fairyland, as Chesterton says, that is real.

    In Phantastes, George MacDonald writes of a man who “finds his shadow.” This shadow self begins to get in the way of his relationships and experiences, obscuring the man’s seeing. He goes from seeing the beauties and magic of fairyland to seeing, instead of a fairy-child, “just a commonplace boy” and in place of a magical seeing-device, “just a bit of colored glass.”

    But it is those things that are real. Eternal reality, which exists all around us, is fairyland; it is the Eternal Fairy Tale. Anything that obscures that sense of wonder is a lie, a shadow, a cloud that has covered our ability to truly perceive reality.

    It seems the shadow-self must come, must obscure our seeing, so that we can learn to see more truly, and to be thankful. In order to have free will at all, we must have a false reality that seems louder and brighter than actual Reality – than Fairyland. For whatever reason, God wants us to see the alternatives, and ultimately choose the still, small Voice over the thousands of frenetic, large, and loud shouts of world-flesh-devil.

  14. Alyssa

    Colossians 2:17 – “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

  15. Ashley Elizabeth

    Thank you, both AP and Ron. I hold with grace the depth of my faith, but would love the width of the faith I had 20 yrs ago. Praying now to see God in His glory, not just His promises.

  16. Keith

    “Have you ever just cried with no reason why like a child who’s been left on his own? You can’t quite explain the confusion or pain so you live with a heartache alone. In the back of your mind is a place and a time and an image of what should have been. And you know that you’ll never be happy ’til you find your way back there again.

    All of us are homesick for Eden. We yearn to return to a land we’ve never known. Deep is the need to go back to the garden. A burning so strong for a place we belong, a place that we know is home.”
    Part of the lyrics from the song “Homesick For Eden” by Paul Smith

  17. Keep God First

    My favorite part of this blog… “How can you mourn the loss of something you haven’t lost?” If only we could, then perhaps we would understand how important it is to be ready for the evils that threaten our innocence.

    That seems to be one of the biggest challenges for me as a parent. Intellectually, my children can often understand what my words of guidance mean, but it is only the Holy Spirit that enables them to take ownership for themselves. That’s why, I think, it is so important to pray for our children and to lead them best we can to value Christ-centered living.

  18. Leanore

    This took my breath away and brought tears to my own eyes. I’ve never read The Yearling; I think I sort of always knew what it was about and didn’t want to take that journey. You’ve described so well the way it feels to have lost this Eden. How we deal with losing this innocence determines, I think, how we deal with the rest of life.

    Keep the tears, Andrew; they’re far better than cynicism. They allow you to tell the story over and over of what was lost and how it will be reclaimed. There’s so much poetry in your prose; I love the sounds of the words strung together.

    But I do think you’re wrong there at the end. We won’t be wise, old children.
    I think we’ll be wise and full-grown in the beauty of early adulthood and young with laughter and adventure and joy.

  19. Barbara

    I, too, lumped this in with Where the Red Fern Grows and wasn’t in a hurry to read it. Perhaps it’s time to find that dusty library book sale copy I bought years ago.

    And to Mike Brown, who said: “I told God this morning that I really didn’t like the way He did things. He said He knew but it would all be OK.” I’ve heard God saying similar things to me lately but haven’t been listening too well. Thank you for sharing that conversation. It’s good to recognize the personality of the God I know in the words He speaks to others.

  20. carrie luke

    Pete, so many layers there:). I’m gonna say, no…it’s not wrong. i grew up on Star Wars and took great pride in sharing my name with the Princess. not to mention wanting to merry R2 D2. I’m 5’3 in a family of over 6 footers, R2 spoke to me.

  21. Ashley Fairbrother

    I may be off her but aren’t we supposed to keep a childlike wonder throughout our lives as Christians? Granted I am only 20 but I have had problems in my life and grown up because of them, but I still have a wonder through all of Christ’s creation and filled with awe struck inspiration. The view from a mountain can move me to tears, the whisper of a stream calls to me in a magical tongue, that quite lake with no disturbance reminds me of what I want my soul to be like; teeming with life yet peaceful all at the same time. I will give you that I have not read the book, but I don’t feel like I have lost my childhood. I’m still very much enjoying it as an adult.

  22. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Ashley and Dave,

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    From the last paragraph:

    “Ah, but Jody! Don’t forget. Don’t forget the bubbling spring that brought such joy. Draw yourself a map and hide it away. Show it to your child when he or she is young, or leave it on their nightstand without explanation. Keep the fire alive. And when you’re old, Jody Baxter, slip through the fronds and scrub oaks, down the bank of the old sandy road, and drink deep of the spring again. Lie down in the hollow and rest in the loneliness that is not lonely. Let the clean, cold water remind you that the magic you believed in was always stronger than the curse that bent you low.”

    You may not realize how much of the magic is gone until you have children of your own and are yourself broken on the wheels of living. It may not have happened yet, but it will. I’m glad you’re able to maintain a sense of wonder. I was the same way when I was 20, and I still aim for that now that I’m 36. What I’m saying in the close of the essay is that our call is to “keep the fire alive” in a world that groans as in the pains of childbirth. It’s harder than you may think.

    I’d love to hear what you think about the book. It really is among my all-time favorites.

    AP

  23. Ben

    I’m with AP on this one.

    After a less than ideal childhood, I was forced to begin living on my own when I turned 17 years old. I finished High School and began working full time when I was 18. Ever since then, I’ve watched my peers live much different lives than my own. While I worried about electricty and car payments, they worried about what they were going to do on Friday night. I enjoyed my life, but it was in a different way. I had to grow up fast. And after years of acting like it didn’t bother me, I read this post.

    I bought the book and I’m reading through it now, ready to face a grief that I have burried deep for many years…

    One thing I have found about life so far is that possibility dwindles as choices are made, cementing your fate further and further until there is nothing left to choose. I know that sounds simple, but I think it is one of those things that takes on more and more meaning as your heart takes on more years of experiencing it.

    That must be where the ache comes from. As time passes, it becomes progressively harder for us to stretch out our legs on adventure. We have responsibilties, after all. And little people that depend on us.

    It is a joyous thing to grow older and build a family. But while it gives, it also takes away. I suppose that is the way of nature, but it doesn’t mean we can’t mourn the passing of our own innocence and possibility. Not to mention the end of our children’s.

    Anyway, I understand where you’re coming from, AP. Thanks for being a great example.

  24. Ashley Fairbrother

    Thanks for getting back to me!
    Well my fiance has bought one of the books you were selling so I will read it and tell you my thoughts. It is surprising to me that you have such incredibly poetic and childlike imagery in your work, yet you say you have lost some of your innocence and wonder. Maybe you have more than you give yourself credit for…
    I’ll get back to you asap.

  25. Ashley Fairbrother

    PS the previous post is from Ben, my fiance, and that is why I read this essay; we are about to start a life together, embark on a journey if you will, and I want us both to have the same excitedness I don’t want either of us to be lost in mourning in a time of celebration, I guess what I really want is to understand how looking at these problems that we have and focusing on them and making a big deal out of them is helpful. Did Jesus mourn for his childhood, I mean really, or was he thankful for every experience he
    was able to have, that’s what made him who he was, on top of being the son of God he also was a son of man. What happens to us can make us bitter or better, and in my opinion mourning your childhood is choosing to dwell on things of the past. One of my favorite Azlan quotes is when he says something along the lines of it is not for you to know what could have been… I think we have such little time on earth as it is why not just enjoy it and not find reasons to be sad.
    Please don’t take any of this as mean spirited or haughty, I just really can not seem to grasp the concept of wanting to mourn for something so little when I have so much.

  26. Fellow Traveler

    Ashley, if I can chime in… I think I understand both what Andrew is trying to get at and what you’re trying to get at.

    I believe what you’re trying to say is that while it’s all very well to talk of holding on to our childhood, there comes a time when man must put away childish things and embrace the new life into which he is stepping. If all his days are spent in mourning the life he’s left behind, how will he enjoy the life he has now?

    But here’s the thing: I don’t think Andrew is saying that we should become wrapped up in our past while *neglecting* to live in the present or look to the future. What he is saying, I think, is that we should try to keep our hearts tender and hold on to that purity we had as children. We should take time to soak in the wonder of simple things that were so all-important to us when we were small, yet somehow we can’t find the time for now that we are grown. And I think he’s saying that it can be hard to do that when you have kids of your own, and when you’re worrying about them and trying to protect them from this terrible world. It can be very disillusioning and sometimes even depressing. But the important thing is keeping a spark of joy through it all. Cynicism is good sometimes, but it can be easy to take an over-dose. When you take too much, it poisons you. So I think Andrew’s phrase of “keeping the fire alive” is very apt.

    And you know, I think the ache that Andrew and others are describing is perhaps as much of an ache for what is to come as it is an ache for what has been lost. When we weep for Eden, we long for heaven. So if you prefer, you can think of it as hungering for the world’s redemption.

  27. JK

    AP, I read the book because your song drew me in. I too was gut-punched by it, in the best sense of the phrase. Thank you for the gift of this as my wife and I watch our own 12 and 10 year old boys on the hinge between being boys and men.

  28. Jody Smith

    Andrew, I only recently discovered your song about Jody Baxter and it took me back to a recurring theme in my life. My given name is Joseph D. Smith; however, my great grandmother loved “The Yearling” and thought I reminded her of that towheaded little boy that loved animals so. Growing up in the South at a time when children could still play and wander throughout nature on their own, I only saw the good or innocence in God’s creation. I had a wonderful, loving upbringing that allowed me to do so. Later in life I envision the world as you describe above after reading “The Yearling” for the first time. At midlife I became disillusioned and cynical of my progress in reaching my “supposed” life goals and found myself longing for those days of wading in the creek and catching little animals. So I changed careers late in life and have adopted the motto “If you become cynical in one career, just take on a new one in which you’re too ignorant to be cynical!”. It also helps if you can surround yourself with many young Jody Baxter’s to remind you of home. Ignorance IS bliss!

    Thank you Andrew for the remembrance of home.

  29. Chang Lee

    “The Ballad of Jody Baxter” would get me misty eyed, especially towards the bridge of the song–even though I didn’t know that it was based on a character from a book. I just now finished reading “The Yearling” and have to wonder, how did I not know about this book all my life?
    There is that warm, tender place in each of us. We all want to shield our children from some of the pains we’ve gone through. But as the song “You’ll Find Your Way” says, despite all our hopes, each individual will grow up, and inevitably get lost. We must feel the sting of death, the thorns and thistles of our toil on this earth, to know and appreciate where our true home lies, and to know how good it is to be found. The last line of “Jody Baxter,” “Does it have to be this way?” points to our hope in Christ’s reversal of the curse.
    It feels so good to be reminded of this!

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