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I spent two weeks in July with my family up at my in-laws’ ranch up in the Peace River country of Alberta, about an hour from Dawson Creek, BC. My father-in-law came up to the Peace River and homesteaded with his dad at the the ripe age of seven years, back in 1929, to settle on this very spot. He speaks casually of trappers, of delivering mail by snowshoe, wild people, horse thieves, stolen cows, and hunting and tracking moose through hip-deep snow. At 85 he still cuts his own wood with a power saw, an expert log splitter.
My mother-in-law grew up a few miles away, and along with endless chores she works every day on her childhood homestead running the post office. They’re a hardy pair.
I’d only been there in December’s subzero temperatures for about ten years.
Minus 40 isn’t pleasant. I remove my glove to take these kinds of pictures, and my fingers begin to go numb in less than a minute.
But this was summer at 75 degrees. I saw things I hadn’t seen in ten years – a stern bald eagle standing at its nest, watching us, in a tall dead tree on the edge of the flat field above the river. My boy wanted to build a raft, so I gathered and sawed logs while he built a wickiup and my daughter sank her feet into the deep and squishy Peace River mud.
The lake up on the next level was serene with floating deadwood and a beaver dam. The old log cabin, dating probably from the 1930s or 1940s, was overgrown and fallen in much more than I remembered. My son and I built a lean-to out of big poplar branches, spruce boughs, and twine.
Tracks were all over the ranch – bear, moose, and beaver tracks at the river, wolf tracks out on Moonlight Canyon, and deer tracks everywhere.
It is so still and serene there. God’s creation is; it’s just simply being itself. There is an immutable silence in nature that mere noise and activity can’t eradicate; the silence is always there under the noise, patiently waiting.
On the ranch there is no noise. Out on Moonlight Canyon, or by the lake, or out on the big flat, the silence is tangible. It pours in your ears and digs deep into your soul, bringing forth things long forgotten.
There is something I recovered there this summer, a boy I used to be, barefoot, fishing, swimming, or digging clay out of the hillside to make model dinosaurs. I lived a Huck Finn existence that was mostly lost when I turned thirteen and moved to middle class suburbia; playing music and escaping into books took Huck’s place, and life was never the same.
Plenty of good things happened in my teens, of course; waterskiing trips, playing banjo and guitar, working at my Dad’s music store, and eventually bluegrass festivals, bands, and more. Without these things my life’s track would have been radically different.
But Huck Finn, that kid who lived every day by dirt and creek and frog and catfish, he had to shut his eyes and sleep for the eighties and nineties and beyond.
Something in us gets cooked by microwaves, drowned by iPods, blinded by laptops, a thing recovered outdoors in the cool morning air, in the heat of a sun that makes us feel so small but so alive.At the edge of a cliff, looking over an ancient river rolling for centuries to the sea, a truth in us wakes up. This inner truth is fed and watered by nature, by fresh air, by silence; technology and hustle-and-bustle and malls and traffic seem to starve it.
There is an aspect of self-importance and self-absorption in modern life that is wonderfully crushed by nature. Hills and rivers and trees and grass make me feel so humbled and awed and yet significant; they’re immense and soulful, and artistic, God’s gift to man as a sign of His love.
Something came alive in me during those two weeks that isn’t going away.
Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.