The Rough Places Plain

Exploring the woods behind my new house, I have been struck by nature’s ability to heal.

Recently, my wife and I moved into a new house in upstate New York. In actual fact, it’s an old house, admirable and distinguished, with solid stone walls and sporting an authentic brass knocker on the front door that states the year it was built, 1842.

Behind the house is a small tract of woods, and on the first day, I went exploring. Within minutes, I spotted a fisher, a truly astonishing mammal that is closely related to the marten, mink, and wolverine. Its pitch-black fur glowed with vitality. Seeing me in the distance, it padded off through the fiddlehead ferns and Russian Olives to hunt for rabbits and squirrels. A bald eagle soared overhead, long grass stems trailing from its beak, and disappeared into a grove of ancient white pines. Suspecting a nest, I tramped around and eventually located it. The nest, like others I have seen, was a glorious jumble of sticks and branches, like a misplaced beaver lodge that had landed upside down some eighty feet in the air.

To enjoy these glorious woods, it is necessary for me to negotiate a short, steep hill. Most of the year, the bank is covered with dead oak leaves, sometimes several layers deep, making the summit very difficult to reach. So, shovel in hand, I spent several arduous hours cutting a trail up to the saddle at the lowest point of the ridge. By the time I had finished, the sun was splashing orange and gold across the wrinkled quilt of clouds, and I had raised several throbbing blisters. But now, I figured, I can really enjoy these beautiful woods.

It was a disconcerting surprise, then, to discover a few days later that leaves had tumbled down the bank and covered my path, making it once again as slippery as boiled okra. I hustled to the garage and found a rake, which unfortunately was missing several front teeth, as happens occasionally with old age. A short brisk upper-body workout, and the trail was free of leaves.

But a few days later, I once again discovered that the wind and leaves had conspired to cover my path. Once more the rake was summoned and the path cleared. Only after this cycle had repeated itself several times did I notice an interesting thing: the leaves always accumulated in the top corner of each step, effectively softening the crisp, sharp lines that the shovel and I had created. Nature, it appeared, was attempting to erase my path and restore the hillside to its original form.

From a close neighbor, I learned that this wooded area was once an open cornfield. In the 1960s, the old-timer told me, a sand-and-gravel company had purchased the property and mined the living daylights out of it. By the time the company left, it had removed every tree and bush and plant from the entire area, along with some twenty feet of elevation. The fertile soil had been stripped away, leaving only a layer of sand and stone completely devoid of all vegetation. In the center of this barren landscape was a deep quarry with an odd hump in the middle.

The nest was a glorious jumble of sticks and branches, like a misplaced beaver lodge that had landed upside down some eighty feet in the air.

Many years passed. Slowly the wounded land began the long process of healing. New soil developed, and grass and moss found a tentative foothold. As the years rolled by, nature continued to work her healing magic. Sturdy trees and lush plants emerged and flourished, and birds and other wildlife flooded in. By the time I arrived on the scene, all that was visible was a beautiful wooded nature sanctuary with a charming pond with a small island in the middle. Now, wandering these trails daily, I hear the spring warblers rejoicing, see painted turtles sunning themselves on a rotten log bridging the island to the pond’s shore, taste the delicious red wineberries, and watch squirrels frolic cheerfully through the high branches. More than once, I have come face to face with a timid doe or a spotted fawn.

This, then, is something that I have observed over the years. In many cases, nature is astonishingly quick and efficient at reclaiming a piece of herself that has been abused in some manner. Patiently she applies her healing balm to the rough places, blunting the sharp corners, softening the angles, smoothing the lines.

Observing this healing process, the words of Handel’s great choral work, Messiah, come to mind: “The crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain” (Isa. 40:4).

Of course, there are situations where the wounds of nature are too deep to heal quickly, like the brutal strip mining that can readily be seen when driving south through the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania from Scranton to Wilkes-Barre. The anthracite coal fields there were stripped of their treasure, then simply abandoned, leaving behind ugly mountains of shale and gaping land scars that perhaps will never heal.

Oddly enough, destruction and healing are sometimes linked together. The mighty forces of nature – forest fires, volcanos, earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, floods, and hurricanes – can be so devastating that affected areas are often unrecognizable afterward. Yet, paradoxically, these same forces are sometimes willing accomplices in nature’s noble healing process. Think of the Nile River, whose annual flooding ravaged villages on its banks for centuries, but which also left behind new deposits of silt and topsoil, which in turn yielded life-giving crops. Shakespeare spoke eloquently of this phenomenon as “the disturbances that nature works, and of her cures.”

It has been said that what life hurts, nature heals. If that’s true, nature has power to heal human lives as well, for certainly all of us encounter moments that leave us challenged, wounded, and scarred. Call them the rough places, if you will. Sometimes the path to healing and rejuvenation is slow and painful, and requires much hard work and discipline. Shakespeare referred to the will to go on as “the fire of life to kindle again.” Following nature’s worthy example, we can dust ourselves off, pick up the broken pieces, smooth the sharp corners, blunt the jagged edges, and make the rough places plain.

Kirk Wareham, The Rough Places Plain, copyright 2024 by Plough Publishing House. Used by permission.

Kirk Wareham is a Bruderhof member, a father of six, grandfather of six, a lover of nature, and an avid reader. His essays and short stories have been published in Notre Dame Magazine, Snowy Egret, Passager Journal, Potato Soup Journal, Like the Wind, Agape Review, Halfway Down the Stairs Magazine, and Corvus Review.