Thanksgiving Pilgrimage

image image image image image image image image image imageWhile the rest of the country posts pictures of food on their social media this Thanksgiving, I have pictures of trees. Black, leafless trees with a sprinkling of snow.

The thing I look forward to on this November holiday is the traditional family walk in the woods, an annual custom that goes back to my youth and continues to this day.

I go to the woods around my house once or twice a week for walks and picture taking so it’s not a novelty. But it feels different on Thanksgiving. The family makes it a special occasion and we have lots of time on our hands. Plus the vigorous outdoor exercise builds our appetite for the big meal that’s coming.

This year we hiked through the woods and along Sawmill Creek at Waterfall Glen, a DuPage County Forest Preserve near Darien, Illinois.

And the big meal afterward wasn’t bad either.

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Busy by the Creek

imageTaking a walk along Salt Creek this afternoon, I observed how drained of color the woods appeared, especially compared to the showy autumn display of just a few weeks ago. Even the overcast sky added to the overall feel of gray.

The only bright spots were some scattered smatterings of snow and the freshly gnawed wood of this tree and a few others near it.

I assume a family of beavers is nearby working hard to build a dam and create a pond. If beavers are active on Salt Creek it might explain my adventures with log-jams this past summer.

The colors and the summer adventures seem like a long time ago. But a few months of grays and whites have a beauty all their own and help us to appreciate the warm weather fun even more.

Hiking Local: Swallow Cliff Woods

IMG_6554Since they were old enough to walk, all three of my three sons have loved spending time in the woods. They happily hike for miles, shinny up trees, climb the steepest of hills, slosh around in water – the woods brings out their sense of adventure and playfulness.

I was reminded of this last Sunday when the four of us hiked Swallow Cliff Woods, one of the Cook County forest preserves about 25 minutes from my home. Though the two older sons are now in college, I was glad to see their enthusiasm for time in the woods has not diminished and that it’s fully shared by their 11-year-old brother. We had the added pleasure of the company of my sons’ six-month-old puppy, a husky-lab mix who loves the outdoors as much as or even more than we do.

On a map of the Chicago area, Swallow Cliff is found amidst a large patch of dark green in the southwest suburbs. Here, west of La Grange Road and south of Archer Avenue, are miles and miles of land that – surprisingly! – early Cook County planners decided to keep as natural areas.

IMG_6539It’s a wonderful mix of ponds and prairies and oak savanna and more varied topography than the rest of northeast Illinois. Locals tend to call the area “Palos” (PAY-lohs) because most of it adjoins the two suburbs of Palos Hills and Palos Heights and all the boundaries seem to blend together.

We had never been to Swallow Cliff before but found it easily thanks to a wide break in the trees and a stone stairway up the 100-foot bluff. At the top sits an abandoned wooden structure that until 10 years ago was the launching area for a toboggan run. Apparently this place is now a popular outdoor “gym” because the stairs were almost filled with people in exercise clothes working out, ascending and descending the bluff.

IMG_6514After climbing the stairs ourselves and pausing to take in the view (okay, really I was catching my breath), we walked for about half a mile on a wide, level, crushed limestone path. We never saw any horses but did sidestep a few of their “offerings” on the trail indicating that this is a popular equestrian route.

IMG_6531My sons get bored quickly with easy walking so we soon took a more challenging narrow path through the woods and spent the rest of the day off-trail. The woods were beautiful with leaves carpeting the ground and a nice variety of hills and valleys, marshes, a small lake, and grassy meadows.

We spent a good two hours wandering the woods, enjoying the windy fall day. I enjoyed watching my sons interact with one another, with our dog, and even with the land. At one point my oldest son noticed his youngest brother struggling to traverse a particularly dense thicket so he hoisted him up on his shoulders and carried him to more navigable terrain.

IMG_6548Near the end of the hike my four companions took the obstacle course route through a series of gorgeously wooded gulleys filled with fallen trees and small streams of water. I took the higher path along the edge until I found an idyllic moss-covered spot at an opening with long views in multiple directions. As I sat on the green velvet padding of the moss, absorbing the sun and feeling the wind, I watched my sons and our dog immerse themselves in the place and in the moment: balancing on logs, lifting heavy tree trunks, jumping on and off rocks, climbing steep bluffs, and simply experiencing the richness of the woods.

Northeast Illinois can sometimes feel oppressively flat. It was good to find a new hiking spot at Swallow Cliff where our family can get away and experience natural beauty with enough variety of landscapes and topography to lose ourselves in a day in the woods.

Of course, it also helps to go with the right people. And with the right pet.

Seeing is Believing

imageMy dad enjoys sharing one-liners, familiar jokes and puns that he heard from his parents and grandparents as a child. Many came from his beloved maternal grandfather, who liked to say at the moment he understood something, “‘I see,’ said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw.”

I’m fairly sure my dear great-grandfather did not invent this witticism because I’ve seen it many times in many other places, but he was on to something with his play on the word “see.” We know that it refers to the physical act of vision, a function of the eye, but it also has a deeper meaning of understanding, perceiving with the mind, even the heart.

This idea came to mind recently when a friend and I were discussing a haunting line from the movie Silence of the Lambs. As Hannibal Lecter is helping investigators pinpoint the location of a serial killer he talks about the madman coveting the skin of the young woman who becomes his victim. He instructs the FBI agent, “We begin by coveting what we see every day,” which leads her to realize the victim lived across the street from her abductor.

Seeing has this dark side that leads to coveting, wanting to posses what is not ours. But this doesn’t mean we have to stop seeing. In fact, seeing is fundamental.

Seeing needs to be balanced, tempered with a sense of letting go; seeing without the need to possess. To expand on Hannibal Lecter, seeing may provide the occasion to covet but it doesn’t cause the coveting – that comes from a deeper selfishness, grasping, not accepting things as they are. Coveting happens when we fail to value people and things in themselves and see them only as a means to our own personal happiness or attempt to achieve happiness.

In Psalm 131 the psalmist sings, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, / my eyes are not raised too high….” Another translation has it, “my eyes are not fixed on things beyond me.”

This may sound like an ode to underachieving but I think it’s really about seeing things properly and understanding correctly my relationship to that which I see. Seeing can be an act of joy, of pleasure, of insight and appreciation.

image“Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing,” writes Robert Barron in the prelude to his book And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation. Later he continues, “Origen remarked that holiness is seeing with the eyes of Christ. Teilhard de Chardin said, with great passion, that his mission as a Christian thinker was to help people see. And Thomas Aquinas said that the ultimate goal of the Christian life is a ‘beatific vision,’ an act of seeing. This book is about coming to vision through Christ.”

A carpenter by calling, my great-grandfather picked up many hammers and saws in his life. And judging by my father’s descriptions of him as an exceptionally good-natured man, I’d say he had at least a glimpse of that beatific vision Aquinas describes.