We were reminded this week that it was, in fact, winter. Temperatures fell to a place that you’d expect in the first full week of February, and you actually had to wear some sort of jacket, sweatshirt, or layering to keep from catching a chill outside. These are the days that you feel much more alone when you go outdoors. That is partly because fewer people go outside when it’s cold, but there is also this solitary mood floating the air. Cold air is stingier with what it will carry. There are times in a winter woods you feel like you might be the only animal alive. Just today, some very light snow flurries fell just after lunch time, so we could have that visual image of winter to match the feeling our skin was getting.
In the evenings, a few Great Horned Owls begin hooting, and it is echoes through the woods, the only sound for miles. It is a low ghostly sound, and if you know the animals of West Tennessee well, you’ll know you are hearing from the top of our food chain. Owls are actually not very intelligent animals despite popular lore. The reason for this is that an owl is so well designed for hunting that it really has no need for intelligence. It flies without making a sound. An owl could swoop in, land in the branches of a tree just above your head, and you would never know if you didn’t know exactly where to look. They can see and hear really well, and Great Horned Owl is the baddest of them around here. This owl has eyes the same size as a human, but can see, and hear for that matter, better, especially at night. The Great Horned Owls talons are incredibly powerful–they have 200-300 pounds of crushing power per inch in each talon. An adult human has about 60. I once saw a park ranger handling a Great Horned Owl, and he had Kevlar gloves (the kind in bullet proof vests). He said that if he didn’t have them on, the owl would be able to shatter the bones in his wrist.
These animals prey on just about everything in the forest, besides coyote, fox, and deer (which are just a little too large). As I’ve walked home several evenings this week, I’ve heard nothing but a few of these animals hooting back and forth. I hoot along with them, and they answer me. It is an interesting experience to know you are speaking with the top of the food chain in your woods. It is like talking to a tiger in the jungles of India or a polar bear in the Arctic. I know an owl pales in intimidation to a tiger or polar bear, but he is the king of these woods, and I speak to him.
This week, Lakeshore hosted a Pastor’s Licensing School, a set of classes for Local Pastors that instruct them on topics ranging from preaching to funerals to insurance to baptism. On one particular night, I got to set around our fireplace with these pastors and share what we do at Lakeshore. I talked to them about the idea of Sabbath and how it is lost on most of us these days. I spoke about Sabbatical time, and how we hoped they would just Lakeshore for these retreats of rest and renewal. For so many, Sabbath is just the day you go to church, the day you sleep in, or the day you get to catch up on housework. Those of us that have a day off, often stay as busy as we would if we were working. And, even when we keep the Sabbath, we forget the second half of the command and don’t bother to make it holy.
It was interesting hearing some of the pastors’ connections to Lakeshore. Some had never been to Lakeshore, but others had grown up coming. We heard the story from one of the pastors about being a child going to Lakeshore, and crying the entire week because she was homesick. She later received a call to the ministry while here as a youth, then once again during an Emmaus retreat as an adult. In that relaxed time around the fire, we all got to know each other a little bit better. But, Winter was beginning to remind us what a typical night in February feels like, just as the fire began to die down. We caught a chill, and soon parted ways. We had a full moon this week, and on the clear nights, you could walk anywhere you wanted with no need for a flashlight or streetlight.
On these dark bright nights, be still for a moment and listen. The breeze will pick up from time to time and the dried up leaves of the Beech tree will rattle. You’ll hear the sound of a freight train in the distance that will steadily die out. Above you is a big white disc shining enough light to cast a shadow. You might hear the sound of wet, light snowflakes clatter on the fallen leaves of the ground. The pastors have retired to their cabins for rest and won’t be out till tomorrow morning, following the smells of coffee and bacon. You could be the only one out here, hearing, seeing, feeling this night. Wait, there’s the sound of the Great Horned Owl, just one hill over.