The Stations of Still Creek

    by Barbara J. Scot (Nepal 1990–92)
    Sierra Club Books, $22.00
    189 pages

    Reviewed by Susan Bergan (Ethiopia 1965–67)

    IN NOVEMBER OF 1995, Barbara Scot is suddenly confronted with the likelihood that her husband of 20 years is dead. From a phone call in the middle of the night, she learns that avalanches in the mountains of northeast Nepal, in the precise area where her husband is climbing, have engulfed several trekking lodges. After two days of agonized waiting, she learns that her husband is safe and unharmed and on his way home.
         Despite the happy outcome of that scare, the experience is deeply destabilizing to Scot, jarring her out of the rhythms of her comfortable existence. Health problems with her eyes and back, plus a dear friend’s discovery that he has inoperable brain cancer, contribute to her preoccupation with decline and death. At age 54, she sees decrepitude, loss of function and competence stalking her. Haunted by thoughts of her own mortality, she becomes deeply impatient with the frame and fabric of her daily life: her teaching job; her pleasant life in Portland; and her husband. Barbara Scot has come face to face with the realization that she will die, and it terrifies her.

    Clearing Brush
    Casting about for a way to make sense of her life, she formulates a plan that will at least provide the time and solitude she feels she needs to reach understanding and peace. The spring floods in Still Creek Canyon, where their rustic family cabin is located, have destroyed much of the underbrush that normally made an almost impenetrable wall of growth. In those first visits after the floodwaters recede, Scot begins to hack out a series of trails leading deep into the once unknowable forest. This simple work becomes a passion as well as a metaphor for her inchoate yearning to penetrate the tangles and snarls of her own heart. She decides not to renew her teaching contract for the following fall. Once the school year is out in June, 1996, Scot moves to the cabin on Still Creek, in Mount Hood National Forest, turning her back on her usual life to focus on the forest and on herself.
         Once established at the cabin, Scot’s life follows the rhythms and patterns of the forest. Daily, with her dogs, she walks or runs the route of the “stations” she has carved out of the forest: Old Growth Sculpture, Burned-Out Cedar Snag, Towering Maples, Red Roots, Four Alders with Perfect Posture, Maidenhair Fern Point and Green Cathedral. She observes, she reflects, she writes, she reads.

    Scot’s ruminations on her marriage, and marriage in general, weave themselves throughout her book. She is dissatisfied with her husband, with his unwillingness or inability to engage her directly on issues central to their life together, to converse often and deeply and at length with her about things that trouble or delight her. Surely this is a complaint uttered by many a wife. Her reflections on her marriage are often tinged with guilt, since she feels she has not always lived up to her promises to her husband. Central to their relationship, according to Scot, is their love of mountains and mountain climbing, a shared passion that she feels may be lost to them forever because of her severe back problems. But, she laments, marriage is too long, and wonders, “when is it my turn.” She states that she does not, in marriage, believe in “the sacrifice of self.” “Self-sacrifice . . . is not noble but a waste of one’s own individual intelligence.” Scot’s comments about marriage emanate from the contemporary culture’s assertion that marriage is simply a civil contract, not a sacrament joining man and woman before God, “till death do us part.” It follows therefore, that if things don’t feel right anymore in the marriage, if the individual’s needs and desires are not paramount, it’s the logical and reasonable response to break the contract and go one’s separate way, regardless of the harm to the partner, the children of that union, the larger family and community. In the contemporary secular (humanist) worldview, the ultimate and only test of the viability of a marriage is the satisfaction of individual partners.

    The Art of Nature
    Scot is a student of natural history and faithfully records the arrival and passage of the seasons with a cast of thousands of species of wildflowers, ferns, mushrooms, and birds. A particularly interesting and successful passage in the book is her description of salmon spawning in Still Creek. For the author, the unrolling of the seasons around her interest her, calm her, refresh her, but for the most part she struggles to find meaning in nature beyond the moment. Ultimately she reaches a point where she has an occasional sense of merging, at a cellular level, with the natural scene around her. This experience exemplifies her newfound understanding that all of us are part of the "continually changing art of nature, which gave a dignity not only to our living and dying, but to that creative part of ourselves, our expression of being."

    God’s Creation
    Scot’s perspective on the natural world contrasts with that of our greatest natural historians, John Muir. Even on a gray, grim winter day, Muir’s passion and childlike delight in the beauty and mystery of the natural world will make your heart soar. His natural history descriptions are so precise and yet poetic that one can see the Prussian blue of the fringed gentian; hear and feel the thunder of the waterfall and spraying mists; the piercing call of the killdeer in the meadow. For Muir, this boundless beauty is not random, not just a stroke of good luck for us earthlings. It is all part of God’s creation, of which we too are a part. His gratitude to God for the natural world is a psalmic refrain in his writings. After an exquisite day of sketching on North Dome in Yosemite, he talks (in My First Summer in the Sierra) of being “humbly prostrate before the vast display of God’s power, and eager to offer self-denial and renunciation with eternal toil to learn any lesson in the divine manuscript.” He is grateful for “A fruitful day, without measured beginning or ending. A terrestrial eternity. A gift of good God.”

    Another nature writer
    Kathleen Norris, a contemporary American writer, brings an eclectic and poetic sensibility to books that interweave theology, nature, and human culture. In Dakota, A Spiritual Geography, an autobiographical work, she explores the relationship between her natural surroundings and her faith. Norris moved to Lemmon, South Dakota, from New York City to reclaim, with her poet husband, her family’s ancestral home. At first the high, dry plains seemed barren and harsh to her. Eventually, however, the vast Dakota skies, the long uninhabited vistas, and the extremes of weather became for her an experience of the holy. Like the fourth century monastics who moved out of the city to the desert, she and her husband choose to live in the dry, empty Great Plains, and come to see a different kind of beauty there. The plains “now seem bountiful in their emptiness, offering solitude and room to grow.” She quotes St. Hilary in describing the holy emptiness of the plains about her: “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” The "unfathomable silence" of the plains is like that of a monastery and has the power to "re-form" a person, as it has done Norris, into someone more patient, more kind, more humble and just.
         In the Judeo-Christian cosmology, all of creation comes from God and is a reflection of the divine. The Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, begins with the creation story: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

    Searching for answers
    In searching for answers to deeply held fears and yearnings, Scot is handicapped by ambivalence over the most basic elements of the search. Is there a God? Do human beings possess an immortal soul? Is there an immutable law of right and wrong to which all are bound? Scot states that she agrees with her husband’s view that this is "the Main Event," by which one would assume she means that when a person dies, nothing remains of the person, no living spirit. It also suggests that she believes nothing exists but that which we can perceive with the senses. Despite that, she speaks often of several talented and attractive young people she knew who had died young, and in a way seems to reach out to them, to invoke their spirits. One young woman in particular, who died fighting a forest fire, becomes in Scot’s mind a beneficent and guiding spirit in her life. Scot gives no indication that she believes in God, but alludes in various ways to elements of the Catholic faith, the Church her husband was raised in: the Green Cathedral; the “stations” of Still Creek; in La Paz she visits the chapel of the Dark Virgin and climbs the Stations of the Cross above the city. While at the cabin on Still Creek, she reads and often quotes in her book the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century British Jesuit whose work is shot through with imagery of God.

    Pilgrims all
    Like Barbara Scot, we are all pilgrims, looking for meaning beyond this time and this place, puzzling over the ageless questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Is this all there is? Indeed, humankind seems to have worried over this same hard nut since the days when our ancestors lived in caves. The search for transcendent meaning and the quest for the divine seem to be “hard wired” into us. Karl Jung calls it “the collective unconscious.” In making our way on the pilgrimage, we don’t have to venture through treacherous seas of doubt and fear without a guide. The paths laid out by the great religions of the world lay before us, leading us out of the heart of darkness to a place of light and peace and redemption.