*This is an excerpt from Woodland Manitou: To Be on Earth, available wherever books are sold.
June always holds a sense of emptiness for me – not in a negative way, just in a way that reminds me that for a really long time, “working at camp” and everything that comes along with what that means defined my summers. From 1998 to 2004, Lutheran Outdoor Ministry was a huge piece of the filter through which I viewed the world, and it still colors how I choose to observe what goes on around me. The scent of pine needles on a hot day in August will probably always transport me instantly to a shared footpath in an alpine forest, or a lodge deck peppered with distant laughter in a misty valley, or the sunny bank of a scenic river way.
At Lee Valley Ranch in Custer, South Dakota, I lived in a tent and spent the months just out of high school as a Ranch Hand. It meant leading games for children who attended retreats, washing a lot of dishes, learning the rules of Cricket from the Australians on staff and falling for the long-haired guitar player/campfire song leader/guy who every 18-year-old female had a crush on that summer. I learned to lead day hikes and pack a backpack and play three chords on the guitar. I felt like I was an essential part of helping the place function. I felt like I mattered, and I felt like I belonged there.
At Luther Heights, outside of Ketchum, Idaho, I lived in a storage shed turned bunk house and spent two summers as an Assistant Cook. It meant learning how to bake seven loaves of bread at one time, jumping in the icy waters of Lake Alturas on beach day, figuring how to pack the right amount of trail food for backpacking groups, and getting dolled up on weekends to go into town. It meant living in the shadow of two mountain ranges and waking up to the smell of pine needles and wearing Tevas. It meant relaxing in the director’s wood fired hot tub on working weekends. I got into and out of my first serious, long distance relationship and made hundreds of friendship bracelets. I felt like I was an essential part of helping the place function, and I was, for those summers. Everyone there was. I felt like I mattered, and I felt like I belonged there.
At Luther Park, in Danbury, Wisconsin, I split time between a cabin on stilts and a tent on the banks of the Namekagon River. My last two summers in college were spent as a Canoe Guide/Outpost Counselor. It meant shepherding groups of teenagers down the river in canoes for a week at a time, starting a lot of campfires, swimming across Lake 26 with a lifeguarding tube and making sure the Whisper Light camp stove didn’t explode when it got a fuel leak. It meant checking for ticks on a regular basis, making friends with the ‘rough around the edges’ camp cook and spending the weekends on the shores of Lake Superior. I met another guitar player and fell in love and turned 21. I felt like I was an essential part of making the place function, and the place turned into an essential piece of what made me function. I felt like I mattered, and I felt like I belonged there.
At Sky Ranch, on the northern border of Rocky Mountain National Park, I lived in the nature center where my Dad lived 30 years before as a backpacking guide. That summer I was the camp Naturalist. It meant quitting the first “real” job that I got after graduating college, spending the summer away from my future spouse and finding my own way of being in the midst of strangers who turned into lifelong friends. It meant being the lead guitarist at campfires because the only other people with any guitar playing skills were backpacking guides who were always out on trail. It meant weekends at a riverside hippie bar and skinny dipping in alpine lakes. It meant hiking and running and being a part of a place that was a part of me before I was born. I felt like I was an essential part of making the place function, and the place reminded me of my roots and my strength. I felt like I mattered, and I felt like I belonged there.
And then, after quitting my second “real” job, I found myself back at Luther Park again. I lived in the Log House and spent my last camp summer as the Waterfront Director. It meant afternoons spent counting campers in the water to make sure they were all safely accounted for and driving a fully loaded 15 passenger van while pulling a canoe trailer. It meant facilitating waterfront emergency drills and watching the staff dive into the ice-cold early summer water on my count. It meant feeling a little adrift as one of the “old” staff members. It meant letting my future spouse reclaim the role of lead guitarist, wondering what I was going to do after another summer ended, and trying to hold onto the strength I had uncovered over the years. It meant being in a place as an essential part of the whole, and it meant holding that wholeness as my foundation even on the days that were punctuated by more struggle and uncertainty that I was prepared for. Even in the midst of challenge, I felt like I mattered, and I felt like I belonged there.
There are many who say that organized religion is on its way out, that the church – the ELCA in this case – is dying, that no one wants to commit to being a part of something that feels like a sinking ship. Maybe it’s true. Maybe the hole in the stern it too big to patch. But I think that perhaps even as ‘church’ fades, or evolves, the thing that will remain steadfast is what was most important in the first place. Church at its core is community. It’s an energy that is bigger than anything humanity alone can imagine. It’s being taken care of, and it’s taking care of others. People want to feel like they are an essential part of something. That they matter. That they belong. They want to see life unfolding and they want to be part of the new growth. Like a camp, church is a place – but it’s a place that has to be found outside of, despite, or perhaps even in the midst of a burning building’s walls.
It’s been well over 10 years since I was on staff at an ELCA camp, leading games and day hikes and prayers. These days I wouldn’t last more than a half a week in a cabin full of 12 year olds with only an hour off per day. But what sticks with me, and always will, is the feeling of being part of something that is hard to put into words. It’s that feeling of being essential, of deep belonging and of community without borders that shines a light into places that might have otherwise remained unexplored. Its the feeling of peace that can stay present despite the “emptiness” that can be left behind after a fire goes through. The emptiness, the new space that was made visible only by something old passing away, shows us to a gate that leads into a world that lies beyond what we can clearly see right now. Jim Hubbell writes, “Our task is to walk through and discover where the gate leads.”
Maybe the emptiness that I sense in June each year is simply a reminder of the newness that can come from the passing of the old into the life that waits beyond. To use the words of Wendell Berry, perhaps we could all benefit from remembering to practice resurrection.