words: Jessica Sowards
Years ago, when my two oldest sons were toddlers, we stumbled upon a park. It was spring, and I wish they had been older when we found it. As it was, they were one and two respectively, and so I am alone in my memories of the place.
We’d gone to visit their dad at the jobsite he was working on, a federal prison being built in Wartburg, Tennessee. It was an armpit of a town lodged in the middle of the great Smoky Mountains, with two small diners and an Arby’s, broken down roads and a population that knew each other by name. We’d arrived too early or too late, I don’t remember which, and as a result we ended up with time to kill. So I drove off from the half-built prison with my boys in the backseat, the windows down, set to explore.
It was the kind of day and the sort of scenery that makes for lovely postcards. My white Pontiac weaved through winding roads, passing lush pastures. I stopped for a turtle to finish crossing to safety. Everything was blooming, and my soul drank it up, thirsty after years of apartment living.
Then, without warning, there was a park.
Of course, I pulled in. I didn’t know the extraordinary nature of what I’d found, taking it as just a welcome distraction. A park is, after all, exactly what a mother of two small children with time to waste needs. It wasn’t until I started to unbuckle the car seats that I felt the chill in my spine. As soon as we stepped off the blacktop, some unexplained awareness crawled under my skin. The place was alive.
The playground itself was tucked at the foot of a steep embankment on one side and a very tall, sloping, wooded mountainside on the other. The light, being filtered down through many leaves, had a greenish quality. It held no eeriness though, only an opulent ripeness. You could almost bite it, chew it, feel it tickle your throat like juice of a green pear or the freshness of a just-picked cucumber.
Butterflies swarmed up from a low creek that ran through the bottom of a deep trench. We crossed over a creaking, wooden bridge that spanned it and my sense of wonder grew. I distinctly recall the smell of rotten leaves, like compost and earthworms, and the faint sweetness of honeysuckle. It was the kind of smell quite different from any food, but that somehow possesses the power to deceive a mouth into watering.
My children, oblivious to the feeling reverberating inside me, made a beeline to the slide, a yellow plastic thing with mold and moss in every crevice. More butterflies, maybe a hundred, fluttered in the air above the equipment while ladybugs creeped along the surface and brightly colored lizards scattered to the underside.
The sound of birds echoed back and forth between embankment and hillside, the sort of sound that is so solid and subtly powerful it lulls the deepest, soul-bound places of a person into submission. A place we forget we have, jarred by traffic noises and alarm clocks. A place hungry for the sound of a life-filled mountain park in the spring.
I’m not sure how long we stayed. Until the knees and seats of jeans were stained with green life and the underneaths of nails were dirt caked. Until the demands for snacks became louder than the birds. And we left. We loaded into the car, changed diapers and opened juice boxes and as abruptly as we’d stumbled upon the place, we were driving away from it, headed to a prison and an apartment and clean, regular life.
I never went back.
What if someone power washed the life off of the slide, and what if the butterflies had moved on? What if I returned, hungry to taste spring, and found only just a park? It was too risky.
I did think about it often, though. When the concrete became overwhelming, I’d visit the park in my mind. When winter felt endless, I’d remember the greenness, the sounds and the smells of that living place. I didn’t talk about it much, because I couldn’t impress upon my audience what it had done to me, to just be in a place so fully alive.
My world has changed so much since then.
Our homestead, according to Google, is 499 miles from Wartburg, Tennessee. It is as far as the moon from apartment living, from being starved of growth and fresh life. And while I remember the day I came across the mountain park and the way it quenched my soul, it has been a very long time since I craved it.
It took me a long time to pinpoint it, but what I felt that day was more than just a thankfulness for spring. It was reverence for the creation of God. I remember when my life was so immersed in the man-made, it took a deliberate plan to escape it.
Creation requires no seeking on an Arkansas homestead. I see it everywhere now, stumbling upon it in everyday places, always stopping to note the wonder. I don’t ever want to take it for granted, lest it lose its capacity to move my heart.
Yesterday I found it in a box of peeping chicks that I picked up from the post office. I plunged my hand into the heap of wiggling, downy bodies, felt the tiny resonance of their chirps against my fingers. Their frailty is intimidating, but their intricacy is divine.
I’ve found it in the soil of the garden, and in the way it feels beneath my feet. I’ve felt it in the thrill that comes with sprouting seedlings, watching their tender leaves unfurl to feast from the sun. I’ve felt it in the weight of tomatoes, under the skin of tart berries, and in the tight heads of asparagus shoots.
I have found it on my back porch in the morning. I listen to the birds in the trees, the geese in the pond across the street, the brassy donkey’s bray in the field next door, the rooster’s crow. I sit, with my Bible in my lap, while my coffee gets cool and my children fuss over cereal on the other side of the screen door, and I let the sound of nature and the Word work together to unbar my deep places, the demand-rattled pieces of my heart.
I have found the feeling in the soft places behind the ears and under the chins of my infant sons. As our family has grown, one boy after the next, I’ve learned to savor the smell of them, the transparency of their skin and bow of their upper lips. And a few weeks ago, I carried home the brand new boy that would be my last. I laid him on the bed as the sun shone across it and imagined him a seed being planted in the fertile soil of our home. I prayed he would grow with the ferocity of that which I saw growing so many years ago in the mountain park.
I thank God for the gift He has given me. He gave me a thirst for life, and opened my eyes to the beauty of it. He has given me a home to cultivate, to garden, to grow. And I leave the door open, always inviting people in. My hope, in truth, is that those who stumble through might find some inspiration here. I pray they might find what I found one spring day, years ago, in a mountain park. Wonder. Enchantment. Life.
I pray it lodges in their soul a bit, quenches a thirst they didn’t realize they had. I pray it quells the churning in their spirit and that they feel the peace and the unmistakable mark of being in the presence of something fully living.
Maybe the walk of a wonderer is unique to me, but I don’t think so. I believe it is within the spirit of every man to be soothed by nature and to crave creation. I hope you find it this spring, either on your back porch or in an evening walk or at a lonely, unkempt playground. And when you stumble upon it, I hope you stop and let it make you feel small. That it might have a chance to quiet your soul before you move on to the next noisy, worldly thing.
I hope you find your mountain park.
And I hope you are never the same.