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by Philip Gulley


    There are certain things every town has at least one of, no matter the town’s size. There is always a sneaky politician who makes sure the road in front of his house gets paved first. There is always a water tower. And there is always a family who owned the grain mill years ago and lives in the nicest house in town, generally on a hill.

    Since this is a small town and I have to live here, I’ll be the first to declare that all the politicians in our town are true statesmen, free of corruption and wise beyond their years. We have two water towers. The old water tower was built in 1892 and sits behind Harry Christie’s house. The new water tower, erected in 1960, is located next to the elementary school. The nicest house in town is owned by the Blantons, who ran the grain mill. Their home crowns a hill north of town. Though I’ve lived here a good many years, first through my childhood and now after recently moving back, I never tire of walking past the Blanton house and admiring it as it nestles amongst the trees.

    The Blantons built the house during the Great Depression. They bought the land from a man named Carter, who was mean to his wife and an embarrassment to the town. We were glad to see him leave, and because the Blantons expedited his departure we’ve had a high opinion of them ever since. Mr. Blanton is deceased. Mrs. Blanton still lives in the house on the hill, soldiering on. When she turned ninety-three, her daughter hired a nurse to stay with her. To pass the time, Mrs. Blanton and her nurse work outside, tending the acreage and pulling weeds.

    The original Blanton estate is just shy of eighty acres, most of it rolling woods and meadows. In our growing-up years, Bill Eddy and I spent countless nights camping in those woods. We slapped mosquitoes in July and burrowed deep in our sleeping bags in January. We never asked permission to camp there and took a strong delight in trespassing, excited at the prospect of getting away with something. I feel a similar thrill whenever I drive through a yellow light.

    The woods are a place of firsts for me. I smoked my first, and only, cigar in those woods. Kissed my first girl alongside its creek on a Saturday afternoon in autumn, and, six months later, when the girl no longer welcomed my kisses, was healed of heartbreak while hiking its trails. I learned to shoot a .22 rifle there. And in those woods I discovered the quiet peace of a campfire on a snapping autumn evening.

    I am now walking those same trails with my two little boys-Spencer on my right, Sam on my left. They hold my pant legs with one hand and grasp their toy rifles with the other, cocked and ready for grizzly bears. I make a growling sound and their eyes open wide, their rifles swing up, and their hands quiver with such excitement I can feel it through my pant legs.

    When our sons were two and five, a house beside the woods came on the market. I was driving by and saw the For Sale sign, drove to the realtor’s office, paid fifty dollars earnest money, then drove back to the city to tell my wife, who understood perfectly the lure of first kisses, healed hearts, and lurking grizzlies. Five months later, a moving van carried our earthly belongings across two counties and here we are, just down the road from Mrs. Blanton and her nurse.

    I’ve not been the only one attracted to Mrs. Blanton’s woods. Developers have been after her to sell it. They want to knock down the trees, scrape the earth raw, pipe up the creeks, pack the land with houses, and name it Wooded Glen or some other hint of what it was before the carnage. They spoke to her of big money, which wasn’t her language. Then, to their eternal dismay, she donated the land to the town for a nature preserve, with the understanding that it remain forever off limits to real estate predators. Little boys toting toy rifles are quite welcome.

    The town hired a woman to manage the preserve. Her name is Kim. Her college degree is in geology She is not a naturalist and made that clear right up front. “I know rocks and geologic formations. I’m learning about plants, but there’s still a lot I don’t know I’m not a naturalist,” she told the park director, who hired her anyway.

These woods are a place of firsts for me...
    The Blanton Woods Nature Preserve opens every morning at precisely eight o’clock and closes around 5 P.M., give or take an hour. Kim unlocks the gate every morning and since my boys and I live next to the preserve, we close the gate at five o’clock. Kim is punctual. We are not. Sometimes the preserve stays open way past supper, when we finally remember to close the gate. One morning I awoke and remembered that we hadn’t closed the gate the night before. I had to sneak over and close it before Kim arrived to open it.

    Our town encompasses exactly 5.7 square miles. I suspect the preserve is the only section that remains relatively unchanged in the past seventy years. The deep ravines and the four creeks coursing through the preserve discourage settlement. It is not an easy woods to tame. Still, there is a movement afoot to restore the meadows to their 1824 state, when our ancestors first built along the big creek. When they arrived in May of 1824, the meadows along the creek waved with prairie grass and wildflowers-little bluestem, butterfly weed, switchgrass, prairie cinquefoil, and wild rye. Now those native beauties are choked out by ironweed, black medic, pokeweed, horse nettle, and joe-pye weed. Squatters all... The plan is to kill off the interlopers and replant the meadow in native grasses and wildflowers. Kim is in charge of taking it back to the way it was, though killing off the plants, even joe-pye weeds, is repugnant to her. Still, for the sake of the schoolchildren who tour this place every spring, she is proceeding.

    She told me, “I want the kids to see how Indiana was before the strip malls and inter-states.”

    Though I understand her reluctance, I am for the killing, for dispensing with these interlopers and letting butterfly weed and prairie cinquefoil have a fresh go at it. I figure it is the least we owe nature, to even the score. We have our 5.7 square miles. I see nothing wrong with letting nature have her eighty acres. Besides, with butterfly weed, prairie cinquefoil, and switchgrass come bluebirds, a handsome dividend. But there is another principle at work here, the Principle of Giving Way. Our 1824 ancestors knew this principle. They observed that death must happen for life to follow. The plant is born, but first the seed must die. Joe-pye weed has had its day. Now is the time for prairie cinquefoil.

    We are not much different from these meadows. If certain things take root in us, it will be to our demise. I consider how certain of my faults cripple my nobler qualities and thus require killing — my lusts that choke out love, my self-concern that crowds out empathy. My reluctance to put these faults to death serves only to enslave me.

    Patrick Morley writes of the “half-surrendered life”: This is when we add God to our lives without subtracting those things which choke out God’s joyous, holy presence-our twisted priorities, our greed, our slavish devotion to comfort. It is not enough to subtract some of these encumbrances. They all must go.

    When Mrs. Blanton and her nurse tend the flowerbeds, they do not uproot some weeds while allowing others to flourish. With some things we ought make no peace. On my way to lock the gate, I walk past and see them stooping and pulling. It is a methodical killing. So too does life in God’s reign require the careful subtraction of all which keeps joy at bay.

      From the book For Everything a Season, by Philip Gulley. © 1999 by Multnomah Pub., used by permission.

      Title: ""
      Author: Philip Gulley
      Publication Date: July 19, 2001


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