Ah! Bright wings

Travel reminds me of the immensity and diversity of God’s creation. Entering into a new place and space recalls the extraordinary power of God.

I traveled to Banff, Canada, recently for a conference. Driving from the airport in Calgary to Banff, I remained astounded by the steep, sloping mountains covered in snow and the magnitude of the forest. An even further reminder of not only the beauty, but danger of these surroundings came from a bright yellow sign: you are entering avalanche country.

Dominating the skyline of every view were the peaks of Mt. Rundle and Mt. Cascade, part of the Rocky Mountains. Every panoramic view reminded me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famed poetic line: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

Nestled within Banff National Park, Banff remains the primary commercial center of the park. Traveling down to Banff Avenue with its multitude of shops, restaurants, and hotels, we encountered multiple baby elk peeping out of the density of the forest. Yet another reminder of Hopkins’s lines: “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.”

Humanity stains and marks its territories, damaging nature through industry and commerce.

At a conference on Victorian literature and culture, it was difficult not to make connections between the ecological implications of the conserved beauty around us and the dangers of human and industrial impact.

The 19th century was the age of industrialization: anyone familiar with the realist novels of Charles Dickens encounters the sooty, cloudy metropolis of London: a dirty, impoverished, crime-filled place.

It was the age of imperialism and exploration: lands were conquered; indigenous peoples driven off; and nature contested with the violation of its earth.

In Canada, we learned of similar stories: the coal mines of the late 19th century, and,  more desolate, of the internment camps located at Castle Mountain during World War I.

Amidst the beauty of God’s grandeur, the clean mountain air and the friendliness of the Canadians, it seemed hard to imagine a past “bleared, seared with toil.” And yet, it was.

Here, again, the final stanza of Hopkins’ poem serves as a reminder of hope. Despite the ongoing violations by humankind, Hopkins asks in his first stanza: “Why do men then not reck his rod?”

In other words, why have we not experienced God’s wrath, for we have crushed his creation. The final stanza offers insight into the durability of our surroundings: “And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went;  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs – because the Holy Ghost over the bent; World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

Written the year that Hopkins was ordained a Jesuit priest, the poem is a love sonnet, exploring the natural creations of God and the negative impact of humanity.

In the final stanza, however, we realize that despite the efforts made to ruin nature, nature – charged by God – resists. It renews itself with “dearest freshness” driven by the breath of the Holy Spirit. Connecting the traditional bird-like imagery of nurture and protection to the Holy Spirit, we see the early dawn as the embodiment of God’s renewal of the world.

Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at hbozantwitcher@clarionherald.org.

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