Earlier this month, my mom and I took a weekend retreat to Christ in the Wilderness, a nearby hermitage. Below is a journal entry from my final day there:
A pair of orioles at my window. The female perches in an invasive autumn olive bush a few feet from where I sit. They fly across the valley, straight to the top of a huge cottonwood—the tallest tree, whose leaves in a wind sound like a river. I watch the oriole’s bright orange from branch to branch to branch. Breath taken. A sign from God. My favorite bird at my window then in my favorite tree. In ten minutes, Sister Julie arrives to check me out of the hermitage, and I know this visit from the birds is the most important thing that has happened to me while I have been here.
A few days later, back home, I return to thoughts of the orioles. I see the sign more clearly now. At the time, I wrote it all down, knew it was important. I just didn’t know what it meant.
The female oriole is drawn to the autumn olive by my window. I hear her in me. She says, It is safe here. I will rest here. I will grow here. She does not know the plant she rests in is destructive, invasive—it will eat away at her world. Autumn olive is an extremely invasive and harmful bush—they fix nitrogen in the soil, disrupting native plant growth. They thrive in dry, poor soils.
I remember how when I first saw the autumn olive outside my window at the hermitage, it appeared fragrant and lovely. It grows low to the ground. It’s easy; it’s indulgent. It doesn’t seem bad when you see it—“the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes.” I realize the autumn olive represents my stagnation, my desire to resist work and growth in favor of mindless leisure. I am ever battling laziness within me, that pull to sit in front of the TV with some junk food and tune out the world, tune out my heart. And though food and entertainment are not inherently bad, to rest only or mostly in these artificial, saccharine pleasures is toxic to the soul. Invasive bushes like autumn olive don’t provide the protection from predators that native plants do for birds. If I give in to the easy pleasures of the autumn olive, I endager my creative self.
And the cottonwood? How tall it is! How far to fly! It’s imposing, but not fragrant, not easy. The reward in its branches isn’t obvious. I read up on cottonwoods and learn they flourish by water and provide shelter and food for many birds and mammals, as well as fostering a healthy fish habitat by providing shade and preventing bank erosion. The cottonwood where the orioles alight is the high place, the fruitful place. It is the place where I can find a truer restfulness as I tend to my creativity. It is a walk by the lake, a contemplative book, a journal entry. It is time spent crafting a journal or a card. The cottonwood livens me, livens not only my spirit but the spirits of those around me, in its sheltering branches and strengthening roots.
I am reminded of Psalm 1:
Oh, the joys of those who do not follow evil men’s advice, who do not hang around with sinners, scoffing at the things of God. But they delight in doing everything God wants them to, and day and night are always meditating on his laws and thinking about ways to follow him more closely.
They are like trees along a riverbank bearing luscious fruit each season without fail. Their leaves shall never wither, and all they do shall prosper. (Ps 1:1-3, Living Bible)
May I ever fly to the cottonwood’s true shelter and flee the shallow pleasure of the autumn olive.