I’d often return to my shack in the woods. Though it’s not actually a shack – it’s a wooden amphitheater. When I stood on its stage, I’d stare up the hill from the valley it sat in, dozens of wooden benches staggering up the hill alongside hundreds of trees in the perfection of their summer green. I’d hear the swamp life of the drying river that was behind me, thousands of frogs croaking, hundreds of different birds talking amongst each other. I’d often join in the birds’ conversations. They’d tell me about the freedom they experience as they soar leagues above the humans that so often threaten their existence, about what it feels like to carelessly glide through the clouds with such grace that even the most windy of days couldn’t topple them. Then I’d express my jealousy of their carelessly joyful being; how beautiful it must be to live without fear of the next day. I could never see the swamp I heard so clearly, though. My vision of it was shielded by a 20-foot overhang of wood that served as the backdrop for the barely kept man-made amphitheater. But though the shield blocked my view, I felt protected from the elements, from the chill of a wind that sometimes endangered my comfort and peace. The theater was just worn wooden planks covered in mossy overgrowth, with ants’ sand protruding from the holes in the space between the floorboards, and names and places and Bible verses weathering though they had once been so clearly sharpied onto the planks. This man-made thing was unkept, but it was safe, like an empty shack in the woods – my shack.
The shack, built by the owners of a small summer camp in Northern Michigan, surely lost its appeal years ago. What once was a place for gathering and activity and other human activities was now forgotten, likely because of its secluded nature. A run-down disappointment, barely accessible and rarely used. If only man would take care of their man-made thing, that whose construction forced the demise of a small forest of trees, that which conceals the beauty of an abundant swampland. Standing upon the stage of my shack, I found it likely that nature must’ve mourned its lost fellows, waging war against the humanized theater, since nature so clearly overtook the structure. The abundance of weeds that act as a natural wall around it witness to this battle – little warriors and guardians against the grasscutter that man quit using years ago. And it’s a good thing that nature won because I wouldn’t have enjoyed my shack as much as I did had it been so human; the naturalized environment gave me humble company as a camp-worker who was only ever surrounded by children, angsty and demanding teens.
The strife of summer camp work is weighty on a young woman – so I’d escape. And on one of my escapes, I found my shack – this shack. It was my prayer mountain at the bottom of a hill: a consecrated location to converse with the one true God, to allow his words to renew my heavy heart, to cry without anyone seeing me, to kneel in the grit of the ant sand and sway with the trees as the whole forest sang a worship song with me. I’d sit in the middle of the stage, fighting to keep the ants from intruding too far, and stare at empty seats. But I was never actually alone.
A small black squirrel boldly found his way to me one morning as I sat covered by my shack. His paws barely grazed the surface of the wood, a majestic pitter-patter barely echoing toward the audience of birds overhead. I was scared to move, for if I moved, his pitter-patter would drift quieter into the swampy overgrowth, his desperate attempt to escape me. But he slowly moved towards me. I watched his nose, which couldn’t have been bigger than my pinky-finger nail, repetitively scrunch and relax as he would make his way closer to me. The squirrel’s nose movement impressed me – it’s one of the few things humans can’t do that animals can. Humans are generally more intelligent and impressive creatures than other mammals – but not this one. He knew to not fear me, even though he clearly recognized the presence of a scary human. And he inched closer until he was right beside me. His black fur was shorter than expected; I dared not touch him in fear that he might run – but if I had, I imagine it’d be like petting a rich girl’s rabbit, always groomed and trimmed to perfection. This encounter, though, was entirely on this little squirrel’s terms. I dared not leave this innocent creature afraid. Yet still, after only a matter of seconds near me, he skittered off the stage and up the closest tree. But not before looking me directly in the eyes. He didn’t just look at me, though – the squirrel stared me down, searching me with all his capacity to understand. I was journaling in this moment, and I’m sure that if animals could talk, he could have recited everything I’d just written down and more. I knew nothing of the small animal, but he knew everything and every part of me in that moment. And I feared it – I never gave it permission to know me yet it barged into my mind and confronted every part of me. While I thought I was safe on my man-made stage, writing in my man-made journal, all about my man-made concerns and worry, this God-made creature searched me better than I searched myself. And when the creature scurried away, I was left sitting alone on the stage, even though I was surrounded by the trees and the birds and the ants I fought to keep from crawling into my clothes. The creature left, and I was no longer known. The birds that used to talk to me spoke only amongst themselves, and their words were unintelligible to me. I was no longer a communal part of nature – I became separated. So I got up and left my shack that day – because I didn’t really want to sit alone. I wanted the company that Jesus kept when he was on the mountain alone, probably staring at the movement of the clouds as he lifted his head toward the sky, the place where Yahweh remained, and probably said, “Father, empower me, for I’m weary but you can give me strength.” And then he would walk back down the mountain and onto the water. I didn’t walk on water that day, but I still went to my mountain-top in my valley-low the next, because it was likely that the squirrel might find his way to me and my unsearchable parts again.