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Thinking Out Loud

When the World Breathes

by Michael Jinkins | Jun 27, 2017

When the World BreathesBetween the ages of eleven and eighteen, I spent a lot of time outdoors. It was not unheard of for me to spend as much as three months of a year "under canvas," as we said, that is, camping. From the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Canada to the Rio Grande border with Mexico, I travelled – hiking, canoeing, fishing, camping. And I shared this love of the outdoors with my children as they grew up.

There are so many memories.

The night the small group I was in (all of us teenagers but for a couple of adult leaders) got disoriented beyond our map's borders and wandered into a deer fly and mosquito infested swamp in the Quetico wilderness of Canada. We had to pitch our tents on a little mound of mud and dirt just feet above the surrounding swamps, skip dinner, and wait until morning to find our way out.

The morning I woke up, camping with a Cub Scout pack in Scotland (which included my son, Jeremy), in the "wilds" of the hillside paddock behind the elementary school. Clearing my eyes of sleep on that damp cool dawn, I saw the most delightful sight. In one corner of the tent there were five little guys curled up together sound asleep like a litter of puppies.

And I recall the day that my daughter, Jessica, and I stood high on the South Rim Trail of the Big Bend in West Texas, looking out over the desert. She was probably eight years old. Debbie, the kids and I were on a family outing, trekking the fifteen miles around the rim of an ancient volcano. Standing on the mountainside, looking southward into Mexico, I told Jessica that if she looked really hard out into the distance of the great Chihuahuan Desert, she might just see the dust clouds thrown up by a herd of the majestic little dogs in their natural habitat. It's a wonder she ever decided to trust her father's word.

Of all the memories, however, that have stuck with me, none is more profound than the sense I have gotten, walking through a forest or beside the ocean, of the way the world breathes. Whenever I find myself outdoors, I am reminded of this reality.

Before the storm of a cold front arrives in full blow, walking a woodland trail, the warm scents of sassafras and hickory bringing every sense to life, the winds above twisting the tree tops, the cooling, softening breeze working its way along the trails and avenues between the trees, you can hear and feel the forest breathing in and out. It is as though you are contained within the lungs of the forest.

Early in the morning walking along the ever-shifting sandbars of the Atlantic Ocean, the brisk winds blowing, the ocean waves reminding you that not everything that breathes is above the surface of the deep, the sound of the waves advancing then retreating tumbling in and out, over and over. The respiration of the cosmos resounds.

We can find something similar on the high deserts of the Southwest, in the wheat and corn fields of the Great Plains, and, I suspect, in every corner of this globe, if we are attuned to listen, sense, feel. When we do, I believe we will also feel ourselves for the tiny creatures that we are, breathing along with the world's breath. When we do, I believe we may just notice that our breathing is not something separate from, not something apart from, but is but a small expression of, yet a full participation in, the breath of the world.

Where it comes from, we do not know, said Jesus, nor where it is going. The Ruach, the Pneuma, the spirit of being itself, the breath God breathes into our nostrils and into the nostrils of nature: this is a mystery that meteorology cannot explain beyond describing how this fullness rushes into that void. But the void makes itself full, and longs to be emptied again if life is to continue. And life itself takes a breath, and gives it away.

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