It’s hard to make a significant connection with the land from 30,000 feet in the air – or at least that’s what you might assume. Yet the recently-published email of astronaut Laurel Clark written hours before her life ended re-entering the earth’s atmosphere exhibits a unique connection with and perspective on the planet which was her home.
When I flew back into Australia at the start of this month after a short time overseas, this inscrutable connection with my home land gave birth to an expression and understanding which surprised me, and confounded my own children. News of the bushfires which had ravaged much of the A.C.T. and Victoria’s Central Highlands had filtered through to us in the U.S. Only too aware of the dried landscape we had left behind less than three weeks earlier, curiosity pressed my face against the plane window, in search of evidence of the changed and marred landscape below. Frustrated repeatedly by dense cloud cover, I was finally permitted view as we broke through the clouds just north of Melbourne. Though marks of bushfires were few in this area, the state of the land below struck a chord long-planted in my soul. A poem learned over 30 years earlier burst forth from my lips: “I love a sunburnt country…” My six-year-old daughter looked quizzically at me as I continued to recite from memory, ending with the words “her beauty and her terror, the wide brown land for me.” With her eyes wide (she doesn’t often hear her dad recite poetry), she asked what it was that I had spoken, and requested I repeat it. I was home, not just physically, but spiritually also.
As an infrequent international traveler, this curiosity with the landscape has been a recurring feature. As the plane on which I have travelled makes its first contact with land, and then descends, I instinctively scan the panorama in order to gain some understanding of the land I am about to enter, and so gain some insight into its culture. I am not sure where this connection began for me, but I have a growing realisation of the way in which the topography and climate of a place impact the spirituality of its inhabitants. I have found it in the continual call of the outback which beckons many Australians; in the tight employment of space in Hong Kong; the harbour cities of San Francisco and Seattle… in every place the beauty and wonder of the created world fashions an environment in which people understand and appreciate value and meaning, whether it emerge from the natural, or the human-created order, or a combination of both.
The fierce bravado of the Australian landscape stood in stark contrast to the much-tamed terrain of the bulk of the U.S. West Coast, where the created order is largely under control, even subjugated by the energy-hungry lifestyle. The “be-in-control” mindset is depicted in its mass of freeways, concrete-framed parks and gardens, and vast urban spread, which doesn’t seem to have an end. The beauty and terror of my own homeland, with its vast wild-spaces untamed by Western expansion, somehow resonate with my own sense of being, with its many unexplored places, and untamed thoughts and ideas. A “land still in formation” somehow resonating with my own spiritual journey of familiarity and identity.
The ancient Israelites knew the importance of the land in their own faith: it was the symbol and sign of God’s grace to them. The notion of the Promised Land still echoes strong in the heart of every Jew, just as Mecca holds an important place in the Muslim heart. Pilgrimage to this land is important to devotees of both religions. In reading the Hebrew scriptures we find the land shaping the perspective of God, and the journey of faith, where mountain, rock, and desert emerge as important motifs.
It hit me afresh how much the land of my birth was a part of me – how much it impacted my own journey in faith. As I contemplate its extremes – the “droughts and flooding rains” – I am reminded of my own passions and of the way in which they ebb and flow, sometimes a consuming force, sometimes a dry and dustless expanse. The extremes are matched also by the changeableness, not only in temperature and storm, but in focus. As I scan the sweeping plains of my place on and as part of this earth, I am invited to consider a multiplicity of facets, as varied as the colours of the opal. I find it hard to focus on one for too long, even with the greatest of discipline, for the changes and variations in climate are as connected as the individual elements in my formation.
Though aware that spirituality and faith is not shaped in a vacuum, this experience has reminded me to reflect afresh on the context in which I am placed, that I may learn to discern the presence of God, and the call to full humanity that emerges in this unique place. Though principles of truth and love may remain timeless, they ever and only find expression and meaning in time and place. In order to fully live them out, I am becoming increasingly aware of the context in which I am called to be human.
February 26, 2003