There’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon (which, for copyright reasons, I won’t attempt to reproduce here) in which Calvin and his tiger are staring into the night sky in awesome wonder of it. As Calvin contemplates the size and majesty of the sky, the unfathomable reaches of space and distance of the stars, he asks Hobbes something (I don’t remember) and Hobbes replies, “Kinda makes you wonder why mankind considers himself such a big screaming deal.” I don’t remember whether it was the punchline of the comic or just a setup line, but I have never forgotten that line in decades.
Of course, the cartoonist Bill Watterson’s skepticism is apparent when you read much of his work. And, in all honesty, I have to admit that his protagonists often ask some of the very same questions I do. That said, from the perspective of a Christian, it seems to me that the answer to Hobbes’ question is, “Well, because the creator of all of that volunteered to become one of us and die with us. His love for us makes us a pretty big deal.” Of course, the implications of that are pretty enormous. Material for another blog post….
That said, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a lot of value in recognizing our smallness. I’ve recently had the opportunity since moving to Idaho–a state whose beauty is relatively unknown to the rest of the country because of its reputation as the “Potato State”—to spend some time in a region of the state called “The Sawtooth National Forrest.” Sawtooth is a mountain range which is part of the larger Rocky Mountains–in fact as I understand it is one of the northernmost parts of the Rockies.
I’ve been to Sawtooth about four or five times now, entering through a little town (population: 63) called Stanley. Around Stanley are numerous places to camp and hike and explore the overwhelming beauty of the place.
You should understand that I’ve lived in a lot of places. Eight different states (nine, if you count the fact that I moved back to the one I was born in when I was in high school). I’m from Indiana, which I will always think of with affection. Indiana is, mostly, flat, rural, and beautiful. Driving through the countryside in Indiana means seeing wide, lush, green fields of dark, fertile soil dotted with old farmhouses, barns with rusty basketball hoops, corn cribs, and old tractors. In the distance, groves of green trees and little rivers break up the flatness. Old towns and covered bridges…Brown County. Indiana always had its own kind of reflective, peaceful beauty. I’ll always be a Hoosier. I’m proud of being a Hoosier.
My family moved to West Virginia, along the Ohio River, when I was very young…2nd grade I think. A little town called Williamstown, right across the river from Marietta, OH. I remember driving through the Blue Ridge mountains (the heart of Appalachia), the remnants of the river travel that had boomed all of those towns along the Ohio River for decades. There’s something familiar about those old river towns, something that all river towns have in common that I could never put my finger on. West Virginia had its own remote Appalachian beauty.
We moved to Alabama next (my father was pursuing a Bible college degree). Heat. Humidity. Football. Bright sunshine. I learned to play baseball in Alabama. I learned about Bear Bryant and heard a great deal about the Civil War as a Yankee transplant (no one knew what a Hoosier was, but I got the word “Yankee” thrown at me a lot). Later in my life I also lived in Georgia. I explored the South, from South Carolina through Tennessee and Alabama. Its history and memory stand out to me. Spanish moss hanging from the trees in Savannah, GA. Ghosts in the cemeteries…sweet tea and sweat on your forehead. People talk more slowly in the South, I always thought, because of the heat. The calm-ocean waters of the Gulf Coast. Mountains and trees and cool rivers that I used to kayak down with my kids. Beautiful.
I spent my middle-school and early high-school years in Pennsylvania. First in State College (home of Penn State), then in a town called Huntingdon. You can’t go anywhere in Pennsylvania without climbing a mountain. Throughout the state are remnants of the steel and logging industries. Old mills and furnaces by the side of the road. Tough, northern Appalachian winters up in the mountains. Deep forests filled with deer and black bear. For a while my family rented an old farmhouse isolated from the highway by ¾ of a mile of dirt road. I walked through the woods to get home and would frequently see wild turkeys, whitetail doe staring back at me, the occasional 6 or 8 point buck, and sometimes even bear tracks. On a Boy Scout hike, one day, my troop came within about 30 feet of a wild black bear who took one look at us and disappeared into the brush. I remember scenic views of grand valleys from the top of the mountains, patchwork-quilt farmland in the distance, dairy farms, and steel towns. Beautiful.
After moving back to Indiana, graduating, getting married, and deciding to go back to college, I moved with my first wife to central Missouri. I also spent some time across the Mississippi river in Illinois. Missouri and Illinois had their own desolate beauty. Long, lonely roads that disappeared into the sunset. The Ozarks in the south and flat-forgotten farmland up north. Illinois is most often known for Chicago, but that’s not fair. Some of the most impressive starlit nights I’ve ever seen have happened out on the highways of Illinois. Beautiful.
Something happens to me when I get there. I don’t know if it’s the altitude or massive stone giants thrusting their way out of the earth, most over 10,000 feet in the air. But when I get to Stanley, I often begin to feel strange. Different. A little sad. Lonely. Like I’m in a fog. My mood changes and I feel overwhelmed. As we get closer to the mountains, the effect is more profound.
I’ve thought about it a lot. It’s a difficult feeling to put my finger on. But this last trip (my wife and I went camping last week), I think I may have stumbled on what it does to me.
Sawtooth makes me feel smaller than anywhere else I’ve ever been. To tell the truth, it’s a little scary and disorienting. It’s a wilderness like none other I’ve ever been to.
I think Hobbes the tiger is right. Most folks walk around, myself included, every day thinking our own thoughts, lost in our own minds, with our own agendas and things to do. It’s just natural for us to be the center of our own universes. We have a tendency to feel like “big screaming deals” and all of the things that we do feel so important and vital. I’m, currently, in a job search that has, thus far, spanned about 8 months. Every rejection or unanswered email feels like the end of the world.
But, when I get to Sawtooth and see those mountains and put my hands in the rivers—fed by snow-melt even now in July, it’s a constant reminder that I am just a little person. To put it in Tolkein’s language: we’re all hobbits, not wizards. We’re all a part of this grand creation, created for God’s good pleasure, to be a part of this world and care for it and one another as his representatives (his image-bearers) on this earth.
Sawtooth reminds me that there are far more impressive things than me and my plight. I am just one creature experiencing the joys and pains of this life. Just one of the many creatures struggling to survive in this beautiful but broken creation—marred by sin but waiting for God’s restoration.
As my wife and I hike silently, the clomp of our boots and the clack of our walking sticks the only sounds, we find ourselves frequently rounding the corner out of a thicket of trees and seeing grey stone giants staring back down at us. They feel dangerous and menacing, yet somehow like aged friends—much older brothers, fathers, even grandfathers saying, “Yeah…impressive, huh? I could take you without any effort at all.” At once I feel terrified and enthralled. Enlightened and enlivened. It’s a spiritual moment, a reminder of something the American Indians in a way recognized that the oncoming Western culture rooted in the Enlightenment ideals of progress, exploitation, and “manifest destiny” made unintelligible: that we are not the apex of creation—we are not gods. We are, in fact, created creatures. We bear God’s image, poorly enough…often enough. But we are very small. Part of a community made up of one another, friends and enemies, as well as the elk I can hear bugling in the morning while I rest in my tent…the mule deer…the antelope…the wolves…the trees…the horseflies…the wildflowers…the eagles and hawks…the sockeye red salmon known to this place…and, yes, those monolithic giants looking back down at me…completely unimpressed with how many books I’ve read.
We often find ourselves crossing those clear cold streams, lit up by the red and gold rocks just under the surface. Raging rivers in places narrowed by the mountains. Cliffs and gorges. Some of those lakes are like enormous mirrors in which my giant grandfathers seem to stare at themselves through the ages like an undying Narcissus. If you fall in that water…well…you gotta be careful up here in Sawtooth. This place wasn’t created with your safety in mind. Just one more reminder that this place…this world…doesn’t revolve around me. It is God’s creation. His place. It reflects his glory and his type of goodness. Not mine. It’s a dangerous world full of joy and sorrow. It is a world full of mammoth wonders: mountains, abysses, waterfalls, whales, and elephants but with the Creator’s eye toward ladybugs and minnows, lilies and sparrows. It’s a big place compared to me, but a small one compared to Saturn. It revolves around a star immensely larger than itself, but relatively small compared to the red giants of this universe. It is, in fact, a speck in an imperceptibly huge universe full countless galaxies, full of countless stars and planets, full of how many other wonders like it.
And here we find ourselves, me and Vangie. Two more creatures, sore and tired from our struggles on this mountain, but also in our lives. Being reminded by God’s creation that we are, indeed, after all just little people. But people that he loves more than sparrows and lilies. And I am reminded of just how unbelievable it is that the person who has the power to create all of this beauty might enter into my existence as a man like me in a time not much different from mine—removed only by a few millennia. And I realize that these mountains were here at that time and will be here long after.
And I look forward to the day when, as St. Paul tells us in Romans 8, God will restore this good creation. I hate the thought that so many share that the goal of our lives is to leave this place, these mountains, forever. I love the notion that our resurrection will happen right here on this planet—that God loves these mountains and eagles and rivers more than I do and that he wants to restore this place and restore a people to care for it like he intended in the first place. He will raise this earth and restore it.
And so…I guess that’s the end of this story. I suppose what is happening within myself as I think about Sawtooth is that I’m reminded of God’s intent for this world. That it is his world. And that means that I am his and he loves it and he loves me. Earth was created to be a friend to heaven, near it. God has not forgotten it. He still loves it and is restoring it every day. And I am just a small part of that.