Monday, July 20, 2009

Fern From Rock


Reflect with me on one of the most common plants found in the Pacific Northwest, the Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum). This plant grows in abundance in the western regions of North America, especially as understory in coniferous forests. Something as common as the Sword Fern can easily be overlooked. What then is so unique about the Sword Fern?

Tough and Adaptable: Sword Ferns are found as far north as southeast Alaska and as far south as southern California. This plant has found a way to adapt and survive in very warm and very cold environments. Though Sword Ferns prefer wet, temperate conditions, growing best in rich, organic soils, they also survive in eco-systems with little moisture, and can live through intense dry periods. For gardeners, they are great for low maintenance landscaping. Sword Ferns are also very disease and pest resistant. Well-designed for reproduction, this plant repopulates through rows of reddish spores, or sori, found on the undersides of every frond. A single spore develops into a new organism through asexual reproduction. Sword Fern rootstock, a rhizome, anchors the plant into the soil by means of a hairy root-system through which it gathers moisture and minerals. Part of the tough quality of the Sword Fern may be seen in the reddish-brown scales covering and protecting the rhizome.

Balance and Beauty: The Sword Fern has found its way into millions of backyards across western North America, often without any work or cultivation on the part of the gardener. Along the moist, shaded north side of our home on the Oregon Coast, Sword Ferns planted themselves. As the native plant guide for King County declares, “This is the king of northwest ferns. Its stately appearance and adaptability for almost any site condition, make it one of the most useful of all native plants.” (1) The fronds, which can grow to six feet in length, reveal a repeating pattern of serrated leaflets, or pinnae, with each leaflet a miniature pattern of the overall frond. From base to tip, leaflets also gradually tapers, forming the pattern of a sword. Evergreen in color, this plant provides year round color to forest and backyard, as well as an eye-pleasing symmetry and harmony. Though seldom used for any other purpose today than landscaping, the Sword Fern has had a long history among native populations, providing bedding, medicinal uses, cooking uses, and even eaten as food.

The Pathway to Silence: Finally, I invite you to consider the Sword Fern as guardians of the forest along the pathways to silence. Though found ubiquitously among many noisy neighborhoods and highways along the western states and provinces, the Sword Fern is also found in the quietest places of tranquility. Gordon Hempton, a sound recordist who has been recording silent places of North America for years, noticed the encroachment of human noise upon natural sanctuaries such as our national parks. His book, One Square Inch of Silence (Free Press, 2009), articulates his passion for preserving the gift of silence in natural spaces such as Olympic National Park. Surrounding Hempton’s “one square inch of silence” in the Hoh Valley of Olympic National Park, you’ll be sure to find a whole regiment of Sword Ferns standing guard over the gift of solitude and silence.

1. Sources:;;;

2. For more on Gordon Hempton and ‘One Square Inch of Silence’, see

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) wrote eloquently on prayer as God’s way of watering the garden of the soul.(1) The first and most difficult way of prayer is drawing water from a well. In this method, prayer is by the bucketful, with the heavy lifting work of ropes, pulleys and sheer muscle power to get the water out of the well and carried to the garden of the soul. The second approach to prayer is through a waterwheel system of irrigation. The initial labor of developing the structures of prayer is labor intensive. Once in place, the wheel is powered by the flow of God’s presence past the waterwheel, bringing refreshment to the soul along the piping of our structured prayer life. According to Teresa, the third way of prayer comes only to those who have been matured through the first two means. A spring bubbles forth within the soul’s garden, bringing spiritual grace into the heart of the garden. Teresa admits this to be “an even better way, because the ground is more fully soaked and it is much less work”. But, it is Teresa’s fourth way of prayer which most moves my soul. Rain. Every blade of grass in our innermost being is touched by the life giving goodness of God. In this way of prayer, God does most of the work. We merely receive. Rain falls upon our lives, like going outside in a summer rainstorm and allowing the gift of grace to shower our lives.

1. Teresa of Avila, The Life of Teresa of Jesus (New York, NY: Image Books, 1991); pp. 127-128.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Quiet Moment

A silhouetted figure looks out to the sunset along the wooden pathway at the end of Ecola Point.


In distant lands they will remember me.
They and their children will survive
and they will return.
~Zechariah 10:9

We arrived on the Isle of Iona, Scotland in the morning fog with silver mist hanging on the white beaches as the ferry made its landing. Heading northward towards the abbey, we stepped along cobblestones through the little island village, past the ruined convent, along the ancient cemetery. It was there next to those gravestones when I saw the bench inviting us to sit and reflect. The wood back was carved with the simple inscription: Rest and Remember: an invitation to the weary traveler’s soul. Sit for a while. Catch your breath. Take a short break. Look out across the silver sea. Watch the day emerge as the sun sparkles in the dew-heavy grass. Rest. Listen as the abbey bells call us to return. Rest and remember.

Remember the year 563, the year Columcille (a.k.a. Columba) arrived from Ireland upon the shores of Iona, cast away from the emerald isle for killing fellow Irishmen in battle. Columcille was no soldier. He was a monk. Sentenced to life exile from Ireland, he arrived at Iona with twelve other men, founding the first monastery in the land we now know as Scotland. Within his lifetime, the people of Scotland embraced this new faith, a way of forgiveness, even for our enemies; a faith inspiring the unruly highland clans to love their neighbors in ways which were as radical for that time as they are in our own day.

Remember. Think of the thousands upon ten thousands of travelers coming across oceans, over mountains, by boat, by land, by sea, through the centuries, coming to this island to rest and renew. They keep coming. The day we departed from Iona, hundreds of pilgrims poured out of the ferry like schools of herring in the saltwater surrounding the isle. What are they coming to find? What do they seek on this rugged, barren rock island, just two miles wide by three miles long? Rest. Remember.

Return to the bench called "Remember". Sit here and rest. Watch. Listen. Reflect. Hear the rhythmic song of the sea upon the shores of Iona. These singing sands have known the incoming and outgoing tides of humanity for the past fifteen hundred years. They were witness to the murderous raids of the Vikings in 806, killing 68 monks of Iona at the bay just south of the ferry landing. To this day, the place is called Martyr’s Bay. The restaurant overlooking that bay is also named after that terrible day, Martyr’s Bay Restaurant. Remember.

Rest and remember. Trace the shoreline northward to the abbey church, rebuilt in the 11th century by the Benedictines after two hundred years of Viking raids had decimated the island population. Walk visually along the path leading from the abbey church to the graveyard, a path known locally as “the Road of the Dead”. Pause for a moment to ponder St. Martin’s high cross, one of the few remaining of the Celtic high crosses on Iona, a fifteen foot high stone, carved with interwoven patterns of Celtic design. Once, hundreds of these Celtic crosses marked this landscape. Reflect upon the passing years. See the thousands of mourners as they have processed, year after year, from the abbey church to the graveyard in honor of a fallen saint, monk, priest or king. Watch the crows hunt for grubs among the tombstones at Reilig Odhrain, the sacred burial ground, holding the earthly remains of 48 Scottish kings, including Macbeth’s victim, King Duncan.

We travel to distant lands, sometimes simply to sit and remember. We traverse among the ancient stones, along the paths of the dead, to think about those who walked this path before us. In this is we discover once again better how to live and love. In this is our soul’s rest and return.