Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Walk on the Wild Side

Eberle Umbach

I wasn’t sure it was really a path—but several branches that might have been laid down intentionally drew me off the hot gravel road toward the shade of some trees. A bit of bright red ribbon caught my eye, then a license plate (DJAVIEW) fixed in the branches, near a wooden sign reading “Nada Nook,” and most especially a light purple bath mat on the groun
d. This mat seemed to be serving as an entryway, a welcome, into a small open space within a circle of tree trunks. Two small benches had been fashioned within this space; I walked inside and I sat down in wonder. Inside Nada Nook was another world, invisible from the road although so close to it, where the longer I looked the more things appeared: a figure of a pig above a triangle of colored glass, a carved monk inside what appeared to be a gumball machine, the statue of a frog at prayer, a rusted wrench placed carefully on top of a shopping bag reading “Always Something Exciting!” Up higher, the remains of a Christmas wreath near a wooden heart, once painted green, hanging in the boughs. I was completely entranced by this place, and by the V-shaped views of hills, trees, and sky between the tree trunks.

I came across Nada Nook walking on the grounds of Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, Oregon, on the first day of a weeklong stay. I went back the next day after morning prayers and breakfast, smuggling in a friend of mine, a stuffed pig named Piggles, in my knapsack. We sat across from each other on the two benches to have a cosy chat about the past and the on-going life of remembered childhood selves. I was kind of hoping a monk wouldn’t come along and expect me to explain this situation—but I wasn’t too worried because I had a feeling that in Nada Nook explanations weren’t strictly necessary. I also called my dear husband John from there—feeling that the locality of Nada Nook wouldn’t object to a cell phone under the circumstances and that it was, in fact, a kind of cosmic communications hub. Plus, I missed him. When he invited me to write a guest blog about my stay at the Abbey, I wondered if I could convey some of the remarkable nature of this place and community by writing about Nada Nook and the other shrines I visited while I was there.

I was sharing a guest house with my traveling companion (also friend and neighbor) Sister Beverly from Marymount Hermitage in Mesa, Idaho. The first night there I had been sleeplessly gloating over the absences that week held in store for me—no answering machine, no cars, no computer, no stores, no highways, no banks. That was one aspect of how perfect Nada Nook seemed to m
e—the way a corner of nothingness can so surprisingly fill with presence. But also, as someone long alienated from museums and other authorized packagings of art, to stumble into this place of objects and leaves and light by accident was a unique experience—to walk into a place that seemed as much outside as inside, as much created as organic, public as private, and that was so integrated with the land and community around it as to be invisible yet overflowing with beauty—this was simply to be seized by delight.

Not being a deep, silent kind of person, I im
mediately communicated my delight to Sister Beverly. She asked me if I’d like to meet Brother Mark, the creator of this shrine as well as of another shrine I had come across on my first day, called Field of Dreams. I was honored to shake his hand and tell him how thrilling it had been to see his shrines. His eyes smiled as he said: “There are four more. That’s all I’ll tell you. Keep looking.”

Well, there are 1400 acres of land at the Abbey. I’d like to say I found the other shrines through some kind of instinct I don’t actually possess—but my traveling companion came to my help once more, as a guide and by having the boldness to ask for a map. With her help, I came across Jane Junction and Marion Mound. Nada Nook is a memorial to Thomas Merton and to Father Bernard, a past abbot of the Abbey. Field of Dreams was created in memory of Brother Mark’s father, and Jane Junction in memory of a cousin who died of polio at fourteen. Jane Junction is in a leafy shady place, where you might see a stuffed toy dog high in a tree, or a stiff blue plastic brush attached to a trunk under fluttering banners spelling out “Equality” and “Diversity.” A cup handle clinging to the rough bark of a tree limb caught the sunlight and transfixed my attention as I found myself thinking: I guess that makes the tree the cup—“the chalice of existence” is a phrase from Poverty of Spirit, a book I was reading that week, and other phrases from the book came to mind as well walking through Brother Mark’s arrangements of familiar objects in the wilderness: “I am a stranger to myself, a no-man’s land.” The author, Johannes Baptist Metz, talks about poverty of spirit as being, among other things, a place—a place of encounter between God and human, the point “where infinite mystery meets concrete existence.” When I think of that phrase now I see a small dime-store statue of a boy and girl on a sled resting on a particular point of shade and moss deep in the forest of Jane Junction, Oregon.

The final stretch of the path to Marion Mound is lined with narrow strips of blanket and then with single legs from pairs of pants. Brother Mark created Marion Mound after the death of his mother and you approach it in this strange soft way walking with material underfoot—somehow receiving a sense of great tenderness in the midst of desolation. Of course there are objects along the path—a very small red mailbox caught my eye and (because there were no museum guards standing ominously around to preserve
the distance we must keep from the art we pay to see…) I knelt down and opened it. Hoping against hope. But of course it wasn’t empty: inside, an artificial pine bough with sprayed-on snow and a gift-wrapped box. The Christmas note kept sounding, past the monk-shaped bottle of Frangelico, a statue of a mother seal with a baby seal, a tiny Santa on skis in a plastic pot, and in the grotto itself many hanging things: a string of silver beads, and tattered Christmas ornaments spilling gold and crimson thread—all making the actual pinecones appear slightly suspect and self-conscious, as if planned.

In addition to Brother Mark’s shrines, I visited the community shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a high point of the hilly land above the abbey. Now that I’m home, her image is interwoven with my memories of t
he chapel and of the monks chanting, of the wild pear and apple trees and how they smelled by moonlight—words, leaves, silence, fruit.

Text & Pix by Eberle Umbach, except for pic of Eberle & Father Mark - this was taken by Sister Mary Beverly

Pics from top to bottom:
Nada Nook

Eberle Walking w/Father Mark the Hermit (not Brother Mark)
Field of Dreams
Jane Junction (2 pix)
Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine

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