Soul of the Forest

Woods in Liberec, Czech Republic

Woods in Liberec, Czech Republic


Elephants in the snow

IMG_0170My mom used to put a night light in our bathroom when I was little. It was a ceramic house with Victorian windows and snow-covered roofs. It was such a pretty sight, aglow in the dark, and I was fascinated by it. Maybe because when you’re wide-awake at two in the morning as a seven-year old, the light from the hallway bathroom is the most interesting thing in the house. But probably also because that quaint little house looked so out of place in my bathroom. Something so elegant, so fairy-like, shouldn’t be sitting next to my toothbrush. I would stare into the light and imagine beautiful parties or cozy family dinners in that little house. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be on the street outside its front door, in that winter wonderland, in whatever world its from, far, far away.

Let’s fast-forward to the last two days of January 2015. I’m sitting on a bus that bounces down a familiar road from Prague to Liberec to visit some friends. As we rise in elevation, the fields outside go from brown to winter green to white. It’s snowing in Liberec when I step off the bus onto the cobblestone of the city’s transit center. My friends are waiting for me – both blond-haired and blue-eyed. Twins.

We say our ‘hello’s and I dance around merrily, delighted by the weather. Then we march off toward our destination: the city pool.

It’s snowing lightly as we slip across the stones and sidewalks. If you’re an American reading this, I can promise you that you’d think the distance we walked just to get to this pool was outrageous. Honestly, it feels pretty normal to me now. Europeans walk everywhere.

Czechs do public pools differently than Americans. There is a whole sanitation and pre-swimming washing ritual that is religiously upheld. You wade through foot pools between each room to keep the dirt out, shower before entering the pool area, and get blasted by waterjets as a final measure of cleanliness before you can enter the deck. But it’s worth it. There are water slides and toboggan runs like those you find at aquaparks. There are multiple spas and diving boards and a power-generated river that sweeps swimmers outside (into the snow) in a steamy current. And then, of course, there’s the massive pool in the middle of it all.

“This is the largest pool of its kind in Central Europe,” explains the twins’ mom who has joined us at the poolside. I believe it.

Eventually, we go back through all the shower jets and water pools to get to the lockers and then it’s into the cold January afternoon again. Lunch time.

“Do you want to take the bus back?” asks the sister. The mom has gone ahead and the brother is still somewhere in the men’s lockers.

“I don’t mind walking,” I say. So we trek. It’s a hike through slushy streets and park walks and snow-capped hills dappled with laughing children tumbling off plastic sleds. We talk about names of birds and animals, tripping over the language barrier as frequently as we slip on the frozen path.

Lunch is hot and waiting when the elevator doors drop us off on the fifth floor outside their flat. The kitchen table is set right against a large window that looks out over the town as it winds its way into the foothills of the mountain.

My breath completely escapes me. It looks like a snowglobe in the frame of the window. Thick flakes whirl outside, frosting sea-green and candy-red rooftops. A church steeple lifts above the sleepy homes that sink into the forests climbing the mountain. Everything is dusted with sugar-white snow and pressed against a pale grey sky.

“The view from the front window is even better,” says the Mom from the stove. “But you won’t be able to see much right now. It’s too cloudy.”

I spend all of lunch just looking out that window.

We go to a tea house when the dishes are cleared and whittle away the rest of the afternoon playing cards games and sipping special brews from china cups.

It is dark when we re-enter the apartment. A movie and then bed. After all the swimming and all the walking, I fall asleep right away.

We wake up to sunshine – a rare treat this time of year. The sky is bright blue and soft as a bird’s feather. The view from the front window is indeed breathtaking. With clouds out of the way, the lookout tower is clearly visible on top of Ještěd, a mountain that looks like the flank of a sleeping dragon. The lookout tower, dressed in crystal and icicles, could just as easily be a fairy palace. It seems out of place above the sprawling apartment complexes below – it should belong in the clouds.

Breakfast consists of bread with cheese and meat spreads, apple strudel and hot tea. We bundle up, pulling out snowshoes and pants, scarves and hats and gloves. The elevator takes us and our two wooden sleighs to the bottom floor where we make our way outside, across the town, to the bus leaving for the mountains.

It’s a jolly bus, packed entirely with skiers and sledders (and their dogs). Everyone is in a good mood, even those of us forced to stand in the isle. The bus driver is playing a mesh of classic American folk music and Czech bluegrass, the latter of which is a special kind of joy that I only discovered just last year.

There is even more snow carpeting the ground up here in the collar of the mountain. Sledding the hills and walking the straights, we set down a path in the middle of an enchanted, snow-flaked forest. Every tree branch looks like a sugar cookie that has been piled with too much icing. The snow crunches – actually crunches – beneath my feet.

Downhill isn’t as easy a path as one might expect, mostly because sledding isn’t as easy as one might expect. Lots of overturned rides, lots of wet grins and frosty giggles. Lots of snowflakes.

They look like fairies, they really do. So delicate and precise, their swift dance through the woods around us, I can almost see their glowing faces and silver wings.






We reach the bottom of the mountain in about an hour and a half. Then we pick up our sleds and walk – walk – all the way back to the house.

Just below the path we’ve left is a botanical garden and a zoo. We can see the elephants in the corner of their enclosure, keeping each other warm. It looks so odd to see elephants in the snow and I wonder how well their leathery skin keeps them warm.

As we drag our sleds through the town we turn into an older neighborhood, nestled along the ridge of the mountain steps. All the houses loom over us as we patter down the cobblestone street. Built at the turn-of-the-century, they have all the trappings of the once-wealthy, aristocratic life. Many of them have not been well kept up, but some still have deep blue trims and tiles or ivy growing in heart-shaped patterns around red-framed windows. And they are all covered in snow. I can almost hear the sound of music and laughter from balls and dinner parties that must have happened in those homes a century ago. It feels strange to be standing right outside them, like walking below giants that have been frozen in time. They look like gingerbread houses. No, they look like my nightlight.

The apartment comes into view and I can almost smell the lunch that is waiting for us. In those final steps home, I think about how strange it is that we spend so much time trying to fit in when the most beautiful things in the world are the things that stand out.

I think it’s okay to march to the beat of a different drum. In fact, I think that’s what we’re called to do. As Christians in a world where most people will fundamentally not understand our perspective on living, we must look a bit like elephants in the snow. But I’m okay with people gawking through the cracks at me if it also means that they’re reminded of some place warmer. I’d be honored to be the mountain tower that people see and think of heaven, even if it means feeling out of place on earth. I don’t mind sitting next to the toothbrushes if I can be a light for someone in the dark.



Find your inner lumberjack

IMG_1315Close your eyes. Seriously do this.

(Okay, I realize you can’t read this with your eyes closed, so metaphorically do this).

Close your eyes and picture newly harvested wheat fields rolling out below your feet. You can see yellow stubs barely escaping from earth that is soft and dark, covering the hills like a shaggy, golden carpet. And you can feel the flutter of the summer’s last few insects around your ankles. Now turn slowly, breathing in the freshness of the air, and look behind you where the seam between the fields and the forest is sown up with moss and sapling trees. The heart of the forest is deep and still. You can hear it sighing as it prepares for its winter slumber.

And it doesn’t matter what time you picture yourself there because this little corner of the earth probably hasn’t changed significantly in centuries. The years have rolled by like waves on a forgotten beach, uncounted.

It was here that I found my inner lumberjack.

On a cool Sunday afternoon I traveled by bus to Liberec, a town within a day’s hike from the borders of both Germany and Poland, to visit a Czech family for my last few days of summer.

This particular family likes to spend their free days going out to their farm to clear wood, maintain the buildings on the property, and shoot airguns. Mr. K is Czech and Mrs. K is so very British, and all four of their sons are a delight. So our time was sprinkled with things very Czech, very British and very delightful.

Monday, just after a lovely lunch of homemade stuffed puff-pastries, we trekked out to the countryside with tools, a picnic basket, warm jackets, a dog and some little neighborhood boys. The boys – about 10 and 12 – were very excited to join the expedition and the three of us sat, giddy children ready for an adventure. (The boys’ mom had just gotten back from the hospital with their newest sibling and Mrs. K thought it might be good to lighten her load, so to speak). Also along to help was sweet Eliška, a friend of the K family and a friend of mine.

We were a motley crew, the lot of us. But we were greeted warmly by the co-owners of the farm and their flock of sheep and goats. (Necessary selfies were taken with the farm animals).

My family did 4-H for years so stepping out of the van into the smell of manure and old hay was a bit like stepping back into my childhood, minus the pigtails and that obnoxious horse that, I swear, was out to kill me.
The farm has been jointly owned by the K family for 86 years, broken up briefly when it was seized by the Nazis and then controlled by the communists. The property has seen hard years, but the Ks have been working hard to keep the place running and useful. They lease out the fields to the co-owner and take care of the large shed and barn which have both seen damage from floods, thieves and the ever-turning hand of time.


IMG_1289DSC_6909And every week, they drive out to fix, clean and log (and shoot airguns), which the youngest son tells me, without bothering to hide his frustration, is a bit of a drag.

“Anything gets boring if you do it every week for eight years,” he repeated to me several times during the course of our walk through the fields to the river and up the wooded hillside (The men had driven the van ahead of us through the fields – we went up the back way to take in a bit of the property). “I don’t see any reason to do all this. It makes more sense to stay home and play video games.”

Ah, the wisdom of twelve year olds. And he reminds me of mine back home.

Not even the incredible view of the pastures and the tree-laced slopes that towered over the right side of the path seemed to perk up his spirits. I tried to dampen my excitement for his sake, but there was no getting around the fact that this day was an adventure I have been dreaming of my whole life. Farm animals. Old buildings. Harvested wheat fields. A FOREST WITH TREES TO BE CUT DOWN. The Paul Bunyan in me (that secretly lives in every American) was crying tears of joy as we began our climb up the steep slope of the hill.

We found the guys taking down old trees and sawing them into chunks. Pulling on our gloves, we then carried them over to the edge of the forest where they were loaded into the van.

Some of the logs were light because of rot and others were cumbersome or sticky with sap. Like any good lumberjack, I sat on the heavy ones until they behaved themselves. Bunyan would have been proud.

We couldn’t have asked for a better work environment. The forest was beautiful. Tiny pinecones hung on tree branches like ornaments and red berries brightened the deep green boughs. It looked like my sister had gone in there and decorated the whole place for a pre-Christmas hot cocoa party.

I was amazed at how dark it was in the forest. Those trees stretch up to the heavens with thick leaves fleshing out their upper branches. But down where we walk around, all we see are trunks or dying limbs, spots that are decaying or that have been rubbed raw by the wild boar herds that roam around. (Yes, you read that right, there are wild boar herds here). But when you walk toward the clearing, towards those golden fields, the sunlight pours down like champagne – it glitters and bubbles and warms you right up.

I will always find it amazing, how powerful the sun is.




It’s difficult work, actually. Carrying bundles of wood is hard on your arms, your legs, your back and any dignity you thought you had. I dropped things on my toes. I found myself struggling to carry wood in the most awkward positions before realizing I probably could have just made two trips. I nearly died several times after discovering a spider(s) upon my person.

One glove didn’t fit properly so things tended to slip from that hand. And my glasses cut off my peripheral vision so I walked into more than one tree during the course of the afternoon.

“Have a drink, Mary,” said Mrs. K. She held out a turquoise cup – plastic, like the kind my grandma kept in her bottom cupboard for the grandkids when we all came over. I took it gratefully, noting that the youngest K boy and one of the neighborhood chums were both taking a break also, their handsaw and pile of logs resting peacefully behind the back tire of the van.

I was surprised when I took a sip of what I had presumed was black tea. The sweet, tingly taste of Dr. Pepper burst onto my tongue, like a distant memory that becomes brighter when revisiting old pictures and songs. I don’t remember the last time I had a Dr. Pepper and I don’t think I even cared for it that much in the USA. But now I’m pretty sure it will always taste like nostalgia.

We kept a steady pace for several hours, until the light turned the color of grain and the sky began to pale. The boys kept sawing, Eliška and I carried (and dragged, when necessary) wood to the growing stack of timber, and we all ate cookies. Also, I chopped down a tree.

Wait, let’s go back to that last one.





For a moment, I stopped halfway between our worksite and the fields. I looked about at all the dying wood that needed to be cleared. The Ks may never be able to finish this. They may never see their dreams for the roofless barn fulfilled. They may toil on this land till they wither and die like the trees. And it will still be good.

This is humbling work. It is hard work. And I can see how, after many years, it can feel very unimportant.

But in what other way can we so directly fulfill God’s calling to be a steward of the earth? With dirty hands and sweaty faces we are giving a small sacrifice of obedience to the Creator who has given us so much.

“Content to fill a little space, if Thou be glorified.”

Those are some words, aren’t they? I always forget the name of the hymn, but that one line comes back to me often. This forest is one of the little spaces where the K family is faithfully glorifying God.

We loaded the rest of the wood, ate the rest of the goodies in the picnic basket, and then made our way back toward the farmyard. We sent the neighbor boys and the dog back through the forest with youngest K boy, his earlier wishes to stay home and play video games melted into sap-slicked hands and vivacious laughter.

The van bumped along slowly, loaded heavily with our tools and the last of the wood. From the window, those rolling hills looked like sleeping dragons whose golden scales rippled beneath the pull of the evening wind. And I thought of my own little space. My place of toil.

I closed my eyes and pictured it. I pictured the warm, soapy water I mop the floor with on Saturday mornings. I pictured the grouchy little faces of students I sometimes run out of patience for. I pictured long, long walks home from the bus when I’m cold and tired. I pictured those moments where I doubted or, worse, begrudged the work I have been given.

Somehow, understanding that our daily chores and responsibilities are like woodlands that need to be tended – and if not by us, then by whom? – makes it easier to pick up the ax and saw with a smile. Not saying that the work becomes any less difficult or the forest any less dark, only that it’s so much easier to see that the place you’re laboring in is really very beautiful when you know the purpose for which you’re toiling. And my, that sun is powerful. IMG_1344