posted by Autumn Dennis
I am my father’s daughter. Among all of the things he has passed onto me, besides a love for punk music and Mel Brooks films, he has taught me to love and appreciate nature. When I was a teenager he started taking me on hikes. While he spent his childhood summers on a farm in Stewart County, I have grown up 20 minutes outside of downtown Nashville- he used to hold it against me that I couldn’t walk in the woods without waking up every creature possible. Over time he has taught me how to hike, and how to hike well. He taught me the exact ways to place your feet when trekking up a hill of mud and wet leaves, and how to strategically scale the side of a baby limestone drop-off. However, I think some of the most invaluable lessons he’s taught me through hiking is how to be quiet. Not just be quiet, but also be silent. Not just be silent, but also be still. Not just be still, but to pay attention. To slow down and to wait. To not expect anything, but to observe.
Early this month, my father and I took a couple of hikes at Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park in Manchester. I have hiked the trails there so many times over the years I have them memorized. I have memorized the bark and lean of some of the thousand-year-old trees, the way the river flows, the way the sunlight falls through the trees, and various landmarks along the way. However, on this particular day, I noticed some things I had never taken notice of before- there were mushrooms everywhere.
The trail was damp because of some intense storms the night before, so the air had a fresh aura of decay about it as we walked along the trail of mushrooms. Here and there, I would spot bigger mushrooms- the fat red ones that look like they came straight out of a Mario videogame, the skinny white ones that stretch really tall, and the ugly, flimsy beige ones that look beaten up and bruised. Every now and then I would stop on the trail and just stare at the dirt below my feet and realize I was looking at dozens of mushrooms creeping out of the soil. Of course, this reminded me of my 10th grade biology class when we learned about detritus feeders.
Before I go on, let me say this- I was not raised in the church. For most of my childhood, my parents were skeptics and my father’s intensely analytical and scientific mind influenced me. His math and science skills were never passed onto me- I’m going into ministry for a reason- but my father’s teaching me about the mysteries of nature and our environment completely shaped the way I viewed my faith when I became a Christian at age 16. At the time, I had no idea whether I believed in God or not; either way I knew the power and beauty of nature was very great on these hikes and that this was fodder for both arguments in my mind.
Now, back to 10th grade biology class. This was the class I was taking when I was in the middle of teetering between becoming a Christian and declaring atheism. The only part of the class I liked was when we learned about ecology, nature’s carrying capacity, and of course the food chain in ecosystems. My favorite part was and is the detritus feeders. Basically, in any ecosystem, things are born and things die eventually. Eventually this dead matter piles up and accumulates through decomposition. It breaks down and becomes nutrients to sustain further life. However, none of this can happen if there are no detritus feeders (and scavengers). Detritus feeders are the organisms that basically eat up all of the waste and turn it into those nutrients. In a spiritual sense, they turn death back into life.
Alright, enough of the head-hurting biology talk and back to the little mushrooms. Mushrooms are my most favorite detritus feeder because let’s be honest, they are super cute and adorable and are also really productive little suckers. As I was walking along the path and seeing literally hundreds of mushrooms springing up in the wake of the storms that finally made the soil wet enough for decomposition to take place, I was inspired by those mushroom’s dedication. Just imagine- if these mushrooms were not here in this forest full of dead leaves, the fallen leaves and rotting logs would just pile up. They would not decay if there weren’t detritus feeders like mushrooms to aid in that decomposition. Our entire world, if it weren’t for scavengers and detritus feeders, would be perpetually full of waste. It would just accumulate. Now, I know I’m not a biologist, so I will take the liberty to imagine that the world would probably implode as a result of all this waste build-up.
Now, how does this relate to God? In my mind, mushrooms and detritus feeders are a complete symbol of resurrection. Resurrection is at the heart of the Christian Gospel- I will be so ambitious to say that Jesus could die on the cross all day long and forgive every sin many times over, but if that tomb is not empty the next day, it means nothing. That empty tomb means we have hope. Our world is so broken, and all you have to do is watch the news, or walk in a forest in the fall, to see all the decay around you. But the empty tomb signifies the story isn’t over- Christ is alive. What was death and defeat is now new life. Our spiritual and physical deaths are not the end of the story- there is new life here on Earth. This is our hope and this is our Good News. This is our Gospel.
So it is with mushrooms. The presence of a mushroom, even the tiniest speck on a giant mossy log, proclaims that it is there to bring life. The mushroom takes the death and waste into itself and gives off nutrients to support life again. Imagine that the mushroom is the sacrificial lamb of the forest, the Messiahs of the forest if you will. If it weren’t for the mushrooms, there would be no hope for sustained life in the forest.
I leave you with a challenge and a meditation- go find a mushroom proclaiming life in the ground. I want you to look underneath the mushroom cap and see the endless little gills the spread out from the stem. The exactness of the mushroom’s design, no matter how small, has always spoken volumes to me. If the Divine Force amongst us can carefully craft together a teeny, intricate mushroom and give it the important job of being a force of resurrection to a trivial bit of soil, surely The Spirit has enough time for you, your stresses, your choices, your plans, your thoughts, and your fears. If the Spirit can attend to the littlest mushrooms, the Spirit can and will attend to you.
“Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature- even a caterpillar- I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.” –Meister Eckhart