Shattered illusions and sacred encounters: A journey through the woods

In the woods, writes Karie Charlton, we find doors to new beginnings, even in the depths of winter.

Photo by Kinzua Bridge State Park.

I was 14 years old and sobbing in the back seat of the truck because life as I knew it had been shattered. Moments before, my dad pointed out a gas station/gift shop and said, “That’s where I trade with the Indians.” I was devastated. Until that moment, I believed that my dad had spent time alongside a tribe of native people when he was at the hunting camp. I thought they shared trinkets, animal knowledge and hunting tactics. This was the entire reason I had taken hunter safety classes, archery lessons, and practiced shooting a rifle that kicked and bruised my face. I wanted to believe that there were people out there who lived a different way of life, more in tune with the natural world. I wanted to believe that my dad connected with these people, and that I could connect with them as well.

This was my first hunting trip, and I even brought a little notebook with me to record all the traditions I observed. I planned to watch them make their beaded jewelry with babies swaddled in cradleboards on their backs. I would have been willing to trade my entire deer (if I got one) to learn from them.

At almost 15, my reaction shocked all three of us in the car. My dad and brother didn’t know what to say, and neither did I. How could I tell them that my whole world of wonder was worse than destroyed; it was never real? The native people of my imagination were my projections based on the biased teaching of the U.S. public school system in the late 80s and my belief, even at a young age, that nature held teachings I wanted to access.

I was 14 years old and sobbing in the back seat of the truck because life as I knew it had been shattered.

My dad has been going to this hunting camp since he was a teenager. When my brother and I were young, he would spend a long weekend there each year, usually right before December, returning home with meat and gifts. I remember fondly a doll with braided hair and a change purse with leather fringe and beadwork. As I got older the gifts became arrowheads and necklaces. They were never gift-wrapped nor did they have any tags or stickers. These first gifts of the holiday season were special long after I had understood why Santa had the same handwriting as Mom, and the myth I had created of the Indigenous people of Western Pennsylvania remained, until that fateful first trip to camp.

Each Thanksgiving, my family plans for the upcoming hunting trip while we wait for the turkey to be ready. Who is going to drive this year? Who got both buck and doe tags? Did my brother remember to renew his license? This turns into reminiscing, and, eventually, a blooper real of memories. Every year, my brother tells the story of the first year we went hunting, gently teasing me a little about the gift shop where the gifts came from. Every year, I defend my reasoning.

What I don’t always say is what I now, as an adult, realize about my deep disappointment. I was interested in the ways our Western and Indigenous traditions could blend, like in the “Huron Carol” which made my faith seem a little more mystical and connected with the moon and the birds. I wanted to feel connected to the natural world, and I didn’t always have the language for why or how. I knew there was something to learn from Indigenous people. I understood some of the history between native people and colonizers, but I naively thought that I could bring about a new beginning of shared knowledge and tradition.

My first hunting trip was also my last. Occasionally, my dad, brother, husband, and I will drive up to camp off-season just to walk around the woods and visit the spot where Dad wants us to scatter his ashes. We always leave early in the morning and stop at the Kelly bar/restaurant for Joe’s mess, an appropriately named pile of scrambled eggs, peppers, onions, mushrooms, and ham. Then as we travel to camp, Dad points out all the stores that used to be something else, including the gift shop that was abandoned and then torn down.

“The dark is not an end. It’s a door. It’s the way a new beginning comes.” — Gayle Boss

Our quiet hikes through the woods are a space where silence and stillness are rewarded with a chick-a-dee chipping or a wild turkey emerging from beneath cedar bows to find a snack. On the way home we stop at the Kinzua Bridge, a railroad trestle built in 1882. Billed as the “eighth wonder of the world” at 301 feet tall and 2,052 feet long, most of which collapsed during a tornado in 2003. There’s beauty in the brokenness. I wonder if any of these ordinary and sacred places will get a new beginning.

This year, Dad and I made the drive on the first Sunday of Advent to pick up the deer meat. The farmer who processes the meat was a little overwhelmed and didn’t have enough help this season, so he and Dad worked out this arrangement to give him extra time. The conversation in the barn workshop about being older and slowing down and hoping the kids will take on more of the farm work is the liturgy of older men.

I’m half listening as I load the frozen packages into the truck. I’m musing about Advent. This is the first time I’m not serving a congregation in over a decade. I chose to read Gayle Boss’s All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings just for myself this year. Each day, Boss describes in two pages how an animal survives the winter and waits for spring. The children’s version adds the phrase, “The dark is not an end. It’s a door. It’s the way a new beginning comes.” I didn’t really know why I chose this book until I made this pilgrimage to the mountains with Dad. On the way home, I talked to him about the first three animals, the turtle, the bear, and the muskrat, and how they wait through the winter. He added what he knew about each one.

“If I spend 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

After he dropped me off at home, I picked up the book and read the opening quote from medieval theologian Meister Eckhart, “Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.” What Eckhart says is exactly how I feel in the woods, listening, watching, waiting, and experiencing God in it all. Being connected to nature, like as a child I imagined native people were, is being connected to a divine mystery and a world full of doors to new beginnings.

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