Golden leaves flicker in the breeze like small, warm flames. They float like little confetti fireworks, dancing their way down to the ground. I’m trying my very best to be poetic and capture the loveliness of the weather right now, but the beauty really is ineffable. There are some things that just well up and I feel— – I can’t explain. To attempt to describe or try to put it into words is already to dim what it truly is. The beauty of the fall in the mountains is one of those things.
The Bible mentions how Jesus often went to the mountains in solitude to pray ( Mt. 14:23, Mk 6:46, Lk 6:12, Jn 6:15). I think I might understand why. There is no solitude in nature really, it’s all a friend: a pure, authentic showcase of God.
Take the river for instance. This weekend I went wading in it. The waters licked at my ankles and rolled over the smooth stones to splash my shins. The playfulness was like that of a golden retriever puppy— excited, happy, eager. It’s not always that way though. In the spring, she roars and rushes and carves away at the banks taking ravenous bites, carrying away anything in her path. Sometimes, in the winter she freezes over and leaves delicate feathers and beautiful embroidered patterns etched in the icy shelves of her banks. In all her states she is delightful, bringing something new but always remaining true to herself.
Similarly there is the breeze. My mom sometimes describes it as “delicious” and after this weekend I understand why. It felt as though you could just drink it in: it was cool and sweet, and was just enough to toss around your hair and run its gentle fingers through your curls. Doubling that with the warm beams of sunlight, streaming down from the cerulean sky, the two made a pair that made me want to bask in the joy of it forever.
As I’m writing this it is October 4th, the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the best known nature lovers in the Church, maybe even in the world. In his “Canticle of the Creatures” he praises the Lord for “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” familial terms that indicate the close relationship he had with the natural world. And rightly so, for we all have this relationship.
Allow me to explain a bit further. I am in my third year teaching science and religion at De La Salle Blackfeet School, a fourth through eighth grade school in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation. Something wonderful that I’ve learned during my time here is that in both the Blackfeet and the biblical creation stories, humans are made from mud, clay, the earth. We come from the land, the land makes us up. This isn’t just a nice mythological sentiment though. Biologist John Mionczynski who spent extensive time in Wyoming’s Red Desert explains that “ a lot of the cells in your body go away and are replaced by new cells about every two weeks, so after a month living in the red desert, your body has become the red desert!” We literally are made up of the places we spend time in!
It’s incredible really, how inextricably woven we are. Pope Francis wrote, “Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself” (Laudato Si’, 66). We are all a part of one magnificent web, to tug on one string is to shift the entire lattice. It is humbling, not only to look at the might and extent of it all, but also to face the reality of the magnificent role we have in shaping what it turns out to be.
In sixth grade science this week, we were studying the hydrosphere and our water consumption. After gaining a wider scope and reflecting on our use and the resources available to others in different parts of the world, the students researched and came up with a list of things they could do to help conserve water. None was particularly groundbreaking: take shorter showers, fix leaky faucets, and, my personal favorite, if you drop an ice cube on the floor put it in a plant dish instead of throwing it down the drain of the sink. While they might seem pretty mundane and small, it points to a larger shift in the hearts and minds of the students, for all of these humble actions showcase gratitude and respect—not only for water, but for the other people who might not have access to as much. By making these small changes, watering plants with dirtied ice, the kids are not only respecting the gift of water, but working to love others, even those they may never meet. If these 11 year olds think of the video we watched of the young lady who spends eight hours each day walking to get water when they turn off their shower at minute five, they are loving her from thousands of miles away, and how could that not make God smile?!
So in a nutshell I am thankful. I am thankful for the striking beauty of Montana, for the opportunity to choose love in our small, humble, but mighty actions. I am thankful for my students’ unabashed love that spurs them to action. And in a time of isolation, while our reservation is in a lockdown that can sometimes make it seem distant from the rest of the world, I am thankful for the connection to God, others, and Earth that assures me (and you!) that you will never be alone.
Regina Bettag is a third-year volunteer serving at De La Salle Blackfeet School in Browning, Montana, where she serves as a science and religion teacher. She is a graduate of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona.