This weekend I drove up to Decorah, Iowa to visit friends and conduct some business on art and writing with former professors at Luther College. The weather was pleasantly gray in that Decorah way, often threatening rain. That only gave the wonderful bluffs of the Upper Iowa river valley a craggy cast, which I love.
Saturday morning, I ran with a former teammate through some pine and cedar woods. As we trod quietly on pine needle paths, he recalled some stories of our competitive past that I had not heard before. When he and my freshman year roommate were leading the conference meet our junior year, they’d broken free by twenty yards when one turned to the other and said, “Kinda crowded.”
“Let’s go at the next turn,” came the reply.
They went on to finish hand in hand for a first place win.
After the morning run I drove into the hills north of Decorah to take reference photos for a new round of paintings. This year I produced an art exhibition titled Road Trip that celebrates the collected memories gained from going on a road trip. I know the roads around Decorah pretty well from having run on them for so many miles and so many years. But for new content I trusted a phone app to show me new roads, and I wandered afield with no plan and camera in hand.
The topography of Decorah is part of the area they call the Driftless Region. The glaciers that flattened much of the upper Midwest never reached the swath of southwest Wisconsin and Northeast Iowa. That means there are still tall chimney bluffs of well-layered limestone, but evidence of that oceanic origin seems to spill from every hillside.
In the current era, the Upper Iowa River curls and turns through this landscape, a treat for paddlers of many kinds. But this was a big water year and several paddlers had to be pulled from the river when underwater snags caught their craft. One kayaker met her death when the river caught her craft and trapped her upside down.
The old metal bridges that still connect the roads across the Upper Iowa are being replaced, one by one, as they age beyond their useful years. The structures that remain take on elegaic stature as they reach from white road to white road in the back country.
There’s always been a haunting quality to the place in all the years I’ve known it. It’s like the hills want to whisper something to you about your own mortality. I felt it even as a young man. When the drumming of ruffed grouse echoed off the hillsides in spring, it always felt like it was coming from inside your own head.
These days one is more likely to find wild turkey than grouse in the woods. I’d photographed a pair just east of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin on my way north. They are eternal-looking beasts and evolutionary evidence that dinosaurs never completely died out.
On the way back home Sunday morning, I left early when a spitting rainstorm was locked over the Mississippi Valley. The roads were shiny and the skies took forever to lighten. As the road turned south from Effigy Mounds National Monument, I stopped the car to pick up two giant chunks of sandstone that had fallen off the face of the bluffs lining the west side of the road. I’d seen them on my way up to Decorah and vowed to stop and pick them up on the way home.
But I know that they don’t hold up forever under the force of rain and heat when left out in the elements. I’d picked up a large chunk before and brought it home to my woodland garden where it proceeded to split and disassemble. Sandstone is not as durable as limestone, which comprises so much of the bedrock of the Midwest. But I still love the stuff just as I love to look at the layers of those chimney bluffs in Decorah. All those layers of sediment laid down by ancient seas were carved away as the oceans receded. Now they stand as a testament to time and the changing face of the earth.
Flood of lies
Some like to claim all that limestone and sandstone was laid down by the ancient flood recorded in the Bible. Those claims are an ardent and long-term struggle to control knowledge about the world and confine it to a manageable, preferably creationist ideology. But the earth knows better. It cares not whether someone projects brevity and sudden calamity on its surface. The earth is both patient and brutally wise about its origins, and it never, ever quits. We see evidence of the processes that drive all this from plate tectonics to volcanism. We brand the seemingly fix facets of the earth’s structure geology, but that’s even a limiting term. The earth is both continually creative and dismissive, even consuming itself as ocean floor subducts into magma. The earth is beset by its own elements and also adrift in the vastness of space, which cares not whether it exists.
Religious zealots with a literal take on the Bible seek to explain away earth’s evolving predicament by granting it special status amongst the billions of stars and planets. I don’t feel the need for such reductionism. The God exists in the realm of love, and that brings it all home for me.
Crags and features
Yet it feels somehow significant to stand in the murk of dawn at the base of a massive cliff towering hundreds of feet over your head. After forty years I’ll admit that I echo its craggy features in my own aging face. I have driven past those limestone bluffs in various states of confidence or anxiety all those years. I have also climbed on top of those hills trying to find significance in the valleys below. Such are the heights and depths of our years.
Ups and downs
Yet these cycles, for all their ups and downs, have also always made me feel real and alive. Those are my rock-hard values, seeking to live each day with truth and solidity in the best way I can. Yet I also allow for the reality of sandstone, that far more fragile substance that was also laid down by ancient seas. It has never really changed much in actual substance, yet it is the most temporal of all substances. It was sand then, and it is sandy now. It is the dust-to-dust evidence that the Bible draws truth from the earth, and that even things that seem eternal are forever capable of change.
New heaven and new earth
This also applies to the notion that we’ll get an all-new material world when Jesus comes back. That belief entirely misses the foundational truth of scripture. For example, when Jesus told the religious authorities that he would “tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days,” (John 2:19) they were aghast at the literal notion. But that was their mistake. The temple of which Jesus spoke was not a material concept at all.
The same goes for the new heaven and new earth promised in the Book of Revelation and other prophetic references in the Bible. God does not need to literally destroy the world or even conduct a literal worldwide flood to get the message of spiritual repentance across. Clinging to those literal notions only erodes the greater spiritual message of love over law. It also erases the value of discernment over the brand of stiff-necked orthodoxy that craves material and political power. That’s the ironic product of literalism and legalism that both John the Baptist and Jesus branded hypocritical and corrupt.
Rock solid values actually allow for the existence of sandstone and the perpetual change of material reality. And yes, evolution fits in that worldview too. All these changes that take place in our world and our universe are not just real, but necessary to reflect the reality of free will.
Surrounding it all, there is Dark Matter, the invisible substance that outlines our existence. I’ll take that as belief in evidence, and evidence of belief.