Acknowledging the Nature of Community

Community and a strong sense of togetherness are what stand out most when I think about what it means to be a Quaker. I invite Friends everywhere to remember the need to include our other-than-human members in our definition of community. How do we go about doing this? Allow me to illustrate by sharing some of my experiences interacting with natural elements in my environment.

Community, in the Quaker sense of the word, involves unity with the Divine Spirit. I feel it is possible to find that unity when we incorporate other-than-human members into our communities. These members offer us divine messages if we take the time to be with and hear them.

My husband, Tom, and I enjoy membership in the Ward’s Creek marsh community in eastern North Carolina. We live here among the green anole lizards, emerald green snakes, green tree frogs, orb weaver and green garden spiders, jumping mullets, and menhaden. There are also blue and fiddler crabs, river otters, marsh rabbits, crows, red-winged blackbirds, clapper rails, marsh wrens, northern harriers, whistling swans, periwinkle snails, marsh mosquitoes, deer flies, praying mantises, dragonflies, and monarch and swallowtail butterflies. Such plants as the marsh pinks, marsh mallows, morning glories, green marsh grass, black needle rush, long leaf pines, and swamp magnolias keep company with us as well. Other members of our community are the tidal creek that flows in two directions, the marsh muck, and the wind and cloud tapestries. Celestial members include the sun, stars, our moon, and the planets.

Community outreach is vital to the life and growth of any community. Getting to know other community members is important. This might happen through conversation in work or play activities, or it could mean simply being, observing, and listening. In this way, we learn how other members live, what activities are important to them, and what their needs might be, so we can consider them as we make decisions. For example, in taking time to "just be," to breathe, and to observe the community activity around us, I have noticed how important dead trees are to the birds of our community. Woodpeckers nest in them while other birds make use of abandoned woodpecker holes. In the early spring, the red-winged blackbirds seem to prefer dead trees for their evening gatherings. Early on winter mornings, we have observed great blue herons sunning on dead branches, places clear of foliage with room to land their large frames.

Community outreach can be very simple. Canoeing or taking a walk are ways to get to know some of our neighbors. Sitting on the dock observing, finding a sunny spot to relax and "be," or watching and listening to all the activity around us all add to our own growth—just as making a five-minute phone call, writing a postcard to let someone know we care, greeting or smiling at people we pass on the street can all be effective ways to reach out to others. Community outreach helps us learn that the teachings and gifts others have to offer are splendid and varied, each one unique. It is true that some of these teachings may not be what we want to hear. Nonetheless, receiving the teachings allows us to grow and stretch, painful as that may be sometimes.

The messages and teachings I have received through these other-than-human members of the community feel like divine messages to me that come from the Spirit that flows through all life forms. One of the teachings I have received has come from the trees. I have learned about flexibility from the tall ones. Many times I have watched the trees travel miles—back and forth, during a storm. Trees have a tremendous ability to flex and stretch to accommodate the energy of the wind. If I can learn flexibility from the trees, maybe I can learn to allow my body, mind, and spirit to flex with divine energy so that I may better understand different points of view.

Another lesson I am reminded of in the spring is of the impermanence of all life. Every April, along with the Chuck-will’s-widows, little irises appear in the forest that borders the marsh. The very ephemeral presence of the dwarf irises brightens the forest floor. They create images of deep, dark, rich purples with yellow-orange centers and curving clusters of petals against crisscross patterns of brown pine straw. Slender green leaves shoot up to heights of four to five inches in their journey to the sky. They tell us of the rhythms of the Earth, of the seasons as they ebb and flow; a regular rhythm like the heartbeat of Mother Earth. This is a rhythm in which we humans are an integral part. We are not separate from it.

I have learned that my teachers come in many shapes and sizes. I just never know when the next stranger I meet, human or nonhuman, might teach me something. Sometimes these teachers make a brief appearance; they join us for a short time and then leave to connect with a different community somewhere else. We may never see or hear from them again. However, I still consider them to be members of our community.

One visiting member who made a brief appearance was an immature bald eagle. One May morning, I walked out to the dock to greet the day. As I walked, I looked ahead to see if any herons, kingfishers, or pelicans were using the dock. Suddenly, a huge feathered form soared into my field of vision. It landed in plain view on a dead branch in the top of a pine. Two herons also watched the arrival of this bird from a nearby dead pine tree. They decided it was time to lift off, and away they flew. I took a chance that this new feathered friend would stay awhile and went to fetch Tom and a telescope. We returned to the bird, whose alert eyes were watching our every move. The sharp, hooked bill was easy to see. The sheer size and color of this dark, feathered bird led us to identify it as an immature bald eagle. This species teaches us about attaining a point of view high above, about stepping back and seeing the whole picture clearly. For a brief moment, our lives touched. The memory of the eagle is now woven into our lives in the marsh community.

Our inner and outer lives connect to the Divine through relationships with ourselves and others, both human and other-than-human. An oak tree puts down a strong taproot deep into the Earth, firmly grounding itself. Cultivating our relationship with the Spirit, we nurture our own taproot. An oak tree also puts out horizontal support roots for balance. We in Quaker communities also need the support of our relationships with others to help maintain our balance and interconnectedness: our horizontal roots.

Two aspects of Quaker community that I treasure are stillness and silence. As Caroline Balderston Parry points out in "Heron Reflections" (Friends Journal, March 2001), great blue herons are masters of stillness, silence, and patience. A heron in her "stillness merges into a timeless now." She lives in the present moment, aware of fish, water, mud bank, and wind. She may cock her slanting head, move a step or two forward, lift a foot slowly, or turn to face a new direction. But she always returns to "watchful stillness." In her patience, the heron endures long periods of time without movement or sound: heron stillness. I am constantly reminded of this whenever the herons speak out. This reminds me of their presence and that they have mastered stillness, silence, and patience, and that I can, too. Perhaps if I allowed more stillness into my life, I would find there is more peace within and around me, and I just might find more patience too.

Living in the marsh community and being active in a Quaker faith community have allowed me to cultivate a sense of belonging. Fourteen years observing our moon, as it rises and sets in the marsh community, have taught me that I am home in a place where I am comfortable and relaxed. I have noticed that our moon doesn’t come up or set in the same place each time. Just as the sun has a path to follow that changes with the seasons, so does our moon. This has helped me to know my community better and has given me a sense of home and of belonging. My sense of belonging to our Quaker worship group is very similar, for it is a place where I feel comfortable, relaxed, and accepted. I am familiar with the movements of its members. It is also a place where I can share some of the teachings of the marsh community.

The moon, a member of our community in the sky, is intimately connected to the rhythms of the tidal creek and all who abide there. The pull of our moon’s gravity, combined with the gravity of the sun and the rotating motion of the Earth, create the ebb and flow and the high and low in the changing of the tides. It is a good rhythm to live by. Watching and anticipating the rise of the full moon over the marsh is an exciting event.

So many "moon moments" have been memorable and stunning. One winter we had experienced four to five days and nights of cloud-filled skies. Early one morning, around 2 a.m., I woke up to find a bright light streaming in through the upstairs window. When I’d gone to sleep the night before, the sky had been thick and muddy with clouds rolling across it. I peered out the window and saw a three-quarter moon about to set. I was so moved that I decided to stay up and watch the moon go down, and see its beautiful reflected light.

That same winter, Tom and I were hanging laundry on the line just past twilight as darkness set in. For some reason we turned, looking back over our shoulders, to the east. We gasped at the sight. There was a full moon, round and crisply peeking over the tree horizon. We watched as it took its own moon time to break free of the trees, floating up into the night sky—another "moon moment" we shall not forget. Then, too, there is the joy I feel in seeing a new crescent moon just coming in, or the last crescent as it goes out. Twilight sky in winter, with the crescent moon setting by the ever-brilliant Venus, is something I never tire of experiencing. I have never lived anywhere else where our moon is such a magical part of my life.

One final teaching I would like to share has also come to me by way of our moon. The light and dark phases of our moon remind me of the rule of opposites, the tensions in community life that help us to grow in spirit and in wholeness. These are the challenges of living with others, both humans and other-than- humans, like the biting flies and the mosquitoes. I try to remember that opposites are really two sides of the same thing and somewhere in the middle, opposites meet. Light and dark halves of the moon exist but, as Carolyn R. Shaffer and Kristin Anundsen write in Creating Community Anywhere, "We have only one moon and it is round."

The teachings of the trees, irises, bald eagle, great blue herons, and our moon are just a few of many teachings I have experienced. My membership in the marsh community has deepened my unity with the Divine Spirit, and my communion and connectedness to my fellow humans, all the other-than-human life forms, and the celestial members that everyone experiences no matter where they happen to be.

No one community member speaks the entire truth. We need to hear the truth of the trees, flowers, birds, insects, and other members if we are to realize our interconnectedness. I understand that not everyone is a member of a marsh community. However, there are different types of communities on our planet: forest communities, desert communities, roadside communities, suburban communities, city communities (it is possible to connect with other-than-human members there, too), river communities; you get the idea. I invite Friends, wherever we find ourselves, to allow the other-than- human members into our definition of community; you will be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

Nan Bowles

Nan Bowles, a member of Des Moines Valley Meeting in Iowa, attends Beaufort (N.C.) Worship Group. She is working on the manuscript of a book, Golden Thread Time: A Window into the Marsh Way of Community Life, which is an expanded version of this article.