Russian Coffee, Opal, and Sticks

I think most boys are pagans. I was, despite being a preacher’s kid. Although our family went to church twice on Sunday and to Wednesday “prayer meeting”, I could barely wait to get out of Sunday clothes and into my jeans and tee shirt—my pagan vestments.

I, of course, was not making sacrifices to Zeus. The only altar I had been to was the one in the old sanctuary at Walla Walla First Church of the Nazarene. I do not remember much about the evening service when I decided to follow Jesus and “let Him into my heart”. I remember not wanting to go to hell—but not in any frightened way. I was more afraid, I think, of the evangelist’s enormous eyebrows which rose and fell like judgment day. I was nine and not particularly introspective, but it was obvious to me, and probably everyone, that I needed a Savior. I am glad I knelt at that altar and have been kneeling ever since.  

But in many ways, I remained a pagan.  My worship was climbing sycamore trees, catching snakes with Kirby at the Walla Walla River, building forts, and playing war until dark. I have not been good at much, but I was good at being a boy. I was a happy heathen who loved all things natural and wild. Lacing up my sneakers on the first day of summer was my pagan festival.

There were a few of what I call “golden moments” of pagan bliss. Once after a long summer day playing with Kirby at an abandoned mill site with a pond and irrigation ditches, I sat alone on plank over a ditch. Kirby had headed home. My bare feet swung slowly in the water; overhead hung the sweet and heavy blossoms of a black locust tree. The fragrance, the cool water, and the golden light of a setting sun quietly overwhelmed me. I decided to never forget the moment. I have no religious or secular language to explain the experience. I need none.  

I was blessed to be the youngest of three boys, and thus benefited from my parents’ benign neglect. They let me wander the streets, creeks, hills, and river around Milton-Freewater. It helped that my best friend, Kirby, was at home in nature. We spent hours catching crawdads in irrigation ditches. At the river we looked under logs for shiny black salamanders with yellow spots. I had a free-range boyhood.

I did not bother to see any spiritual or moral lessons in nature. If, as Wordsworth argued, nature is God’s book, I wasn’t reading yet. I was pagan in the sense of loving nature for itself. I loved the sunlight filtering through the sycamore trees more than the light pouring through stained glass. I loved the green, glassy smoothness of the opal Kirby and I dug out of the hillside that overlooked the town. It, of course, wasn’t really opal—but that was what we called it. My joy was noble hedonism. I loved summers– sun on my skin and the ratcheting call of a kingfisher shooting low over the river.

As a boy, I did not connect my love of nature with a creator who after making all things, saw that it was good, “very good”. But I certainly agreed that all things were good. For a while, I had a mayonnaise jar with a pet black-widow. I regretted punching air holes in the jar after I saw the empty egg case and tiny baby spiders spilling out the top. Like the Coleridge’s ancient mariner, I blessed all things, even the “slimy things [that] did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea.”

Recently I have run across remnants of my paganism. Teckla and I have been slowly sorting through everything as we get ready to move back to the Midwest where my sons and other grandchildren live. The necessary sorting, and the discarding, is tedious and sometimes painful. Especially puzzling are the items best described as talismans: things potent, precious, and useless.

I have, for instance, a can of Russian coffee that I found as a teenager while hiking the beach south of Bandon. There is magic and mystery in the can’s Cyrillic letters. The coffee was still dry inside, so I think it must have fallen off Russian fishing boat off the coast of Oregon. I happily imagined Russian fishermen laughing and drinking coffee. It also reminds of happy hours wasted beach combing.

I still have a couple pieces of the green “opal” Kirby and I dug up. He too, I recently discovered, has kept a piece. The stones are still potent sixty years later. I even have the green canvas “army bag” in which we hauled away our treasure.  I will take both to Kansas City.

I have a small wooden folding stool. It is the last of a set of camping stools my parents had. It summons for me the magic of sitting with my family around a campfire at Cape Perpetua, listening to the creek that tumbled over the rocks in the darkness. The stool is branded with the burns of roasting forks we used to poke the fire.  

I also have hiking sticks. I have one from Kansas City made of hawthorn cut near the Blue River, the first place I hiked with Peter. I have one made of Sitka spruce from the tree near Cape Perpetua where three generations of Wilsons have camped. Two of my sticks are from Euphoria Ridge—one Oregon crab apple and the other madrone. And then there are the sticks I cut for my boys when we camped—with the date and their initials carved into each. No one needs this many walking sticks and none have the powers of Gandalf’s staff.

These talismans are perhaps remnants of my paganism, but they are more.  Each testifies to a life blessed by God—a life full of evenings by a campfire, summers in Milton-Freewater, hours wandering Oregon beaches, and long hikes through coastal woods and meadows. It is all good because God is good.

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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