In 1971 Holden Village became one of my favorite places on the planet.
I came here for the summer as volunteer staff after my sophomore year in college. I worked in several areas; met amazing people; including that cute super-maverick Dick, wearing one of Elaine Harrison’s pink tie-dyed tee-shirts, and to whom I have now been married for 42 years; had my faith enriched; prowled around the old mine structures; and soaked in the beauty of this place.
But it was even more than that.
You see, rock sings to me.
Rock sings its story of deep time in its colors, its layers, its crystal structure, and more, but sing a story it does, and I don’t need the words to appreciate it. From a scientific perspective the rock and I are sisters, after all, made of the same stuff, the same particles, as much as the rest of the visible universe.
Rudy Edmund, a Holden Village saint, wrote about the formation of this valley in several publications. I have summarized a section of his little booklet “The Mine” in order to introduce this patch of Creation, this landscape, for you.
The Railroad Creek Valley story is assumed to have started about 500 million years ago, when the original basement rock was deposited as marine sandstones, limestones, and shales. That means, what is now Railroad Creek Valley was under the ocean. Those sediments were deformed, folded, uplifted and intruded by molten rock from far below, then eroded to a point that sunk them below sea level and younger sediments. Less than 15 million years ago there occurred more mountain building, more intrusions of magma that again raised those old sediments up into mountains, then more erosion. A million years ago more uplifting and faulting. Crustal adjustment is still occurring.
Erosion developed sharp V-shaped stream valleys in the exposed crystalline rocks of these North Cascades. Within the last 500,000 years or so glaciers formed, advanced, and melted back three or four times. The moving glaciers gouged out bowl-like basins and changed the V-shaped valleys to steep-sided U-shaped valleys. Railroad Creek Valley contained a glacier which fed into the ice mass moving through the Lake Chelan trough. Forests filled the valley in the warm periods between the glacial advances.
About 10,000 years ago the last glacier melted out of the area, leaving both sorted and unsorted deposits – you can see piles of this glacial till, which looks like brown dirt filled with rocks of different sizes, in several places along the switchbacks on the road up. About 6000 years ago Glacier Peak erupted, spewing volcanic ash and pumice all over the region, depositing several inches of stuff over the Holden Village area.
So fast forward to Kathy arriving here in 1971, not knowing the stony lyrics exactly but hearing the tune. Of course at the end of the summer I felt it necessary to carry a number of my new rock sisters home with me…others knew of my love for these rocks and when on my last day John O’Neal picked up my suitcase on the loading dock, without even looking at the name tag, he bellowed- “Kathy Burtness, you carry your own suitcase!
Since then I have been back numerous times, brought my children, taught here, and now serve on the Board. Railroad Creek Valley remains one of my favorite places on the planet, and it still sings to me.
I have recently discovered an additional favorite place on the planet.
It is Western Ireland.
Dick and I wanted to go there for our twentieth wedding anniversary. We finally made it for our thirty-eighth.
Oh, what a world of rock and bog! Did I mention I also love bogs? A whole world of rock and bog! Particularly the region of Connemara, and the Burren landscape in County Clare, are the stuff of dreams for me. The Burren is a wide region of limestone pavements, fractured and eroded so the limestone slabs, the “clints”, are gridded with deep cracks called “grykes” that are filled with rare and beautiful plant life. The area was once dense forest, as was all of Ireland, but glaciers and human activity have bared the stone completely for many square miles. Different bedrock geologies in Connemara and the Burren, and each amazing in its own right. More song, more being spoken by these ancient stones. More mystery, more haunting lyrics. We keep returning.
Now here’s where some cool synchronicities come in.
Last August, as a member of the search committee for the Executive Director position at Holden Village, I saw a quotation on a card that had been made by one set of potential candidates. That set of candidates sits in the Director’s office at Holden now. The quotation, which rocked my world, was written by John O’Donohue, whom I had never heard of. Last September when Dick and I were in the Burren, our friend and driver Tony McGann asked us as we were driving from Doolin to Blackhead, “Do ye know Father O’Donohue?” Amazed, I responded, “Yes! We just bought four of his books in Connemara!” “Well, his gravesite is right up here, would ye like to stop?”
Of course we did. It was a simple and profoundly moving grave in a simple graveyard. Tony told us how the whole region still mourned his sudden passing in 2008, at the age of 52. Father O’Donohue had often sat in Tony’s pub in Doolin and shared laughter and stories along with a pint and a cigar. He had a doctorate on Hegel and a post-doctorate dissertation on Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, both degrees from Tubingen University in Germany, but he remained the beloved parish priest, philosopher and author, neighbor and friend, who had lived most of his life in both the mountains of Connemara and the Burren of County Clare. He had felt a deep, deep connection with the stony landscape that he had grown up surrounded by, and in his writings put voice to some of the things I have long felt but lacked the ability to articulate. One of O’Donohue’s favorite words is “clay” – and he uses it as I use the word particles, meaning the earth stuff that makes up all things. I share some of his thoughts as recorded in “Walking On the Pastures of Wonder.” As you read, think not only of his native Ireland, but of course, of the Railroad Creek Valley we find ourselves a part of.
“I love mountains. I feel that mountains are huge contemplatives. They are there and they are in the presence up to their necks and they are still in it and with it and within it. One of the lovely ways to pray is to take your body out into the landscape and to be still in it. Your body is made out of clay, so your body is actually a miniature landscape that has got up from under the earth and is now walking on the normal landscape. If you go out for several hours into a place that is wild, your mind begins to slow down, down, down. What is happening is that the clay of your body is retrieving its own sense of sisterhood with the great clay of the landscape…
“So I think landscape is an incredible, mystical teacher, and when you begin to tune into its sacred presence, something shifts inside you. One of the lovely developments in consciousness as we come towards the end of the millennium is this dawning recognition that we are guests of the universe, and that landscape was the first-born of creation and was here hundreds of millions of years before us. It knows what is actually going on. To put it in a theological way, I feel that landscape is always at prayer, and its prayer is seamless. It is always enfolded in the presence. It is a high work of imagination, because there is no repetition in a landscape. Every stone, every tree, every field is a different place. When your eye begins to become attentive to this panorama of differentiation, then you realize what a privilege it is to actually be here.”
O’Donohue continues: “Landscape has a huge, pre-human memory. It precedes everything that we know. I often think that you could talk almost of a ‘clay-ography’: the whole biography of the earth. Everything depends of course on whether you think landscape is dead matter or whether you think it is a living presence.
“I think there is life in these rocks and in these great mountains around about us, and because there is life, there is memory. The more you live among mountains like this, the more aware you become of the cadences of the place and the subtlety of the place, its presence and personality...
“I believe that we are made out of clay, that in some sense that memory is within our clay as well...”
So the quotation that first introduced me to John O’Donohue, that made me gasp with synchronous recognition, is this:
“The ancient rhythms of the Earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows.”
Isaiah 55:12: "For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
And a blessing from Father John O’Donohue:
“May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.”