Luis Rivera, Channel 13, Orlando
It is noon before I finish my various chores, reading email and writing responses. But my body is crying out for a walk after a week of illness and doctor’s visits. Already in my gym shorts and tee-shirt, I don my knee brace, my sunglasses and my tennis shoes and off we go.
It is already pretty warm for a walk, 85°F according to the National Weather Service weather station at the Orlando Executive Airport which sits just across on the north shore of Lake Underhill and that we’re headed toward an unseasonably warm (about 10-12 degrees unseasonably) high of 87 before the day is through. Weather Underground promises that the low for tomorrow night may actually dip down into the upper 50s. But summer seems invincible today, perhaps yet another harbinger of climate change that will soon drastically alter the world in which we live.
The airport was created by dredging the swampy shores of the lake and using the fill to create the runways needed for the US war effort during WWII. The airport was the heart of the Orlando Air Base which once sprawled a couple of miles in every direction, the base lands now marked by shopping plazas, urban housing and parks like this one. Today, a toll road bridge splits the lake into two halves, the southern half ringed by a 1.6 mile walking and biking path.
This lake has long been my place of escape from the maddening world around me. Cars rush by overhead on the expressway bridge gushing gallons of carbon monoxide and soot, the occasional boat or jet ski roars on the water leaving a trail of nasty fumes and overhead the periodic jet enroute to either Orlando International or the nearby executive airport rumbles through the sky. Yet there is a serenity on this lake that defies all human efforts to desecrate this place of beauty.
I come to the lake to experience myself as part of something larger than my very limited existence. The lake never lets me down.
Down in the Hydrilla
As I begin crossing the pedestrian bridge attached to the side of the expressway bridge structure, I stop to watch the sun glinting off the rippled surface of the water. A very light breeze blows from the south where cumulus clouds hug the horizon, the rest of the sky an almost cobalt blue fall sky.
Below me, I notice that the hydrilla have begun to take over the shallow lake bottom on the lake’s western end. Hydrilla is often seen as invasive enemies by boaters due to the tendency of the weed to quickly proliferate and entangle the propellers on boat engines. A large hydrilla concentration indicates a high level of unnatural nutrients in the lake. But today the long lacy shoots are quite beautiful as they wave in the current just below the surface flowing from one of the many springs which feed this magnificent lake.
My spirit leaps to the hydrilla below, waving in the current, looking up at the glinting diamonds of sunlight on the lake surface. This is what I sometimes visualize when I am engaged in contemplative prayer, the coolness of spring fed water flowing past me and the occasional distraction overhead of ideas and feelings floating by only to be released as I return to sandy bottom.
Far too often I want to get aboard those passing boats and floating objects. There are lots of interesting ideas and feelings to engage there. But it is at the bottom, the place without words or feelings, the place where spirit is present, that I return, over and over.
I resume my walk, my torn meniscus aching slightly in my ace support covered knee even as I give thanks that I am feeling well enough to walk again after a week of illness.
Graceful Birds in Monet Settings
On the eastern end of the lake, a black anhinga sits on one of rocks piled up along the expressway bridge foundations to prevent erosion. Its blue black wings are spread to absorb the sun, drying off from a recent dive into the lake for its noontime meal. I don’t want to think too long about that. The anhinga opens its beak to allow the breeze to fill its gullet, its neck expanding and contracting like a blowfish as it gulps down the fresh air. There is something incredibly beautiful about these graceful birds and I always stop to look at them if even just for a moment to appreciate that beauty.
Across the lake, the maples, sycamores and even the cypress have taken on golden, brown tinges, the very subtle signs of autumn here in Central Florida. The lake is so still on this eastern end that the docks with their fishermen and the cypress which line the southern bank are reflected in the still water, the slight breeze able to penetrate the phalanx of apartment complexes lining Lake Underhill Drive creating an almost impressionist image a la Monet.
What a beautiful day this is, indeed.
This day would provide me with encounters of both thesis and antithesis of the spirit of St. Francis, one of the two patron saints of the religious order to which I belong (Clare being the other). My first encounter would be with the antithesis of Francis in the parking lot at the park’s eastern end.
Noise spilled out of a black Mercedes Limo Van, its motor running, diesel fumes pouring out of its rear. The door of the van was open allowing me to observe that the air conditioner was running even as the cool air was quickly escaping out the open van door. On the wall inside the van behind the driver’s compartment, a large screen television blasted commercial advertisements for consumer goods invoking the name of the veterans whose day the US celebrated yesterday. “Veterans Day special on new vans this week only….”
My heart was heavy as I walked past the van to the end of the loop of the parking lot, my turn around point. It was sad enough that this behavior serves to destroy the good creation all around us. But what was even sadder was that the human occupant of the van was completely unaware of what an incredible day he was missing. Television programs are always available. Days like today are hardly a given.
I began the homeward journey dispirited. My hands began to fill up with the plastic items I picked up along the way - plastic bottles drained of their water out of the tap which was sold as “purified,” straws and cup lids from soft drinks bought at the convenience store across the street, a pointed plastic dental floss tool tossed into the grass where children and animals play. These would all go home with me to the recycling bin. I can’t pick up all the trash at the park (and no single person should ever have to) but at least this handful of items would be returned to cycle of voracious consumption without requiring more costly and dirty fossil fuels to replace them.
Perfect Joy and an Avian Audience
As I neared the middle of the curve Lake Underhill Drive makes around the lake where the huge brick Four Square Church advertises Sunday services in three different languages across the street, I suddenly saw the counterpart of the anti-Francis. This modern day Francis, like the original Francis of the late middle ages, was homeless. His worldly goods were spread out on the blanket he sat upon next to the banged up bicycle he used for transportation.
But amidst all these reminders of his poverty, this Francis sat strumming a guitar and serenading the ducks and herons along the lake shore. As with the Prince of Fools of Assisi who used to preach to the birds, this man’s avian audience was attentive, stopping their swimming and pecking for food long enough to listen to his singing.
His song was absolutely beautiful and his face was serene. Here on the shores of an urban lakeside park, this homeless man had discovered perfect joy. And slowly the black Mercedes van - its waste of costly fossil fuels and its sooty pollution, its occupant oblivious to anything other than immediate and superficial gratification - all faded out of consciousness. For the moment, I was enraptured by the perfect joy of a modern day Francis who had found a way to let go of all of the possessions which perhaps once owned him, a man who incarnated the spirit of the poverello of Assisi.
I was nearing home now. I was beginning to drip with sweat but happy to stretch out the muscles of my legs after a week of inactivity. With the joy of my encounter with the Francis of Lake Underhill still warming my heart, I turned to spend a moment just gazing at the beauty of the lake.
It was then that I noticed the Styrofoam cups from the convenience stores and the plastic shopping bags from the nearby grocery stores bobbing in the aquatic plants just offshore. As I stop to pick up a plastic bottle top from the sidewalk, I saw several black plastic bags of dog excrement, freely provided by the city to assist dog owners in curbing their dogs, strung out all over the grass near the exercise station. The trash can where the bags are required to be deposited were a mere 20 feet away.
There are times that the earth almost screams out in agony from the treatment that its human animals inflict upon it. I have experienced that agony before. I felt it at our Lenten retreat at the nuclear testing grounds on the Shoshone Reservation west of Las Vegas where ancient people had been removed from their ancestral lands made uninhabitable by radioactivity. I felt it at the Earthworks Urban Farm run by the Capuchin Order in what is left of downtown Detroit, a place where the topsoil was so contaminated that the top 5 feet had to be scraped up and moved out before anything edible could be grown there. And on this day, in the bright sunshine of a beautiful fall day on the shores of an urban lakefront park littered with trash and excrement, I felt that agony again.
Our Mother deserves better treatment than this. And we are better people than careless and selfish behaviors like these would indicate. Francis himself reminds us of this in the Canticle of the Sun,:
May you be praised through all your creatures, especially through Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us
And may you be praised through those who forgive for love of you
Francis taught his followers to be grateful for and respectful of the good creation which we have been given in trust for all living beings. He taught us to be forgiving of the failings of our brothers and sisters as we, too, need to be forgiven. And he taught us to live in a manner by which our lives manifest praise of the good creation we have been given to love and to learn from and the Creator which lies within, beneath and beyond that Creation.
I am grateful to the lake for these reflections this day. Even as my heart grieves for the harm done to our earth this day, I am grateful for the joy I have encountered in this little corner of the good creation. I offer my reflection from this encounter that others may consider their own relationships with "this fragile Earth, our island home." (BCP, 1979. Eucharistic Prayer C)
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
“Here on the shores of an urban lakeside park, this homeless man had discovered perfect joy. And slowly the black Mercedes van - its waste of costly fossil fuels and its sooty pollution, its occupant oblivious to anything other than immediate and superficial gratification - all faded out of consciousness. For the moment, I was enraptured by the perfect joy of a modern day Francis who had found a way to let go of all of the possessions which perhaps once owned him, a man who incarnated the spirit of the poverello of Assisi.”
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