Solitude and the Sound of a Falling Tree

I found myself, a married man of two weeks, living alone on  fifteen acres of waterfront property on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

I won’t waste literary breath explaining how it happened; let’s just say that there are consequences to deciding to get married within a week (let’s call it “eloping-lite”). I would say life had thrown me a curveball, but my situation seemed too bizarre for the metaphor. Maybe this was a knuckleball. No, that wouldn’t do either. It wasn’t a matter of hitting a difficult pitch; it was something else entirely.

It took me a week to find the metaphor. I was Adam, and Osprey Point was my Garden of Eden. God’s handiwork is evident here. It is good. The Spirit of God hovers over the waters. He has divided the land from the sea, filling the sea with all manner of swimming things. The sky cries out with an abundance of birds—the other day I saw a bald eagle emerge from a treeline like a phoenix and pass directly overhead at low altitude. The forests and fields are full of beasts and creeping things. Sometimes, early in the morning and around sunset, I can almost hear God walking across the grass past the weather vane behind the house.

Indeed, I imagine some writers would give up their firstborn to spend a month alone in a place that feels so unblemished. I had all the idyllic beauty creation could afford to a single person, but it came with a glaring asterisk: It is not good that the man should be alone.

One evening during this time, I walked to the end of the property, where the peninsula juts furthest out into the bay, to watch the sunset. I took a picture of an empty wooden bench with the sun setting in the background and sent it to my wife. I told her I was really glad she was out in Seattle starting grad school, but that I wished she could be here, if only for an hour or two—long enough to watch the sunset together and make love.

On principle, I don’t like mediating the world through a screen during moments of heightened beauty, so I pocketed my phone and watched the day turn to night. The water became molten gold. A lone seagull winged its way toward open water. The insects in the foliage nearby began their evening symphony in earnest.

It seemed a shame that I should be the only one here enjoying the sunset this evening. In a few minutes I would walk past an empty house to a larger house, where I would be the lone occupant among its eight bedrooms. What a waste, I thought. There is so much glory in the world—so many beautiful and sublime moments like this one right here. How often do they pass unnoticed? Much of the time. Perhaps the vast majority of the time.

In this despondency lay a devilish and logical assumption: things only take on meaning if a being is present to observe, consider, and wonder. If this is so, then most of the glory in the universe is wasted. What did the nebulae thousands of light-years away matter to the goings-on of medieval peasants? What did the billions of bioluminescent creatures of the deepest ocean trenches ever do for the ancient Greek city-states?

It’s one of those  cliché philosophical questions: If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Or, framed in my present corollary: If the sun sets with no one to see it, is it really beautiful?

As I sat alone, staring at the dim horizon, I realized the premise is flawed. I was not the only being noticing that seagull. No tree ever falls unheard. No sunset ever goes unwatched. Someone is always listening and delighting as the hills, pastures, meadows, and valleys shout and sing together for joy.

I remember learning a theological term in Sunday School class long ago: omnipresence. God is present in all places and times simultaneously. The word feels philosophical and sterile. God being there is one thing, but what about God being there and seeing, watching, and feeling? Only poetry can begin to capture this. Alone on the peninsula, I recalled ancient songs that speak of the One in whom all things live and move and have their being. The One to whom the night is as bright as day; who dwells in unapproachable light and finds nothing obscured by darkness; who finds me even if I were to ascend to the heights of heaven, descend to the depths of hell, or flee to the uttermost parts of the sea.

When mankind’s ability to give meaning by being a witness falters, when the sun sets here at Osprey Point and no one is there to see it, the divine Presence is there, running above and below it all, sustaining and enjoying an abundance of glory.

 

Photo by Lucas Pate on Unsplash

Andrew Collins
Andrew Collins is a fellow at the Trinity Fellows Academy. He enjoys reviewing movies, reading good books, writing about something other than politics, and playing ultimate Frisbee.

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