Back in college, I had the great fortune to attend a seminar taught by Dr. Maya Angelou. On the first day, each of the twenty-five students was asked to stand up and give his or her name. Nothing unusual about that. Then Dr. Angelou called on some poor soul to introduce every classmate, on the spot. She called on another. And another. Minds racing, we stared at each other in bewilderment, wondering what was the point of this inane exercise.
After all twenty-five of us had a turn, Dr. Angelou said something that is still with me more than twenty years later: There is no greater gift you can give another human being than to recognize their identity.
We sat in stunned silence, letting her words sink in. It’s why, to this day, I go out of my way to remember names.
At last weekend’s Nowhere Else Festival, Linford Detweiler of the band Over the Rhine showed how the same lesson applies to the natural world.
“Once we learned the names of things [in nature], our relationship changed. They began to appear in our songs, as a sign of mutual respect.”
Linford and his wife Karin Bergquist, the band’s main vocalist, left the big city for rural Ohio more than ten years ago and began returning a small piece of farmland to its natural state — learning to identify and encourage native wildflowers, grasses, and trees.
Now they’ve turned their focus to restoring the human community.
They’ve purchased a 140-year-old barn and have begun transforming it into a performing arts center. The festival was a fundraiser to support their efforts, and, as longtime fans, Brad and I were all in.
As one of the Sunday morning workshops, Linford led about fifty of us on a Wild Edges Walk along their property. It’s not often someone shares their heart and home so openly with complete strangers, and I wanted to pass on some of the thoughts that came out of the hike.
- A lone tupelo on the property has revealed itself to Karin to be one of the thin places — a space where the veil between the seen and unseen is lifted. Signals come to her at this tree, including one that led to the song “Meet Me at the Edge of the World.” Imagining that spot in the early morning half-light as the dawn chorus begins to sing, I can see why.
- “We tend to walk to the edge of a cliff and jump, and build wings on the way down,” Linford said about their approach to both music and life. The idea of edges is a frequent one in their conversation and song. Reminds me of the significance poet and philosopher John O’Donohue gave to thresholds — frontiers dividing the stages of life that can only be crossed if the heart is awake and engaged. It was reassuring to see their courage rewarded in the restored grassy meadows and in the reclaimed wood of the barn.
Bluebird boxes are scattered throughout the farm, and the first came from Linford’s father, who passed away about eight years ago. For a long time, the original stayed in the house as a piece of art, until he realized it would serve his father’s memory better being used by something wild and beautiful. His father’s gift has made a haven for generations of nesting bluebirds, so they can keep on carrying the sky on their backs.
- The word of the day was psithurism — the sound of wind through the trees. There were plenty of accommodating trees, including white pine, Norwegian spruce, Ohio buckeye, red maple, and black cherry. The cherry alone attracts 40 different species of birds, and those birds are helping to reforest the farm. As Linford said, “If you leave Ohio alone, it will transform itself back into woods.”
Thanks again, Karin and Linford, for sharing a little kickass beauty with us. We’ll be back next year.