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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: Book of Nature

it’s the-light-will-save-you season

it wafts in, gold dust, falls in rivulets across the table, broad swaths and shafts through the windowpanes. it’s molasses light, the amber season, the light of autumn coming that just might save me. it holds alchemical powers, makes my heart quicken, might even push out the walls of my veins a wee bit. i imagine it expands the little red blood cells ferrying molecules of oxygen all around my labyrinthine insides. it makes me more alive than any other season’s sunlight. and it’s coming day by day.

the sun is slipping is how we put it. but, really, that’s not the science. that’s the egocentric way we humans always try to think: putting ourselves in the core of the equation. really, it’s just plain old geometry, all about the angles of earth to sun, and axis to angle. we’re spinning at our cockeyed angle, and come autumn, when we’re leaning out from the sun, the angle shrinks from summer’s straight-on-from-on-high 90-degrees to the slenderer 23.5 degrees, meaning the sun no longer shines straight down in an intense tight cone, but rather the light’s diffuse, the shadow longer. the sun––should you imagine it as a flashlight shining on a table (should you care to do a bit of third-grade science, here)––is not shining from straight above, but now (imagine moving your hand and the flashlight lower in an imaginary arc) it’s shining from off to the side, and the light cast is, per our hypothesis, less intense, more spread out, and––here’s the magic, if we’re talking earth and not flashlights and tables––more golden.

dylan thomas said we should “rage against the dying light.” mary oliver called it “the old gold song of the almost finished year.” i call it molasses light. and i won’t rage against it. i will all but gulp it down. heck, i’d lick it off the table like an autumn lollipop if i didn’t know how impolite that was.

it’s the-light-will-save-you-season, and it’s saving me.

it comes with its cousin, tinge-in-the-air. or at least it does here where i live, not far from the shoreline of that great lake michigan. as one long summer sings it’s almost-finished song, i will relish the next one on the song list: the song of autumn’s gold, with a chaser of goosebumps-in-the-morning air…


commonplace corner: i tend to read in tandem, two books at once; sometimes more. and it’s magic when one book finds itself in conversation with another, unbeknownst to all of us till we stumble on the paragraphs that talk to each other. that happened this week when the subject was how we learn to tell stories. and it’s making me think hard and long about the places in my life where i learned what it meant to sit at a table and be transfixed by the ones from whom the words were pouring, the one with the magical capacity to make a whole room laugh at the very same moment, as if a giant feather had just tickled all our funny bones. at once. how miraculous is that, to make a whole room laugh? to make a whole room cry? to make a whole room think? i can’t think of anything more magical. maybe other than making someone walk who’d never walked before.

here are two sumptuous paragraphs that made me think this week. one’s from erskine caldwell, an american novelist and short story writer whose father was a home missionary at the turn of the last century who moved from place to place in the clay hills of georgia, so young erskine absorbed the dialect and wisdoms of the impoverished sharecroppers where his papa preached. the other’s from kerri ní dochartaigh, a breath-taking writer born on the border of the north and south of Ireland, whose recent memoir, thin places: a natural history of healing and home (pointed to me by beloved chair sister sharon b.) seems to be taking the writerly world by storm. deservedly so. she too has written a sumptuous paragraph about the storytellers in her life. maybe they’ll make you think about the story spinners in your own sweet life…

Erskine Caldwell

I was not a writer to begin with; I was a listener. In those early decades of the century, reading and writing were not common experiences. Oral storytelling was the basis of fiction. You learned by listening around the store, around the gin, the icehouse, the wood yard, or wherever people congregated and had nothing to do. You would listen for the extraordinary, the unusual; the people knew how to tell stories orally in such a way that they could make the smallest incident, the most far-fetched idea, into something extraordinarily interesting. It could be just a rooster crowing at a certain time of night or morning. It’s a mysterious thing. Many Southern writers must have learned the art of storytelling from listening to oral tales. I did. It gave me the knowledge that the simplest incident can make a story.

from Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home by Kerri ní Dochartaigh

My grandfather was born in the same week as the Irish border. He was a storyteller, and his most affecting tales, the ones he gave me that have shaped my life, were about place, about how we relate to it, to ourselves, and to one another. Good seanchaidhthe––storytellers––never really tell you anything, though. They set the fire in the hearth, they draw the chairs in close; they shut all the windows so the old lore doesn’t fall on the wrong ears. They fill the room with a sense of ease, a sense of all being as it should be. The words, when they spill quietly out of the mouth of the one who has been entrusted with them, dance in the space, at one with the flames of the fire. It is, as always, up to those who listen to do with them what they will. 


“‘Consider the lilies,’” Emily Dickinson said, “is the only commandment I ever obeyed.” Some days, that one is enough. More than enough.


and finally in this week’s version of the chair gazette, a celebration this week of shifting sunlight and words that awaken us, i need to leave one last bit. some but hardly all of you play on the various social media playgrounds — facebook or instagram (i try to do little of either) — and my job as a person with a book in the publishing chute is to tell the world it’s coming (which i intend to do as quietly as my publisher allows). and this week the marketing folks at broadleaf books sent me my “blurbs,” those words of kindness that early reviewers send along. because i promised those marketing wizards that “the chair” would always be my core people, i need to quietly leave those blurbs here to keep up my end of the promise. if you’ve seen ’em in a little post i left on facebook, well then apologies. if not (and my mother counts among those who’ve not seen them elsewhere) here’s the lineup that frankly broke me out in goosebumps. the kindness of these five, all of whom are heroes of mine, pretty much made the last two years worth it….

some heart-melting kindnesses from early reviewers of The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text

“Regardless of where one’s spirituality (or lack of it) may lie, Barbara Mahany’s The Book of Nature is a deeply rich celebration of the ageless overlap between religion and the many faces of the natural world—the ‘Book of Nature’ to which mystics, monks, and others have turned for insight into the sacred. Best of all, this thought-provoking exploration is wrapped in Mahany’s luscious and luminous writing, which makes every page a delight.” 
—Scott Weidensaul, author of A World on the Wing

“Attention is among the deepest forms of integrity. In The Book of Nature, Barbara Mahany pays attention. She doesn’t look through nature; she looks at nature and, there, sees the mysteries that make and unmake us. In an age of environmental threat and neglect, Barbara Mahany’s book is a theological, poetic, and devoted plea for attention to our most fundamental constitution: matter—and everything that comes from it, including us.”
—Pádraig Ó Tuama, host of Poetry Unbound from On Being Studios

The Book of Nature is an invitation to step into the newness of each day: sunrise, garden, forest, waters, nightfall. These pages reflect both awe and heartbreak, a pause when our world feels on fire and the climate crisis calls us to collective lament, communion, and action.”
—Mallory McDuff, author of Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories, and 50 Women United for Climate Justice

“Following in and deepening the footsteps of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, Barbara Mahany’s The Book of Nature invites you to engage with nature as the body of God: to know that all life is the happening of a nondual Aliveness  called by many names. Calling to a humanity drunk on transcendence and desperate to escape from Nature and our responsibility to Her, The Book of Nature reveals the sobering immanence of God as the Source and Substance of all reality.” 
—Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of Judaism Without Tribalism

“Lovely and smart reflections—the perfect book to slip into a rucksack on a day you’re planning a wander through the larger world!”
—Bill McKibben, author The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon

and that, dear friends, is that. page proofs are due tuesday, so i’ll be back–perhaps–to more regular chairs, less gazette (though it’s been deliciously fun to assemble morsels every week) and more single-subject essay.

but in the meantime, spill your thoughts about autumn sunlight, storytellers, or words that’ve stirred you this week as we move into golden time….the season of the light that just might save you….

still plowing…

please excuse the interruption in regular programming here at the chair, i’m barreling toward the latest installment in the Deadline Plan, this one poured in concrete, i’m told. i rounded the bend on the penultimate deadline last sunday, and awaited the first batch of edits, which landed tuesday midday. now awaiting batches two, three, and possibly four. all destined to drop––impeccably and with my whole heart attached––on the editor’s desk by end of business on monday.

if you ever wondered how a book becomes a book, here’s how in one word: persistency.

never looking up from the page. forgetting to eat lunch. thinking of verbs in your sleep. surrendering nearly every last domestic chore to the very kind fellow who stalks these same halls, the one who is making sure i sleep, eat, and drink gallons of water.

i think it will all be worth it. i’m pretty sure there will come a day when i look back on this chapter and––just like labor pains––forget how much it hurt, how much my head pounded, and my heart right along.

as i look at my bookshelves these days, i see not just pages and pages of paper and ink but the accumulated anguish of hundreds of authors over hundreds of years. books do not write themselves. books demand total attention. and day after day of it. for as long as it takes.

and what’s it all for? for the scant hope of communion, for the slim chance that one someone somewhere will be reading along and suddenly hearing a loud pop, down in their heart, or up in their brain. because some faraway someone has just put to words some ineffable thing that they’ve never named. though they’ve long sensed it.

there is much typing still to be done here. and after that, the copy-editing brigade comes over the hills. and then proofing each page, making sure no squiggles or bloops slide into a sentence. making sure each their is a their and not there. same with the its‘s.

once this latest round of incessant typing slows to a ceasefire, i’ll be back to breathing again. it’ll come in waves from then on. this here is the final hard push. just like the time my miracle baby was about to arrive, and the monitor beside me dropped to a gulch. and my doctor looked me in the eyes, and said, “barb, you’re getting this baby out in one push.”

and i did.

and i’ll do it again with this book.

in the meantime, here’s a little amuse bouche for your troubles.

One of the best things a man can bring into the world with him is a natural humility of spirit. About the next best thing he can bring, and they usually go together, is an appreciative spirit — a loving and susceptible heart.

John Burroughs, naturalist, conservationist, wonder seer

and why not another?

If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, political activist

what pithy bits of wisdom or heart stirred you this week?

in which we return, at long last, to the book-making assembly line…

seeing the sacred in nature isn’t typically quite so literal as this ancient relic in the south of england, St. Luke’s Chapel, Ashley Woods, just beyond Abbotsbury in Dorset.

it’s been just shy of a year since last we dropped in on the so-called word factory here at typewriting headquarters, where at the time the bare bones of a book were chugging along the bookmaker’s assembly line, where the supply chain includes alliterations, prepositional clauses, pithy twists of phrase, and occasional insights, all dropped in as the book-in-the-works rolls down the line.

inside the room where the typewriting happens, all was ablur: alphabet keys clacking away, sunlight and moonlight clocking in for their consecutive shifts as the one at the keyboard clackety-clacked, barely noticing the celestial variation as long as the screen stayed aglow.

back then, a precise 37,226 words had been tallied on the factory’s modern-day abacus, the one that spits out the word count with the click of a single key. and there’d been a hard deadline of june. but round about march, it seemed a draft had been drawn to its natural end. so off went the words (59,324) on the pages (110), in hopes of an early editorial read. a bit of a thumb to the wind, to gauge which way it was blowing. or if it was blowing at all.

not long after, all went silent.

and stayed silent. inexplicably, worryingly, for months.

but now, minus the inexplicable tale of the inexplicable months in between, there’s something akin to hope rising. there’s a title, a cover, and even an editor. and, of course, there’s a deadline (more on that in a minute). nothing in the word-factory world seems to come without deadline.

the title, fairly straightforward: The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text. the cover, still under wraps. the editor, a writer/scholar/author/professor who i think might be a certifiable genius. but even better, for a writer seeking to braid inter-religious threads: she happens to have been raised jewish, converted to orthodox judaism during her freshman year at columbia, and while studying for her master’s at cambridge in england, she converted again––to anglicanism and, in 2011, was ordained an episcopal priest. these days, she’s an associate professor at duke divinity school, and nonfiction section editor at Image, the journal that, per their website, “fosters contemporary art and writing that grapple with the mystery of being human by curating, cultivating, convening, and celebrating work that explores religious faith and faces spiritual questions.”

bottomline: the newly-appointed editor of my next adventure in bookmaking (she edited my first book too) knows her stuff, is more than fluent in dual religions (encyclopedically versed in the history, practice, and wisdoms of judaism and christianity), and should keep me from tripping into any unforeseen landmines, or swimming too far into the deep end. a good editor is just that: part-lifeguard, part-life-rope, part-landmine detector.

so, soon as said editor drops a pile of edits and queries and what-were-you-thinkings and i-don’t-get-its here on the assembly line (delivery promised for monday), i’ll be working night and day and day and night to whittle down the word count, untangle the knots, piece together the puzzles, and liberally sprinkle the whole kittencaboodle with ample heaps of fairy dust, all in the hopes of a book that won’t be a bomb.

it’s a book about seeing the sacred out in the wilds, which turns out to be the beating heart of an ancient theology, a foundational worldview that long, long ago rooted celts and jews, egyptian hermits and wandering t’ang dynasty poets. and it’s never quite been erased, even if little mention is made of it now. (its disciples would count as diverse a flock as henry david thoreau, annie dillard, mary oliver, and thomas merton, to name but a familiar few.) somewhere along history’s timeline––certainly by the middle ages––it was given a name, The Book of Nature, a text without words, a text built on an alphabet of birdsong and moonrise, raindrops and thundering skies. it arises from a belief that God first spoke through all of creation, and millennia later came a second sacred text, the Book of Scripture. the two books––one wordless, one spilling with words (783,137 in the King James Bible)––ever in conversation.

in the beginning, long before books and literacy, how better to divine wisdom, glean sacred knowledge, than to look to the heavens, the seas, and the stirrings of earth? and now, in an age when words are as likely to be cudgels or wedges, in an age of balkanizations and polarizations and endless debate over turns of a phrase or translation, it’s the wordlessness of this text––the wholly immersive sensuality and rhythms and spirals of heaven and earth, its ubiquity, dynamism, and subtlety––that i count as its genius. and its holy and silent way in.

who’s not felt the goosebumps rise on the nape of the neck when the sandhill crane trumpets across the autumn sky, or the monarchs come in like a cloud, or the lightning bolt scythes through the night? it’s as close as i come to feeling the faint hem of God brush up against me, or enfold me and hold me. there’s a divine animator always at work, always in wait, enraptured, seeking our gaze or our notice. read the great book of creation, run your fingers across its pages and lines, inhale its sights and its sounds and its scents, and you will––perhaps––know something of God, the God who longs for nothing so much as our company, for our sure and undivided attention.

while i strap on my seatbelt, buckle in for the long editing weeks ahead (all will be due by the third week in march), i’ll still post bits here on fridays, mostly a montage of bits that over the years have captured my imagination and my enchantments. it’ll be something of a potpourri till i’m back from book-making adventures. but i promise good morsels.

only the west gable-end wall of the 13th-century chapel remains. of historical note is the fact that the couple who discovered the ruins on their property, restored it, and later chose to be buried beneath its altar, played a pivotal role in saving a Jewish family captured (and later released) during Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass, the horrific murderous night in November 1938, carried out by the Nazis, who torched synagogues, vandalized homes and shops and schools, and killed close to 100 Jews while sending another 3,000 off to concentration camps.

have you stumbled on anything sacred while out in the wilds?

under the full moon of february, snow moon, consider all this unfolding, unfurling, pushing up toward the deepening light:

Tree sap makes the vertical climb from roots to swell buds, bucks shed their horns, ewes lamb and nannies kid, great  horned owls, bobcats, minks and coyotes mate, and the first northern larks, robins, belted kingfishers, red-wing blackbirds and sand hill cranes return to this northern land I am the current steward of.
–Nance Klehm, ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, permacultural grower, and earth steward

inside the word factory

perhaps you have visions of some victorian chamber, with a velvet tufted fainting couch, at the top of a curving stair. perhaps you imagine, ala virginia woolf, a room of one’s own where even the logs in the fire waft a delicate perfume. that, you might imagine, is the inner chamber of one who strings words into sentences into paragraphs into pages for a living. (well, there’s not much of a living there, but that’s a story for another day, and one i shan’t get near.)

but back to the room of my own. i’ve got one all right. and once upon a time it was the one-car garage, likely a Buick or Olds, that puttered up the drive here in this circa 1940s house, when the war tragically was full-steam ahead, and the doctor who built this old house–a doctor who delivered babies deep in the night–must have been proud of that room for his Buick or Olds.

i park myself in that room. for interminable hours these days. from the dark before dawn till the dark in the night. and, mostly, i love every minute of it. even when it’s hard. even when the words are sputtering out like someone forgot to grease the cogs and the wheels in the word factory.

i thought i’d let you peek at my highly categorized filing shelf (up above), where the alphabet of books i’ve read for this book (did you realize that many, many books are compendiums of many, many books tossed into the word whizzer, where they whirl and they swirl, and they come out the other side a veritable library now distilled and condensed into the one single volume you hold in your hand?) are stored in their hardly sophisticated, but highly utilitarian, toppling strip on the floor. i’m certain a shelf would be a handy thing, but all the shelves in the house are previously occupied, so i was left with only this strip on the hardwood floor of my once-garage.

anyway, these are some of the more than 200 books (i just did my taxes, i now know precisely the number i bought), i’ve read in the note-taking phase of this so-called literary endeavor. it appears that i still write like a newspaper reporter, when it was my job to run about the town, and sometimes the country, asking all sorts of questions of all sorts of people who knew what i wanted to know. only this time around, many of the folks who know what i want to know are, well, dead. many died a long, long time ago. take the desert elders of egypt. they died some 1,800 years ago. but their wisdom was timeless, and i hope to absorb at least a mere pinch of it. moving a bit closer in time, there are the transcendentalists, emerson and thoreau, and in my book they seem rather young, having died not even two full centuries back. you get the point. and not all the geniuses whose words i am scouring are no longer among us. many, many are living and breathing and writing more sentences all their own.

i’ve also realized that a pandemic is the perfect time to write a book. there’s nowhere to go anyway. and each day is a wide-open block on the calendar, with little variation except for the chores that punctuate the morning. there’s water-the-plants day, and haul-in-the-groceries day. the middle of the week + sunday are wind-the-clock days, and in a week as wide open as that, why not plunk yourself down in your word-factory chair and get to work on a book? i realize this is my second such endeavor this pandemic, which, honest to goodness, is not too pathetic.

anyway, since this morning is write-the-chair day, i thought i’d let you peek behind the curtain before i plop back down and start typing some more. after all this time pulling up to the very same table, week after week, month after month, year after year, i figure you’re due a backstage tour.

i’m up to 37,226 words, in case anyone’s counting. and i hope to tack on a few thousand more today. i’m not too far from the end of the rough first draft, and then the hard part begins: reading it all from the start, trying not to wince, or fall off the chair in utter humiliation. round two is where you get serious. and each word is a test; each word, each thought, each big idea needs to be tested for muscle and truth, and, yes, poetry. it’s all due the first of june, which means i’ll be typing straight through the return of the songbirds and the blossoming of the lilac. it’s a very good thing i love the topic––the Book of Nature, by the way, that ancient theology that all of creation is infused with the sacred in all its wisdoms and truths, and that your closest encounter with the one i call God just might come lying under the stars one night, or cradling a broken-winged bird in your palm. what i love most is that it’s a wisdom woven with threads from all sources, ancient and not quite so old. so the books on my floor are books from the Celts and the Choctaw, from ancient Egypt and China, and right here in the Land of the Free, from Walden Pond and Cape Cod and clear out to the Great Salt Lake and the Redwoods Forest. which is all making me feel very Woody Guthrie. (and notice my knack for hitting the upper-case key here? that’s because my day job–there in the word factory–insists we show up with our capitals.)

so that’s the news from the factory floor, where i’m due any minute to be back in my chair and hitting the keys–caps shift and otherwise.

on the topic of books, what are the ones on your must-share list? and why?