Late Summer Drive through the Flint Hills

A stiff breeze bends stalks
across miles of blended grass
as I drive through the rolling plains,
heading east from El Dorado
through the Flint Hills of southern Kansas.

A mix of greens and tans
and hints of autumn shine in the sun
as ripples of reflected light
define the arced angle of shuddering grass—
a silver second in my brief passing.

Jags of stone emerge from thin soil
along the banks where wet-weather runs
make their breaks and turns
through a tangle of roots and rocks.
In greener season drenching rains
can turn a barren bottom
into a rush of running water
that will sometimes over-run the road.

Today, though, in the dry dying of summer,
only a few pools break the twisting runs of rock
beneath the long-shadowed limbs of cottonwood.

Near the top of the last hill before Emporia,
I pause for a look back toward the west.
A red ball sunset glazes the shimmering prairie:
greens and golds, blonds and tans,
and a myriad of orange hues
sift through this shifting view of limber stems
and a seemingly boundless span
where the cattle of a thousand hills
graze their way toward the ending
of this good day the Lord has made.

H. Arnett

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Prayer on an Autumn Morning

Help me, O Lord,
to live a quiet and peaceful live.
Strengthen me with gentleness of a falling leaf
though I walk in the midst of strife.

Restrain my tongue from speaking guile
even though I be accused and reviled.
Make my lips a source of grace
no matter what trials I may face.
Empower me to sing your praise
in my darkest nights and brightest days.

Neither let me arrogant nor lifted up with pride
but rather humble as the dew and faithful as the tide.

No matter what come to me,
no matter what life afford,
help me walk in quietness and peace
I pray by your grace, O Lord.

H. Arnett

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Walking the Dog

Perhaps more for me than for her, I decided to start taking Layla for an evening walk. I’d rather we take those walks along some mountain trail or at least on some path that gives a view of a lake, leads along some stone-bed creek or through a woods. But I am known to occasionally sacrifice my druthers for the sake of convenience and so I’ve opted for the streets.

Conveniently, there’s a 1.1 mile loop that takes us around Highland Street to where it meets the gravel version of North F Street. The gravel runs just over a quarter-mile from Highland to Radio Lane which leads back by our neighborhood. There are a few streetlights along the route and it seems there are fewer other dogs in their yards at night so I’ve taken to the darker version of our hike. The air is cooler and we’re still able to find our way around through the mystery of night. Knowing the terrain a bit seems to help, too.

The houses on the north loop of Highland are surrounded by trees and hills which make up something of an unofficial wildlife refuge. The first time Randa and I drove around Highland Street we saw a group of wild turkeys strutting through a yard. A couple of months ago, I saw a deer standing in our neighbor’s yard. So it wasn’t a real shock when I was walking Layla last Wednesday night and we surprised a group of deer in a yard at the corner of Highland and the bean field. Actually, the surprise was rather mutual but I have neither the reflexes nor speed of deer.

The deer jumped to their feet and retreated a hundred feet or so into the field and then turned and stared at us. Although she strained at the leash in eagerness to more closely investigate, Layla never barked or yelped. She did whine a time or two as I kept pulling on her leash and walking along the gravel, away from the deer.

On our walk the next night, I was a bit more prepared. I paused at the bend just west of the intersection where we’d seen the deer. Sure enough all five of them were back and this time all of them were lying in the yard, near the streetlight pole. I tried to point them out to Layla but it’s mighty near impossible to make a dog see something when they’re already interested in something else. As we neared the house, I moved to the far side of the street and kept watching the deer. I tightened my grip on Layla’s leash, knowing that she would be eager for the chase as soon as she spotted the deer.

The deer spotted us while we were still a couple hundred feet away. Their heads rotated in unison, ears erect and tilted toward us. We passed by within fifty feet of them; they never moved and Layla never saw them. I marveled at both facts but it was the wonder of walking so closely to a small herd of wild animals that most moved me.

We do not have to travel to the mountains or the oceans to see amazing things. There is always some wonder close at hand. Whether it’s the dew on a silver strand of web or rain drops hanging from the roses, we live in a world of small wonders and marvelous grace.

If we walk softly and keep our eyes open, we will find they often show up in the most unexpected places at a rather perfect moment.

H. Arnett

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Autumn Calling to Labor and Rest

It comes softly to us like a gentle friend
on these fine September mornings,
stepping lightly through the forming dew
and speaking quietly in a low voice
that barely ripples through the receding chorus
of crickets and cicadas.

It lays a hand upon our shoulders
in something like the touch of small brown leaves
gathering in the gutters on the eaves
and lying along the grassy edge of the concrete driveway.

It bends slowly toward our ears,
near enough that we can feel the breath of autumn
against the skin.
We drink in the cool, clean fragrance
that wipes away the clinging tiredness
of long, humid days and summer’s aching sun.

We know that harvest is just begun
and there are many fields
yet to surrender their yields to the barn.
There is labor left that will draw us nearer to
the halos of harvests gliding through distant fields:
long, late nights of equipment lights
shining through the dusk and into the dust
of seed husks separated from the seed,
leaves shattered from the forgotten needs of dry stalks
forming strips along the endless ridges.

But even though we know that we cannot shirk this work,
we wake to such days as this,
grateful that the days of planting
have yielded the fruits of labor and faith,
the blessings of sun and rain
upon the fields of both the just and the unjust
and will give thanks for the harvest
and the rest that is yet to come

and for these fine September mornings
that come to us like a gentle friend,
fresh coffee steaming new promises
into the healing air.

H. Arnett

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Old Fools and Little Children

In order to help our children at church understand how “unity” gives us strength, I had glued together several thin strips of wood. Although most of the pieces were of similar length, some of the pieces were longer than the others. One of them was three inches longer than any of the others.

After explaining that each piece was thin and weak by itself, I showed them the thick piece I’d made by gluing them all together. “Do you think this piece is weak?” I asked them. There was a chorus of emphatic “No’s!”

“Do you think you could break this piece?” Same response.

Then I pointed to the single thin strip sticking out past the others. “See this one?” I asked to focus them. “Now watch this:” Then I gripped the piece and bent it hard. It snapped off right where it joined the adjacent strips that had been glued to it. Some of the children flinched at the sound.

“Why did it break off like that?” I asked the group of children. One girl who looked to be about seven or eight years old held up her hand.

“Because it was sticking out by itself and it didn’t have the others there to support it.”

Absolutely right! I couldn’t have come up with a better answer myself.

It seems like children often understand important truths that us old folks often ignore, doesn’t it? We are hardly ever more at risk of significant personal harm than when seeking our own way becomes more important to us than the welfare of our group.

But when a bunch of us thin strips stick together, it’s mighty hard to break us.

H. Arnett

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Tree Huggers and Bold Sharings

Something about ninety-degree heat and sore feet can bring a man to lust for shade, a cool breeze, and a bit of water for drinking. He might find his wife and their dog seeking to join him there. Always good to share, of course, especially when there’s plenty for everybody anyway.

Like a few miles of bad road or a really neat restaurant in a town you didn’t even know existed, hiking in the mountains can bring unexpected appreciation for the small things in life. Small things like a pine tree only twenty feet tall with a few flat boulders underneath it. It’s just plain lovely how much difference a little shade and a light breeze can make on a hot day. Kind of like appreciation and encouragement from someone you respect. Especially when it’s sincere. Occasionally, one encounters other demonstrations of sincerity.

As Randa and I rested and the dog panted slightly more heavily than we did, a trio of hikers about a third of our age came down the path. The two guys paused in the shade but still on the trail. Their female companion didn’t pause at all. Gushing with enthusiasm and as familiar as if we’d all gone to high school together, she walked right up to us, “A bus driver told me about this: This tree smells like butterscotch and vanilla but you have to push your nose right against the pink part of the bark to smell it.” While her two male companions waited with slightly red faces, she stepped around Randa. Grabbing the tree in a big hug, the self-appointed naturalist pushed her nose against the pink part of the bark and drew in a slow, deep breath.

“Ahh,” she murmured, “butterscotch and vanilla.”

Just as abruptly as she entered, she exited stage left and walked right on past the two guys. One of them looked at us, grinned sheepishly and shrugged his shoulders. Then he turned and headed on down the trail behind the other two.

As it turns out, she was right but I did not allow Randa to take a picture of me verifying that particular information. Being suspected of being a closet tree-hugger is bad enough; I’d have to turn in my Man Card if it got out that I was also a bark sniffer.

Pride and prejudice ignored, there are many good things in life that we may never discover for ourselves. I thank God for strangers who are willing to share such insight and awareness, even if the particular mode and moment of sharing might seem a bit awkward and unexpected. Otherwise, I’d have never known about the subtle fragrances of pine tree bark in the Rockies. There have been other enlightenments along life’s trails.

It is through moments such as that some have come to know the power of redeeming grace, the unexpected liberation of salvation, the simple sharing of a cup of cold water given in the name of a man who died on a tree stripped of its own shade.

And then he continued right on up the trail he’d planned all along for us to follow, drawn by something more soothing than the smell of butterscotch and vanilla, something stronger than all our scars.

H. Arnett

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A Bit Short of the Peak

By the time we’d hiked a half-mile or so, Randa and I were up above the fields and meadows that wrap around the southeastern base area of Horsetooth Mountain. The glare of sun reflected fully from the surface of the lake a couple of thousand feet below and a few miles away. We walked along a trail studded with pink granite and grouted with centuries of dirt and gravel as we moved into the timber. Mountain pine and western cedar scented the breeze.

Another mile up the trail and there were few glimpses of the wide plains or vast mountains. More often than not, we had a close view of boulders and trees, wildflowers and other weeds—the indigenous flora of the area. Occasionally we could see a glimpse of distant waters gleaming in the sun but it was mostly the things you see when you’re hiking through the timberline on a mountain trail: small vines and brush growing under the canopy of taller trees and bigger brush.

In the vicinity of seven thousand feet above sea level, we paused and rested at the base of a large outcropping. Granite rose up above the trees, a series of humped bulges of rock. Decades of dead needles nested against the boulders at the base. Nothing but lichen was growing on the upper seventy-five feet of the cluster.

We made our way carefully up through the sparse vegetation at the base, choosing each step to minimize any disturbance and prevent any damage. Our French Brittany Spaniel scrambled up with us, sometimes in between Randa and me and sometimes leading. Once atop the first section of rock, we paused and looked out to the south and east.

Until one has stood in wonder from some great vantage point, it is nearly impossible to comprehend the scale of these mountains, the scale of the terrain, the scale of the high plains of eastern Colorado. The beauty of sun shimmering clear waters, the fading layers of ridge after ridge after ridge, the smell of a mountain breeze on a morning so clear you think you can almost see tomorrow. Even Layla seemed to sense the significance of the moment; she sat quietly, ears cocked, looking one way and then another.

From such moments I try to remember, when the closeness of obstacles and the nearness of smaller things seems to overwhelm me: if I want to gain a greater view, I may have to do a bit of climbing off of the beaten path and away from the relative ease of the clearer trail. I may have to sacrifice comfort and convenience.

If we wish to see farther than we have seen before or simply to remind ourselves that our lives are greater than our present circumstance, we must take the chance of a higher perspective. Even though it may confirm that we have much farther to go, it also testifies as to how far we’ve come.

And the same grace that brought us this far will surely take us home.

H. Arnett

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