A guest post by Mr. Zachary Berry of Hampden-Sydney College
Man is an object in motion, but part of becoming a man is learning to be still. When I was a boy I was always impressed with my father at my side in the deer stand. I couldn’t fathom how one could remain so still with all the gnats buzzing at our ears, or the urge to slump back against the wall and pull up again to check for game, or the need to speak the all-important thoughts and questions that were flooding into my head, or the little itches and tickles created by the rough material of our hunting jackets. He would always tell me to be still, but he was always far better at it than I. Granted, that stillness was sometimes aided by intermittent slumber, but for the majority of the time he was awake, aware, and motionless.
In the years that followed those early days I learned that quality through practice. It’s a matter of self-control – turning one’s head at snail’s pace, finding a comfortable position and maintaining it, letting an itch pass on its own, and only swatting a gnat or mosquito when all other courses of action are exhausted.
I recently read Home by the River by Archibald Rutledge. The entire book consists of his reminiscence on restoring his ancestral estate, horticultural advice, some history of the house, his relationships with his workers, and the natural events and wildlife that occur there. In it he talks about all manner of game, ducks, deer, turkeys, et cetera, and his observations of their movements. He tells one particular story of watching a few deer pass by him in the forest at night. As a hunter and a lover of nature myself, the book and the idea appealed to me.
While visiting my family’s mountain house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of East Flat Rock, North Carolina, my grandfather’s report of rabbits and foxes in the back yard in the early morning, coupled with Rutledge’s stories fresh in my mind, provided more than enough inspiration to get up before sunrise and sit out on the back porch.
I got up a little after half past five and looked out the window. There was already a big rabbit in the yard. I slipped open the sliding door and stepped out into our little piece of heaven. I sat down in the chair and started to be still. The night before there had been fireflies and the noise of my banjo, but now it was quiet. The rabbit scurried off and a few birds came – brown thrashers and robins. Directly, Papa (my grandfather) got up and came to the door. He asked if I had gone outside because I had gotten hot in my bedroom. I replied in a whisper: “I’m looking for critters.” Without a word, he turned around and emerged a few minutes later with two cups of coffee. He took his seat in the swing and we sat, still and quiet. He had told Grandmamma that she could come out there, but she would have to be quiet. Knowing herself, she elected to stay inside. (That’s not a statement about women in general; it’s a statement about my grandmother.)
We saw a few song birds come and go, heard a few crows, listened as some creature – either a bird or squirrel – scurried on the awning above us, and then finally observed a decent-sized, jet-black stray cat crossing through the yard. He spread his scent on a Hydrangea and ran into the woods. When Papa related the story, he called it a panther. I wonder how many “panther” stories have been told about felines of similar size to the one we were watching.
It was a wonderfully natural and simple experience. It was something anyone can do, on any given day, in no way unique to me. I and many others had done it plenty of times. But it was on land that I know, and with people that I love, and it was a time to be still and self-possessed. One can always leave it to a romantic to find profundity where most probably there really isn’t any. But I can’t help myself. I really do think there is virtue in stillness. I really do believe a man is lacking something if he dies never having seen a mockingbird chase down a crow. There’s a lesson in all of it.
Being still gives one a chance to ruminate on the stuff of life. It removes one from the fast-paced time of instant and constant information in which we live, and deposits him in a world that is realer than a screen. He gets a chance to weigh his decisions and the worth of things. It puts him in touch with creation around him – a place beyond his control because he did not make it, unlike the virtual lives that so many are immersed in. It lets him stare a wild animal in the eyes (which I most recently did with a certain yard panther), a creature with whom he shares a great deal of biology and a common Creator. This most commonly occurs with deer, which, according to my father, have a ghostly quality about them, especially in their silent coming and going. This teaches a man to value the life of such an animal. He respects it, and even if he kills it, he does so reverently. These experiences doctor his soul and enrich his life. As I said at first, it makes him a man, not merely in the sense that he is mature, but also in the sense that he is human.
The Almighty says in the voice of the psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Stillness is part of worship, and I believe it is equally efficacious for acknowledging the Godhead if it takes place in a sanctuary of brick and stone or a cathedral in the pines.
-Zachary Edward Berry