At the crossroads of theological formation, service, and scholarship

Of Skunk Skins, Hazelnuts, and Thorns

by Gary Fawver, after a recent visit to Africa

I am becoming reflective at the grand "old" age of 61.

As I looked back on my life recently, I became aware that it has been filled with numerous outdoor experiences. Then as I looked around my house and my office, on shelves and in boxes, I noticed a lot of stuff brought back and saved from those outdoor adventures. There is a skunk skin, bits of Mountain Goat hair, seeds and nuts, sea shells, rocks, dried flowers, piles of nature photographs, and much more.

I've always wondered what one can tell about a person from what he/she collects. Now I'm beginning to wonder what people can learn about me and more personally I'm wondering about myself.

Now that I've thought about it, they have been for the most part what I call memory makers, touchstones with the past. There is a biblical precedent for it I believe. In Joshua, when the nation of Israel was ready to cross the Jordan River, Joshua was told to instruct the people to take 12 large boulders from the riverbed and stack them up. It would serve as a memorial to remind future generations what had happened at that place. (Joshua 4)

I am realizing that the items in my collection of outdoor memorabilia speak to me when I see them. Each item represents something that happened to me at a particular place and time. Take my skunk skin for example. I purchased it from a Native American in 1958. I was working in Wisconsin as a counselor at a summer camp. As I saw it lying on the sales table, my mind flashed back to a childhood family vacation to the north woods. One of the highlights of the week was to drive to the local dump, sit in our car and watch the Black Bears come and feed on scraps. On one particular evening, a skunk was there, with its head stuck in a bottle. Struggle as it might, the bottle would not come off that skunk's head. No one seemed to want to help, for obvious reasons. Then a Native American got out of a car and very quietly walked over to the skunk. She bent over and very carefully held the skunk and the bottle and separated the two from each other. The skunk looked at her and walked away in one direction and that kind lady in the other.

The beautiful soft skin went with me through every organized camp program I have led, since that summer in 1958. During one backpack trip with wards of the juvenile courts it was proudly displayed at the top of our team lance. We were called the Polecats. The skunk skin has also been used over the years in game playing and in story telling.

I have carried a large Hazelnut (filbert) in my pocket for the past 8 or 9 years. Ever since I moved to the Chehalem Valley in Northwestern Oregon, I have loved to eat these delicious morsels. Nearly three fourths of All-American Hazelnuts are grown in Oregon.

I teach, with much enthusiasm, a course called the Christian Classics. It is a study of the writings of men and women, which continue to inspire and instruct us in our spiritual pilgrimage. I was surprised to find in the writings of the 15th century Englishwoman, Julian of Norwich, a wonderful reference to the filbert. She said: "In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the Creator and the protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me." As I share this passage, I give out hazelnuts to listeners, reminding them that they are created by God, loved by God, and protected by God.

This past summer, I spent a month in Zimbabwe. Several times I was able to get out into the Bush. Whether walking to an African's compound or stalking Black Rhinos, I was very much aware of the numerous thorns that seemed to reach out to scratch and tear. One time a friend stepped on a limb and the thorn pierced his shoe and lodged in his foot. I observed thorn hedges to keep wild animals out. Throughout the month I collected some samples of these thorns to bring home. One has thorns going two directions, making it very difficult to free oneself. Another has thorns two and a half inches long.

These thorns are to me symbolic of much that takes place in Africa. To be sure, Africa has incredible beauty with its varieties of animals and birds. But Africa is a harsh land. Out into the Bush one sees the difficulty people have in eking out a living. In the cities one observes very thorny social problems. Perhaps the worst is the Aids epidemic sweeping the whole nation. I am reminded that part of the curse of the sin of Adam and Eve was the infestation of briers and thorns on the land. (Genesis 3) And I remember that the enemies of Christ, to display their hatred and mockery, placed a crown of thorns on his head. When I see the shadow box containing my thorns from Africa, I am reminded to pray for the people and the problems that exist and for those working to solve them.

Gary Fawver, 2000.