My eyes are out of shape. My legs and lungs are holding their own as I hike through Costa Rica’s Volcan Tenorio Park Nacionale, but my eye muscles are lagging. I can’t take it all in: the art-deco leaf shapes, the towering tree ferns, the heaping portions of verdant texture and color along this decked-out trail. Mother Nature has gone and splurged, and I’ve got blinders on.
Maybe I’d be less intent on watching my step if we hadn’t paused at the Park Ranger’s shelter to inspect jar after jar of the pickled poisonous snake exhibit (“Oh, cool, pit viper! Here?” my husband gestures in Spanglish, with boyish reptilian enthusiasm). But it’s more than caution. Like a treadmill runner suddenly turned loose on hilly crooked terrain, my eyes are simply not trained for this kind of workout. I’m used to the tame Chem-lawns of suburbia and the marigold monotony of annuals from Lowe’s; it’s hard to absorb this dense, unruly visual collage. I’m relieved when our guide Alejandro slows down to point to a small indention of earth.
“Caliente,” he says, bending over steam rising from a hidden pocket that I would have easily missed. I hold my hand over the hole and draw it back. He’s right. Hot, hot. We walk on and pause beside several other heat vents tucked into the mountainside. I carefully crane my neck over for a freebie mini-facial. We wind our way down to a creek where hot springs bubble up scalding water. Something’s cooking down there.
Tenorio is not considered “active” in the Costa Rican line-up of volcanoes, but it doesn’t take spewing lava to impress me. This tempestuous mountain huffs and puffs. The hot breath of earth whispers of deep stirrings and unseen wonders. All is not said and done, its subtle smoke signals. Creation continues to evolve, each moment shaped by the mystery and marvel of the one before. How could it be otherwise?
On this small trail in the vast jungle of a tiny country that accounts for five percent of the planet’s biodiversity (and zero percent of its military might), life in all its bizarre variations is magnificently complex. The law of this land is not writ in black and white. It is not a slab of “Thou Shalt Nots” but a multitude of “Lo and Beholds!” It is a stunning, humbling, awesome, chaotic, orderly riot of color, form, sound, and scent, and it implores me to be still and know that there is a God, and that She’s got an outrageously imaginative game plan. Orchids dangle willy-nilly from trees. Cicadas, parrots, and birds of different feathers roar like kids in a shouting contest. Steam rises from a molten core. A snake is deftly camouflaged; lines blur.
Yet here at home, lines are being drawn, especially in this “caliente” campaign season. Over the last eight years as the Right has claimed more and more territory and the Left is scrambling for a foothold, it’s become frighteningly mainstream to be myopic and self-assured. Our eyes are lulled by an increasingly bland landscape, with standardized Wal-Mart strip-centers and franchise fast-food outlets at every turn. Sameness saturates our communities and spills over to what remains of anything rural, and it seems that likewise, we are becoming less open to seeing different possibilities. It’s the dulling down of America, and it has religious and political implications. As more and more concrete gets poured over the natural world, the more concrete our thinking and believing becomes. As we acquiesce to big-box retailers, big-box churches, big-pox political party machinery, the less we are willing to think outside of the box. “Drill now” is the same-old dead-end strategy (especially dead-end for the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge), when what we desperately need is new vision, alternative solutions, creative responses that respect the natural world.
I bristle when Evangelical powerbrokers pull presidential campaign strings — strings that come with an unqualified VP nominee attached. I’m bothered when candidates insinuate they’re more religious or have a firmer toehold on “family values” because they disregard science or sex ed, never mind the sex. Not because I’m not pro-life, what an absurd term! I’m pro life in all its diverse, wondrous and absurdly messy magnitude. I’m “pro” the rich, hot-as-hell life that bubbles and spews beneath my feet, life that doesn’t behave along party lines. I’m for “values” that are too sacred and too important to be wielded as a political wedge, and too unwieldy to stuff in a ballot box.
Faith at its hottest core is mystery. It erupts in wonder and is manifest in amazement. Try to contain it, or impose it, and we get burned. What is belief if not holy imagination? What is salvation if not breaking out of an old box into a new way of thinking, of seeing, of becoming?
I recently passed by a church whose sound-bite sign quipped, “Our faith is stirred, not shaken.” While I say “cheers” to mixing church and martini metaphors, I agree with my preacher/artist friend Susan who added, “Well, I want my faith stirred and shaken.” To be shaken out of complacency, to see without blinders on, to stir imagination and jostle the status quo, to dare venture where the ground is hot, active, and not yet paved over. . . sounds like a faith-based initiative to me.