During a recent visit, my pastor referred to our limited understanding of life beyond death using the phrase: “. . . as to the view from this side of the river . . . .” As she spoke, I happened to be looking out across the tidal estuary that separates our land from the opposite bank at a small outcropping of wilderness called Green Island. This is the vista I’m always gazing on from the windows of my home, morning and afternoon, at sunset and by moonlight. Sometimes as I watch and wonder at the ever-verdant shore beyond the tide-charged waters, I’m able to meditate, to rejoice and be thankful no matter what the circumstances, as scripture enjoins. (1 Th 5:16)
This islet that helps me pray runs the length of the river narrows and measures about a quarter mile from end to end. Only half again as wide, the island’s three-plus acres are forever protected by a local land trust. It was folks from that outfit who asked me to serve as ‘steward of the island.’ When I asked just what a steward’s duties might involve, they answered, “Just watch it. It’s a sanctuary for the birds — just watch out for it.” I knew I could do that much, and I’ve been at it, as best I can, for almost a decade now.
It hasn’t always gone smoothly, my island stewardship. One afternoon last autumn I motored around to the inlet on the isle’s far side and tied the boat to a tree at the shore’s edge. I spent the time surreptitiously creating a clean-cut, barely perceptible water-view trail around the refuge. I hadn’t really been authorized to do this; in matters like these, I prefer to ask forgiveness later, if necessary, than to seek an uncertain permission in advance. Finally, after two and one-half hours, I left the secret, half-completed path to return back home for supper. Rounding a point I spotted my tethered boat, right where the outgoing tide left it, thirty feet offshore and completely stuck in the middle of the inlet, now become a vast mudflat.
I sat down on the shoreline’s ancient granite ledge to review the situation. What should I do? I could wait three hours for the tide to flow back in, but by then it would be dark, visibility would be poor, and I’d be cold and tired. I decided the only thing for it was to bushwhack my way out. I knew from studying the charts of the area that Green Island at low tide reveals a sandbar that connects it with a two-mile-long wooded peninsula leading to the mainland. I figured that if I walked along the eastern river shore, I wouldn’t get too lost before turning west and then north where I should eventually run into the Coastal Road. So, our Labrador Molly and I set out to transit this unknown territory that only the deer and the fox, the eagles and the occasional bear inhabit. We made it home two hours later, tired, chastened and somewhat wiser for the experience.
I like the idea of being the caretaker for this magical haven. St. Paul considered himself a “steward of the mysteries of God,” (1 Cor. 4:1) and that’s pretty close to how I feel about this beautiful place. On its eastern shore an eagle has built an aerie high up in the crown of the island’s tallest pine tree. The southern strand features a garden of sea grass and a gravelly beach. Here, for a number of years, Johnson Point dads would bury ‘pirates’ treasure’ for small birthday party adventurers to discover and bring home by boat. On the west shore traces of some long-ago habitation can be found, perhaps from a century ago. A granite escarpment runs the length of the island’s north side and ends in a narrow spit of land jutting out into the river. One night I looked across to behold seated atop a boulder at the tip of the rocky shoal a lone coyote, baying at the moon.
What enchants me most about Green Island is the surprise that’s hidden at its very center. Only after I’ve clambered over fallen timber, trudged across fields of stone and scrambled through thickly-growing stands of evergreens do I come upon it: a paradisus, literally, an ‘enclosed garden’ of simple beauty and deep delight. Here a light that glows rich and pure falls soft upon a lush meadow. Encircled by nature’s sentinels of oak and spruce, pine and birch, this hidden place startles me whenever I enter it; it feels as if I’m treading on sacred ground.
I cross over and spend time in this secret space whenever I can. But it is never as often as I should like. Most of the time I simply look out across to the island’s summit and know that hidden there is a holy place that ever beckons to me. I cannot quite make it out from my vantage point here, but always, I know it’s there. From the very first time I looked across the river from my home, I’ve had one desire. When I die, I would like to be looking out on this mystic isle that I steward, the place that connects me with paradise here, now, and hereafter.