Comment: Finding sanctuary in nature offsets world’s horrors

A foreign correspondent returns from war and chaos to a cemetery’s stone bench to remember and breath.

By Pamela Constable / The Washington Post

Earlier this month, I went home to rural Connecticut for the first time in two years. It was a hastily planned trip to visit an old friend whose husband was dying of a long illness, but it gradually turned into something else; a slower reflection on life and death, and on the vast emotional gulf between mourning a natural death and confronting a senseless one.

The covid outbreak had kept me away for too long; friends and relatives were nervous about having houseguests and cautious about socializing in public. I had missed catching up at favorite village pubs and driving along familiar country roads, with no deadlines to meet and no need for a map.

Most of all, I missed visiting the secluded riverside park where I had often retreated to think and write, especially after difficult or dangerous reporting trips overseas. It was a historic cemetery, with solid granite monuments grown mossy over time. The grounds were shaded by old oaks and maples and dotted with stone benches that looked out on a quiet, marshy cove.

There were few other visitors, but the park was always bursting with life. On early mornings, the resident birds would practice their trills and arpeggios, greeting the neighbors and welcoming the day. Squirrels chased each other around tree trunks and swans glided noiselessly across the water. Often a formation of Canada geese would descend, amid much splashing and squawking, to rest from exhausting migratory journeys.

It was the undisturbed rhythms and routines of nature that had always drawn me back. They created an illusion of permanence and peace, of safety and sameness in a world fraught with uncertainty and danger. In that small sanctuary, the dead watched eternally over the living, and the living awakened to celebrate each new dawn.

This was hallowed ground, a place where no one had the right to bulldoze, or dredge, or hunt. It was also the place where my parents’ ashes had been interred years ago. They were a gracious, dignified couple who never understood my quest to cover far-flung hardships and conflicts yet never wavered in their support. When they died, I tried to honor their legacy with a scene engraved on their headstone: A doe and stag at the edge of a forest, drinking together from a timeless river.

Year after year, I returned whenever I could. The park by the river was my private touchstone with a vanishing way of life and its values, a spiritual base without pews or steeple, an ode to joy without libretto. Alone with nature, I faced my fears, my regrets, and the inevitable limits of aging. One day I knew that this place, too, would be washed away, but not in my lifetime, and not at human hands.

Sometimes I arrived feeling lost in a fog of helpless anger at a world I could do little to change, one that seemed to regress as it modernized. In my years as a foreign correspondent, I saw hard-won democracies revert to corruption and violence; costly American interventions backfire amid tribal and religious strife. In my efforts to help needy animals, I saw gratuitous cruelty and pitiful neglect.

But spending a few serene hours beside the river helped even horrific memories recede. In the spring of 2017, a massive truck bomb in Kabul shattered my office windows. In the streets, more than 90 people were dead, and I spent the day watching charred corpses being unloaded outside a hospital.

A month later, I landed at John F. Kennedy Airport for a short vacation and drove straight to the park. It was a mild afternoon, with slow-moving clouds reflected in the cove. I lost track of time, watching a mother duck paddle around with her babies in tow. Not until she settled them into the marsh grass for the night did I leave, buoyed by the knowledge that this family, at least, was safe.

The next year, a close Afghan friend and colleague was killed in another suicide bombing. I was too far away to attend his burial service, and I kept searching for some intangible sign that his quixotic spirit was still alive. Not long afterward, I found myself back home, sitting on the stone bench. A flock of Canada geese passed overhead, strong and swift and sure of their mission. Suddenly, an image came to me. My friend was up there with them, traveling under their wing and heading off to new adventures.

After that, I never again imagined him wandering alone and lost in a dark void. Instead, as the months passed, with a deadly virus and political earthquake spreading across the country, I began to lose my own sense of direction and purpose. I was cut off from my roots, while the news from beyond grew increasingly ominous and unsettling. People were consumed with anger and suspicion. Logic and truth were being turned upside down; violence was on the rise. There seemed little room left for mercy, or even a civilized conversation.

Two weeks ago, when the urgent call came from my old friend in Connecticut, it felt like a lifeline. I needed to restore my sense of balance and equilibrium, of order and reason. Perhaps I could find them again in familiar surroundings and reconnections, on a bench by a river, near the graves of my forebears, even in the imminent death of a good man who had lived a long life.

And so it was. My friend’s husband died peacefully at home. The next day she and I shared memories of past visits, especially the last one with my father, then in his mid-90s, who could barely walk but still managed to look dapper in his blazer and tie. Then I drove slowly across the state on winding country roads.

When the car radio began reporting news of a massacre in a Black community in Buffalo, my heart sank. When I reached the park, my mood was somber. I spent the afternoon sitting on the stone bench, writing in my journal and watching mallard ducks dive for weeds in the cove.

I had come home to mourn, and I knew there would soon be bleaker reasons to do so. But still, the visit lifted my spirits and gave me reason to hope. Before leaving, I planted a small yellow zinnia amid the ivy ringing my parents’ gravestone. And when I heard a formation of Canada geese passing overhead, I waved, wishing them Godspeed and a safe journey, wherever it might lead.

Pamela Constable is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s foreign desk. She completed a tour as Afghanistan/Pakistan bureau chief in 2019, and has reported extensively from Latin America, South Asia and around the world since the 1980s.

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