Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reclaiming Wonder

I was raised in the Methodist church and some of my strongest memories from childhood are from a Methodist church camp in the Laurel Highlands called Jumonville. When my mother was growing up she also went to Jumonville. My grandmother was a youth group leader for a number of years and she took her youth there many times. My brother and his wife were engaged at Jumonville and eventually married in the small church there. Needless to say, there is a deep family history there.

The Laurel Highlands is exemplary of the beauty of the Pennsylvania landscape. The mountains in this area are called the Alleghenies and they are the highest point in the state, including the tallest peak, Mount Davis (which I always got a kick out of as a child). The Alleghenies are part of the larger Appalachian mountain range. The mountains really offer some amazing views as you ascend "The Summit", the large hill on which the church camp sits. I don't think that many people realize how beautiful this state is unless they have traveled here. Even moreso if they have camped here and there are a number of state parks in the Laurels. Keystone, Kooser, Laurel Hill, Laurel Mountain, Laurel Ridge, Laurel Summit, Linn Run, and Ohiopyle. My family discovered their love of camping in the Laurel Highlands and we would often visit Jumonville on our way to and from a camping trip.

Jumonville has a number of stakes in the history of the region and the country. It is the site of the Battle of Jumonville Glen during the French and Indian War. This became the opening battle of this war and George Washington spent time traipsing around this area during his days as a lieutenant colonel. Fort Necessity is just down the road from Jumonville. When I was young I remember thinking it was strange how our first President was so entangled with our state's history. That I could stand on the same land where men killed one another. That it was now where I was expected to go and pray and learn about Jesus.

Jumonville Christian Camp & Retreat Center has its own claim to fame. High atop the mountain where the camp is located sits a giant, 60-foot steel cross. Because the Laurel Highlands have such tall, majestic mountain peaks, some of the peaks can be seen from hundreds miles away. As you drive up National Road (route 40) you can easily make out in the distance this massive white construction.  As children, my brothers and I would try to be the first one to find the cross among the distant peaks. The cross was an important part of my youth, as I spent many summers and weekends there with my youth group. I've had communion, sang, danced, quoted scripture, and just generally marveled at the splendor of such a grand monument to the Christian tradition. However, while the cross was always a fitting miniature mecca as a budding Christian, I always managed to walk past it and gaze out at the view from the mountain it sat on, where the campers could see up to 50 miles and into seven different counties on a clear day.

While I loved the cross and the feelings of spiritual awe I experienced there, I was more fascinated by another natural and historical area, the small glen where the Jumonville battle first took place. There are large rocks scattered about the area, many of which you will find with large, round dents in them. These dents are sometimes large enough to hold a bowling ball, should someone need a place to hold theirs. I was a teenager when I learned that those dents were made from the cannons that were shot during the Battle of Fort Necessity. Dents like that pepper the rocks all over the Laurel Highlands and to this day I am still both facsinated by the technology and offended by the violence that converged on this beautiful landscape. At one point, I probably even prayed for the people that died in that battle a few times.

It's strange how this place holds so much baggage. There is historical baggage of violence, death and war that was ultimately about power and greed over landownership. There is religious baggage, now that a Christian camp has staked claim in a natural space, merging the awe of Nature with the awe of God. There is my own personal baggage of coming to terms with losing my religion. Of accepting the beauty of a place, despite its associations with things that I feel tear us away from and cheapen the intense experience of the outdoor, like war and religion.

We have spoken a lot in my class about appropriation. Of land, history, culture, environment and nature. Staking claim in something and manipulating it to suit your own purposes. Certainly the Laurel Highlands and Jumonville have been appropriated. Whether it be a sixty foot, white cross or 250 year old cannon ball dents in the million year old rocks, humans have wanted to leave their mark. Almost like taking credit for the creation of a natural space. I feel it would be doing the land a disservice to be ignorant of its history. However, I think now that I am adult who has come to terms with and embraced her secularism, I can quietly put away that baggage and marvel at something humans did not create. I can be content with leaving behind the spiritual wonder of my childhood and reclaiming the natural wonder of the beauty of the Laurel Highlands.

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