Wisdom offers great rewards, but nothing beats love

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 30, 2008

Lush green leaves reach heavenward, supported by a battle-scarred trunk. Photo by Fred Monk

A dead tree on Vancouver Island provides a perfect vantage point for 35 bald eagles. Photo by Andy Pickard

Walking into Mary Lou Davis’s Cochrane store, Bentleys Books, the other day, I noticed a quotation on the blackboard behind the front counter. It was by the late Canadian author Robertson Davies:

“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”

The quote was chosen by Bentleys staff member Debby Hynes as a farewell saying to her many friends in the area. (Debby and her columnist husband, former town councillor Ken Hynes, are about to move to Yarmouth, N.S. I wish them well and extend personal thanks to Ken for his kind words about me in his Apr. 23 column in the Cochrane Times.) Like a fine book, we will “re-read” your sojourn among us often, even “in old age.”

Returning to Davies’s words, I find an interesting association between “great books” and the lessons from “Nature’s University” of which the late Stoney Nakoda chief Walking Buffalo often spoke and to which I’ve referred many times in this column.

In particular, I’m thinking of wisdom we can learn from the trees about the debt of gratitude we owe to the institutions and traditions that have brought us to this point in history.

My brief comments are inspired in no small measure by a pair of photographs of trees taken by two of our coffee companions:

Photographer/priest Fred Monk, formerly of Cochrane’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church and now serving a church in Bow Island, sent me a magnificent image of a lush tree, its leaves reaching heavenward while supported by a battle-scarred trunk.

Charlene and Dr. Andy Pickard, formerly of Cochrane and now retired to Vancouver Island, sent me an image Andy took last November of a dead tree on their ocean-front property in Qualicum Beach. At that moment the tree was hosting 35 bald eagles looking out over the Straight of Georgia for their next meal.

As I reflected on those two images, I sensed that the leaves and the eagles share something fundamental in common. They can only reach out to the life-giving sun or fish of the sea because they are supported by tree trunks.

The trunks, though weary with broken limbs and insect damage, or long dead and only a skeleton of their former glory, enable life to carry on.

In a certain sense, they are like Davies’s great books: from these tree trunks and their relationship to the leaves and eagles we learn important lessons about our dependence on those who have gone before, whether family, friends, churches, governments or other institutions and traditions, no matter how pronounced their failings may seem. We are not free spirits disconnected from history and grace. The older we get, the more we understand we are their beneficiaries.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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