Couple brings forth cool water in life’s wildernesses

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 28, 2007

On several occasions recently I’ve sipped coffee with a Cochrane-area couple who have become part of my very heart. Sitting by a café window, our beloved foothills and mountains to the west, David and Sarah Lertzman and I discussed one topic in particular that they know a great deal about and have been an example to me in its application: joy in the wilderness, both literally and figuratively.

David’s an assistant professor of environmental management and sustainable development at the University of Calgary. He’s also a very popular folk musician, performing with his singing partner, Julian Norris, under the lighthearted name Bards of a Feather.

But it was his warm friendships within the Stoney Nakoda First Nation at Morley that first bonded us as brothers some years ago, for we shared many of the same friends and mentors in the Stoney Nakoda way, whom he celebrated through music, and I through language.

At the time, David was a facilitator with Ghost River Rediscovery, an outdoors program based in wilderness country northwest of Cochrane. The program draws from traditional indigenous cultures and wisdom to empower people of all backgrounds to know themselves better through discovering the natural world and the worlds between cultures.

Out of the rigours of wilderness living, David has acquired an indomitable, positive attitude toward life that makes him a pleasure to be around.

He also acquired a wife. Sarah is an equally positive and caring person who loves the wilderness.

David and Sarah carried on their courtship in the headwaters region of the Ghost River. When they were married last April, they gave me the honour of speaking at their wedding.

In preparing my remarks for the big day, and in the spirit of Song of Songs, that classic romance poem from the Hebrew Scriptures, I asked each of them separately what they would compare the other to. Not surprisingly, they both responded with wilderness metaphors.

“My love is like a wild mountain flower, beautiful in form, inviting in fragrance,” David said.

Sarah said, “My beloved is like a grizzly bear, a protector that comes down from the mountains and explores the valleys.”

Their feeling for the poetics of wilderness living came to the fore the other day over coffee in a discussion we were having about one of my favourite psalms, Psalm 84. I’ve long appreciated David’s insights gained at the feet of his rabbis. In fact, it’s been at the confluence of David’s Jewish backgrounds and my Christian backgrounds that I’ve gained insights of my own that are central to my growth as a human being.

The lines we were considering in Psalm 84 are found in verses 5 and 6: “Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs….”

Baca is a reference to an arid region in the Holy Lands whose location is currently uncertain. But what we can surmise is that it was a stretch along a religious pilgrimage characterized by struggle. Yet because those making their sacred pilgrimage found their strength and vision in God, they not only could endure the difficult journey; they could actually bless the wilderness by their passing through it: “they make it a place of springs.”

David noted that “the wilderness is that place of strategic opportunity and power.” It is, as one of his First Nations mentors had explained to him, away from the noise of “cars and trains” and other distractions. In the wilderness, the heart has the chance to truly know itself and its highest longings.

I’ve encountered many among my coffee companions who live positive lives consistent with David’s observation on Psalm 84. These are people who, going through the parched land of difficult times, leave springs of life-giving water everywhere they step. They refresh the earth with their presence, and the world is better for the fact that they passed through it.

To put it in the words of another old saying, when life hands them a lemon, they make lemonade for all their fellow pilgrims!

Sarah brought her own wisdom to the passage. She’s been away till recently, drawing from her own wilderness experiences to help out at the home of a mutual friend going through the wilderness of cancer.

“Unless you’ve experienced the desert, I’m not so sure you can see water come up in your steps,” Sarah said.

Both Sarah and David have been cool, clear water to me in the arid times of my own pilgrimage through life. What a privilege to have friends like them.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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