Church of the Backyard

by Amy Martin

It was a hot Texas summer when I was about two that I first went to church. The cicadas sang in the choir, lifting their voices to the sky. At the pulpit, a mockingbird held court, transfixing me with a musical sermon. The disembodied voices of frogs hidden in the ground litter piped in with sharp little praises while an occasional toad bellowed a hearty amen. Butterflies like angels sailed through sunlight.

This was the church of the backyard, my first exposure to spirituality. The sanctuary that beckoned beneath the huge elephant ear plants, behind the abelia bush and amid the limbs of the live oak tree. As a small child wrapped in the warm green glow, sunlight streamed through translucent leaves like a stained-glass window with the same awe-inspiring effect.

Becoming transfixed by the patterns, I saw the way limbs wove together in layers, bending and shaping to accommodate each other, how branches divided into smaller branches and how these dwindled into twigs. The veins in the leaves continued the theme of fractal intricacy until the dark lines fused into a wash of green. Flowers were their own wonderland, an invitation to look inward and follow the bee as it sought the nectar source. Vibrating along with the cicadas deep within the verdant green, I was one with the womb.

I felt part of these patterns, a piece of the web. All these archetypes and metaphors, patterns and cycles, levels and webs, seeped wordlessly into my psyche. To a child just learning to walk, this backyard sanctuary of nature was intimate and inviting; it embraced and accepted me. Before I even knew the word, before I could speak or read, this was my first sense of God, intimate, wordless and vast.

Over time I followed the oak’s gnarled and turning roots to the imaginary world below where strength and mystery resided. I went up, climbing the trunk, past bees that never bit me and into the boughs where a parallel realm of light and energy was alive. All the levels of reality, captured in a small plot of suburban soil. And above my little patch of world, the Moon in its phases held out the promise of hope.

Now 60 years later, after presenting popular seasonal festivals and Moon gatherings for 20 years, I find myself a leader in the naturalist community. When people ask me “How did you get into this stuff,” I tell them about the church of the backyard. Funny thing is, they always seem to understand.