Each summer, and often in spring and fall as well, for about twenty years, my family and I turned to the mountains of Virginia for rest, relaxation, and learning about nature with the wonderful forest rangers and guides in Shenandoah National Park. We stayed in a rustic lodge, hiked trails by day and sat in the evenings with the rangers to learn of the region’s environment, creatures and lore.
One day as we decided to hike the White Oak Canyon trail with its successive waterfalls, we discovered a beautiful hemlock forest with soaring trees and wide open under-spaces straddling either side of the trail. The forest immediately drew me in. It became my cathedral, my place of retreat.
Summer after summer, the eager hikers moved on, but I would sit on a log, finding my whole being refreshed in meditation there. In 2005, Dick and I took a teenage grandson to see this special forest, called The Limberlost, and to our disappointment, found it destroyed by the wooly adelgid insect. I was sad and angry that the federal government could not have done some treatment to save it. After reading of the widespread problem for hemlock forests and the difficulty of killing the pests and saving the trees, I brought myself to a place of thanksgiving for the years I enjoyed in the beautiful Limberlost Forest. I do not know the source of the name of the forest which was dated to be at least four hundred years old at the time George Freeman Pollack convinced the federal government to adopt the area as a national park in the 1930’s. Pollack often retreated there on horseback, considering it one of his favorite places. The name of the forest now seems ironic since it no longer exists.
I began the poem which follows in 2005 and have taken it through many revisions as I continue to search to express how special the Limberlost Forest is to me. I share it with you as a reminder that there are so many places, people and experiences that have nourished our spiritual lives that no longer exist physically, yet they live still in our beings as strength for every day. I have visited many beautiful cathedrals of the world built by men – but none more special or affecting for me than the Limberlost. Go with me there, and then find or retreat to your special place for meditation in God’s beautiful world.
Limberlost Cathedral: Forest Sanctuary
Grey ghostly giants—
Only a few reminders now
Of the four hundred year-old green spires,
Whose soaring grandeur
Brought stillness to my heart,
Contemplation in my soul.
Green sanctuary, once welcoming
with doors wide open
on either side of the trail,
Brown, needle-carpeted floors,
Rolling out in invitation—
Gone now is my Limberlost Cathedral.
Lacey fronds woven so tightly,
Still sunlight spilled through
as starlight or candles glittering.
Intertwining hemlock branches,
Held out the heat,
On summer’s warmest days,
Refreshing all who passed through,
All who paused to sit, worship, commune.
Lingering on those log pews
long ago fallen into place
My soul often withdrew
From woes of the world,
Soaking in the stillness,
Everyday cares melting away,
As in the arms of a caressing Father.
O Sacred green Sanctuary,
Many souls found solace under your canopy—
Pollock, dignitaries, common men.
Now you are gone.
Yet my heart and soul feel you still—
Resonating reassurances still my being,
Vanquishing world’s weight.
O lovely green Limberlost Cathedral
I lament your loss for future generations.
Bug-borne blight took you away—
Your soaring boughs,
Your sun-dappled slight light,
Your bathing wash for world weariness,
Your strong arms uplifting
Exist no longer.
Yet for all who sat in your sacred space,
For me in my deepest being,
We have you still,
In slight light of soul’s memory,
Dear Limberlost Cathedral,
You are not lost.
Written August, 2005 at the discovery of the destruction of the Limberlost Hemlock Forest on the White Oak Canyon Trail of Shenandoah National Park, VA, by the wooly adelgid insect. This grove of hemlocks was one of George Freeman Pollock’s favorite places in the park. Pollock, in the 1930’s, led the government to adopt this area as a national park. It was my place of summer retreat from the early 1970’s until the 1990’s.