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In its own way

By January 20, 2023 12 Comments

Come January, what you’ve got to work with here is a snowy quilt, occasional azure up above, dusky grasses the color of buffalo calves, and almost horrifying bare-naked trees thrown up center stage. If you didn’t know that line of trees are in a seasonal dormancy, they’d appear as bolts of sable lightening shooting up from a demonic earth.

What I’m saying is that, right now, for someone who packs a camera and takes landscapes home when he can, where I live, at least this time of year, doesn’t offer much to shoot–and things only get worse as we stumble into “Farch,” that disappointing hobgoblin of a time when weather makes landscapes either sad or bad. That picture up there is the best I can do mid-winter, and it’ll be Easter before some green rises to spell the boredom. That time will come–it always does. Still, it’s a long way off, so right now you shoot what you can because you got to work with what you got.

There’s no real subject in that picture, no immediacy, only broad elements that don’t compete for a resolution. But I can’t help but think–and hope you agree–that something beautiful abides, even here in the mundane cold. The snow over the grasses isn’t fresh; it’s humped by its own poky melting. Still, there’s movement: the snow on the ground seems to flow toward the center of the composition, as if there’s something there to honor, or even worship. Behind the tree line, a Nike swoosh sweeps over all the blue sky, its massive delicacy awakening something lively within, despite winter all around.

Against that lava-like snow and the almost worshipful penmanship in the sky, you’ve got that thorny stand of trees, alive enough to shake a bit in the wind, but generally dead to the world, even though down there beneath the surface, you just know there’s enough life to start anew in a matter of months. 

Sometimes I hear a melody when I walk out to the river–“Everything is beautiful in it’s own way,” a silly hippie lyric, or so I tell myself, even though there’s some truth in it. For a Calvinist like me, the line is a stretch, especially after the rash of untimely deaths we’ve suffered as of late–a funeral Monday, others too.

“Everything is beautiful in its own way?”

Really? Give me a break. After all, she’s left her husband alone now. Nothing winsome about that. But their story is unique–still is, despite her passing. Forty-six years ago he asked her to marry him and she said he didn’t know what he was saying–he was just a kid. He insisted. She consented, and they had all those glorious years together.

She’s gone now. He sat alone in the front bench at her funeral. 

But her passing doesn’t negate the precious life they had together, not for a moment. All you had to do was listen to his testimony of their loving years together. It was a joy. And more, what he said was uplifting, honestly.

Everything–even a prairie in January–or Farch, for that matter–is beautiful “in its own way.”

I don’t deliberately sing that song when I’m out there along the river on the Sabbath. I don’t choose that tune from some in-my-mind hymnal; dang thing just plays, whether or not I pull it up, even and maybe especially in January with a pallet of just three colors amid an immensely sad storm of funerals. 

Some old turntable in me simply insists that even when I’m out there in a cold, almost colorless world, there’s some truth to that old hippie ditty–everything is beautiful in its own way. 

And there’s this one: “There is not one little blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” That’s Calvin. It is.

Tough sledding sometimes though, no matter what the season, what the year.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Definitely tough sledding in Illinois—no snow!
    Thanks for your confirmation of my Midwest bias—I enjoy all the seasons, in due season.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, You can’t deny the beauty that God gave us several times these last few weeks with snow, ice, and frost coating the bushes and trees. It was magical and lasted a lot longer than I remember it ever lasting in Iowa. It gave me a song to sing to the Creator.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Hints of Wendell Berry (“…learning through the stern privilege of being old.”) and Ecclesiastes (“He has made everything beautiful in its time”)— beautifully written Jim. It captures the goodness in the hardness of life—if your eyes are open.

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Loved the landscape description! Those open-grown trees…

  • Jack Ridl says:

    That Ecclesiastes, what a hippie.

  • Brad Aupperlee says:

    A blue sky like that would have West Michigan celebrating right now (or really any time during the winter) …..enjoy and appreciate that sunshine!

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    I think that photo is absolutely gorgeous. A true Midwesterner learns to see the beauty in dormant plants–as you do here.

  • David Schelhaas says:

    Thanks, Jim. That snow, “humped by its own pokey melting,” hooked me.

  • Mike Kugler says:

    Jim, this is deeply moving, just as I’m finishing a sermon recalling a scene from Frazier’s Cold Mountain, that now has an echo in your essay. Thank you very much.

  • Joan Curbow says:

    Lovely, Jim. The first paragraph especially moves me. I find myself often looking at “bare-ruined choirs”. They are beautiful and terrible.

  • June says:

    Thanks for seeing. And sharing your words. The movement is glorious. Yes. Did you check this very mornings landscape? Kind of like heaven come down.

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