Eric Stirling: Tradition

While tradition furnishes the framework, mystery supplies the stories.

A morning cup of coffee (or two or three); a run before breakfast; a dog walk before dinner; the brush, floss, wash, change ritual of bedtime—these are familiar routines. Be they healthy or harmful, these deliberate, repeated patterns lend shape to our daily lives, but they lack something fundamental that traditions possess.

Traditions connect us to history. The grace we now share was offered by our grandmother forty years before at a different table. These very same words embed us in a legacy that cups of coffee and tooth brushings are hard-pressed to do. But tradition, itself, is backward nodding, an honoring of what others deemed important. It is what we have chosen to carry forth, sometimes out of obligation, sometimes desire.

Whether we embrace or begrudge them, traditions that survive the generations must have merit, for what took immense pioneering effort can, in truth, be halted in an instant. The family reunion ceases when the host dies and no one volunteers to fill the post. The children leave the congregation. The family no longer gathers for dinner; grandmother’s graces have no venue. But what does survive, what we seek to keep alive for ourselves and all in our circle, brings a wave of continuity in an ever-changing human and natural landscape.

What is it about this sameness that creates some deeper sense of connectedness, that we weren’t the only ones to inhabit a particular place or speak certain words? What is it about seeing our name on the same plaque as our grandfather or great grandfather for catching the largest fish of the season on a remote Maine pond? Why do we return again and again for the same experience?

At West Branch Pond Camps, it might be as simple as the smell of fresh bread, how it rides the air currents out of the kitchen and finds the nostrils of the porch sitters, ensconced in a game of spades. We can almost taste the warm, hot-buttered goodness, and we can certainly remember so many times of biting in, with family members—some gone, some much older now—the same recipe, the same satisfaction. We love what we know. Predictability breeds comfort.

But comfort, alone, is not what we seek. While tradition furnishes the framework, mystery supplies the stories. And it is these very stories that distinguish the years of experiences in the same setting—the year we tipped the canoe trying to reel in the big one, the year the rain never stopped and nor did it stop us, the year mom first lost the cribbage tournament. When we honor tradition and simultaneously open to the mystery of the present moment, magic arises.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “…man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he, too, lives with nature in the present, above time.” Tradition might get us to camp, but we must do the work of truly arriving each time, of coming into presence with all that breathes around us. Alert senses. Quiet mind. Open heart. Nature offers freely the experiences that embed the traditions even deeper.

Heraclitus so poignantly reminds us: “You cannot step into the same river twice.”

Photo and video by Daniel Casado. Text by Jenn Barton.