Monastery Run bubbles up from a spring by some trees in western Pennsylvania and meanders through woods and fields northeast to the Loyalhanna Creek, itself a tributary of a tributary of the Allegheny River. It gets its name from flowing for much of its length past a Benedictine monastery. Strolling along that stream, a modern monk can renew his affinity for Gilbert White, an eighteenth-century Anglican parson who pioneered writing sketches about a small place’s flora and fauna.
In 1788 White published a collection of essays, what he called letters, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Selborne is a village in Hampshire, England, maybe fifty miles southwest and a world away from London. Not much changes there, but White had an eye for how one season turns into the next.
White wrote that he was “of the opinion that if stationary men would pay some attention to the districts on which they reside,” and would take notice of “natural productions and occurrences as well as antiquities,” publications resulting from such observations would fill in gaps in knowledge of local history.
Monastery Run is just the kind of setting White spent his free time paying some attention to, and frequent visits to it confirm White’s maxim from Letter 20, “all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined.” Driving past it, the stream goes unnoticed, its surrounding vegetation blurring as just generic trees and weeds.
Along part of Monastery Run’s length near the monastery is a gravel path, like the stream itself about ten feet wide, and walking along it on the day after Easter takes on special significance. In 1846 monks from Bavaria founded the monastery overlooking the run, and they brought with them a custom still practiced in southern German-speaking lands, taking a walk on Easter Monday. Ein Emmausgang, an Emmaus Walk, is an occasion to recall the two disciples who walked to Emmaus and encountered the risen Jesus.
In Gilbert White’s tradition, he would have begun and ended Easter Monday with a collect from the Book of Common Prayer. “We humbly beseech thee,” White would have prayed, “that as by thy special grace preventing us thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect.”
Like the seasons, languages change, and although now “prevent” means to stop, in White’s day it meant to help. For White, God’s special grace went before him to help him put to good effect the good desires God gave him. Especially on an Emmaus Walk, it is interesting to reflect on following in the wake of trailblazing grace.
A road curving up to the monastery and its college and seminary cuts across Monastery Run. A concrete pavement borders the road’s south side, and fifteen stone steps lead from the pavement down to the gravel path. On the north side of the road and along the eastern bank of the run stands an acre of cat tails, where in autumn a half dozen white tail deer can briefly rustle the khaki stalks and then suddenly disappear. On the south side and perpetually sluicing over the run’s eastern bank is a swampy area aglow in autumn with goldenrod.
In that swampy area is a tiny island, about ten feet by three feet. Each April, a Canada goose nests there, and while she broods on her eggs, Father Goose is on guard in the tall marsh grass a few yards away. He sits in the shallow water as still and as formidable as an anchored battleship. In the water around the little island, two mallards paddle about and chatter laconically to one another.
Red-wing blackbirds perch on spindly tips of treetops and call back and forth. Cardinals hop and flutter from twig to twig, and robins are much in evidence, flitting around the staghorn sumac. Locust trees looming along the stream’s west bank seem to be the special haunt of a fierce-eyed blue jay. In summer a couple goldfinches dart around the swamp and up and down the stream, while wheeling above the trees are numerous swifts.
Those autumnal deer seem to be transients, their foraging leading them from nearby woods onto the edges of Monastery Run. Other mammals are year-round residents, and one summer evening a raccoon was busily washing something. A groundhog scurries around, and it is fun to give a short, sharp whistle and make it stand up and look around, earning it again its other name of whistle pig. On the grassy verge, a couple cottontail rabbits munch away, at times catching sight of a human, and then they twitch an ear, blink, and bolt in the other direction.
An unusual absence of squirrels leaves walnuts to ripen on the tree. A century and more ago people used walnut hulls for brown dye, just as they used the drupes of sumac for red dye. Nearby grow bushes of pokeberries, and people used to squeeze the juice from the berries to make ink.
The days after Easter are too early for nuts or berries, not to mention the mint tea, thistles, and Queen Anne’s lace that flourish along the stream. A few buds appear, but mostly bare branches of elms and hackberry trees arch over the path and the stream. The stream rushes cold with recent rains.
Along with natural history, White wrote about his village’s antiquities. Roughly eighty pages, or about one-fifth of his book, recounts the history of Selborne Priory. Chartered in 1233, it closed in 1485. White noted that the priory’s “situation was retired, with a stream running by it, and sequestered from the world, amidst woods and meadows.” Even by White’s day, none of it survived above ground, and pacing along Monastery Run it is worth meditating on a monastery lasting some 250 years and eventually vanishing without a trace.
A hymn written by Isaac Watts, an older contemporary of Gilbert White, reminds us, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream,/Bears all its sons away.” Monasteries may someday close, but Monastery Run goes on. White would have agreed with Andrew McKean, writing about Willow Creek, Montana, in the Spring, 2020, issue of Outdoor Life, “On a live stream, every moment is distinct from the one just before it, or the one yet to come,” adding, “It’s the unrepeatable moment that matters.”