Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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 The Smell of Burnt Marsh-wiggle

April 15, 2020

Amy Lee

A simple discipline for surreal times


Tomorrow I will sink my hands into the dirt.

Planting seeds won’t be a rebellious act of stability against these tumultuous days, and it won’t be a merely practical alternative to the early summer adventure we were hoping to take, though these are good reasons in themselves.

It will be, instead, my simple answer to surreality. With our calendar now bare, workplaces closed, and hard-but-necessary measures being implemented by the hour, the days and dates are beginning to blur together. The continuous headlines and live updates on my computer and phone carry the waiting tension of Kipling’s toad beneath the harrow, who “knows / Where every separate tooth-point goes” (“Pagett, M.P.”). And while the events that have swept like a tidal wave through the past few months have been unprecedented for our generation, I’ve begun to recognize this disconnected feeling that hovers just at the edge of my thoughts.

I know this inward place.

It springs up from uncertainties that have no clearly defined end. This is the echo-chamber where untruths reverberate into deafening shouts, where sunlight and fresh air are shut out.

If the Adversary prowls about like a lion seeking to devour (I Pet. 5:8), in my life I’ve found he does so with smoke and mirrors. Like the spells cast by the Lady of the Green Kirtle in Lewis’s The Silver Chair, the disorientation of an upended world dulls my senses first, and makes way for forgetfulness and insecurity to enter in.

When Eustace Scrubb, Jill Pole, and Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle descend into the underbelly of Narnia, the Witch Queen begins an insidious enchantment to convince them that their own world does not exist — indeed, that it never did. And she almost succeeds. “There never was any world but yours,”[i] the children begin to repeat, overcome by her cloying green fire and musical thrumming.

At certain hours in recent days, my own corner of the world has clouded over as well. I felt a chill creep up and squeeze the warmth out of my lungs on Tuesday, when I arrived at the grocery store as it opened to find the shelves and coolers picked almost clean of produce, canned vegetables, grains, and meat. “There never was any world but mine,” fear seemed to murmur then: a world crammed with projections, rumors, and sobering reports — and the conclusions and feelings of powerlessness that follow in their wake.

To tell the truth, I have never needed a worldwide crisis to hear this whisper. I’ve heard it on a constant basis all my life. But if I have the dubious advantage of knowing surreality well, I’ve also learned that it crumbles when it comes into contact with the stuff of God’s solid earth.

In the face of the Witch Queen’s deception, Puddleglum does a most extraordinary thing: he calls to mind simple, real objects. “But I know I was there once. I’ve seen the sky full of stars. I’ve seen the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And I’ve seen him up in the midday sky when I couldn’t look at him for brightness.” It is this recollection of the sky, the sun, the sea, and the mountains — of material realities — that jolts everyone from their hypnosis.

I have a small memento from one particularly busy season in college. On a dreary afternoon I dropped exhaustedly into my chair feeling utterly spent and unseen; loneliness mounted as I let my gaze drift across the tabletop — the trees outside the window — the wall. Perhaps, an inner voice suggested, you’ve been forgotten. Perhaps nothing in your service or your friendships has ever mattered enough to be worthwhile. But at that instant, my eyes settled on a small rectangle of paper wedged in a corner of my cork board — a postcard from a friend who had simply wanted to remind me of the love of God — and my restless gaze stilled. I didn’t even lift the card from the frame. For the next minute or so I kept my eyes steadily fixed on it as I talked with my Father, and the voice went away.

I am grateful that my Lord has set a clear precedent for this brand of practicality. Consider the lilies, He says; ponder the baskets of leftover bread; mark the fragrance wafting from a broken flask of nard. Break and eat, pour and drink in remembrance of Me. Somehow concrete things tie us to indestructible truths, making them exceedingly difficult for fear and disillusionment to refute. On occasion these helps break in upon our isolated imaginings, grace-sent — and, at other times, we must choose to find a firm foothold and steady ourselves upon the Great Cornerstone.

At the climax of The Silver Chair, the Witch redoubles her efforts. Her illusion is broken briefly again when Jill mentions the name of Aslan, but again, the Witch lulls them all back into doubt. Finally, Puddleglum gathers the last of his wits and walks over to the fire, grinding it out with his bare webbed foot.

At that precise instant, the Witch’s power dissipates: “For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good bit of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer.” None more so than Puddleglum’s, whose own mind is shocked back to reality by the very real pain in his foot. No argument or feat of concentration could have worked a better end. And while the Witch meets her demise within a page, this is effectively and decisively the moment of her downfall.

The act of grasping truth amid the muddle of disorientation is, I’m discovering, a discipline. Sometimes the singing of hymns is a potent means toward this end, as is the keeping of short, digestible statements. Sometimes it is necessary to break the cycle of what-ifs with a firm grounding in what is before us, using tangible, tactile things to draw us back to the present moment. Phantom fears lose their menace as we are jarred to attention; concrete items help anchor our imaginations to the hour at hand. These can be as strong as the grasp of a rescuing hand in deep waters — and as blessedly startling as a whiff of burnt Marsh-wiggle.

This weekend at small Ithilien House, therefore, I will push my fingertips into damp soil. I will watch impossibly small black seeds run into the crevices of my palm and try not to lose sight of them as I divide them among the cells of the seedling tray. For all the present turmoil, the boundaries of my life have not actually changed: this body is still destined to perish, bound by the physical laws of a broken earth; it still has a limited amount of time to pour itself out for the love of its King and His people, and to do it without stinting. Memento mori. So I will do what I can: plant these seeds, press them in, and watch for the first green leaves — a miracle that never gets old. I will pray for the flourishing of growth and for fruit to provide for us and many around us, especially if this time of isolation lasts into the summer and the fall.

When that’s done, children and schedule permitting, I’ll sit down in my room for at least five minutes. I will feel the ground under my feet and the beat of a heart that is working, listen to the steady inflation of lungs silently drawing in oxygen, quiet the darting speed of my gaze, turn my head to see the sunlit sky, and give thanks like a child who is learning to receive this day’s provision without demanding to know whence tomorrow’s manna will come.

There I’ll pray that I will rise to an uncertain world with eyes enlivened to the reality before me, starting here. For the underworld of temporary difficulty is not all that exists, not by a long shot — not even with its threats of death. There is a Word and a Person more enduring and more present than these, as solid as the spear-slit scar in His side.

And despite the slow grinding of Time’s wheel and the entropy of the Fall, even the tiniest, wrinkled, cracking seed bears an assurance that the Enemy can neither blot nor smoke out: the promise of God-breathed life prevailing, if I will have Him — right here.

Right now.

[i] All quotes from Ch. 12, “The Queen of Underland.” C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York, HarperCollins, 2001).

The featured image is (c) Fallon Michael of Unsplash and used with her kind permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.


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  1. K.C. Ireton says:

    Oh, Amy, YES! physical, concrete reality has the power to anchor us to Something–Someone–beyond itself. Thank you for articulating that experience so vividly and so well. (And for tying it to a literary experience, which often has a similar power!)

  2. This is so true, Amy. I laid out on the lawn under the noon-day sun Thursday, and later that day I could feel my face with my face, because the light had left something real in my skin. I feel this way when I work with wood (I’m sure Yongwon can relate), or feel guitar strings under my fingertips. Cooking and coffee-making are relaxing to me in this way.

    There are surreal days when I pray, “Lord, I don’t know where I am. Am I? Am I anywhere at all?”

    Thanks for writing this.

  3. Sarah says:

    Don’t you love how he says “I shouldn’t wonder”? 🤣 I love Puddleglum and your words on hope and growth and reality. Thank you.

  4. “Phantom fears lose their menace as we are jarred to attention; concrete items help anchor our imaginations to the hour at hand. These can be as strong as the grasp of a rescuing hand in deep waters — and as blessedly startling as a whiff of burnt Marsh-wiggle.” Thank you so much for this! Grounding ourselves in the practical, incarnational reality God has blessed us with truly makes all the difference when we find ourselves fighting “Smoke and mirrors.”

  5. Jordan Durbin says:

    Another glorious offering! Thank you for this gritty and fragrant reminder! I can almost smell the marsh-wiggle roasting!

  6. Celeste Toliver says:

    Thank you for this! I loved the reminder to be content.

  7. Not many these days emerge from the underworld of our secular, post-modern universities with their faith in Christ and the Bible intact…
    This scene from the ‘Silver Chair’ has given me hope , many a dark day, for mine who yet swoon in the fetid humour of the enchanter. Thanks for invoking this allusion to the sweet fragrance of redemption!
    Willing to be Puddleglum to their generation,

  8. Leslie Bustard says:

    Dear Amy, Tonight all my daughters and one of my daughter’s three roommates came over for dinner tonight (which they cooked)… And part of the evening was a twist on show and Tell (bring a song or story or essay or painting, etc to share). I read this essay to them. They were moved and encouraged, and some teared up. I know I teared up at the end. Thank you for sharing these words and ideas. It was greatly encouraging to all of us tonight. Warmly, Leslie

  9. Amy Baik Lee says:

    K.C., I agree wholeheartedly about literary experiences; a thousand blessings to the writers and poets who have tossed out life preservers as the waves mount in the dark!

  10. Amy Baik Lee says:

    Matthew: I love that image, and that you could “feel your face with your face” — and that phrase, my friend, is a perfect example of your distinct and fantastic voice. (Do you ever feel that the sky is a deeper blue after being out in it like that?) You make me glad yet again that He gives us these concrete realities to know where we are in time and space — and in His hand.

  11. Amy Baik Lee says:

    Sarah, I do! And also “One word, Ma’am; one word.”

  12. Amy Baik Lee says:

    Maribeth, “incarnational reality” — yes, exactly this! This is something I wish I had known long ago when I tried to fight smoke with… well, smoke.

  13. Amy Baik Lee says:

    Jordan, you’ve made me laugh — oh dear! Thank you for these encouraging words.

  14. Amy Baik Lee says:

    Celeste, thank you. It still flummoxes me — in the best of ways — that the shelter of His sovereignty can make a place of contentment anywhere.

  15. Sarah says:

    I’m so encouraged by your words. I have been thinking on them for weeks now and just want to thank you. Sincerely,

  16. Amy Baik Lee says:

    Denise, that is an application that I hadn’t even thought of. If it is any encouragement, some of the best and most illuminating conversations I’ve ever had were at a secular, post-modern university; sometimes the fragrance of Christ stands out the clearer in settings where long-held stances (even of the Christian variety) are exposed to sun and rain. Thank you for being willing to be a Puddleglum. I’m afraid I’m rather more naturally inclined to be Jill myself, letting His instruction fly out of my head at the most inopportune times.

  17. Amy Baik Lee says:

    Leslie, I hardly know how to respond, but I’m moved indeed; thank you for passing this on to me. What a privilege to be a part of your evening! (And I will have to borrow that show and tell idea — brilliant.)

  18. jordan Durbin says:

    Dear Amy,
    I’ve been painting my kitchen and dining room today and yesterday, listening to The Silver Chair. Your words have echoed in the wake of Lewis’ own, and I’ve yelled, “Oh!!! How we need a burnt marshwiggle!!” I’ve never felt it more than now. We desperately need Froggies all who will stand in the face of lies and deception and stamp out the fear and confusion, even if it hurts. Thank you again.

  19. Sean says:

    You have brought me hope in a dark hour. May god pour his continual blessings upon you.

  20. Lois says:

    Thanks Amy, for writing. We still seem to need “the smell of burnt marshwiggle” often to break through the the surreality of our times. We still need connection with the physical universe and with unchanging truths to combat the voices of pressure and deception.

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