I met Brad Dodson and his family while pastoring a large church in Fort Worth, Texas. We had a natural affinity and spent many hours discussing faith, our families, our hopes for the future. Brad’s grandfather was a lumberman in the East Texas pine forests, passing on his love for the natural world to his grandson. In this excerpt from the book The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), Brad shares how nature helped restore his spirit during a difficult time in his life.
I have hunted, fished, hiked, climbed, skied, paddled, and camped across the years. Nature has been a constant element in my life.
I have also been blessed with companions who pursued these adventures alongside me. One, a childhood friend, became my primary partner each year during late summer and early fall as we hunted migrating doves. We spent countless afternoons sitting below majestic live oak trees, waiting for the birds to come. They would arrive, and we would strive for our limits. But regardless of the outcome, we never missed our true aim: spending time outdoors with someone you appreciate. The smell of the grass, the sound of the retrievers as they bring back the birds, the feel of the last sunlight on our cheeks—it is all etched in my memory. So is the sound of my friend’s voice and the smile across his lips and eyes as he also delighted in those days.
My friend died unexpectedly in our late 30s. As I grieved for him, I found I had no desire to spend time outdoors without him. Instead, I turned my life towards work and remained that way for six years. My father would also leave us during that time. Each year grew more frustrating than the last and I began to question life in ways both large and small.
I became active in my church and found some purpose there, but something was always missing. At a weekend youth retreat one spring in the country, I was standing outside cooking hotdogs and burgers. Suddenly, I heard the call of a male turkey. Almost immediately, a second tom joined him vocally. I went inside, got a few of the kids, and brought them outside. I called the two turkeys to our cabin, feeling alive in a way I hadn’t for years.
Shortly after that, I went to a river to try fishing again. In a dark pool that fed into a small waterfall below a canopy of trees, a rainbow trout took my presentation. The pull of the line as it darted across the pool gave me a smile. It was my first rainbow trout. When I held that fish in my hands, preparing to let it go back into the water, it transformed me. Its muscular energy and desire to swim away were powerful. It was the most alive thing I had ever felt. I fished the remainder of that evening and all the next day, slowly letting my grief dissolve. In the years since, I have not stopped. I have traveled and camped across thousands of remote miles in pursuit of trout.
Fly fishing brought me back to nature. It did more than that; it brought me back to God. Although I was active in my church, I had become numb to what God has created for us on this planet, its flora and fauna that surround us every day. I had neglected to notice the beauty. That fish and those turkeys brought it back into focus and renewed my perspective.
I have come to appreciate that the natural world is God’s earthly gift to us. I have experienced this in so many ways. Watching geese skim the water in flight, then settle next to me as I wade-fished a fog-covered river in early morning North Carolina. Having a beaver swim between my legs while casting in the waters of Wyoming. Sharing five minutes with my wife in the Sea of Cortez as hundreds of dolphins chasing tuna swam past our kayak. Or, simply standing outside my workplace and delighting as a juvenile mockingbird imitated my whistled tunes. These and many other experiences have shown me repeatedly how wonderful God’s love is to have created such beauty, song, light, and motion for us to enjoy.
As a young boy, I watched a lone wolf with my grandfather early one winter morning. “That may be the last wolf you will ever see,” he said. Many years later, sitting around a fire with a dear friend next to our raft in Western Alaska, we watched in silent awe as a lone wolf loped casually down the rocky beach just across the river from us. He paid us no mind. In that place, so remote and seldom visited, we were simply part of the environment. We could hear his call many hours later.
As with all the moments I have had in nature since that first trout, I smiled and thanked God for the gift.
Connect with Brad Dodson on Instagram here.