Spiritual Duff

Observing things in nature has always prompted me to take a closer look at my spiritual life, and the Pacific Northwest is an area filled with abundant examples.

We are blessed to have the opportunity to spend time tending a forested property in the mountains. The previous owners did not actively manage the wooded acreage, so one of our first tasks was to interface with a forestry management expert in order to learn how to make the area more fire safe. Not only did he highlight the downed branches to be disposed of and the numerous trees to be thinned and trimmed, but he also instructed us that we needed to do some work on the forest floor. He took his tool, hacked it into the pine needle covered ground and pulled up this four-inch brick-like chunk of matter. “This is called duff,” he said. “It is the result of years of accumulated pine needles, pressed down and compacted.”  

Cleaning up the trees and branches was hard work, but clearing out the duff was quite dusty and unpleasant. Although lightweight, it was incredibly dense, so it had to be added to seasonal burn piles in small clumps at a time, as it would just smolder. We would focus on clearing a small area at a time, and it wasn’t that rewarding. We went from something that looked like a carpet of pine needles, to simply dirt. Not a huge improvement in my book. We probably wouldn’t have put in the effort if it weren’t for the fire protection aspect.  

The snows came, signaling the end of our labors for the season. A surprise awaited us as the thaw came: there, all along the space where we’d worked, were flowers! Tiny ones called spring beauties, soon followed by large bouquets of arrow leaf balsamroot. Our adjacent neighbors remarked that had never suspected such wonders lurked on that part of the forest floor.


“Often it is only through prayerful examination that we can see those places in our lives where this ‘spiritual duff’ has accumulated, blocking out the life that God wants to grow in us.”


Pine needles are good, and a few can be beneficial. Over the course of time, however, these had slowly built up to the point that nothing else could grow. How many things in life are like this? An activity, hobby or relationship may start out as benign, but can slowly choke out other things that might be more life giving. Since none of these things are ‘bad’, it is often difficult to even see that there is a problem. Course correcting can be messy and unrewarding, and often the temptation is to prefer the status quo. Often it is only through prayerful examination that we can see those places in our lives where this ‘spiritual duff’ has accumulated, blocking out the life that God wants to grow in us.

Lord, please help me to see where I have allowed possessions, relationships or activities to accumulate in such a way that they stifle out the life you want to grow in me. Grant me strength and determination to reorder my life in a way that accomplishes your will and shows forth your love. In Christ’s name I pray, Amen.   

Kimberley writes from the Methow Valley in Eastern Washington where forest fires have been raging. She feels her reflections on duff are particularly pertinent given the fires and situation in the area.

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