Gratitude Practices

I often begin my morning listing five things for which I’m grateful. Often they are small things—a cardinal outside the window, a call from a friend. I have much to be thankful for, and I make this practice part of my devotions. I think I’m going to start a thankfulness list, though, for the foods I am privileged to eat today, for many foods are treasures that are here today, but may be gone tomorrow.

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Orange Grove in the Inland Empire. Credit below.

My home in the Inland Empire sat 30 to 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Our street, like many in the burgeoning towns that eat into the California desert today, was commandeered from the lemon and orange orchards that once were ubiquitous in this part of California, and our developments were sculpted from them.

 

Rich earth had fed those trees, and we, the residents of the developments that caused their demise, inherited what remained of that good earth.

The oranges came to California in the early 1800s with the mission padres, who carried individual trees north from Baja into Upper California. The first sweet orange grove “was planted in the garden of the San Gabriel Mission by Father Francisco Miguel Sanchez in 1803,” according to a history compiled by the Inland Orange Conservancy, a non-profit group dedicated to protecting the few remaining groves in Southern California. They were largely confined to mission compounds until the 1850s—the time of the California gold rush. (For those interested, here’s the link to the Inland Orange Conservancy – Home | Facebook page.)

In the 1880s Eliza Tibbit, a famous horticulturist, agronomist, abolitionist (and more) used her connections to obtain a new seedless orange, which originated in Brazil. Her trees flourished and laid much of the foundation for the orange industry in California; by the 1940s, an impressive 75 million cases of navel oranges were being shipped from southern California orange groves throughout the United States, Europe, and the world!

These orange trees were later confiscated by developments like the one where I grew up, developments that were built to house half a million or so of the 16 million soldiers who, like my dad, my uncle Roy, and countless others, returned en masse from World War II.

My development had been surrounded by block-long groves to the west of my house, and more, further to the north and east. But I watched these groves progressively disappear throughout the march of my childhood.

The groves were doomed, cornered like stray orange pieces sewn here and there in a cement-colored quilt of growing feeder streets and suburban developments. As the groves disappeared, the rich earth they fed on went too, covered by stucco structures and asphalt pavement.

Most of the groves of my childhood experienced a demise. Today, though, whole foods that we depend upon are at risk of disappearing.

orange tree16142454_10208240366751717_4284977956070090556_nOranges and lemons, from California, to Texas, to Florida, to the U.S. Virgin Islands, are at risk today from a plant disease known commonly as Citrus Greening (short for Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus—a name I’ll never remember). Apparently it is one of the most serious plant diseases in the world. The United States Department of Agriculture offers a list of things people can do to help avoid spreading the disease.

Coffee and bananas are both in trouble. Forbes just published a story on a report that “60% of wild coffee species are under threat of extinction. This includes the wild species of Arabica, the most popular cultivated coffee species accounting for 60% of global production.” Coffee’s potential demise is directly attributed to the changing climate in coffee growing regions.

Bananas have been at risk for decades. In Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel reminded me that the bananas I ate as a child tasted better than the ones I find in my grocery store today (which may be why I loved them then but don’t like them now).

We grew up with a banana called the Gros Michel, which tragically became commercially extinct in the mid-1960s from Panama disease. Banana growers were forced to switch to the less tasty Cavendish, which stores sell now. But the Cavendish and many lesser known banana varieties are under threat by a new form of Panama disease that has traveled from Southeast Asia and is now ravishing Africa. Scientists are working overtime to find solutions to this new threat.

Our memories are short. But once a grove or species is lost, it is hard or impossible to replace it.

  • Recognizing that we were granted stewardship of this planet by God to protect it, and not to use it for selfish ends,
  • acknowledging the reality of climate change and getting on board with efforts to address it, and
  • beginning gratitude practices for the good fruits of the earth

may help us start to appreciate these treasures and stop taking the harvests of this amazing but fragile good earth for granted.

 

Orange grove photo credit: By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14784771735/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/armstrongnurseri1909arms/armstrongnurseri1909arms#page/n8/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42134261

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God’s Immanence in a Rose: Reflections from New Year’s Day

Scotland 12 37217421_10212201409055299_7486753352756232192_nAt the Rose Parade, flowers reign. For those unversed in parade rules–every surface inch on every float—from huge twirling elephants to the image on the elephant’s IPad—must be covered in natural materials–dried stretched seaweeds, tea leaves, cranberry seeds, corn, beans, or rice. Herbs like cumin and cloves. Carnations, mums, daisies, orchids, bird of paradise flowers, and half a million or more roses. No artificial plant materials or coloring are allowed—nature’s colors are dramatic enough.

New Year’s Day, to me, always means the Rose Parade. Watching in 2019, its 130th anniversary, the parade of floats evoke the sublime!

I lived in Pasadena, the Parade’s home, for six crucial years of my life. I attended Pasadena City College for one year (before transferring to Occidental College nearby), worshipped at a Pasadena church, met and married my husband in Pasadena, graduated from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, and stood on Colorado Boulevard watching the Rose Parade as often as I could.

One year when I was a child, my dad packed my sister and I into our VW bus, drove to Pasadena, parked near the parade route, and staked out a viewing place while my sister and I struggled to sleep in the van. The overnight celebrations on the parade route are lively. We didn’t sleep much. By the time we found our spot and the parade began, I could barely keep my eyes open.

I’ve camped in the van, slept on the sidewalk to get a seat at the curb, stood behind deep rows of crowds to catch parade glimpses, and sat in the bleachers (once).

Many of my pivotal life memories occurred in this city that dedicates its parade to roses—a parade that reminds me how much poorer the world would be without flowers.

To me, God shows up in flowers.

God as transcendent, who exists above Creation, and God as immanent, who can be met through Creation, join harmoniously in the theology that guides my life. As St. Patrick put it:

I arise today, through God’s strength to pilot me,

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me….

I arise today, through the strength of heaven,

The light of the sun,

The radiance of the moon….

To the Christian academic and writer C. S. Lewis, beauty—like music or the scent of a rose—serve as a metaphor of our longing for Heaven. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis wrote:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing…. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

God present in the world He has made. Through it, God hinting at a world we have not yet seen. God present in roses—even at the Tournament of Roses.

One more reason to protect the flora and fauna of this world.

Even Giants Risk Extinction

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s Ents battled ferociously when Saruman and his orcs, acting like a vicious “planetary disease” sought to uproot and chop the ancient Fangorn Forest to extinction. Ripping free from their stupor the Ents fought heroically, heaving rocks and loosing floods, until they ended the destruction.

Ent giants, Middle Earth’s trees unchained. In Tolkein’s story, the Ents were the trees’ shepherds; they would fight deforestation to the end. 

Our earth’s trees are sessile, tethered by roots. In our world, if trees are to have shepherds to fight their destruction, those shepherds will have to be us.

A few years ago, the giants in Indiana were heavily breeding. Our silver maple let loose thousands of spinning seedlings, and I regretfully became the tree’s adversary as I plucked hundreds of new born maples from their successful implantations in my lawn. Ash trees lining our street were dense with seeds clusters. Sycamores in the woods bulged with pods.

I asked a tree expert, a state employee whose job involved growing trees used to repopulate forests deforested by industry, if something was up.






By USFWSmidwest https://www.flickr.com/
photos/49208525@N08/13985429209/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=61073572

He explained: Silver maples were seeding madly statewide. To protect their kind, when trees sense danger, some varieties bear offspring in far greater quantities than usual. That year, they were doing this throughout Indiana. They knew something. Two past summers, hot with drought, had killed trees throughout the state. A long cold winter gave warning.

Giants communicating with giants in voices unheard. Instinct urging. The trees listened, acted, wise with the centuries’ accumulated wisdom. Better go all out this year, they whispered. The future is precarious. They understood: even giants risk extinction.

The most majestic tree giants that I have seen are the huge redwoods of my native California. We visited them as a family when my sister and I were children, and I felt the awe such trees inspire. The California coast hosts the largest remaining virgin redwood forest in the world, with 2,500 year old trees. They are the tallest trees on earth. Massive at their base, redwoods are planted firmly on wide set legs, sufficient to hold each tree’s towering form.

We build buildings that emulate the shape of those tree trunks.

But even giant redwoods are disappearing. According to the 2018 State of the Redwoods Conservation Report, this region along the California coast once boasted 2.2 million acres of tall, old growth redwoods, a forest in existence since the age of the dinosaurs. Now, due to factors such as rapid logging since California’s gold rush in the 1840s, the old growth forest has shrunk to a meagre 113,000 acres.  

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=621584

Tragically, these “arboreal giants” are also being attacked by poachers. Much like the big animals of Africa—the elephant and rhinoceros—giant redwoods have been murdered for economic gain. Poachers with chain saws extract redwood burls—some nobs, burls with beautiful, swirling patterns—weigh hundreds of pounds. Even when the tree survives, the New York Times reports that “removing a burl cuts into a tree’s living cambium layer, which can weaken it and make it vulnerable to insects and disease.” [Follow this link to a storyboard showing the destruction.]

Tethered, the redwoods have no recourse but to stand proud and endure when they are attacked—no running for them. Brave and determined forest rangers (tree shepherds!) are closing roads and trying to stop the poachers—but too frequently, more trees are defaced. 

California’s recent fires have also put redwoods at risk, fires made more likely by human-induced climate change. California’s redwood forest has been designated a world heritage site. But like sites situated in war zones or stressed by uncontrolled human encroachment, even these giants risk extinction.

Across the globe trade wars, which can lead big consumers to burn more woodlands to cultivate additional crops, further imperil the Fangorn forests of this world.

Nature has a well-honed instinct for survival. I’ve seen trees at the brink of a riverside cliff, clinging by root threads to rocks and sand, living, growing, persistent. I’ve seen ancient trees like the ponderosa pine, because of its relative inaccessibility and, of improbable benefit, unattractiveness, doggedly surviving.

Living creatures are tenacious. Seeds proliferate, survive, and sprout. Trees hold on, gripping, digging their roots deeper, wider. Life clings, hopes.

But nature is vulnerable, as well. Fragile.

In our world, where humankind has so often imitated Saruman and his orcs, acting like “planetary diseases,” our ancient forests are under attack.

We cannot count on trees unchained. We are the trees’ shepherds.

It is up to us to fight for the survival of the giants of this world. We must rise from our own stupor and do battle, for even giants risk extinction.

[Part two: “How to Battle Like the Ents” will be published soon. For more on Man: A Planetary Disease, go the Ian L. McHarg’s 1971 B. Y. Morrison Memorial Lecture.]

A naive quest for a wooden treasure

Rough branches brushed our car. Birds cawed nearby. The jungle was impenetrable—we could see only a short distance in any direction. Had we been utterly naive? We were, after all, driving by ourselves deep into an unfamiliar jungle searching for a prison. Following the advice of locals, who had assured John and I that the prison was the only location on the big Island of Hawaii selling items carved of Kou wood, we had set off that morning, along a long road leading deep into the jungle.

Trees have inspired me all my life. As a small child, I found escape from family troubles in a simple, roofless tree house—a stumpy box, really–constructed by my father in the hefty fruitless mulberry canopying our back yard. Trees provide places for little girls to escape.

In cold climates, when tree leaves unfurl in spring, they transform our grey-brown world. In fall, when they reveal their true colors, they remind us of hidden truths unveiled.

Trees offer windbreaks, fruit, nesting sites, and covering for plants and animals. They give flat vistas verticality, produce oxygen, and even clean the soil. And inside their protective coverings, their rings and burls affirm the remarkable beauty hidden throughout creation.

“Just follow the road inland,” the locals had said. “Keep driving. It’s a ways, but if you keep going, you’ll get there.” So they’d said.

We had been “going” for nearly two hours, and it looked like we were getting nowhere. Edgy, we considered turning back. And then, we saw it–a high, cut-edge barbed wire fence came into view where the jungle parted. Now we just had to climb out of the safety of our car, call someone on the phone attached to the prison gate, and ask to be let in.

Before long, we found ourselves inside the prison in a room displaying an array of products carved by inmates out of native woods. We bought a Kou fish tray as a gift for my mother (which I have today), and then drove two hours back the way we came.

John and my appreciation of native Hawaiian woods began when we first traveled to Kauai on our honeymoon. For Californians, the islands were a common destination. Of course, like other visitors, we loved everything—snorkeling, sunsets, grilled ahi from our favorite restaurant, the Dolphin. Greenery. Green valleys, green trees, green jungle vegetation. And products local artisans made from native Hawaiian trees.

On our first trip, we stopped at a small woodworking shop and were greeted by a graying woodcarver of Hawaiian ancestry who showed us a few unfinished vases from a Kou tree. The old woodcarver told us the Kou was going extinct; the carvings were from one found downed naturally. And so we bought a vase.

It was years later that we set out on our quest to find this second Kou product in the jungle at the big island’s prison.

In those years, we did not understand the impact humans were having on native trees in Hawaii and elsewhere. We did see the beauty hidden in the trees’ bowels.

Fortunately, the Kou is still living in parts of the Islands. But other trees in our world are disappearing. According to a 2017 Newsweek article, “9,600 types of trees” across the planet are “threatened by extinction.” Such extinctions are particularly devastating in rich and fragile natural environments, like Hawaii.

Home to over 10,000 endemic species (native species, found nowhere else on earth), Hawaii’s forests helped conserve water, allowing this stunning assemblage to thrive. These forests are now among the world’s most endangered, though, due largely to the invasion of humans, pigs, cows, goats, rats, insects, and non-native plants introduced in the past few centuries.

Over the years I’ve learned to ask questions about the wood products I purchase, to ensure that I am not purchasing products from endangered species.

My environmental awareness is under development, and I trust I am growing wiser with the years.

Trees like the Kou and others native to Hawaii are worth all of our endeavors to save them. For the trees themselves; for our interconnected ecosystem; for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children not yet born—working to save whole forests and individual tree species from extinction is imperative. Trees—appreciating and saving them–are part of the reason I began this blog. And they are a reason I’ll keep trying to find my way to make a difference.

The Day I Met a Goat

1019181232-1_resizedWhile driving through the countryside this week I met a goat.

It was a field of goats, actually, although most of the herd ignored me; only one made the effort to become acquainted. I spied the flock on my way to Tuttle’s Orchards, where I went in a search of great, white pumpkins.

My knowledge of goats is limited, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was a Boer Goat.

For those who live outside the Midwestern United States, harvest looms big in a state like Indiana. Farmers construct corn mazes, build pumpkin towers, and devise hay bale climbing frames; they preserve fresh produce, can jams and jellies, cook apple pies, and sell home grown corn, beans, squash, and tomatoes. Farms become playgrounds, where schools unload busloads of children, and where families converge to pick apples and buy fall pumpkins.

At harvest time, some farmers outdo themselves.

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During my visit to Tuttle’s, I bought a bag of organic basil pasta, a jar of strawberry rhubarb jam, a loaf of home baked cinnamon bread, and five white pumpkins.

On my drive there, though, I was a bit nervous about the “low tire” indicator light that lit up a few days ago, which I hadn’t yet investigated. Abrupt 20 degree changes in air temperature make my tire indicator lights skittish, and I never know if the tires are low or just sensitive. When I first learned to drive (decades ago), “service” stations (aka gas stations) checked my tire pressure for me. Now, I must check the pressure myself or visit my Honda dealer (where they kindly add air if needed and turn off the indicator light free of charge).

How to read my car’s indicator symbols, check the tire pressure, and turn off indicator lights are only a few of the skills I am trying to develop now, skills that once were part of someone else’s area of expertise.

Once, businesses had secretarial assistants, and universities, like the one where I work, had administrative and teaching assistants. Now, in my position as a Senior Lecturer in English, I type my own letters (or emails), sort my own files (which is why my desk risks being hemmed in by heaps of old student folders), and build my courses on an ever changing electronic learning platform, meant to “enhance educational management and delivery.”

My life has grown increasingly complex, and I constantly seem to need new skills to deal with it.

This may be why I felt great joy driving through the countryside and meeting a goat.1019181232a-1_resized

I think this escalating complexity could also be one of the reasons why many people deny climate change and ignore environmental crises that must be addressed. Despite the “world’s leading climate scientists” confirmation “that climate change is running faster than we are – and we are running out of time”–people still try to deny its existence.

When we want to simplify life, it is easier to say, “The temperature is always going up and down” or “The climate changes ‘back and forth, back and forth’” than it is to examine the complex interplay between human induced deforestation, human produced carbon dioxide emissions, and rising temperatures melting glaciers that have protected life on our planet for millennia.

When we’re struggling to learn what we need to know to maintain our cars and keep our jobs, it is easier to ignore the downgrading of entire ecosystems around the globe than to take a serious look at how humankind’s removal of what scientists call “keystone species” have led to the collapse of once thriving ecosystems in our rivers, air, land, and seas. [See the documentary “The Serengeti Rules” for more on keystone species and on new hopes for reviving our natural world.]

Like it or not, though, we have to face climate change and today’s other environmental crises.

Our species’ actions have an out sized impact on the rest of the planet. We simply cannot stand by and let these actions destroy it.

Despite the complexities of modern life, we need to accept our responsibilities for climate change, degraded ecosystems, and disappearing species.

A drive in the country may reconnect us to this wonderful natural world of which we are a part.

Maybe we all need to slow down, take a drive, and meet a goat.

My Love Affair with Scotland

I’m in a love affair with Scotland. I lived there for three years thirty years ago, and in the intervening years, I’ve returned thirteen times.

This past summer, I spent five weeks in Scotland: exploring Edinburgh anew, a city of turrets and spires; revisiting Midlothian where our family resided; rambling through coastal villages in Fife; visiting my sister, her husband, and dear friends; and feasting on visions of “drystane dykes” (stone walls without mortar) and rolling vistas descending to the Firth of Forth.

The skies were clear blue; flowers–roses, fuchsia ‘trees,’ lavender, and poppies, all at their peak–overflowed pots and beds.

And the golf courses and hillsides—unexpectedly—were turning from their usual emerald green to yellow-gold and then to shades of brown, far too early for this predictably rainy country.

One of Scotland’s well-known, humorous postcards is divided into four boxes, each containing one of the four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Each box pictures a sheep standing in the rain—winter snow/rain, spring rain, summer rain, and fall rain.

“Welcome to Scotland, where the seasons don’t matter” says a joke.

When it rains in Scotland, people just get on with it.

Rain has made Scotland a haven for flower lovers, like me, and a go-to-place for a lot of golfers. (It’s a country of only 5.3 million people, but Scotland boasts 550 golf courses!) It is not known as a go-to-place for a summer tan. But it was this year.

This year—the summer of 2018–the seasons mattered. During the five weeks I was there, it rained only twice.

Scotland’s churches celebrate harvest Sunday in September. But this summer, Scotland’s farmers started harvesting in mid-July.

On June 28th, Glasgow, Scotland, topped 91.7 degrees—the second highest temperature ever recorded anywhere in Scotland. The BBC reported that “The ‘weatherproof’ membrane on Glasgow Science Centre’s roof melted and dripped black ‘goo’ down the building” because of the heat—Scotland, like many other places, isn’t prepared for such temperatures.

In a report from the Met Office (the people behind British weather forecasts), “there has been a general increase in summer temperatures averaged over the country as a result of human influence on climate, making the occurrence of warm summer temperatures more frequent.” And they add, “Every region of the UK is forecast to see average summer temperatures rise by around three degrees over the next 60 years.”

Scotland wasn’t alone in experiencing such a summer. During the first week of July, in the north, from Siberia to Canada–and across the rest of the globe—the planet baked.

Scientists from both NASA and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have said that “17 of the 18 warmest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001.” Seriously.

As the Washington Post said, “No single record, in isolation, can be attributed to global warming. But collectively, these heat records are consistent with the kind of extremes we expect to see increase in a warming world.”

Scotland 11 37534591_10212238571584339_3993478377280372736_nA warming world could be considered good news for those who want Scottish suntans. It could portend trouble, though, for Scottish golf courses, bird life, fisheries, flowers, and farmers.

The Scientific community has agreed that humans are playing a leading role in climate change. They do not and will not agree on how fast it is warming, the extent of our species’ role versus other causes, or the specific consequences of climate change. Science doesn’t work this way. Science hypothesizes and tests out theories to get nearer to good conclusions. But thousands of experiments have led to their consensus that climate change is real, dangerous, and an emergency the whole world must address intentionally. Now.

Scotland is determined to be one of the countries taking the lead. According to the Scottish government, they plan to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% by 1950.”

All of Scotland’s efforts won’t be enough, though, unless the rest of the world—including the United States—is on board.

Friends, we need to vote out anyone who says they don’t believe in climate change. We need to vote in those who acknowledge it and plan to do something about it. We need to stand with local, state, and federal agencies that are making climate change a priority. We need to get on board, and we need to get our country on board, as well.

I want to still see pots and beds that are bulging with flowers, and fields that are emerald green, on my next visits to the Scotland that I love.

Consider the Birds of the Air

I’m currently in Scotland visiting family and friends. Last night, gathered on a rustic bench and folding chairs outside my friends’ farm cottage, one friend played his guitar while we all sipped wine and talked. Behind our gentle evening, birds chirped loudly from their aerial world. I sit today on that same bench, listening, as pigeons coo from the ridge of the barn roof and dozens of white bellied, split-tailed swallows, here for only a short while on their annual migration, sweep between trees on unseen errands, singing all the while.

Some years ago, after roaming with my husband John from California, to Chicago, through Scotland, and then to Indiana, I moved into a home with a sun room. Just outside the sun room, I planted a garden of flowers that birds would enjoy, and in the garden, I positioned birdhouses and feeders.

Jesus is recorded as having said, “Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them…. Will He not do so for you, oh you people of little faith?”

He was suggesting, I think, that we should not be greedy and accumulate more than we need.

Reading that passage, I am reminded of an observation made about it by George MacDonald, a late 19th century Scottish pastor, writer, poet, philosopher, and sometimes socialist experimenter, who noted that those who read this Scripture often neglect Jesus’ first directive:

Consider the birds of the air.”

Pay attention to nature. What does it illustrate? How is it instructive? Consider, and learn.

One day, while sitting in the sun room, I watched as birds winged back and forth between their airborne world and my feeders. A cardinal pair visited shortly, then departed. Two downy woodpeckers, boasting striking, bright red head marks and black and white wing coats, took over. Sparrows, ever present, popped in and out. Newly launched baby wrens, born in a bird house I had attached to the patio wall just above the window, fluttered between the home of their birth and the phlox and other flowers in the garden, drawing nearer to my feeder with each nervous flight. Gold finches landed, eager to feed on the sunflower seeds and cracked corn. Purple finch dropped in.

It soon became a bird mob, the whole mob chattering at once. Their songs were at odds—chirping, warbling, tweeting. The birds weren’t trying to harmonize–they were singing their own songs. Sometimes they tussled for position; often, though, they appeared content eating together, gorging at the full larder, chattering in their distinctly different voices.

Watching them brought me joy; in their variety, I saw God’s joy in diversity. “The Lord is loving toward all He has made” (Psalm 145:17).

Birds the world over, however, are at great risk. Due to habitat degradation and climate change, hundreds of common bird species are becoming endangered. According to the Audubon’s Birds and Climate Report,

Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.

Among those endangered? The American White Pelican, the Bald Eagle, the Golden Eagle, the Boreal Chickadee, the Brown Headed Nuthatch, the Common Loon, hawks, warblers, owls…. I cannot imagine our world without them. And this problem is multiplied globally.

Here in Britain, where I’m visiting, 67 bird species are threatened—including the curlew, puffins, skylarks, and Scotland’s rare capercaillie.

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Scotland’s Capercaillie

These birds are at risk of vanishing because humans overuse resources and ignore those with whom we co-exist on this blue and green globe. We are indeed a planetary disease, destroying all in our path in our greed to have more than we need.

I don’t know all that needs to be done to slow climate change and the decimation to birds that Audubon and other observers suggest could occur this century, and I’m still struggling to discover my part in the global efforts to end the destruction. But we all need to realize that action is urgently needed, now, or it will be too late.

Regulations are not the bad thing some people make them out to be. If they protect the land, water, or atmosphere that life on earth needs to survive and thrive, they are indispensable. If they preserve fragile bird species, they are well worth a bit of inconvenience to human beings.

We need to stand up to those who act as if the wealth of the few is more important than the well-being of all. We need to shake off our short-term thinking and attend to the long-term health of the entire planet.

We are only one species among many. All of the creatures of the earth are interdependent. All are important to the well-being of the whole.

Consider the birds of the air, Jesus said. We need the birds to survive if we are to obey His directive.

photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

Why Dad? From High in Our Mulberry Tree

When I was just big enough to climb trees, my dad built my sister and me a tree house: flat-bottomed, 4’/4’ square, with 1’ high sides. He built it in our sturdy fruitless mulberry tree, where the bark was rough, the leaves ample, and the environment suitable for a small girl who needed to escape her house, with its many tensions, and who would always need to explore the outside world.

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The fruitless mulberry. Wikimedia.

The tree house had a rope attached with a bucket, where my mom could place sandwiches and supplies. This made it perfect.

I often ventured into the upper regions, stepping near the trunk where the branches were strong. From my perch high in the mulberry, I had my first glimpses of a wider world.

Of course, I’d traveled in every direction I could see—from the Alpha Beta grocery store in the Northwest, to my elementary school in the Northeast; from Stater Brothers in the Southeast, past track homes like my own in the Southwest. But from high in the tree my mind wandered, and I wondered what lay further, what was beyond all that I could see.

From this tree I could stretch my eyes—I had a need to see distant places.

We humans need to stretch our eyes and see beyond our tiny worlds—physically and psychologically. We imagine something more, and we pursue it. We see an unknown object, and we examine it. We wonder how something works, and we attempt to repeat it. We see another way of doing something, and we consider its value for ourselves. We meet an unanswered question, and we ask “how?” and “why?”

This is the way we discover new views, ideas, perspectives, understanding, or facts.

I tell my first-year college students that one difference between high school and college is that in high school, you were frequently told who, what, when, and where, and the answers seemed settled. In college, you are expected to ask how and why, and to examine both the process and the results.

With a father like mine, asking how and why was inbred. Sometimes, such a querying spirit has felt troublesome (or it has appeared troubling to others). To me, being curious about the how and why has sent me on a path of never-ending exploration and growth.

When I was very young, my dad and I built a go cart together. I remember hammering and painting it, and I recall practicing with it on the pavement, but I do not remember ever using it in a go cart race—although that was our voiced intention.

“What makes it go, Dad? How will it stop?”

“You’ll make it go. You have to kick!” he explained. “We’ll put a brake on. I’m not going to let you race down the street without a damn way to stop.”

Or our homemade rock grinder. My dad built it from scratch—it looked like a cylindrical washing machine tube extracted from the machine, on legs.

“What is it dad; how does it work?” I asked, walking around it on all sides, my stumpy pigtails swinging.

“It’s a rock polisher! It spins, and uses rocks and sand to rub the rough edges off stones, like beach waves use sand to polish beach pebbles. I’m polishing obsidian nodules.” I looked at the machine dubiously. It spun slowly, rocks clanging, clunking.

How long will it take?” I queried.

“Days. You can’t be impatient.”

Why did you make a rock polisher dad? What are you going to do with the rocks?”

CO OBS Stone 3“I’m conducting tests. I want to know how long it takes to polish these raw stones.”

My dad kept records of his experiments. Periodically, he would remove a partially polished obsidian nodule, record the hours it had been in the polisher, and label it with tape. Today, I have some of these nodules, still marked. The longest recorded time says “72 hours.”

I learned to ask how and why because my dad was insatiably curious and interested in testing known and unknown processes for himself—and of course, I wanted to know what he was doing, how, and why.

When my dad learned that the soil in the Inland Empire was too cool to hatch tortoise eggs, he tried alternatives.

Why are you digging up the tortoise eggs, dad?!” I queried.

“They won’t hatch. We’re too far from the desert—it’s too cold here,” he explained. “So I’m putting them someplace warmer.”

He began by putting them in a box, covered by cloths, beneath the water heater. Later, he moved them to a home-made incubator with a temperature controlled light. His experiments worked—we hatched dozens of tortoises using these methods.

When some didn’t hatch, despite his efforts, he wanted to examine them. He placed unhatched eggs in a box and stored them—where else—in our refrigerator, for later study.

Give my mom credit for patience.

We all need to learn to go beyond what we already know or believe; to discover what we do not yet understand; to learn from God, nature, and others—those like ourselves and those quite different—to grow into truly empathetic human beings.

It takes humility to do that. Self-awareness, without pride. The space to stretch our eyes to new horizons and different ideas.

We may all want to begin by spending some time in a good tall tree.

Star Sightings!

Hiking by ourselves in the California High Sierras, my husband John and I camped far above timberline, beside a still, pristine lake, surrounded by heavy boulders in lieu of mountain pine. That evening we ate big golden trout, unwary and easily caught, for our dinner.

As my father and I had done when I was a child, John and I slept tent free, open to the night around us. Rain came infrequently in September in the Sierras. We preferred to sleep only in downy sleeping bags, our vision unfettered by a covering of canvas. In this place, far above civilization, out of reach of star-dimming light, on a moonless, clear night, the sky seemed embodied with stars and galaxies.

Wikimedia VISTA's_infrared_view_of_the_Orion_Nebula
Orion Nebula    Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/Vista   

Knowing better, I extended my arm, wanting to touch them, caress them. Thousands of stars—some shining pure light, others shimmering—painted the black sky with gleaming dots of white.

We were on the edge of the world, high above the level places, where the atmosphere thinned and the night was black and the stars were the prime attraction.

Glorious stars like those we saw that night bear witness to their Creator. I had learned this on an earlier star sighting. On a dry, clear night, perfect for looking at a brilliantly lit, star-studded sky, as my father and I stopped our car on the verge of Interstate 10 and stepped through a row of eucalyptus trees to view the sky, I first encountered the stars capacity to inspire awe.

As I described in another post, that night glowing stars peppered the heavens to the borders of my vision. The Milky Way blazed in transcendent glory. As I looked at that brilliantly lit night sky I sensed a living presence, bigger than myself, or my father, or even the expanse of stars that filled the sky. It was a pressing presence, a voice of a different kind, so clear that I have never forgotten it. I never want to.

We often looked for stars when I was a child. Through a telescope, set up on our asphalt driveway, we picked out one constellations after the other. Camping high on Mount Baldy in the San Bernardino Mountains, we watched stars traverse the sky with our naked eyes.

These experiences tell me that stars are more than the sum of the luminous gasses of which they are composed. They are more than beautiful glowing dots in the sky. They have a voice of their own and they cry out in praise of their Creator.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).

Scientists say that at least a third of all the people in the world cannot see the stars at night now, because of light pollution. Many more people—as many as two thirds of all who live in the United States–see only a few stars, indistinctly.

Most of us forget even to look up. We have successfully blinded ourselves to the grandeur of the night sky that boundlessly bears witness to its Creator.

Light pollution hurts other creatures as well as ourselves. Bright city lights can confuse migrating birds, causing them to fly over cities until they die of exhaustion. Light from developments on beaches and nearby cities can scare sea turtles off from nesting.

We can do something about light pollution, if we make it a priority. Bending lights downward, rather than upward on city roads would be a start. It would cost us something. But I believe removing light pollution, like other environmental measures, will be worth the cost.

Instead of maximizing profit, those placed here to tend the earth should be minimizing the harmful impact we have on the planet, ridding ourselves of human pride, and letting the earth serve the needs of all its inhabitants, plants and animals. The land, water, air, and even the atmosphere above us are all affected by human activity. We have far to go to tend this planet as we should. I want those stars to speak as loudly to future generations as they have done to me through star sightings

By doing so, we may remove an impediment that we have created between ourselves and the voices of incalculable galaxies declaring the glory of God.

Full photo credit: Wikimedia. Taken 10 February, 2010. ESO/J. Emerson/Vista  http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1006a/

 

It’s a brutal world. We don’t have to add to its brutality.

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https://goo.gl/images/yihtnZ

When I was seven or eight I raised white rats. They often crawled under my shirt; I loved feeling their tickling toes as they scuttled across my shoulders, along the nape of my neck, and onto my head. They weren’t rats to me. They were like downy pet mice, overgrown.

 

Then one terrible night a mother in my white rat family went insane and killed all the babies. It was my fault, although it had been an accident. My two mother rats gave birth almost simultaneously to 13 offspring. One day, closing the cage door too quickly, I caught the neck of one mother in the door and she died. I felt terrible, for my pet’s death and for my culpability.

The next morning I hurried down the cement steps to our back patio, where the rat cage sat under the living room window, to check on my pets. What I saw has never left me. Half eaten baby rat bodies bloodied the cage floor, some sawn in two like gruesome casualties of a plane crash, chewed bits dangling from tiny body parts. Other babies, their noses protruding, shrunken but elongated from near suffocation, staggered hideously around the cage.

The surviving mother, driven mad, was running from side to side. Unable to cope alone, she was killing the brood. Did I scream? I don’t remember. I cried.

This was my first encounter with the horror that is part of nature, and with the knowledge that even animals can feel overwhelmed to the point of despair and insanity.

Nature is frequently brutal. At my home in Indiana I planted crocus to brighten early spring. Rabbits, ever prolific, gnawed my crocus to stubs before they ever bloomed. Then, a large hawk descended on the neighborhood and two mother foxes dug dark holes in a gulch behind our house, made burrows, and bore kits. Within a year, they killed every rabbit. That spring, my crocus survived. Bunnies are resilient, though. When the hawk and foxes went elsewhere looking for new food sources, the rabbits returned. Soon enough, so did the hawks.

Predators come, take, and leave when the takings are diminished. Like bunnies, the resilient may bounce back. It is a hard world though, and we sometimes wonder if we are among the resilient.

The younger of two sisters, I remember my anxiety as a child at the dinner table. When would I get my share? Would there be enough? Seeking my share first; seeking the bigger share. Anxiety driven dinner manners. The fear that we won’t get “enough” infects us all.

We learn to manipulate to get more. We rape the earth, despite its consequences. We become the predators.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a philosopher, theologian, and social activist who wrote from the 1930s-1960s, shed light on our capacity to be predators. A liberal who wanted to see greater justice in society, he also challenged the overly optimistic views of other liberals who argued that society was getting so much better it could be perfected.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr says that we oppress others most egregiously when we congregate, in our family, tribe, religion, nation, gender, society, profession, or international entity. “Serious sins are mostly communal sins,” he says, adding, “As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic, and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”

The group becomes both rationale and means—locus of power—to ensure that we, at least, and those in our group, have enough, even if others have very little or unquestionably not enough, a “not enough” often caused because someone has taken more than they truly need.

This planet has horror enough without our contribution. It can be pitiless, independent of our actions. But tragically people, exploiting the world, are among its most ruthless occupants. Humankind, the great predators. We “plunder, rape, poison, and kill this living system,” as Ian L. McHarg argues in “Man, A Planetary Disease,” “threatening our own extinction.”

We have added immeasurably to the pain, suffering, and despair of the creatures with whom we share this world. We have decimated nesting places, put barriers across migration paths, drawn birds to their death with our indiscriminate use of urban lights, poisoned and polluted their dwelling places, and contributed to the extinction of countless species.

By removing environmental regulations that protect arctic waters, national parks, coastal lands, and air and water sources, we endanger our children’s world.my beacg16298579_10208367341446005_6683342185421786910_n We have done great harm, but we can reverse our course. We do not need to add more to the suffering of the world.

Life abounds with sorrow, but it also swells with goodness and beauty.

It is a broken, damaged world, yet the glory of God still glows within. We can chose whether we add to the brutality of the world or not.

We are not insane. Not yet.