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Surprises from the Untamed World

My daughter pulled into my driveway with two of my grandchildren. Scrambling out of the car one called, “Grandma, do you have any tweezers? I’ve got a splinter.” The other said, “Grandma, I have a black eye! I fell down.” Children–full of surprises; always something new.

A bit like nature.

I confess, since moving to the Midwest, my explorations in nature are less frequent in winter than they are the rest of the year. On my way to a party on a slippery ice day last year, carrying a bottle of pinot noir, I tumbled, crashed onto the sidewalk beside my car and lay shaken, sore, amidst shards of glass, watching a growing red pool ooze from beneath me. Had I cut arteries? Broken bones? I waited. After several minutes the pain subsided. I stood, slowly. The pool was not my blood, only the pinot. I was fine. So I cleaned up, located another bottle, and went on my way—more cautious now about icy weather and outdoor ventures.

The rest of the year, though, I’m outside as much as possible.

I’m a gardener. As a child, my mom encouraged my love of gardening as we planted carrot beds, tended roses, and trimmed camellias. I love the gift of nature in its cultivated grandeur. I’ve gardened in four states and visit gardens wherever I travel.

Yet I realize that the more our time in nature is spent in less tamed places, the more we experience the surprises offered by the natural world.

I’ve moved from suburbs equally manicured, planted with the same shrubs and trees, beside similar houses–to the less tamed bedlam of an old neighborhood, speckled with 100-year-old arboreal giants, lined with houses from differing decades, planted with flora in and out of vogue over a hundred years.

I’ve walked in farmland, with verges walled by hedges covering an under-story of flowering weeds, semi-cultivated–to hikes in the woods, cut by a trail bordering a running stream, hiding unexpected ruins or unanticipated encounters of the animal kind.

I’ve been blessed by the rugged adventure of backpacking in high mountain terrain, where the acclivities and declivities are acute, the animals bigger, the dangers more significant.

There are many climbs I have not made and won’t, to places barely reachable by human beings, where ice cracks, avalanches occur, storms erupt, and life is always at risk.

In cultivated gardens, and especially in untamed out-of-the-way locations, the world is full of surprises, always changing.

Why do we need natural places? What is the value to us in protecting them? My sister Jacqueline suggested:

While an understandable attraction for our own kind should be part of our lives, humankind was always meant to live in fellowship with the rest of creation. I think our human sense of isolation and loneliness is, in part, a yearning for our immersion in the natural world. Too much time spent in a human made world is deadening. Too much time in cars, concrete buildings—even our own homes, is like only looking at life as a reflection of ourselves, instead of standing outdoors and experiencing a full sensory engagement with the natural world—listening to sounds, feeling the wind in the air, smelling the fragrances, seeing 3D reality.

We need this “full sensory engagement” with a moving, active, living, natural world, a world where we encounter the unexpected through the land, air, water, flora, and fauna. Because we cannot control what will come next into this space and moment, we attend.

We listen. Feel. See. Learn. Engage.

Come alive.

Hear the whispers of God.

Learn about ourselves.

We must protect all of nature, but particularly the remaining untamed places, for this is part of our inheritance: a world filled with surprises there to be discovered.

Photo credit: Rich Beedle, a friend who spends a great deal of time in nature, gave me permission to use some of the photos he’s taken while exploring out-of-doors. All of the photos in this post are from his photography of Indiana wildlife. 

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

 

 

 

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/