David Adams, a Scottish Christian poet, speaks of the reflected glory of God in poems that celebrate the Celtic belief in the unity of the world and the divine presence within it. In his book Border Lands, he recalls St. Patrick’s words to the Princesses of Tara:
“Our God is the God of all men,
The God of heaven and earth,
The God of sea, of river, of sun and moon and stars,
of the lofty mountains and the lowly valleys.
The God above heaven,
The God under heaven,
The God in heaven.”
Adam’s own poems help me to pause, to see His presence in the world I seek to protect, and to believe that surely we can be better stewards of this majestic, yet easily wounded planet.
“Where the mist rises from the sea,
Where the waves creep upon the shore,
Where the wrack lifts upon the strand,
I have seen the Lord.
Where the sun awakens the day,
Where the road winds on its way,
Where the fields are sweet with hay,
I have seen the Lord.
Where the stars shine in the sky,
Where the streets so peaceful lie,
Where the darkness is so nigh,
I have seen the Lord.
The Lord is here,
The Lord is there,
The Lord is everywhere.
The Lord is high,
The Lord is low,
The Lord is on the path I go.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
While 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leaning forward, a fox peered over the edge of a massive rectangular hole cut deep into the earth. The dark gash would soon become the basement of a house about to be constructed a few hundred yards from my property. Just the previous day, foxes had wandered here freely, shielded by 60 foot sycamore, ash, maple, locust, and walnut trees in this small bit of wood they called home.
The fox looked puzzled, wondering. Its territory had been dwindling for some time—now, one more piece was obliterated.
For the seven years I lived alongside this forest remnant, I watched as it shrank piece by piece. Like taking bites out of a sandwich, the owner/developer sold chunks of this small forest land, making room for new homes. It was fast disappearing.
The wood behind my house was part of a tiny bit of forest land near Turkey Pen Creek, which flows west into Honey Creek in their journey to the White River (a wide, shallow waterway cutting straight through the city of Indianapolis).
Hugging the meandering paths made by these creeks, tiny remnants of old woods, bits and parcels really, like ours, persist among the roads and housing developments. Fox, deer, raccoons, rabbits, bobcats, beavers, badgers, coyote, mink, muskrat, skunk, turkey, and woodrats all once lived in these woods; they still dwell in Indiana’s larger forested areas. Just a few skirt from parcel to parcel now, though. Tiny copses, territory for a diminishing variety of animal life.
Seen from my back doorstep, the trees of “my” tiny wood formed a dense screen in the summer that seemed impenetrable. But this was only an illusion. The wood was thin, fragile, its life uncertain.
Still, I took great pleasure in this tiny remnant of Indiana woodland.
Of course, before we moved in, developers had removed other wildlings to make way for what would become my home. Indiana’s forest lands have long been disappearing.
According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), “Indiana was more than 85% forest land (20 million acres)” before swelling human populations from the east overflowed into the territory in the early 1800s. The entering settlers chopped down the forest land’s most valuable “trees first–black walnut, yellow-poplar, black cherry, and white oak.” When these were gone, they removed the rest, and converted the cleared acreage into farms.
By 1903, only “7 percent of the original amount of forest land” (IDNR) remained.
In the last 100 years, groups have begun to remedy this. Both to protect biodiversity and to enable the harvesting of wood products, Indiana’s forested lands have made a comeback. Today, the IDNR says that nearly 21% of Indiana’s land is forested. Programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has increased privately owned forest lands, have borne good results.
But overall Indiana’s forests—like others in surrounding states—face grave problems.
The remaining forests suffer from reduced diversity. Of the existing forest lands in Indiana today, “Timberland accounts for 96.7%,” according to the IDNR. Planted for harvesting, timber forests are less varied than old growth or reserved forests. Only 3.3% of the 21% is “reserved” forest land–in state and national parks, or federal wilderness areas.
And of both the timberland and reserved forest land, “41% is in unconnected fragments”(IDNR)
Tiny, scattered bits are generally all that is left of the great, diverse forests that once covered 85% of this state. This makes the few large swaths, like the forests in Brown County that I spoke about in my last post, invaluable, for fragmentation puts the entire ecosystem at risk.
While forest bits are better than no forests at all, forest fragments are less safe for flora and fauna and less healthy than big forest swaths. Fewer large trees survive in these tiny remnants. Animals are cut off from mates, breeding grounds, and food sources. Dissecting roads kill countless inhabitants. According to the World Economic Forum, forest fragmentation is the “primary driver of the global extinction crisis.”
Forest fragments are also prone to further parcelization, as the wood behind my house illustrated. Fragmentation can lead to permanent land use changes, requiring more political activism to preserve what remains.
When I lived there, the wood behind my former home seemed tired, frail. One winter a great sycamore split down the center, two-thirds of the way to the ground, where it cracked off, tottered backward, and lay splayed. This was one of four large sycamore trees visible from our yard, and I grieved to see it go. Was its loss a freak of nature, or a sign of hidden decay? Would the others go soon as well?
Indiana’s trees face threats on multiple fronts. (The next post will describe other equally serious threats.)
Preserving forests for their own sake, for the animals’ sake; preserving them for our sake, for our children and for their children’s sake; preserving them for all they contribute to the nation and the world, behooves us.
For the sake of the wild woods… biodiversity… future foxes… we need to see ourselves as part of nature, for we’ll win for us all if we can work together to cherish the whole.
A woman I knew long ago told me that her favorite memory of her home state of Indiana was when the dogwood bloomed in spring among the rolling hills of a region an hour south of Indianapolis called Brown County. When I moved here, I was eager to see these blooming trees for myself. I found more than I anticipated; the dogwood trees of Brown County are part of a fascinating landscape that is as engaging below ground as it is above.
I admit, my first impression of the state of Indiana, after moving here, was that it lacked “impressive” topography. In fact, driving down I 65 from Chicago through miles of flat farmland can be somewhat off-putting. But dig deeper; look further.
Over the years, I’ve been awed by Indiana’s riches beneath the earth’s crust, and inspired by the sublime that lies on top.
The cool term for the study of landforms and what lies beneath is called “Surficial geology.” The Midwest was once under a great lake, and the demise of that lake left skeletons of its inhabitants—fossils—compressed in sedimentary rock, like limestone and dolomite.
Long after the lake dried, multiple periods of glacial advance and retreat moved other rocks down from Canada, squashed and sliced the northern part of the state flat, and deeply buried the most interesting sedimentary and glacial materials.
This wide, flat plain now provides you with your corn and soybean crops!
In contrast, retreating ice left “tills” and “moraines,” creating ridges and ravines in the middle and southern portions of the state. Brown County lies among them. Here, a massive segment of limestone was uplifted intact and formed into an outcrop called the Salem Limestone. In their book, Stone Country: Then and Now, by Scott Russel Sanders and Jeffrey A. Wolin, Sanders describes this as “a rare, thick-bedded, tight-grained stone that can be quarried in large blocks, cut to any shape, and carved in fine detail.” It is “the largest accessible deposit of premium building stone in the United States,” and was used to build the Empire State Building, Chicago’s Tribune Tower, and San Francisco’s City Hall, for starters. Pretty impressive.
Encompassing a portion of these incredible limestone features are the Brown County Hills—the site of my friend’s beloved dogwoods. These hills include the highest elevations in the state, like Weed Patch Hill, which is 1,058 feet above sea level and part of a geologic feature called the Knobstone Escarpment that moseys south all the way to the Ohio River.
While their elevation may not sound imposing, hill after hill of tree-covered ridges tucked together for more than 300 square miles are exquisitely beautiful. These forested hillsides are also invaluable—according to the Nature Conservancy they are “the largest and most heavily forested land remaining in Indiana.” The whole nation will benefit from their preservation. (Watch for a later post to learn why.)
If you have seen a dogwood, you’ll know that its flowers lie horizontal, like hands outstretched. During spring in Brown County, clouds of pink and white dogwood flowers float in the understory of tall tree cousins: old oaks and sugar maples; pawpaw, sycamore, black walnut, and ash. Standing at an outlook, they all seem to be competing to crowd the acclivities and declivities of Brown County, hogging the glory.
Beneath their canopy, lilac colored redbud contest with dogwood for attention, along with the occasional bloom of a rare yellowwood tree.
During the spring in Indiana, dogwood and other trees bloom profusely all across the state, in woods and forests, in parks and gardens.
It is my favorite season.
In summer, the trees take on an even green. They provide verticality. They rest in their majesty.
But in the fall, to me the trees become an icon, representing the world within the world not yet seen. The chlorophyll levels drop, and the trees’ true colors appear:
I watch, as nature sheds the even green of summer. Like the curtain rent, Autumn drops its veil of green, freeing star spun colors. Green slides down the stems of nature like heaven’s impenetrable curtain parted, revealing colors hardly dreamt, if not remembered: The sunburst yellows, purples, pinks, and ambers that storm forth each year in autumn.
Indiana boasts a subtle but brilliant beauty, expressed in its hardwood trees and forests. They embellish the land in every season, but in spring and autumn they inspire awe.
Having grown up on the desert edge of LA, when even the cultivated orange orchards were dug up to make way for expanding developments, I have a special love for the hardwood trees of Indiana, its woodlands, and its scattered islands of old growth forests.
Still, destructive forces are impacting our state today, decimating trees that have graced this landscape for millennia.
If we are to preserve the trees in Indiana, and those in other states with trees and forests like it, we need to care for our forested lands and act to reduce these destructive forces.
Some ways to do so will be the focus of my next two posts.