Wednesday, January 30, 2019

From My Nature Journal: Perspective -- Things are Not Always as they Seem

“Gee, that little animal sure LOOKED tame,” I once heard someone say after getting bit.

But to something way less dramatic… A couple Sunday afternoons ago Gail and I were up hiking in the mountains, to be exact, attaining Carpenter Peak in Roxborough State Park. We were high enough to overlook from the west the exact same terrain we see so often from our house, unobstructed, just eight miles or so east from where we stood. But, for the life of me, I could hardly make out a single landmark, which should have been familiar as I surveyed them from the opposite viewpoint. It reminded me how wildly different things can look from different angles, from altered perspectives. I have experienced this so many times before while hiking, of course, particularly if I am without a compass or topo to give me some bearings. And no, I am not yet a GPS guy when I hike -- that still seems like cheating to me!

Anyway, that experience has gotten me to thinking these last several days about perspective. Perspective is curious, is it not? I think of the proverbial fable of the five blind men and the elephant, a proverb befuddlingly true. But I am still astonished how quickly and easily one’s assumptions can become one’s reality, however faulty those assumptions might be. This is perfectly the case as I study nature, even if I haven’t gotten bit. I make all kinds of postulations and assumptions based on my observations and my reading, the latter of which of course is nothing but another’s postulations and assumptions based on their observations. Yet nature is full of so many surprises that I usually find my conclusions about ‘the way things are’ frequently off base, if not sometimes completely off the mark. Just when I think something should happen, something else happens. Just when I think I understand, I find my perspective has as much sometimes muddied my understanding as clarified it. Or as my dear son-in-law Phil pointed out to me recently, just when we think we have things figured out, circumstances change. We find things aren’t always as they have seemed.

It’s no wonder people in the Middle Ages had such a hard time accepting the fact that the earth was round and not flat. (Am not sure WHAT informs the assumptions of flat-earthers today…)

So let’s think about our good, round earth for a moment and gather a little cosmic perspective about assumptions. I’ve understood that our planet is about four times the mass of our moon. For purposes of picturing it, let’s just say that if the earth were the size of a basketball, the moon would be the size of, oh, to keep the sports theme, a Chicago-style sixteen-inch softball. OK, so maybe you had heard of Chicago-style pizza but not Chicago-style softballs, and are among the uninitiated about them; let’s ignore the sports theme and instead liken the moon then to a large grapefruit. Got it? So if the moon and the earth were these rough, relative sizes, a basketball and a large grapefruit, how far away would the grapefruit have to be from the basketball in order to reflect real nature? Let’s start by imagining that it’s about a cubit. You remember a cubit from your ark-building class, right, the span from an average man’s elbow to his fingertips? Sure you do, it was the first ruler we had, and it was even built in with the original equipment. This is about how the illustrations in our old science books depicted it. But that was just because they had to print it in that perspective in order to fit it on a page. But no, that’s not it, how about a whole arm’s length? Or two arms’ lengths, maybe a span from fingertip to fingertip? This is what I would have thought. But no. 235,000 miles is a long, long way. In order to get the relative distance as accurate as nature you’d have to haul that grapefruit nearly thirty feet away from the basketball. Only then would it approximate reality, earth to moon, the moon measuring for us about ½ degree of sky at its distance.

Or take another example. You may have heard that the earth’s surface is covered more than seventy percent by ocean, and less than thirty percent by landmass. Some of those ocean depths are over a mile deeper than Mt. Everest is high. That’s a lot of water, you know, that ‘the ocean’s so wide and my bark so small’ kind of thing? And I don’t think that even includes inland lakes, rivers, streams, ponds or the puddles in my driveway. So let’s again imagine the earth a basketball. If we were to gather up all the water on earth into one mass, salt water and fresh, and reflect that also as a sphere next to our basketball-sized globe, all the earth’s water would be smaller than a ping-pong ball by comparison. That’s hard to imagine while standing at the edge of Acadia National Park in Maine as a nor’easter crashes ashore. A watery planet? Apparently just barely. It sure gives an appreciated perspective on the preciousness of the stuff, and our responsibility to protect the resource as well as we can.

Perspective is one of the reasons
why we need each other so…

It’s all about perspective. Nearly everything is about perspective. Perspective is one of the reasons why we need each other so, in order that alternative views of reality can be weighed and measured together until a consensus is reached, or at least a truce.

For my part on that mountain two weekends ago, I was glad I had Gail with me. Together we were able to better discern reality from our shared perspectives than I could have ever come up with at the time on my own.

Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death. (Proverbs 16:25)

Two people are better than one, for they can help each other succeed. (Ecclesiastes 4:9)

~~RGM, From a January 2013
Entry in my Leather Journal

Saturday, December 29, 2018

From My Nature Journal: A Prayer Celestial for Us Terrestrial, OR, The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God

On Christmas Eve earlier this week, our family had just come outside from having attended Christmas Eve service at the local Methodist church here in Coupeville. Two of our four children and their families were visiting for the holiday, and though it was shortly past only 6pm, we were greeted with what I think was the clearest, starriest sky we’ve seen since our move to western Washington. And what a night for it, Christmas Eve, a night heralded by a star in another place and another time. After the short drive home we all stood a bit transfixed in the driveway and continued looking up, all six adults and even some of the five small grandchildren, mesmerized by what is indeed an unusual sight this time of year.

I’m not sure what it is about a clear night sky that can draw one to contemplation of the Creator. It almost seems that E.T. had it partly right, though, when he assured Elliott “I’ll be right here.” The Lord is present in his sanctuary.

Anyway, once home, it reminded me of something I wrote nearly twenty years ago in my nature journal, a piece called “A Prayer Celestial for Us Terrestrial, OR, The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God.”1 I got the idea for the celestial/terrestrial interplay somewhere, but could not then find a source, nor now. Here it is.

A Prayer Celestial for Us Terrestrial
The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God1

Blessed are You, O Lord, our God celestial,
Creator of the heavens and the earth2 terrestrial –
‘The skies proclaim the work of Your hands.’3
You created us in Your image,4
Have given us hungry minds that feast on learning
And delight in exploring the wonders of Your universe.

Bless my heav’n-aimed eyes, terrestrial –
Instruments for admiring the heavens that tell Your glory1 celestial–
‘No speech, no word, is heard,
Yet their report goes forth through all the earth.’5
‘You know the number of the stars
And call each of them by name.’6

Bless all who look heav’n-ward, terrestrial –
May we be drawn to love the Mystery celestial,
Gazing back through time into Your vast, majestic drama
Of the birth, life, movement, even death of
Planets, nebulae, stars, galaxies,
And all things created, celestial and terrestrial.

We make this prayer through Christ our Lord.

1Psalm 19:1a                                                                                      
2Isaiah 40:28
3Psalm 19:1b
4Genesis 1:27
5Psalm 19:3-4
6Psalm 147:4

It is my prayer that each of you may follow the Bethlehem star and find where it leads.
~~RGM, December 29, 2018

Friday, November 30, 2018

From My Nature Journal: A Tribute. And a Tribute

I had a new old friend who died recently, and this post is a tribute to him and to something in the natural world he loved unlike anyone else I ever knew.

Walter was a colorful character with an interesting history, to say the least, and was full of stories. I dare not go into them here or I won’t get to my second tribute, which was actually his, but suffice it to say that I’ve not met many others who flew planes on ‘the other side’ in war against the United States. He and his dear wife Ingrid became good friends during a brief time I was their pastor a couple years ago. Oh, I did call him a new old friend, didn’t I? The recent nature of our friendship is the ‘new’ part. And the ‘old?’ Well, Walter was over ninety years of age. And he was dying.

The tenuous state of both his and his wife’s health was the thing that first brought Gail and me to meet him, but it was his honest and vulnerable questions about life and death, faith and doubt that caused me to quickly love the man. And I count it a great privilege to have been his friend as he struggled with his mortality.

His interests were vast. Like me, he was a naturalist and a man of strong Christian faith. Unlike me, he was also a very accomplished yet retired Boeing engineer, and, as already inferred, a pilot. Whether it was this thing of flight, which was his passion, that drew him to the husbandry of bees, I do not know. But a skilled beekeeper he also was, in spite of the fact that his greater Seattle home was surrounded by others for many miles around. At our first visit, I took little notice of the napkins he and his wife had set before us with our afternoon coffee – black, yellow, and covered with bees. Yet in subsequent visits not only would we tour his apiary, but our conversations somehow often became interlaced with lessons he had learned from his apiculture hobby; and I’d also find he and Ingrid had other bee-themed napkins with which to grace a table.
What stunned me was the
depth of Walter’s love…

Wow, did Walter know bees. He knew how they lived and died, how they behaved, how both the social and physical realities of their colony worked. And I came to find through listening to his stories that he also delighted in knowing his bees. When I took more than a casual interest in his accounts of queens he had known, in fact, had known well enough to recognize and name, he took a risk and shared with me a poem he had written when one of his colonies had died mysteriously and abruptly.  When he set the paper in my hands, he said, “Here it is. Some people might think I’m crazy.”

So, along with my tribute to my new old friend Walter, I share his tribute to his lost colony, a poem he named, “Bee Requiem.”

In painful sorrow, sad and mourning I see the ravages of death
Unnumbered little bodies, now just shells awaiting their return to a new cycle
In mother earth’s deep wonder wells

Maya, Mahrah and the others who circled in exploring paths
And walked on cheeks and head and ears, and sometimes down my neck
Into my bosom to feel the warmth and listen to my heart

As one brave creature entered my ear to see what’s in there
I, deeply touched, produced a tear, only to have another see fit to drink it,
Thereby translating me to yonder wonderland so dear

And so, the present seemed to vanish, relieving me from troubled thoughts and fears
Oh, blessed beings, how I miss you and wish you would be here to drink my tears

But, praise the Lord, the souls of all creation remain existing in His heart
And when my time has come I will again be with you
In perfect love and recognition, never ever to depart

                                                ~~ WEB, August 2008, Colony #4

I was stunned as I finished reading. It wasn’t so much about new insights I’d gained into bees and beekeeping, something about which as a naturalist I had known embarrassingly little. It wasn’t the quality of the poetry, of which I certainly could never be judge anyway. It wasn’t about some flashy spiritual sound byte that might look good on a cheesy nature calendar. And it wasn’t that I found Walter crazy, far from it. What stunned me was the depth of Walter’s simple love. In his beautiful tribute, I saw a man who deeply loved life, who achingly loved the natural world, even intimately loved creatures that had once caused me an anaphylactic reaction. And I also saw the answer to Walter’s doubt, in words he himself had written years before, words that contained all the seeds of assurance he might ever one day need. I came to tears through the reading. As did he, by the way.

So there are my two tributes, one to Walter, one to his bees.

Walter, I’ll miss you. Thanks for inspiring me with your love of God’s creation. And do you know what I’d like very much? Perhaps one day, in perfect love and recognition, we can meet again for coffee in yonder wonderland over bee-themed napkins.

~~ RGM, November 28, 2018

Sunday, October 28, 2018

From My Nature Journal: Clearness

Our time this year in the Michigan northwoods is fast coming to a close. In the last couple weeks, gold-leaf and blaze-red leaves have fallen, rain has turned to snow that has flown (and stuck!) as heavy winds have blown, and temps have only occasionally struggled out of the mid-30’s. Thus, the canoe and quad have been stored, and, with most of the other closing chores also accomplished, the weather has usually chased us inside to conversing, reading or writing by the fire.

Reflecting, I find I’ve again received from this simple place what I have come for. Clearness. The quietness of our setting, the soul rest I’ve received here, the early winter-like conditions outside, and the quality of my reading have combined to bring blessing. Many of the cares I came with several weeks ago have seemed to evaporate as I’ve experienced once more the clarifying impact, the healing welcome, of the woods.

Yes, clarity and healing. After decades as a naturalist, I am still not certain what it is about nature (or about beauty in general, for that matter) that can provide such things for those who seek them there. As a Christian, the only thing I can surmise from it all is that God created it, and us, to be so. Nature is one of the agents, or, at least, one of the mediums God has provided by which people may seek clarity, finding peace with God, peace with others and peace within themselves. And I am content with that understanding.

One of my current reads is Parker Palmer’s latest, an interesting collection of essays, reflections and poetry titled On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old, which I am reading with a close friend. In typical Palmer fashion, it holds much to be considered by anyone, and that, despite the subtitle, not just for the aging.

Palmer is an accomplished Christian author, activist, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, and a Quaker. The concept of clearness is strong in the Quaker tradition, with an emphasis not only on personal spiritual clarity but on a clarifying discernment received in community through a tradition called, beautifully, a clearness committee. Hate committees? This is one worth its effort.

So as my time in the woods is coming to a close, it is no wonder that one of his poems has jumped at me off the page:

Welcome Home

Alone in the alien, snow-blown woods,
moving hard to stay warm in zero weather,
I stop on a rise to catch my breath as the
sun, setting through bare-boned trees,
falls upon my face, fierce and full of life.

Breathing easy now, breathing with the earth,
I suddenly feel accepted -- feel myself stand
my own ground, strong, deep-rooted as a tree --
while time and all these troubles disappear.

And when (who knows how long?) I move
on down the trail and find my ancient burdens
returning, I stop once more to say No to them --
Not here, Not now, Not ever again -- reclaiming
the welcome home the woods have given me.

~~ Parker J. Palmer

And that, my friends, is the power of God’s good creation, and why it will keep me heading outdoors or back to places such as this all of my days. Join me.

~~ Get Outside,
RGM, October 19, 2018