Sunday, January 7, 2018

From My Nature Journal: Restless

[Another year has turned. Many reflect on the passing of time in these first few days of a New Year. I recently ran across this piece in my nature writings, reflecting on such a time some years ago. My prayer is that it will be a blessing to any who are experiencing a season of restlessness.]

In light of a wind of change that has been blowing over me, I have been thinking lately of seasons: I seem to be coming off a long season of unrest, the exact nature of which has not been clear. Depression? No… Anxiety? No, not quite that either. But restlessness? Disquiet? I think for now, those seem to describe it best.

When actual climatic seasons begin to change, it could be said that a restlessness settles in. In mid-season the weather seemed to have normed into an ‘at-restness,’ but within a short time after that, something happens – one may first notice it as a faint whiff, a color, a sound, a sighting – and a harbinger of change presents itself. It may be a September snow flurry or a faint peal of March thunder. Perhaps it’s a towhee at the February feeder or an early fall sundog. From then on, one notices more and more the cues and clues that change is in the offing. Even these become the norm after awhile, until finally the mid-April snow dump or the late fall Indian Summer provide the last vestiges, the death throes, of a season dying, and a new norm ascends reign.

Seasons of course are not known to be static, not always predictable or black and white, at least climate seasons, that is, unless you live nearer the Equator. Winter, spring, summer and fall progress and fade in turn, with their capricious timings and geographic variations. Our years in Minnesota convinced us that winter there seemed to rob a month from each of the most pleasant seasons -- spring and fall -- producing a five-month deep freeze that just went on interminably. That variation is all the more pronounced where my daughter lives in Alaska.

But then there are seasons that are exact, fixed: annual solar seasons of 365¼ days; daily solar seasons of 24 hours, give or take the occasionally added leap minute; lunar seasons of 28¼ days; celestial seasons of other planets that share our solar system, or other extra-terrestrial rotations within our expanding universe, calculable but too vast for most to notice. Are any of earth’s short weather seasons not tied to some of these?

But this is not all. We speak of seasons of life and death, epochs that affect every animal, vegetable and mineral. There are seasons of biological gestation, thirty-nine weeks or whatever. There’s apple blossom season, or morel mushroom season, ‘when the oak leaves are the size of squirrel paws,’ according to my dear hunter-gatherer brother Greg. There’s sugarbush time when the maples are running with early spring sap, or ‘those years the cherry tree grew by the garage.’ Then there are recognizable seasons of human time. ‘My high school years’ is an example of that, or ‘while he was in the military,’ ‘while I had that job,’ or ‘all that time Dad was sick.’ There are tectonic seasons of colliding plates, of mountain formation, volcanism, erosion. There are seasons of a friendship, seasons of childhood and adulthood, puberty, child-bearing years, empty-nestedness, old age. Ownership has its seasons: ‘those years we had the Ford conversion van,’ or ‘the time our cat Spencer lived with us (for certainly, does anyone ever really ‘own’ a cat? Actually, I think the cat looked at it as ‘the season he let us live in his house.’)’ Then there are seasons of place: ‘those years we went to the farm every summer’ or ‘our time at 1540.’ Of course, the longer a season the less it may be spoken of as such; for example, my family does not say ‘while we were on Rockwell Street’ the same way my wife’s says ‘our time on Hemlock,’ for our Rockwell season in Chicago was so long, fifty years, the only home some of us ever knew. In the same way, one does not say ‘my time in the solar system.’ Seasons tend to have duration. Not all their endings and beginnings can be pointed to, but some can.

Joni Mitchell had it:
And the seasons, they go ‘round and ‘round
And the painted ponies go up and down:
We’re captured on the carousel of time.
We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came
And go ‘round and ‘round and ‘round in the circle game.

Still, I’m thinking these days that seasons sometimes define us, as it seems this season of unrest has defined me, at least from my perspective. I long for it to be over, glad the harbingers of its passing are becoming more frequent. Just the same, how I need again and again to be led to my immutable God -- “…Whose compassions fail not, Whose mercies never cease…,” and of Whom it is said possesses not a single “shadow of turning” (Lamentations 3:22-23 and James 1:17) -- while on and on, from my vantage-point, cycles on the music of the spheres. 


Saturday, December 16, 2017

From My Nature Journal: Solstice and its Illogical Contradiction

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Though the day officially launches the season we call winter, it curiously also marks a seemingly contradictory turning point: as of this day in the earth’s annual trek around the sun, the Northern Hemisphere increases its direct angle toward the sun’s rays. Consequently, here in the north, daylight will begin to lengthen starting this very day, as will our hemisphere’s warming, and these two phenomena will continue for the next six months until the summer solstice in June similarly heralds a return to winter. Of course, the opposite of these are true in the Southern Hemisphere: today is their longest day of the year.

It is curious to me that the first day of winter is also the first day of winter’s expiration, its demise. One would think winter’s opening day would portend more of the same with nothing to contradict it, nothing but cold, dark barrenness, bleakness, or as the poet says, earth standing “…cold as iron, water like a stone.” We don’t call it the ‘dead of winter’ for nothing.

But there it is, the illogical and illuminating contradiction: light. Its return mocks winter, scoffs at the cold, derides the bleakness. Each day that follows, the sun rises just a little earlier and sets just a little later. Winter anticipates spring, death foresees life, dark predestines light, cold envisages warmth: these are the paradoxes of the seasonal change we call the winter solstice.

So it is no coincidence that the early church chose to recognize the solstice as the most appropriate time to celebrate the birth of Christ. Now, in actual fact, Jesus’ birth likely took place some time during what we call October. I am not certain how that is surmised, but it has something to do with the timing of Jewish festivals and the typical season a census would have been called by Rome (see Luke 2:1-4), not likely the dead of winter.

But no. Indian Summer, beautiful as it is, just won’t do. To celebrate something as significant as the incarnation a time is needed that makes a statement, a time that belies its context, that refutes the cold, that calls out the stony spiritual stupor right in the midst of its bleak midwinter and long underwear. Solstice. Now there is an appropriate time to celebrate the Light of the world.

To celebrate something as significant as the incarnation, a
time is needed that makes a statement, a time that
belies its context, that refutes the cold, that calls
out the stony spiritual stupor right in the midst
of its bleak midwinter and long underwear.

And so we do. We know there is no life without light. Light begets being, a commonly known biological fact.

The same is true in the spirit world. St. John the Evangelist puts it this way: In him (Jesus) was life, and that life was the light for humanity. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4-5). Or later, sharing the very words of Jesus himself, he writes, And Jesus spoke to them saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12).” Or take it all the way back to the prophet hundreds of years before Christ. Anticipating the coming Messiah, Isaiah foretold: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned (Isaiah 9:2).

Light dispels darkness, not the other way 'round. Open a door into a dark closet and what happens? Does the darkness come creeping into the room in which you stand? No, the opposite holds, and always will. Light outmaneuvers darkness.

So, solstice is here, one of my favorite times of the year, not only because of Christmas but because it heralds the return of summer. Celebrate the Light with me. Proclaim the truth of the Christmas carol:

          Light and life to all He brings,
          Ris'n with healing in His wings.

That's from Charles Wesley's Hark the Herald Angels Sing, written in 1739. Or, if you prefer, fast forward to Bing Crosby, 1963, in Do You Hear what I Hear?

          The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night:
          He will bring us goodness and light.

Let there be light!
~~ RGM, from an earlier journal and blog
entry I wrote on December 21, 2012

Saturday, December 9, 2017

From My Nature Journal: Soul Seasons

Lord of Creation, God of the universe,
You are not simply summer to my soul.

Yes, I do love You in the sensuousness of summer,
When leaves wax and fields are a riot of color and joy,
When Your sun warms my skin,
And Your cool water revives my strength,
And long days become a sabbath-season that allow space, grace and growth.

Yet I also love You in the melancholy of autumn,
When Your earth dies a blood-red blaze of glory
And trees rain back their yield to the ground,
When something in me saddens amid the late-season blessing,
And I come to terms with mortality and winter’s approach.

But I love You as well in the dead of winter,
When wind howls over barren earth
Both outside my window and sometimes inside my soul,
When the heart can freeze like ice, or can rest easy, asleep,
Like a garden, patiently waiting for Your beneficent, restoring touch.

Finally, I love You in the giddy burgeoning of springtime,
When quickened life bursts from somewhere deep and wonderful,
A resurrected earth mimicking a resurrected Lord,
And something also in me is embraced by resurrection,
As the cycle of life again begins its turning.

You are every season to my soul --
Summer, fall, winter, spring -- together.
You transcend them in a timeless time and space beyond Your good earth.
Grant me to walk fully awake through the seasons,
Never missing the slightest nuance of Your vast overture of love. Amen

~~ RGM, December 7, 2017 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

From My Nature Journal: Zoomorphic

I find it humorous, even ironic, that naturalists disparage anthropomorphism, or at least shy away from any tendency to attribute human characteristics to animals. Yet many of these same persons are not reticent to attribute animal behavior to humans! Apparently zoomorphism is acceptable.

Think of it. One can swim like a fish, laugh like a hyena (is it really laughing?), wolf something down, horse around with someone (is that the same as monkey around?), sing like a canary, smell a skunk or a rat (without smelling a skunk or a rat), weasel something out of someone, give a bear hug (a what?), have a tiger in their tank (another what?), have bats in their belfry, squirrel something away, herd cats (while not herding cats), strut like a peacock, worm their way out of a jam (why not an apple, or even a tequila? I never saw a worm in jam…), wish to be a mouse in the corner, crow like a rooster, talk turkey (or be quiet as a mouse), fight like a cat, parrot something back, play possum or horse, fish around for something, multiply like rabbits or lemmings (do animals do math?), float like a butterfly and sting like a bee (in the words of the great one), dog paddle, have a memory like an elephant (how do we know what elephants remember?), or have handwriting like chicken tracks. One can even eat like a bird. Or was it a horse? Or a pig? Whatever.
One can be sheepish or a scaredy-cat (umm, scaredy is not even a word), be out-foxed, pigeon-holed, horse-tied (or hog-tied… but who ties hogs anyway?), slippery as a snake (snakes aren’t slippery), industrious as an ant, dog tired (and even take a cat nap to catch up on their sleep), prickly as a porcupine, busy as a bee (or a beaver), sly as a fox, mad as a hornet or a wet hen (how mad is this?), strong as an ox, playful as a puppy (or if you prefer, an otter), spineless as a worm, sure-footed as a mountain goat, a bull in a china shop (has that ever really happened?), happy as a clam (are they actually smiling?), a big fish in a small pond (or vice versa), loyal as a dog, bold as a lion or meek as a lamb, jumpy as a cat on a hot tin roof, stubborn as a mule, blind as a bat (bats aren’t blind) or eagle-eyed, wise as an owl, graceful as a doe, slow as a snail or fleet-footed as a gazelle, snug as a bug in a rug, wily as a coyote, or naked as a jaybird, whatever the heck that means.

What of human physical characteristics? One can be bug-eyed, bird-brained, clammy-handed, beaver-toothed, web-footed, pigeon-toed, donkey-eared, hawk-eyed, bull-headed, pony-tailed (or pig-tailed) and lion-hearted.
Even the Bible gets into it, and often, so it must be ok. Among them, “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and sets me secure on the heights,” says David (2 Samuel 22:34). Or David again, “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle (Psalm 32:9).” Jesus also gets in on the act: “He had compassion on the crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34).” Or one of my personal favorites, Solomon’s “Go to the ant, you sluggard (What a great word!), observe her ways and be wise (Proverbs 6:6).” 

Gosh, let’s get truly serious here and forget the comparative characteristics altogether, because we can boil it down to a single word: everyone knows what is meant when a person is called loony, or batty, or foxy, or crabby, or a turkey, shrimp, mole, dog, female dog (expletive deleted), cougar, pig, rat, jackal, weasel, chicken, tiger, eagle, shark, stallion, chameleon, snake, mule, boar, bear, moose, even something extinct like a dinosaur! And that doesn’t even include the various terms of endearment: my little lamb, my turtledove, my kitten, my honey bunny. Yikes, those get goofy.
So when all is said and done, we can even get as generic as can be: how often have we heard someone simply say, “Man, that guy is an animal!!” Of course, we never hear, “Man, that animal is a guy!!”
Which I guess brings us back to where we started: what’s the big deal about attributing human characteristics to animals? If a person can be an animal, it’s seems only fair that an animal can seem human. So I say let the anthropomorphisms roll.
One sad thing, though... It’ll probably give animals a bad name.

~~RGM, November 13, 2017

Saturday, October 28, 2017

From My Nature Journal: The Oldest Profession in the World

No, it’s not what some might think. I’ve run into a couple of nature writers recently who have cleverly asserted that it’s actually the taxonomist who is a member of the world’s oldest profession, because naming the animals was the first task commanded by God of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Hmm, unarguable point, that one…

So what’s a taxonomist? In the natural sciences, a taxonomist is one who describes and names life forms, or, more specifically, the one who practices the science of biological classification. Now, I’m sure a gifted humorist could have some good, clean fun imagining poor ol’ Adam in the garden sorting through all the names without the benefit of either Latin or a field guide, or a woman, for that matter, who always seems to be better at these kinds of things. “Ummmm, OK God, let’s call this one ‘Little Brown Bug Number Eighteen-thousand, Six-hundred and Twenty-two. No, wait, hmmm, I think it’s almost exactly the same as Number Eleven-thousand, One-hundred and Sixteen… No? Say what? It’s the same but it’s a female? What’s a female?”

Humor aside, taxonomy is an intriguing thing, something about which I have actually been thinking a lot lately. Naming. The power of names. People say I have a gift of learning names easily and quickly, but I do not believe that is true, since it is always only someone whose name I can coincidentally recall who compliments me on this, and they don’t have a clue the many, many others there are whose names I do not remember at all. I can meet someone, ask their name, and not remember it sixty seconds after I walk away. Of course, perhaps that is more of an attention problem than a memory one.

But the power of names is not the only reason that I’ve been thinking lately of taxonomy. I think it has to do with the responsibility of names. To know a name is to have a specific kind of knowledge, and knowledge is not just power, as the saying goes, as if that’s the only thing people should care about in knowing something or someone. Much more than that, knowledge is also responsibility. The more one knows, the more one must take responsibility for the adjustments and accommodations that are required by knowing what one knows.

If something is significant enough to name, it’s significant enough to know about and care about. And vice versa. In other words, naming is the first part of knowing, so naming is the first part of caring.

If something is significant enough to name,
it’s significant enough to know about
and care about. And vice versa.

Which brings me back to taxonomy and naming. For those of you who never had an introduction to biology (I didn’t either), taxonomy classifies every living organism, plant and animal, into groupings based on similarities, if they have any, to other living things, isolates that organism’s uniqueness from all others, and then gives it a scientifically recognized name. Carl Linneaus kick-started this whole system in the 1700’s. It can get complicated, because it’s science, after all, but you’ve heard of species, right? Species is the final step in the classifying/naming process, the end of the line when it comes to differentiating a living thing from any other living thing. Along the way, that living thing’s Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family and Genus have also been described and defined, all before its species is scientifically named. Some biology students are taught cute sentences to remember these categories of classification, something along the order of  ‘King Philip Came Over For Great Scones,’ or the like. These finally clarified, it is thus fully named and, as a result, known in the scientific world, and this always by a two-part Latinized species name which stands beside its common name. The Common Loon, for example, is the species Gavia immer, or the Black Bear Ursus americanus. Get this: scientists have classified and named 1.78 million organisms in the 250 years this naming has been going on, all the animals and plants and microorganisms currently known, but biologists say five million more are yet to be discovered, described and named. Wow. The vast majority of these are, understandably, in the microorganism category, but not a year goes by when scientists are not classifying several new and rare animals, and scores of new plants. It seems there is still a lot yet to know, and, as humans, back to my point, to be responsible for.

This is why the natural world is such an important study, such a critical thing for normal, everyday people to know about. How can people take care of things unless they know, even in a limited way, what something is, how it works, how it relates to other things, and what impacts it both positively and negatively?

So, as I have been thinking lately of taxonomy and the significance of naming, I ran across a couple quotes that struck a personal chord. The first is from a delightful collection of essays by urban naturalist and Chicago newspaper columnist Jerry Sullivan, now deceased, whose writing is all the more evocative to me because his essays feature many of my familiar nature haunts growing up on Chicago’s north side. And besides, his book, Hunting For Frogs on Elston Avenue, engagingly conveys a truth I’ve always maintained, that one can find astounding natural beauty even in a hardcore urban setting. Sullivan says:
When you step off the pavement and into a natural area, the depth of your experience is directly correlated to the number of things you can name. If you operate with preschool categories like “tree” and “bird” and “bug” you are going to miss a whole lot.
I like that. Just for starters, naming leads to knowing, and knowing deepens and enriches our experience. Throughout his entertaining book, citified Sullivan makes clear how simple things contribute to his passionate love for nature. And it all may start for any of us by knowing as simple a few things as a Douglas Fir, a Black-capped Chickadee and a Tiger Swallowtail.

You see, it goes far deeper when we not only name and know, but also care, even love. This brings me to Paul Gruchow’s Grass Roots. In contrast to Sullivan, Gruchow wrote from a rural perspective, but like Sullivan, his also is a lovely book on environmental stewardship. Now, I want to point out that this book was written nearly twenty-five years ago, but notice how relevant his statement is:
A very old but not outmoded idea is that we will find our salvation in what we love. We have learned in recent times to fear for the earth, for its suddenly apparent fragility… But fear is no basis for an intelligent relationship… We will love the earth more competently, more effectively, by being able to name and know something about the life it contains. Can you, I asked my students, imagine a satisfactory love relationship with someone whose name you do not know? I can’t. It is perhaps the quintessentially human characteristic that we cannot know or love what we have not named. Names are passwords to our hearts, and it is there, in the end, that we will find the room for the whole world.

Room for the whole world. The same whole wide world that God holds in his hands. So if taxonomy is the world’s oldest profession, I guess I want to get very good at it myself. Maybe we all could get better at it, and, in the process, do a whole lot better job of taking care of things around here.

~~ RGM, October 27, 2017