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

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

From My Nature Journal: A Smile in the Sky, And Other Things to Grin At


Of particular pleasure to most naturalists are the moments they see something they've never seen before, along with the thoughtful realization that they might never see such a thing again in their life. Now, interestingly, these 'seeings' are not particularly rare, as there is so incredibly much to observe on, under and above land, sea and sky, especially if one is a generalist like me. Such delights are the compensation or remuneration of what is called 'paying attention.' And it's the 'paying' part of that phrase that I like, because their return in value, if you will, are commensurate with the investment of the attention one pays.

The seeings range from the curious to the cute, from the nearly unbelievable to the believable but still spectacular.

The curious. It rained buckets after dark the night before last, nearly three and a half inches in four hours. At one point, as I stood at our bedroom window for a few moments staring at the awesome sight of the downpour amid intermittent lightning flashes, I noticed several tiny glow worms on what had to be absolutely sopped turf, lighting up and dimming back. It left me inquiring as to the purpose. Who knows? Perhaps they were just sending SOS's. (See one of my earlier posts, "Holy Buckets in the World is That?" for a similar curiosity.)

The cute. Over the last couple weeks, Gail and I have picked wild apples several places, making a little jelly and applesauce along the way, but more to fill a couple five-gallon buckets and set some out overnight for the deer. This week as we began doing so, the apples were gone every morning, and we sat at the window eating breakfast, smugly satisfied to have provided a little treat. (Sometimes we're rewarded with them coming in at dusk while we can watch them, always a pleasure.) But no. One morning upon an earlier rising than usual, I watched with both displeasure and amusement as a diminutive red squirrel climbed the stumps upon which the apples lay and carried each, one at a time, into the woods, burying them under fallen leaves. Some of these apples were over half its size and surely close to its body weight, a comical sight.

The nearly unbelievable. I'll warn you now, people think I'm pulling their leg when I tell them of this experience. Years ago, Gail and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to the Canadian Maritime Provinces. While hiking in a remote area of New Brunswick near the Hopewell Rocks, we stopped dead in our tracks when we heard a crow in a tall tree above us seeming to sing "It's a Small World After All." Now, we had known that crows are smart enough to mimic, but it still challenged our limits of believability. So we stood under the tree for a few minutes and listened to it over and over; quite soon, other hikers came down the trail, a young couple, and we thought we'd put it to the test. Stopping them, we asked if they'd mind pausing to listen to this crow and tell us what they thought they heard; we must have seemed like crazy old people. After the crow called, the woman replied, "Uhh, it's... a small world after all...?" Bingo. Something else crazier than us. We all laughed with incredulity, and I commented, knowing also that some crows can migrate south for the winter, "I guess there's no question where this guy spends his winters!" It must have been one of those that perch nearby and snag French fries and other treats out of people's hands while they're waiting in line at Disney World, listening to that infernal ditty! Who (or what) EVER can get THAT brain worm out of their head, having once stood in that line?

Finally, the believable but still spectacular. I was not even familiar with these two things before seeing them, and though I've only 'seen' the latter through my sister, they arrest me just the same. Many of us have seen sundogs or glorioles. Sundogs are small arcs of rainbow color, 22 degrees either or both sides of the sun when low in the sky, refracting and separating the colors of the sun's rays as a prism does, through suspended ice crystals. Glorioles are rings around the sun or moon (or partial rings) that are also a refraction of light through high altitude ice crystals. But the thing about both sundogs and glorioles is that their arc bends toward the light source, whether sun or moon; in other words, they appear as circles, or partial circles, surrounding the light.

One day as I walked on a sunny afternoon, a small patch of color near the zenith somehow caught my eye, and I found a small, single arc floating among the clouds almost directly overhead. I thought it odd to see a sundog in that spot, as they usually present themselves nearer the horizon earlier or later in the day. But then I realized its arc was bending away from the sun. What in the world? Well, that was called, I found as I researched later, a circumzenithal arc, but I also read, Cheshire Cat notwithstanding, that it was also called 'the smile in the sky,' which brought the same to my own countenance. That’s also a much more fun title, I’d say. (It’s also called Bravais’ arc, or an upside-down rainbow.) Circumzenithal means ‘surrounding the zenith,’ zenith being the point straight up. These arcs are also formed through high altitude ice crystals, appear 46 degrees above the sun (about a quarter of the sky), and, I was surprised to find, are not that rare; it’s just that few of us ever look straight over the tops of our heads. In this photo, I blocked the sun by the tree in order to see ‘the smile’ more clearly.


Then just last month my sister Carolyn sent me this photo pair of crepuscular and anticrepuscular rays, taken one evening from the roof of her Chicago condo building. I had often seen the former but never the latter. Crepuscular means ‘relating to twilight,’ which is when these rays tend to show themselves best. These rays can often be seen while the sun is low in the sky, especially as the sunlight shines through thick cumulus clouds. (They’re also called splintered light, or god rays. Hmmm…) But I have always thought that the coolest effect is when crepuscular rays show when the sun is below the horizon. Soon before the sun rises or soon after it sets, our star occasionally throws its shadows and light-rays across the sky as it shines through clouds, or even landforms like mountains or hills, that are below our own horizon, which we, of course, cannot see. All those rays and shadows seem to be emanating from the same point below the horizon, like spokes on one half of a wheel, which, of course, they are, coming as they are from our sun's single point of light. Most spectacular is when it happens when our own sky is fairly cloudless. But I’ve also particularly enjoyed it while flying at high altitude into the sunset, when I have been able to see rays opposite the sunset and behind me forming a single, large, arced, purplish shadow, which is actually the shadow of our earth itself, including its curvature, another cool expression of crepuscular light. What I had never seen before is when those rays reach all the way across the sky and exit the opposite horizon, again, as like spokes in another half wheel opposite the sun. Along the way, they appear to expand widely over one's head and converge again on the horizon opposite. But this is only how it appears; the rays are actually nearly parallel, perspective from a single point being what it is, in the same way that parallel railroad tracks seem to come to a point in the distance). These rays opposite the sun are called anticrepuscular, 'anti' of course a prefix from the Greek designating opposition. Sometimes a ray reaches all the way overhead from west to east (or east to west), as some did at the time of these two photos. You can look at both photos and picture the full sky's connecting rays, keeping in mind that one photo faces west to the sunset and the other east (note the Chicago skyline), thus, why the rays are flipped from right to left.

I wax. It's a hazard for us naturalists, as I've said many times. But all of this is to affirm, as I began, what a treat it is to be feted with new and wonderful things one has never observed or experienced before, irrespective of a lifetime of observation.

I've walked with God now for well over a half century. Though much about this walk has become familiar, God also often teaches or shows me new things, or new ways to understand old things. It's why I write. But such was familiar to the Biblical writers as well, with Jeremiah celebrating God's tender mercies of old which seemed to him absolutely 'new every morning' (Lamentations 3:22-23); or James reveling in God's '...good and perfect gifts from above... coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation nor turning shadow' (James 1:17). Beautiful image, that one, eh? Or perhaps this from 1Corinthians 2:9 -- 'Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the mind of humans conceive what God has in store for those who love him.'

Yes.
~~ RGM, September 23, 2018

Saturday, August 25, 2018

QOTM* -- Dag Hammarskjöld: Peace at the Center and the Power of Nature to Undo Us


(*Quote of the Month)

In the church crowd I ran with while growing up, and on into my seminary days, it was not unusual to hear quotes by Dag Hammarskjöld. A name like that alone was memorable enough to a kid surrounded at the time by few others than Johnson, Hansen, Nelson, Larson, Anderson and Peterson. But even Hammarskjöld himself was a Swede, and a real one, from Sweden itself, unbeknownst to me.

A regional political and then world leader of the mid 1900’s, one rarely hears him quoted today, and this is a pity. He was an extraordinary man. Reluctant though remarkable leader, self-questioning, well-acquainted with the loneliness of leadership, even the periodic loneliness of life, yet deeply Christian, I find that the more I know of him the more moved I am. His musings strike a chord in my own spirit.

Dag Hammarskjöld served two elected terms as Secretary-General of the United Nations, the second in the U.N.'s history, and died what always seems to us a premature death at the age of 56, in a plane crash while on a UN peacemaking mission to Rhodesia in September of 1961. All his adult years he had kept a journal in which he had recorded personal thoughts and insights, some poetic, about hope, faith, doubt, and life in general, as well as some Bible verses and random quotes of others that were meaningful to him, all within the context of a lifetime of public service. It was published posthumously as a book in 1963 under the Swedish title Vägmärken (literally, Trail Marks), and translated into English as Markings. This selection is from a late entry titled, simply, 8.4.59.

In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter 
a world where all things are at rest in the same way. Then a 
tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation, each man a 
cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. 
The life of simplicity is simple, but it opens to us 
a book in which we never get beyond the first syllable.

It’s a lovely observation, and this even in the midst of his frenetic and intense service as Secretary-General. He knew, as do others, that in the midst of overwhelming challenge, what’s at the center is what counts – a place of peace, of centeredness, where nature inspires, where mystery cheers, and where even very common things reveal deep truths. Such is the place where one is emboldened to find courage, reassurance and strength for the journey. Yet here, also, we realize we are ever but children in the school of life.

I am glad to have discovered that centered place, and yet shake my head in awe as I am undone again and again by the profundity of beauty and the wonder of God’s creation.

While I’m in Markings, here’s another beautiful excerpt, no extra charge. Titled July 6, 1961, it was penned mere weeks before his death.

Tired
And lonely
So tired
The heart aches.
Meltwater trickles
Down the rocks.
The fingers are numb.
It is now,
Now, that you must not give in.

On the path of the others
Are resting places,
Places in the sun
Where they can meet.
But this
Is your path,
And it is now,
Now, that you must not fail.

Weep
If you can,
Weep,
But do not complain.
The way chose you –
And you must be thankful.

Whew…

 ~~ RGM, August 16, 2018

P.S. With this blog entry, I return to a writing format I’ve not used in a couple years, my quote of the month. This is not an indication that I will necessarily start doing a monthly quote piece again, as I used to do regularly. But who knows? We’ve just come into a little more time on our hands these days than we’ve had lately, so maybe I’ll be able to get to more than one posting a month, which has been my modus operandi of late. Either way, grace and peace to you…