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.'

~~ 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.

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.

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


 ~~ 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…

Sunday, July 29, 2018

From My Nature Journal: “Hey, Dad, The Millers are at the Door…!”

There is a lovely little, inch-long, brownish-gray moth here in Colorado commonly known as the Miller. It’s an interesting moniker, so I am told, coming from its dusty cloak that reminded yesteryear people of a miller covered with flour dust.

A couple times per year in mid-year months, Miller moths seem ubiquitous here on the Front Range -- once in the late spring when the adult migrates up to the mountains from the plains, following elevation gain to the later blooms of the kinds of wildflowers it likes, and then once again down from the mountains and foothills and back to the plains in the early fall to lay its eggs and die. The moths seem abundant due to their attraction to light, drawn to street lights and gas station overhangs, to the glow behind a garage door on its way open, or hovering around the windows and windowed doors of a house, ready to come in uninvited, two or three or more at a time, at which moment they normally fly clumsily for a lampshade or for the highest point in a room.

Once in, they’re not hard to catch. One can even snatch them midair if they can be nabbed before parking themselves on the ceiling. In that event, a well-aimed sock gives another chance for their capture. Invariably, if Gail and I are away from home for more than a few days during their migrations, we’ll return to find several that have suffered expiration on the living room carpet. How they got in is unknown.

Curiously, in spite of their diminutive size, Millers can be an important food source for, of all things, grizzly bears, who prize the moths’ fat content in preparation for hibernation.

I have a pastor friend who found his church’s auditorium infested with several dozen of them early one summer Sunday morning. In his opening welcome he jibed, “We want to give a warm welcome to the Miller family attending en masse today…” Few caught the crack, many looking around to see who he had been referring to. Some never did get it. I thought it hilarious.

There is a strange and problematic habit Millers have, though, that I just cannot figure out. I lit a campfire tonight in my backyard, and as the flame caught and roared its opening blaze, one after the other flew into the small inferno and perished. I stepped back and watched the scene with astonishment. It had been a while since I had had a campfire during a Miller migration.

What glitch has there been in this little creature’s evolutionary development that might lead it to do this? One would think that through the eons it would have learned to sense heat before casting itself headlong into the flame. In fact, I can think of no other organism in the animal kingdom that will run intentionally and recklessly toward its own demise, perhaps save man. Even the proverbial overpopulated lemming casting itself into the sea is a myth. Now, granted, moth brains cannot be very substantial, but is there not some powerful instinct in every creature for survival, for the capacity to endure, to persist, to last, to live? I don’t get it.

Yes, the only other creature that can display this destructive propensity is a human being. We often race toward things that can destroy us.

The Bible says that “…the wages of sin is death…,” a pretty costly price for what usually amounts to a bauble. And yet we run headlong toward it. What is sin’s ultimate attraction anyway? Now, I am not inferring that we, like the Miller hurtling toward the flame, are running eagerly toward the fires of hell; thankfully, there are lots of ways God can use to redeem us from our tendencies to self-destruction before it’s too late. I guess I am more inferring my confusion that we run away from the possibility of vibrant life to something hurtful, something far from life-giving in the end. I don’t get it.

Perhaps God doesn’t either.

I came across an old prayer recently: “Lord, grant me the fullness of your grace, that I, running to your promises, may become a partaker of your treasure.”

Now that’s something worth pursuing.

~~RGM, Adapted from a 2012 Entry
in my Leather Nature Journal