Saturday, July 13, 2013

From My Journal: A Bit of a Nature Autobiography

During our visit here to Florida’s east coast to see my wife’s parents, I had the rare pleasure yesterday of observing on the eastern horizon both a sunrise and a near full moonrise over the ocean on the same day. The former took place at 7:15am, seen from my usual morning jaunt at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge on Jupiter Island; exactly fifteen hours and two minutes later, I witnessed the latter from the rocky beach behind the historic Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge on Hutchinson Island, the next barrier island to the north. Both sun and moon came up blood red.  Waves broke firmly but somewhat quietly across flat sand in the morning, though in a stiff wind; they crashed mightily last evening against the coquina reef rocks, ironically making high spray in calm air.

Hobe Sound NWR, Florida
To the best of my recollection it is the first time I have ever witnessed both moments upon the same day, and it was somewhat unplanned. As offshore clouds allow, I see the sunrise frequently in my early morning walks along the beach when I am here; and I had also taken previous note of moonrise times, in the event an opportunity might present itself through the family activities for the more rare chance to see a moonrise over the ocean, a particularly lovely experience. In any one-week stay, of course, lunar realities are such that there’s only a one in four chance that opportunity might present itself at a humane hour! So to be able to hit them both then on the same day was a singular, coincidental delight. (The only other thing to which I can compare it is the day I was able to set foot in both the Atlantic and Pacific, but that story is for another time…)

Why do such things give me such pleasure? What is it about nature that gives me this buzz? Sometimes I think myself a nutcase! But my delight with such a simple thing as this, curiously, came the same day that a question had been posed me by my daughter Maren, vacationing with us; on our way back from the beach in the afternoon, she asked, “Dad, how old were you when you first began to appreciate the natural world?” It is a question I had pondered before, though coming to no particular conclusion, and I told her that. I mentioned a few things that had influence, and she found them interesting and urged me to write about it (to share on my blog). So since I am still on vacation, I find now to be an opportune time to do so. Forgive me if it is a mite longer than my typical blog.

Why do such things give me
such pleasure? What is it about
nature that gives me this buzz? 

Purple Coneflower
I wish I could say that there had been a specific experience that captured me as a child, but I remember none. To be sure, I played outdoors a lot during my unique, disparate childhood. Unique? Disparate? I explain. For my first twelve years of life my family each summer vacated our home in the very urban core of Chicago’s near north side for the far north woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; my mother’s grandparents’ homesteaded family farm became our home for the summer’s duration, and we would return to Chicago around Labor Day in September to start school. In the U.S., more different environments than Chicago’s inner city and the rural U.P. can hardly be found. Additionally, the farmhouse had neither running water nor electricity, so what was there to do except be outdoors? Rainy days seemed a jail sentence. Once at ‘the farm,’ we seemed to kick off our shoes and run barefoot in the woods and fields all summer long save Sunday church. We had a couple swings on a huge white pine at woods’ edge. How wistfully I recall the well-used tufts of roots that provided our pathways through the nearby swamp; as a kid, one couldn’t get back a hundred feet into the murky wetland without thinking they might never find their way out again and back to civilization. I remember catching frogs and tadpoles (my cousins called them polliwogs) in the muddy little pond a half mile east on M69, now dry; or walking the mile west to Ten Mile Creek with a fishing pole and a can of grasshoppers and never catching anything; the moon-walk-sized leaps down the steep sand dunes made after the DOT had negotiated to buy sand from off my grandmother’s property; climbing (and falling out of) apple trees in the orchard at my Aunt Margie’s in Bark River; and Saturday evening trips to various area waterholes for a weekly bath, sorely needed.

But I also remember being outdoors a lot during our school year in Chicago: playing marbles with neighborhood friends on whatever piece of appropriate bare dirt we could find to scratch out a hole (no circle marbles for us!); camping out overnight in friends’ backyards, with one kid usually producing a stolen cigarette or two that I managed to avoid; ice skating on frigid Chicago afternoons or evenings at Haas Park, or the two nearby schoolyards, Goethe and Brentano, all of which had been flooded by the city for winter recreation; rolling down the grassy slope of the big hill at Montrose Harbor Park on spring or fall Sunday afternoons; saucering or sledding down the nearby ‘hills’ (a real stretch!) made when the Kennedy Expressway was constructed; scouring the woods and creek at Bunker Hill Forest Preserve during family holiday picnics; scavenging in construction pits when new buildings were being put in somewhere in the neighborhood or the O’Hare Airport ‘L’ subway was being dug; hikes at Illinois State Beach State Park or Lake Geneva just over the Wisconsin border with my church youth group; or my favorite – simply walking along the breakwaters and ripraps of the Lake Michigan shoreline three miles east of our Logan Square home.

So, Chicago and the U.P. – the differences were huge, even schizophrenic, but the outdoors was the common denominator. Still, among all these things, I don’t recall being particularly passionate about the outdoors as a child; it’s just the place where childhood life and play seemed to happen. Three experiences, however, stand out for me as a late teen, and I look back to these as watershed times when God’s natural world staked its claim on my spirit.

I was eighteen the middle of my sophomore year in college, winter, early 1973. Several of us got it in our minds, after a high spiritual experience at North Park College that winter
White-fronted goose migration, Squaw Creek NWR, Missouri
(some even called it a revival), to put together a trip over spring break to several of our Covenant denomination’s churches in Florida to do youth programs. (You could bet that it would not have been to Winnipeg!) At that time, I had never been out of the three north central states of Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan – essentially the straight line between our Chicago home and Grandma’s U.P. ‘farm.’ The six or seven of us students camped along the way and ended the trip leading a large youth retreat at a state park in the Florida Keys. I remember being smitten by the ocean, the palms, and the birds and flowers of a south Florida winter, mesmerized by the newness of the unique things I was seeing. I also remember being smitten by the worst sunburn of my young life.

Several months later I spent the first of three summers working at a Covenant Bible Camp, Mission Meadows to be exact, in Upstate New York. My experiences there were formative for my life in many profound ways, but dragging my cabin of charges around the ample woods and along the wilder shores of Lake Chautauqua was one of its many joys. Though I was the maintenance director that first summer in addition to being a cabin counselor, I also ended up spending a lot of time with a friend who was the outdoor ed guy, who taught me a lot about eastern forest and riparian habitats. A highlight for me each week was a day trip that we all took some distance from the camp for a hike in an incredibly beautiful creek gorge, the name of which slips me. I couldn’t get enough of it, and imagine that along some of the trek there wasn’t much of an apparent difference between camper and counselor.

Finally, the following two springs, a number of us back at North Park put together two more spring break trips, this time as a biracial group, visiting an African-American church’s Bible camp in eastern Tennessee, Cedine Bible Mission of Spring City, nestled on an arm of the huge reservoir created by the TVA. Though we did a lot of painting and fix up (I can still smell the creosote!), we also had a chance to take hikes, and I shimmied myself into a kayak for the first time in my life exploring backwaters of the lake. Again, things were new to me I had not known before. Appreciations that had begun to develop in me as a child were coming to fruition.

I realized by then a pattern was beginning to emerge. Wherever I went I found myself gravitating to parks, hikes, ranger lectures, campouts, nature expeditions, outdoor photography, lake recreation, you name it; if it was outdoors, it was where I wanted to be. It didn’t matter the discipline – biology, botany, dendrology, entomology, astronomy, meteorology, ornithology, geology, zoology – they were all interesting to me. And to my
great happiness, I also met at that same time the young woman who would become my life partner; perhaps it was no coincidence that I discovered that she loved these things, too, for the only thing better than enjoying the beauties of life is having someone with whom to enjoy them.

To this day I find that natural beauty pierces my soul. Studying nature and enjoying its delights fills my leisure hours. It’s the reason why seeing a sun and moon rise over the ocean on the same day is so precious to me – it draws out of me a visceral response that I can honestly say feels like a holy ache, a God-created passion that has gripped me. Even in my workaday world of consultations, coaching sessions, conferences and workshops, give me a seat by a window with a view of a tree or the open sky and I can sit contentedly even through the longest (and sometimes even the most boring) of board meetings.

So that’s what occurs to me in answer to Maren’s question. Nothing earth shattering or dramatic about it, just a childhood and youth of easing into God’s magnificent creation. It is a pleasure that knows neither bounds nor end.

He makes me lie down in tender green pastures. He leads me beside still and restful waters. He refreshes and restores my life. (Psalm 23:2-3, Amplified)

~~RGM, from a March 30, 2013 Journal Entry,
Palm City FL

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