Saturday, September 28, 2013

QOTM...*: Parker Palmer

(*Quote of the Month)

The soul is like a wild animal -- tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If you want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the wildness we seek.
~~Parker J. Palmer

Rocky Mt Bighorn near the trail

Parker Palmer is a Christian writer, educator and activist who has focused his career on issues of education, social change, community and faith. A Quaker, and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, his most recent book addresses the importance of civil public discourse, and is titled Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. The above quote, however, was taken from page seven of a book my pastor and good friend Paul recommended to me a couple years ago, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

Black bear ambling through our campsite 
What I appreciate about the quote is that it is a quality expression of something natural and something spiritual at the same time.  I have sat in those woods at the base of a tree and I have crashed through them, both literally and spiritually. Of course, sometimes it is even literally sitting at the base of a tree that my soul discovers the spiritual meaning it seeks. It’s why I write this blog.

So, are you soul-searching these days like me? If you find it a struggle, as I sometimes do, perhaps you are looking for God
Hidden newborn whitetail fawn
in all the wrong places. Perhaps nature will speak to you as it does me and you will find God there. Or perhaps you will find God by pursuing a new spiritual practice, asking a friend to pray with you, reading through the Psalms or the Gospels, connecting with a Bible study or Bible discussion group, engaging a spiritual director, or reading a spiritual classic. Whatever, remember that there is often a wildness to that search, and a wild One to meet at every search’s end. Though that One can speak in a still small voice, he can also roar like Susan and Lucy’s Aslan.

~~RGM, September 27, 2013

P.S. Next up? From My Nature Journal...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Blowin' in the Wind: "Taps" -- Not Just for Trumpet Players Anymore

(Blowin’ in the Wind is a regular feature on my blog consisting of an assortment of nature writings – hymns, songs, prayers, scriptures, poems or other things – pieces I may not have written but that inspire me. I trust they will do the same for you.)

It’s just a simple little song with four notes, but what a complete wallop of emotion, thoughtfulness, even pathos it can pack. It is commonly known as Taps.” But unless you are from my generation or older, you may not know that the tune is also a wordless rendition of a lovely little nature hymn denoting sunset and end of day.

Day is Done
Day is done. Gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well. Safely rest.
God is nigh.

Fading light dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar, drawing nigh
Falls the night.

Thanks and praise for our days
‘Neath the sun, ‘neath the stars, ‘neath the sky!
As we go this we know:
God is nigh.

My first association with “Taps” came early in life at a Bible camp we used to attend each summer. Every night after ‘lights out,’ way off in the woods somewhere some kid, probably with a crew-cut and large ears, would play it on a trumpet as a blessing upon the day. Perhaps some of you remember it that way from scout camp. At Blessed Hope Bible Camp in Michigan, we’d first barely hear it as it was played on the women’s side of the campground; but then about five minutes later we’d hear it again nearer by, but still distant, and that denoted the time our counselor made us all shut up and go to sleep.

But the tune, of course, is also indelibly associated in our culture with funerals, particularly those with military honors. Though appropriate to the lyrics, and though a very somber moment in our life experiences, in my estimation this gives the lyric and tune a sadness they do not deserve.

So which came first, the tune or the lyrics? Historically, the use of the tune came some decades before the lyrics were written; as in my Bible camp experience, it was used as a bugle call in the 1800’s in military encampments in Europe and the U.S., not for funerals but for the close of day. (And humorously, the word ‘taps’ comes from the Dutch taptoe, their second-to-last bugle call of the day, intending actually that all beer keg taps be closed to soldiers! They needed to get back to camp before the last bugle call required all fires and lights to be extinguished!) By the time of the American Civil War it was regularly used in the U.S. military to mark day’s end, but it was also during this time that its use at military funerals was popularized, both in the north and south. Some time after the war, Horace Lorenzo Trim, about whom little else is known, composed the simple and thoughtful lyrics.

Whether used then as an inspiration to rest or to rest in peace, perhaps it also becomes somber or reflective in its bare, four-note simplicity. I mean, even “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” has six! And it’s also remarkably guileless today for a trumpet player to play it, who doesn’t even need to change finger position!

And yet such could also be said of the setting sun – somber, thoughtful, simple, completely common, yet awesome in its ability to take our breath away or give us pensive pause. So let’s think about end of day before we close, and perhaps in the process we can resurrect the song a bit from its relegation to funerals.
Perhaps we can resurrect
the song… from its
relegation to funerals.

In my experience, sunset is the day’s benediction. As often as I am able to enjoy it, it is as a blessing to me upon the day, a time for reflection, for prayer, for thanksgiving. A spiritual practice since time immemorial is something called in Latin an examen, or the examination of conscience; it for many is a daily discipline to think over one’s waking hours and determine where God seemed present or absent that day, or where we seemed present or absent to God. Perhaps at some point I will put up as a resource on this blog a simple instruction for an examen, but for our purposes, the sunset tonight and the lyrics of this song can alone provide good substance for our contemplation. It’s a fine song to accompany an evening examen.

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) is remembered as saying, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” She bespeaks the same theme as our song. All is well. Safely rest. God is here.
"I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, for the
Lord sustains me."
Psalm 3:5

~~RGM, September 18, 2013

Monday, September 16, 2013

POTM...*: The Season of the Loon

(*Photo of the Month)

Here in the U.P. we have begun to see the southern movement of Canada geese in chevron flight. Maple trees have reddened, lakewater is cooling daily, songbirds have silenced even as red squirrels have undertaken their frenzied chattering, and fresh patches of wildflowers are becoming few and far between. These to us also mean that the end of another loon season is coming on. Last month, my photo of the month featured the Colorado mule deer; I thought this time I would enjoy featuring the Michigan common loon.
The Lord did well when
he put the loon and its
music in the land.
~~Aldo Leopold

The season of the loon is one of the things many mid-northern amateur naturalists look forward to most. One of the most ancient of extant birds, and therefore frequently listed first in many ornithologies, a pair of adult loons, mated for life when possible, will often somehow show up on the water in spring within hours of ice out. Here in northern Michigan on the lake where we are blessed to own a small and rustic cabin, this can be any time between March and early May. Strengthening and cavorting for several weeks as time allows, the female will then generally lay two eggs in late May or early June (olive-colored with black flecks) and the pair share incubation for about twenty-eight days, before the fluffy chicks, buoyant as a ping-pong ball and twice the size, are hatched.

Adult with three-week-old juvenile
Nesting is the only time loons spend on land, upon which they are always completely clumsy. (In fact, a loon cannot even take flight from terra firma; if it happens to come down on a wet parking lot in the spring, thinking it a lake, it must be captured and transported to water if it is to survive.) No, it is certainly water diving for which the loon is perfectly designed. In the first days of life outside the shell the chick will ride on the back of the parent or float under the shelter of a wing, the adults providing meals of small fish, crawfish and water insects. But the young grow quickly and are soon diving on their own, though not meeting the adult success rate! Within about two months of the hatch the juveniles are full-grown, practicing take off with a long, loud flapping ‘running start’ and skimming to a halt on their stomachs, looking something like a sledding penguin in this latter regard, and sometimes crash landing in the process. Parents and offspring will also begin to separate more at this time, with the adults often beginning their migration southeast to the Atlantic or gulf coast by mid-September or early October, leaving the juveniles to develop flight skills in time to get off the water before November or December ice in, for a loon cannot take off from ice either. Typically, a loon born that season will spend three or four years in the south before beginning its own annual migration north to nest and fledge, usually (and amazingly) doing so within a mile of its birthplace.

Red-eyed, and impeccably patterned in brilliant black and white spots and lines that camouflage it against the background of moving water, the adult is a swimming and diving machine. Our binocs and camera ever at the ready, we never tire of watching them, whether diving, preening, calling, feeding, stretching, flying, or simply lounging on watertop. We especially enjoy watching the diving lessons, fishing lessons and flying lessons given by parent to young, often comical. Of particular and very rare delight are the times when we are able to watch a loon swim under our canoe or dock, speeding like a torpedo but able to turn after their quarry on a dime; son-in-law BJ is the only one in the family to have ever caught that action on film.

Two-month-old juvenile
But it is the haunting and lovely loon call that seems to define the Northwoods lake even more than the sight of the bird. These are sounds once heard never forgotten, like that of the whip-poor-will. There are four basic vocalizations – the wail, tremolo, hoot and yodel. The wail is the ubiquitous call most recognized, heard often after dark, approximated by those who can whistle through cupped hands, and used for many purposes by the animal but most often in communication with its own mate. (This is one of my favorite ringtones on my phone, assigned only to calls from my wife!) The tremolo is the call heard routinely when the bird is in flight or, if on the water, when sensing threat; and the hoot is a very quiet and gentle ‘who’ sound used for close-in communication with its family, almost as if to say “You OK? I’m good here.” The yodel is the one that freaks some people out; done only by the male as a territorial statement, it is an almost other-worldly sound, usually made also after dark, often joined in by as many other loons as can hear it; and when males yodel the females in the area often chime in with their own wails. Add to this all the bouncing echoes typical in evening stillness? What an evocative and memorable cacophony it can make at any hour of the night.

Three-month-old juvenile; note the flatter head
As with all wildlife, loons are not without their share of predators. Chief among the natural dangers while nesting are coyotes, or of raiding nests, raccoons, skunks, otters and snakes, though an adult rarely leaves its eggs unattended. Also while on the nest, the adult can in some years be so pestered by black flies or mosquitos as to be driven off the nest and give up the eggs. However, if the adult loses its first clutch, or even its first hatch, it has time to lay a second clutch and try for better success the second time around. If this must happen a third time, though, the young can be in danger of incomplete flight readiness before ice in. Dominant among the natural dangers after hatch are eagles from above (who particularly prey on the inexperienced young, the presence in flight of which will immediately evoke intense tremolos by any loon whose sharp eyesight spots it), and large fish or snapping turtles from below (also preying upon the young, grabbing a small webbed foot, pulling it down and drowning it). As a result, adult vigilance is constant, and usually effective. From the human realm, motorboats are also a tremendous danger to adult and young alike, requiring like vigilance from high-speed ‘drivers to yield to the divers.‘

In recent years, we have been fortunate with unusual success by ‘our’ loons. Very near our place and within our little bay on 330-acre Beatons Lake, Gail and I are lucky enough to have one of two island nesting platforms maintained by volunteers from our property owners’ association. Very effective in protecting a nest from at least its land predators, it is a rare year recently when this island does not see two loons successfully raised, and of course, this allows us regular visual access to the birds throughout the summer whenever we are here. Successful loon hatch is a big deal on the lake, one or two loons coming off the other platform almost every year as well. We can all get rather animated about it all, as you can probably tell, with loon progress a constant source of conversation among many of us.

There are some cool loon cams out there on the internet. If you can’t get to a northern lake next June, they are worth checking out. Try this one next year.

In God’s hand is the life
of every living thing.
~~The Bible, Job 12:10

~~RGM, September 10, 2013

P.S. Up next week? A “Blowin’ in the Wind” column that might be of particular interest to you trumpet players…

Friday, September 6, 2013

From My Nature Journal: One Square Inch of Silence

I’ve been thinking of that ‘one square inch of silence’ concept cited recently in nature magazines. A man by the name of Gordon Hempton is seeking to popularize the notion and has written a book by that title, subtitled One Man’s Search for Silence in a Noisy World. Hempton is going about chronicling what he claims are the few places remaining in the contiguous United States, on public lands, where one can go and have a better chance than not of listening for fifteen random minutes, during daylight hours, without hearing a single man-made sound.

One of his favorite places on his list (also perhaps one of the closest to his Seattle home) is in the rain forest in Olympic National Park. I actually remember that amazing sensation the one time we hiked there long ago with the kids: the ferns and soft mosses had the effect of deadening ambient sounds, much like the sound (or lack thereof) of standing in deep, freshly fallen snow. It is the sound of silence.

(near Sequoia N.P., California)
But it’s not silence that Hempton is after, it’s the absence of noise, specifically by his definition, any sound generated by people. He humorously tells of taking friends to his favorite spot in the Olympic for the express purpose of sharing the one-square-inch experience, hiking in, and not getting one of them to stop talking the whole trip! Funny! And if it’s not the people nearby, the next biggest perpetrator is, of course, air traffic, even in remote places like that.

So that’s the idea -- taking any arbitrary quarter-hour and having a better than 50-50 chance of hearing nothing but pure, natural, non-human-generated sound. If it’s public lands that are under consideration, I’d suggest the national forests rather than busy national parks. In fact, I think we could experience that noiseless reality with some regularity right here on the Ottawa National Forest where we are vacationing. Now may even be such a moment, as I sit here on the porch and ruminate about it.

(Pike N.F., Colorado)
But it’s interesting… What IS a man-made sound after all, technically? As I sit and listen I hear the lake lapping against the dock, a very pleasant natural sound. But completely natural? The water is such but the dock is man-made. I hear an agreeable light wind in the trees. But along with it I also hear the gentle flapping of the flag on the dock, pleasurable surely, even natural, but that sound would not exist if the flag did not exist. I hear the sound of the breeze grabbing the edge of the very journal page upon which I write, another man-made item. There’s the growling of my stomach (man-made noise for sure, and don’t I know it!), the bark of a dog down the lake (a domesticated animal, not natural), the scratch of my pen on the page. I guess we come close to a square inch of silence here, but not all the way.

If we could enjoy such times
of silence, they might even
become one of those ‘thin places’ 
where one could better hear
the still, small voice of God.

I keep listening. There’s a distant plunk. Is that an axe in a man’s hand or the echo of a fish jumping downshore? Now a tap-tap-tap: someone in a garage driving a nail or a woodpecker looking for a meal in a snag? Or maybe it’s that bluejay up in the hemlock, cracking open the peanut I left for him on the railing, a sound that would not have taken place without a man. There’s an aspirating noise. Is it a buck snort? Or a sneeze from one of the only two other people here on the bay today? A sharp crack: a distant gunshot or a branch falling in the woods? Now a soft croak – a far-flung squeaking car door or a nearby frog? A faint cry – children out on a paddleboat in the channel or the eaglet out there in the aerie tree begging for a meal?

Sounds like it’d be hard to even know if every sound one heard was strictly natural. Still, it’s a cool thought and an interesting effort to take the time to find these quiet places. If we could enjoy such times of silence, they might even become one of those ‘thin places’ where one could better hear the still, small voice of God.

The Bible says, “And Adam and Eve heard the sound of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8).”  I guess if it’s God walking, it can’t be considered a man-made sound.

~~RGM, from an earlier  journal entry, 
adapted for blog September 4, 2013