Saturday, April 26, 2014

From My Nature Journal: "...When Suddenly..."

I turned sixty earlier this week. (In fact, it’s that year for many of my friends – Happy Birthday Dave, Gary, Tom, Craig, John, other Dave, etc., etc.!) But it has caused me to pause and think about certain kinds of life change. Just when does senior adulthood begin, for example? For that matter, when does an infant become a toddler, or a toddler a little girl, or a little girl an adolescent, or an adolescent an adult? And this is to say nothing of the conundrum of at just what point a person enters or exits the wonderfully and ambivalently-phrased stage, ‘middle-age.’ I’m guessing that sixty must mean that I am on the exit side of that poser, in spite of my denial. (Please, can’t we make it sixty-five, the traditional retirement age? Or even seventy, when the government insists I must start drawing Social Security?)

Change in nature can seem equally ambivalent. It can be excruciatingly slow if we’re talking about something like geologic time; or it can be surprisingly fast if we’re referring to an abnormally warm spring thaw or to ephemeral blooms. William Bridges in his book Transitions puts it this way:
Throughout nature, growth or change involves periodic accelerations and transformations: things go slowly for a time and nothing seems to happen – until suddenly the eggshell cracks, the branch blossoms, the tadpole’s tail shrinks away, the leaf falls, the bird molts, the hibernation begins.

And this is to say nothing of the baby dropping, the lake icing-out, the branch crashing down, the tectonic plate shifting, the first snow flurrying, the rabbits scurrying or the trout finally hitting my lonely fly.

So then, just like that, am I now a senior adult? Let’s think about this.

Bridges says that human change is different than that in the rest of the natural world, in that it tends to consist of three stages or seasons: a season of endings, a neutral in-between zone, and a season of new beginnings or possibilities. It’s usually not just *zap* and I’m different. It takes time to move into change, and that neutral zone can be accompanied by confusion and chaos, or by just plain reorientation. But the neutral zone -- that middle place -- is very real, and critically important to navigate well if life change is going to be understood and embraced. For just as in nature more can be going on than meets the eye, more also is going on in all three of these seasons than may always be seen. So the author continues to clarify the differences between plain change and true transition. In short, change is external, transition internal. Change is what happens to me, transition what takes place within me as a result of that change, either positively or negatively. Change is inevitable; transition is a personal choice, and it’s in that middle zone where healthy transition can form. Or not.

Change is inevitable, transition a choice…
And though change is a normal part of all of
nature, it is only us humans who must
undergo, if we are willing, healthy transition.

All this is to say that though change is a normal part of all of nature, it is only us humans who must undergo, if we are willing, healthy transition. Transition seems uniquely human, at least in its spiritual, emotional and psychological dimensions. So I guess that leaves it up to me if I am now a senior adult. And since people live in denial about all sorts of things – aging, self-awareness, fading beauty (whatever that is), health challenges, addictions, loss of position, decreasing skill, dying of a dream – I guess that also leaves it up to me about a lot of those kinds of things; the last thing I want is to be one of those people.

Yup, not so suddenly I’m a senior adult, or most certainly nearing the end of my neutral zone. But as I proclaim this, I also want to lean into what the old King James Version of the Bible says:

The days of our years are threescore and ten;
     And if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
Yet is their strength labor and sorrow;
     For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
So teach us to number our days,
     That we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. (Psalm 90:10, 12)

~~RGM, March 29, 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

QOTM...*: Vardis Fisher

(*Quote of the Month)

I have a longer ‘quote’ for my quote of the month -- actually, as once before, it’s more of an excerpt. But I think you’ll like it. It’s from Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man, the book upon which the old movie Jeremiah Johnson was based. (Remember that one? Great movie. Robert Redford. 70’s. Breathtaking cinema for its day. Good story. Book’s even better.)

The novel’s 1846 protagonist is an admirable and thoughtful character, Sam Minard, a man in love with life, in devotion to his Creator, and deeply connected to God’s creation. If there were fictional characters of whom I ever might say, “I’d like to be like him,” this might be one of those guys. And I say this even though I’m not much of a fiction reader, preferring history and the natural sciences for my ‘fun’ reading. But occasionally I come across stories that contain the personalities, story detail and love for creation that touch my soul – fiction by Chaim Potok, Marilynn Robinson, Wendell Berry, Willa Cather – and I find myself smitten. Mountain Man is such a book. Here’s the excerpt.

Reading nature, for Sam, was like reading the Bible; in both, the will of the Creator was plain. Or so anyway it had seemed to him… One day he had looked down from the ledge on three baby redtails in a nest with a dead squirrel: one baby hawk, no larger than his brothers but more aggressive, was so determined to have all the squirrel that when the other two strove for a part of it he struck them fiercely with talons and beak, and then seizing one by the tail, upended him and pushed him over the rim of the nest and down...
And another time he had observed the amazing mating dance of the sage cock. The birds had returned to their nesting grounds, to which they came year after year; and while the plainly dressed hens looked for insects and seemed not to care at all for wooing, the handsome males showed themselves off in dance steps. A cock would take six or eight quick steps and half turn, his wings drooping, his spiked tail spread to its fullest width, his proud head high and back, his chest puffed full of arrogance… As he danced, feathers parted and small bare areas of his body became visible, looking like grey leather; and his air sacks, for all the world like two eggs nesting in white down, alternately filled and collapsed. As the air sacs collapsed he uttered a kind of gobbling or plopping sound and raised his wings, holding them high an instant and letting them fall. This part of his act he usually repeated three times, and then danced again. His gutterals were in a series of three and at the end of the third the cock voiced a high flutelike sound that carried to the
farthest hen in the area. When thirty or forty cocks were dancing and strutting, the mountain men thought it one of the doggonedest spectacles they had ever seen.

But whether it was the loon treading with both feet and wingtips at high-speed across the waters and uttering his insane yell, or the hummingbird poised on wings that move too fast for the human eye while with her long bill she thrust deep into the throat of her baby and pumped food into its stomach, or the meadowlark or purple finch or bluebird or woodthrush pouring upon the golden air their liquid notes, or the water ouzel diving twenty feet to stroll along the bottom of the pool, or the snipe’s tailfeathers making fantastic music at dusk, or the harsh symphony from the music boxes of a hundred frogs and toads, it was all for Sam a part of the divine plan, and he loved it all. What made him most unhappy were the hours he had to give to sleep, in a life that was short at best. He thought that possibly the Creator had given sleep to his creatures so that they would awaken with the eyes of morning and 
a fresh discovery of the world.                                                             

He thought that possibly the Creator had
given sleep to His creatures so that they
would awaken with the eyes of morning
and a fresh discovery of the world.

--Vardis Fisher, Mountain Man

And maybe you can also now see why this excerpt has grabbed me this week. It’s that last sentence.  Because it’s also Holy Week again: our salvation enters the doleful sleep of Black Saturday and of a seemingly dead Christ. In order to eventually celebrate the life we must first enter into and understand the death. Only then can we be surprised and delighted by the unexpected awakening of resurrection morning. So we somehow celebrate both the death and the life with all our heart. How wonderful that, while we do so, we, too, can 'awaken with the eyes of morning’ and a fresh discovery of all that Christ has done for us.

Blessed Holy Week, Precious Black Saturday, Happy Easter.
~~RGM, April 16, 2014

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Blowin' in the Wind: Akatonbo, or, The Red Dragonfly (赤とんぼ)

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

(photography by Gail and Rick Mylander)
In an unexpected turn of events last month Gail and I made a trip to Japan, where I had been asked to speak for a Covenant missionary conference. Always paying attention to the natural world around us, and seeking to understand that culture’s understanding of natural beauty, we engaged several missionary friends on the topic, and found that the Japanese on the whole seem to be even more attuned to nature than most westerners, especially older persons.

Somehow one day, though, a conversation turned to dragonflies, a subject in which Gail has taken keen interest in recent years. (Now, the world of darters, darners, skimmers, chasers and hawktails is new to us, and we are finding it interesting and surprising. Did you know there are nearly 6,000 species and that they can fly up to sixty miles per hour?!?) Our mission friend Gary told us of a lovely old folksong called Akatonbo, or, Red Dragonfly. Its popular lyric is a nostalgic poem, in which a person remembers an image of a dragonfly while a child that causes them to long for the home, simplicity and family of their youth. Here’s the poem, in a couple translations:

          Oh, red dragonfly, red dragonfly at twilight...
          I saw you for the first time while still a baby being carried on my sister's back.

          Could it be so long ago, picking mulberries from the mountain field?
          And our little baskets... Was that all a dream?

          My sister got married when she was fifteen and moved far, far away.
          She no longer sends news to our village.

          Oh, red dragonfly, red dragonfly at twilight...
          I see you resting there on the tip of the bamboo reed.


          Red dragonfly in the sunset sky, in the orange sunset sky...
          Being carried on her back, I saw it at one time.

          In the mountain's fields we picked mulberry fruits
          And put them in a small basket. Is that a mirage?

          At fifteen the young girl married
          And letters, too, ceased to come.

          Red dragonfly in the red sunset sky, in the orange sunset sky...
          It's stopped on the tip of my fishing pole.

If you’re interested in hearing the song done in a folksy Japanese style, hit this YouTube link. The visuals are truly random, but the song is quite nice. Here’s another, less Japanese in style though still sung in the language.

It’s easy to feel the pathos expressed by the writer of this little poem, one for whom the simple encounter with a dragonfly brings him or her back to a childhood memory and the loss of a sister: nostalgic poems or songs that call up a longing for one’s home place are a part of every culture. In fact, it doesn’t take me long at all to think of some quick, popular examples myself from the songs of my own youth -- Gladys Knight's “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Fats Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans” and Billy Grammer’s “I Wanna Go Home” come to mind. Many of you could come up with others fairly easily.

So it is no surprise that the Bible even possesses such a thing. In Psalm 127, a displaced person wistfully relates to another:
Beside the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem. We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees. For our captors demanded a song from us. Our tormenters insisted on a joyful hymn, saying, “Sing us one of those songs from Jerusalem!” But how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a pagan land?
 For this singer, there was no point to the music if it was not possible to be in one’s home place.

I don’t think I agree with that. Neither do many others, apparently, as the Christian tradition has example after example of songs that sing of our real homeland, heaven. And rather than feeling there’s no point to singing them, we sing them with a sense of anticipation that is not necessarily grounded in nostalgia but in expectancy.

This simple and beautiful Japanese song about a red dragonfly touched me. Yes, we, too, have a home. Curiously, this is not it. In truth, we were not made only for this world.

~~RGM, April 11, 2014

P.S. My entomologist friend Bill tells me the dragonfly shown is called a Calico Pennant!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

From my Nature Journal: Go Climb a Tree

It is a bit of a shame that something as lovely as a tree is associated with the death of Jesus Christ: a ‘tree’ is a lesser-known idiom in ancient Near Eastern parlance for a cross, that infamous implement of capitol punishment well-used by the Roman Empire. Of course, in the absence of the one or two-piece set of beams upon which a victim could be strung or nailed, a literal tree could be and was used for the purpose, thus the use of the idiom through the course of time. It is even used that way in the Jewish Scriptures, or what Christians refer to as the Old Testament.

It is a bit of a shame that something
as lovely as a tree is associated
with the death of Jesus Christ.

The cross became, for reasons obvious, a symbol of the Christian faith in the early decades of the Christian Era, an emblem that has stood so since. And by association, trees have also maintained their connotation, though less so.

Some years ago, my wife Gail and I began to notice the cross symbol as it arbitrarily and accidentally presented itself in nature, or in other random ways in which the symbol was not purposefully or particularly intended to be portrayed, and we began to photograph them. We have come to title this series of photos “The Cross Before Me,” using a phrase from an old song with which we both grew up, and we have dozens of shots in the series. Some of them are portrayed here, at least some of those that have been rendered by a tree.

There is a 17th Century ‘olde English’ song text that picks up the tree/cross image as well, while also associating it with another Old Testament text and image, that of a ladder. I sang this song in the Covenant Ministers Chorus years ago. Specifically, it is linked with an account in the life of the Jewish patriarch Jacob, who dreams of a ladder upon which angelic beings ascend to and descend from heaven. (See Genesis 28:10ff.) The inference expressed by this account is that God is present and accessible to us, and that God desires that we utilize this ladder/cross/tree conveyance to ascend and live with him in heaven.

Here is the old text, entitled “Ladder of Mercy:"

          As Jacob with travel was weary one day,
          At night on a stone for a pillow he lay.
          He saw in a vision a ladder so high
          That its foot was on earth and its top to the sky.

               Hallelujah to Jesus who died on the tree
               And has raised up a ladder of mercy for me,
               And has raised up a ladder of mercy for me.

          That ladder is long, it is strong and well-made,
          Has stood thousands of years and is not yet decayed.
          Many millions have climbed it and reached Zion’s hill,
          And thousands by faith are climbing it still.

               Hallelujah to Jesus who died on the tree
               And has raised up a ladder of mercy for me,
               And has raised up a ladder of mercy for me.

          Come, let us ascend, all may climb it who will
          For angels of Jacob are guarding it still.
          And remember: each step that by faith we pass o’er
          Some prophet or martyr has trod it before.

               Hallelujah to Jesus who died on the tree
               And has raised up a ladder of mercy for me,
               And has raised up a ladder of mercy for me.

          And when we arrive at the haven of rest
          We shall hear the glad words: “Come up hither. Be blest.
          Here are regions of light. Here are mansions of bliss.
          O, who would not climb such a ladder as this?”

               Hallelujah to Jesus who died on the tree
               And has raised up a ladder of mercy for me,
               And has raised up a ladder of mercy for me.

Who would not climb it, indeed! Please, do.

Have a most blessed Easter later this month!
~~RGM, from an earlier journal entry, 
adapted for my blog April 2, 2014