Saturday, September 26, 2015

QOTM...*: John Muir's Enthusiasm

(*Quote of the Month)

It’s time again for something from John Muir. Muir, as many of you know, was a naturalist and author of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a man of Christian faith, and an enthusiastic and effusive observer of the natural world. For me, he embodies some of the best of the etymology of the word ‘enthusiasm’: break the word down and it comes from two Greek words – en, which as you can imagine means ‘in,’ and often finds itself a prefix to a larger word, and theos, the Greek for ‘god.’ To be enthusiastic, therefore, is to be ‘in god,’ or put another way, ‘to be possessed of God.’ I like that, more fun with words! The man Muir was indeed wholeheartedly possessed, so much so that some considered him a kook. But at times I know that feeling…

I wrote on him in one of my very first blogs nearly three years ago and you can learn more about him here, including the fearsome experience that launched his zealous attention upon God’s creation.

Here are the quotes. They have little to do with each other and their sources escape me, yet I include them together here only because they both are found on the interpretive signs (the photos) surrounding the visitor center at White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico, which we called upon several times during our ministry nearby this past year.

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

This sounds a little C.S. Lewis-y to me. What do you think? Perhaps it is just reminding me of a Lewis quote. But the propensity for the natural world to mingle our out-goings and our in-goings… it’s a lovely thought. God’s presence is like that as well. Even the Psalmist said, The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore (121:8).

The second quote:

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and places to pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.

I imagine this kind of quote was part of his rhetoric as he stumped for the establishment and extension of the National Park system. Yet it’s true, beauty and bread. It’s what keeps me ‘going out.’ I trust you will be fully blessed by both at some point in the days immediately ahead.

~~ RGM, September 26 2015

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Blowin' in the Wind: Richard Rohr and "Aweism" (Not Animism!)

("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 or have given me joy. I trust they will do the same for you.)

Richard Rohr is a popular Franciscan priest and monk, prolific author and retreat speaker, working out of his New Mexico home province based in Albuquerque. His ministry center, The Center for Action and Contemplation, offers a free, daily meditation that may be gotten by subscribing here. Though I have read several of his books (a really good one I read last year is Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life – highly recommended!), some day I’d like to get down to Albuquerque and take in one of his workshops or retreats.

Back in January they sent out a devotional called Aweism; it is based on Romans 1:20, a keystone text for those who find nature an important spiritual pathway. Adapted from several of Rohr’s writings, I thought the meditation a dandy, so saved it for use some day in my Blowin’ in the Wind blog feature. Some may think it smacks of animism, yet I do not believe that is so. Besides, humankind can do far worse than making a god out of God’s creation, and usually exceeds itself in doing so.

The Bible text: 

For what can be known about God is perfectly plain, for God has made it plain. Ever since God crated the world, God’s everlasting power and deity is there for the mind to see in all the things God has created. (Romans 1:20)

The meditation:

This amazing, yet all too often ignored, passage says the essential message is written everywhere for all to see, if they indeed want to see.

Both Anthony of the Desert (c. 251-356) and Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) said there are two books of scripture. The first book of scripture is the natural world… The second is the written Bible, which has only existed for about 2,000 years. We basically threw out the first book for much of those years, although it got worse after the invention of the printing press. We gave most of our attention to the written book, which has kept us in our limited left-brain, outside of direct experience, and with the dualistic mind that the ego always prefers. Mere words, even and most especially “holy words” and authoritative words, when used apart from any experience of an Eternal Word, tend to create argumentative people… [their being] two to three steps removed from true experience.

We did not honor and learn from the first and primary Bible of creation, so how would we know how to honor and properly use the second Bible? We largely mangled and manipulated the written word of God for our own ego purposes, instead of receiving it inside of the mystery, awe, silence, and surrender – which the natural world demands of us and teaches us. Many have said that a fundamental attitude of awe is the primal religious experience and the beginning of the search for God. If we start with mere argument we never leave the battlefield. Imagine a religion called “Aweism!” Instead of wasting time trying to prove or disprove miracles, this religion would be inhabited by people who see that everything is a miracle. Only people who can fully surrender to things beyond themselves can experience awe, wonder, or enchantment.

Surrender is not giving up… Surrender is entering the present moment, and what is right in front of you, fully and without resistance or attempts at control. In that sense, surrender is almost the opposite of giving up…, it is being given to!

We must know that creation is our first and final cathedral. Nature is the one song of praise that never stops singing, as many of the Psalms say. If you are drawn to “kneel” in this cathedral, you can always talk to a Mystery that is so much larger than yourself. It takes no theology classes whatsoever, no proofs, no arguments. Aweism is the one true religion…

Once again, I find this excerpt in the ‘wish I’d said that’ category.

~~ RGM, September 18 2015

Saturday, September 12, 2015

POTM...*: The Season of the Loon, Part 2

(*Photo of the Month)

Among the varied beauties of the Northwoods, including the amazing array of its flora and its fauna, and the multiplicity of its landforms, there is nothing that seems to draw out more enthusiasm by the locals than loon watching. People here are passionate about ‘their’ loons, and, here on Beatons Lake in the western U.P., Gail and I often find ourselves fervent participants in that passion.

To be sure, we count ourselves uniquely blessed that our lake association has chosen to place one of its two nest platforms in our bay, which graces us with perpetual loon activity early in the season, and then more frequent than normal activity after the typical late June or early July hatch. It is a rare year when at least one chick, if not two, isn’t successfully fledged here before our very eyes. (For an earlier blog entry in which I write more extensively about loons, click here; this entry will concentrate on some other things.)

I’ve been keeping track of our lake’s loon success for twenty years now, and we’ve had far greater fledging success since the platforms were placed than prior. What’s a nest platform? In a completely natural setting, a loon will nest onshore in as safe a place it can find; but the eggs in onshore nests are subject to radical predation by raccoons, snakes, skunks and weasels if the parent can be driven off, and the birds themselves are preyed upon by wolves, bears, coyotes and bobcats. A nest platform floats offshore, allowing much greater likelihood that eggs will be successfully hatched. There are still dangers to chicks after hatching both from above and below the water’s surface (mainly eagles and snapping turtles), but fledging success is vastly benefited by offshore nesting. Consider: in the five years I know of before the first platform was placed here in our bay, we had two successful fledgings in five seasons on our lake (average -- .4/year). In the six years that the first platform nest was placed here in our bay, eight chicks were fledged (average – 1.33/year, more than triple the success). And in the nine years that we’ve had the two platforms operative, twenty chicks have fledged (average – 2.22/year, nearly six times the success), including one season (2007) where the two nests produced three fledged loons, and two seasons (2010 and 2013) where they produced four! Nine of these twenty came from our platform and eight from the other, with three chicks successfully hatched and fledged that were born onshore (2009, somewhere on the lake, and 2014 here in our bay); in both of these onshore hatchings, the parents had been driven off after laying their first clutch.

"Consider the birds,"
Jesus said...

This year, it looks like there will be only two fledged between the two nests, so it won’t meet our nine-year average. Black flies drove both nesting pairs off both nests in late May or early June, but the pairs persisted and each laid a second clutch successfully. I am told that if a first clutch of eggs is two, and the bird must abandon them, the second clutch can only be one; the obverse holds as well – if the first clutch is one and the parents are driven off, the second clutch may be two. On our nest, one egg was first laid, the pair driven off, and then two eggs were laid on the second attempt; only one of these hatched successfully, though. (Our lake’s ‘Loon Ranger’ actually recovered the partially hatched egg after the nesting pair had left the nest for the season, displaying it at our association meeting in August.) The remaining juvenile seems healthy after these two months. On our lake’s other nest island, one egg was first laid and the nest abandoned, then two eggs laid on the second attempt, with two chicks successfully hatched, but within days one went missing to predation; the remaining juvenile also seems healthy and ready for the cold to begin. Both will have to be off the lake by freeze up in late November or December, the parents long gone before that. While it’s on my mind, a quick shout out of thanks to our Loon Ranger, B, for all her good work!

Finally, about the photos... Gail and I can get some pretty cool shots right from the comfort of one of our dock chairs. They come in awfully close when they make their fishing circuit around the bay, and it’s a more rare but very real treat to see them swimming like torpedoes under the dock, turning, as they say, on a dime, as they change directions in pursuit of a meal. If they’re floating or fishing more lazily in the middle of the bay, we can sometimes even call them in by standing on the end of the dock and jiggling our hands at arm’s length. They’re actually curious creatures and will check out a curiosity; of course, it probably also gives our neighbors something to talk about when they see us performing so. The photos here include close-ups of a lovely mature bird and of a three-month old juvenile with indistinct markings, a curious one near the dock, a parent with a chick pair in sun’s shimmer, a pass-by while floating in the canoe, and our whirligig imposter. (No, it hasn't snowed up here yet this year, though we did 
have our first frost warnings last night...)

“Consider the birds,” Jesus said (Matthew 6:26).

~~ RGM, September 11, 2015

Sunday, September 6, 2015

From My Nature Journal: Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

People often ask me if there are no more animals in the woods, as they so rarely see any. It got me to thinking…

I’ve read somewhere that the typical eastern United States ‘Hundred Mile Wood’ (by definition a ten-mile by ten-mile forest section, or a hundred square miles) contains on average 300,000 non-human mammals, believe it or not. Of that number, though, fully 220,000 are mice or smaller. Hmmm, that would be mice, bats, moles, voles, lemmings and shrews. That’s it. Twenty-two of every thirty mammals in the woods are in the mouse category, a full 73%.

Allow me a moment’s divergence. From this statistic it seems the place should at least be crawling with these furry little rascals. However, in spite of their ubiquitousness, they’re not often seen -- for reasons practical and reasons statistical. Practically, if they’re not hidden in their tree cavities or burrows, many of them are nocturnal anyway. So unless I am out at night with a flashlight, and then looking in the right place, I will not normally see them. But if I look at it statistically, a little math will keep me from having to watch where I step, as even this is not a high population in a hundred mile wood. In a place that big, that would be one mouse-type critter for every 12,672 square feet, on average, or one mouse-or-smaller creature in an area roughly 113 feet by 113 feet. So, if my average forest saunter is a thirty-inch stride, anywhere I stand in the woods I am, on average, a full twenty-three paces from a small rodent of some kind! Unless it’s up! Isn’t math fun? And their various nooks and crannies determine I’ll rarely encounter them anyway.

But to return to the original question, we’ve covered so far only 220,000 of the 300,000 mammals in the typical hundred mile forest (or 300,001 if I count myself). “Surely the rest are man eaters, more highly visible and impressive,” you may say. Well, no, not exactly. As if the above statistic is not curious enough, another 65,000 of that original figure are between the size of mice and squirrels. All we’re doing is climbing the rodent chain a bit, and we haven’t even gotten to rabbits: we’re talking chipmunks, gophers and squirrels. These diminutive downy denizens constitute another full 22% of the mammals in our faire glen, and most of them are out of my sight a long way up in the trees. So that means that 285 of every 300 mammals here (95%) are squirrels and smaller! I can begin to see why it’s not particularly common to see animals in the woods at all, unless I am (1) incredibly lucky, or (2) I am there a lot, or (3) I am patient and intentional, or (4) all three of these, likely the latter.

So, only 5% of the mammals here are larger than a squirrel, many of which appreciate the fact that there are so many delicious little morsels to choose from on the a la carte menu. This would include rodents further up the depth chart like weasels, mink, hares, rabbits, skunks, possums, muskrats, coons, porcupines, woodchucks, otter and beaver (all common, but again, not frequently seen). It will include some of the less common large rodents like badgers, martens and fishers, and maybe a wolverine (but likely not). It will include the medium to large land mammals: red and gray fox, bobcat, lynx, coyotes, deer, black bear, elk and moose. And finally, at the top of the food chain, there may be wolves (in the north) and cougars (referred to in the west as mountain lion or puma, in the south as panther or painter), though both of these are quite rare and infrequently seen. (I’ve seen wolves but not cougars.) But 15,000 of these larger mammals in our woods? How come we don’t see them all the time? Because that, too, may seem like a lot, but the math again gives perspective, like this.

There are about twenty deer per square mile (the most common large mammal), a little better on average than one per quarter-mile-square. That’s actually a pretty large area to watch, 1300 feet forward and to the side, with a lot of cover between you and them and a diffused sight line they’re trying to maintain. They hide their cautious selves so well we likely will not even see the most numerous large mammal out there. So remember, they’re trying after all not to be seen by you! By numeric contrast, there may be one cougar (if that) in the whole hundred square miles. And I’d not want to come across it anyway, thank you, at least not on the trail (though I’d be grateful if I did). Here’s a true truth, however: whatever the large mammal, deer or cougar, they do see you! Maybe by eyes, ears or nose, but they know you’re there, and they’re trying their best to keep their distance.
All this goes to show why any serious woods-watcher would do well to consider every single sighting a blessing from God, even if it’s a mouse!

And God saw everything that he had made, and,
behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)

~~RGM, from an earlier journal entry, 
Adapted for my blog September 4 2015