Saturday, December 22, 2007

Advent Question

Today, the 4th Sunday of Advent, is another of those grey damp winter days when I wonder again just how I make it through each year from early winter until spring. I am not unhappy about anything or suffering from a bad mood, but I feel the familiar longing for green and the fragrance of growing things. I know that winter will seem to stretch on for a long time and that the waiting will be a challenge, as it always is.

The weary waiting is timely, however because it serves to remind me all over again of the spirit of Advent. If our culture had not taken the Advent season and turned it into one long string of frenzied partying, we would all have a better sense of the solumness of waiting for that which we hope for but cannot see, much as Isreal did before Christ's birth. In some ways, January and February might be a better illustration of that historical time, for in those months the tiresomeness of winter really sets in and we all long for the changes of spring, though they seem so far off. At least I feel that way. It is in those months, and perhaps even more importantly now during the season's glitz and distracton, that I must make the choice to look for signs of God and the joy they bring.

The exercise of looking and seeking is one I come back to over and over in my writings and I was reminded of its importance, once again, during yesterday's morning walk. It was also a grey, damp chilly day... one in which the matted grasses, dried meadow plants, the soggy ground and the dripping trees were all various shades of brown and the sky was overcast and heavy. Not the most joyous of mornings from all appearances, but still one to be out and walking. As I approached the overgrown streamside, movement down in the vegetation caught my eye and the more I looked, the more I discovered. Buffy brownish Song and White-Throated Sparrows were literally everywhere, though they blended into the vegetation so completely that without their movement giving them away they were almost invisible. Little grey Juncos flitted along the road's shoulder and stately White-Crowned Sparrows made their way through the grasses while from overhead came the sound of Downy Woodpeckers and White-Breasted Nuthatches tapping the tree trunks for insects. These are the times, standing still and drinking in the life around me, that see me through the winter though, truth-be-told, every year I seem to forget for a while.

It was while I was watching and listening to the birds and thinking about the goldenrod in front of me that the discussion from my last post came to mind, and so my Advent question. Sometimes my mind seems to travel along two tracks at the same time and this was one of those moments. As I was thinking about the goldenrod's roots and basal crown being alive through the winter though the stalk is clearly dead, I was also thinking about Jesus' dying and the discussion of Him being the only example within Creation of death and subsequent living beyond death. And now I am wondering...Jesus was the mysterious combination of being God and man and clearly the human part of Jesus died at Calvary. But what about the God part, for lack of a more sophisticated way of expressing it? Did God that was in Jesus live on through the human death, as the goldenrod roots live on though the stalk dies? When we talk about Jesus' death, do we actually mean just the human side of Him? Somehow the answer to the question seems to matter, though I'm not sure just why. I hope that you who are wiser than I might enter into the thinking and into the discussion.

In the meantime, I hope for all who are fellow-waiters, that your Advent will be filled with moments of seeking and of finding signs of life and of God.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Advent Promise

"The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." Isaiah 11:6-9

I am guessing that most observers of Advent have favorite Scripture passages among those that are read over the course of the four weeks preceding Christmas. Some of the references have to do with Christ's first coming and some with His second. My own favorite, above, is one of the latter, one that promises that all of Creation will be redeemed and restored to its initial glory and harmony when Christ comes back.

I close my eyes when I hear these verses and wonder what the world will look like in that day. What will it be like to live in a Creation so perfect, so at peace, that the animals no longer devour each other and neither will they suffer from man's abuses? I think about what it will take to bring the Earth back to such a state. Not our best environmental efforts, though we must keep on trying. Not our collective good will to save species and habitats, though I work to that end myself. Isaiah says that it will take the earth being filled with the "knowledge of the Lord", with His Spirit so present that everyone and everything will be saturated with His goodness and grace. There will be no more need to hunt or desire to hurt and destroy and all of Creation will be sustained by His provision without the need to kill for food or sustenance.

Sometimes I want to cry out, as did some Old Testament writers, "How long, O Lord?" How long will the Earth and its people have to wait for Your intervention and restoration? I am impatient for the day when all will be made perfect again and fear and death are no more. Waiting is hard. Teach me O God, during this Advent season, to trust that You have your plan in hand and will accomplish it in due time... just as you did that first time, at Christmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

New Direction

For anyone who might still be looking at this from time to time I'd like to let you know that I am going to be revising the purpose and the thoughts shared in these pages as soon as I can accomplish the task. I anticipate that the messages will still be primarily about the natural world and its connection to the Holy but I hope there will also be times of reflection separate from subject of the Creation. We shall see.

It is Sunday evening now, the 3rd Sunday in Advent, the sesason of waiting on God, and I am finding that He seems to be working into me a new focus and an unexpected longing that has taken me by surprise. I look forward to see just where He is taking me and what the journey will entail.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Favorite November Poem

No, this poem isn't mine but I think of it every year around this time. I like the cadence and the words, but even more, I like the truth and the "feel" that is captured in these lines. I found it years ago while living in Botswana, desperately longing for November woods and the autumn season. These words helped me to remember and to remind me that one day I would return to them again.

November Woods
How lovely are the silent woods in gray November days,
When the leaves fall red and gold about the quiet ways.
From massive beech, majestic oak and birches white and slim,
Like the pillared aisles of a cathedral vast and dim.

Drifting mist like smoking incense hangs upon the air....
Along the paths where birds once sang the trees stand stripped and bare.
Making Gothic arches with their branches interlaced
And window-framing vistas richly wrought and finely traced.

It is good to be in such a place on such a day.
Problems vanish from the mind and sorrows steal away.
In the woods of gray November silent and austere
Nature gives her benediction to the passing year.

Patience Strong

Friday, October 26, 2007

Rainy Autumn Night

It was days like this that I missed so much while living in Botswana some 27 years ago. Autumn days filled with rain and soggy fallen leaves. Cool, damp temperatures and umbrellas and bright colors everywhere. Those who follow and report on autumn leaf color tell us that the spectacle is not as stunning as in most years but the color that we don't doesn't matter very much to me. I am enjoying, as always, the colors that we do have and the colors that dot my own home landscape. Purples in the blackhaw and arrowwood viburnums, oranges and reds in the black gums and serviceberries, yellows in the wonderful river birch and crabapples, burgundys in the oaks and dogwoods. Fall may be a time of unsettledness but it is also a time of deep satisfaction as the palette of the yard changes daily.

The bird and insect population in the yard has changed as well. We had our last ruby-throated hummingbird on October 8th and as of a couple of days ago there was still a lingering stray Monarch butterfly or two. I am not sure just why but there seem to be assassin bugs everywhere I look this year and I am glad not to be small enough to become their prey. For the last few days the feeder just beyond the kitchen window has hosted, among the many myriad goldfinches, a lone female purple finch and I understand that there are large flocks of purple finches down from Canada where the coniferous cone crop they depend on has failed. Perhaps I'll see more of them and maybe red-breasted nuthatches or pine siskens as well. In some ways, for a birder, this time of early fall has a similar feel as does late winter for a gardener. The season is filled with the anticipation of what birds may come looking for winter sustenance, just as the late winter season is filled with imaginings of what the coming garden might contain. Being both a birder and a gardener is best of all, perhaps, because each season brings its own anticipation of what is to come.

I had a new friend stop in yesterday for a brief visit, her first to my home and yard. Her gleeful appreciation of all she saw outside-the birds, the colors, and even the plants that had long ago finished blooming was as a gift. I received a note from her today telling me again of how much she enjoyed being here and wondering if I more or less took for granted how much life abounded within the boundaries of our property. I joyfully wrote her back declaring that in fact, I never do take such things for granted because I delight in them so much. The yard contines to become that which I have seen in my imagination for many years. To be capable of dreams and to work towards their fulfillment are gifts and I am doubly blessed to be allowed to do both.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

What If?

This is a time of day that I wonder about things. Sometimes important life questions and, sometimes like this morning, less pressing questions about how the world works. What if, I wondered as I went out into this morning's pre-dawn warmth, fall didn't cool down and winter didn't come. Would all the singing crickets and katydids keep singing and keep mating? If there were no winter cold to kill them would we have even more of an abundance of young next year? What happens in the southern part of the United States, anyway? Perhaps today I'll try and do the necessary reading to find out.

Other questions... why are cardinals the first birds to emerge from the darkness each morning, chipping from the trees and feeders before any of the other birds arrive? What is it about each bird that informs when it is time for that particular species to awake and start the business of the day? In our yard the cardinals arrive first, lately, followed by the robins and white-crowned sparrows, then the Carolina wren and the yard-space is alive with their different call notes and stealthy movements. The goldfinches, Carolina chickadees and titmice seem to wait for the full light of day to begin their feeding and calling.

And for the last few months each morning has brought ruby-throated hummingbirds to the flowers or feeders at first light as well. Are they dropping in from a night time migration or just getting an early start to their feeding, having spent the night someplace close by? And speaking of ruby-throats, it took a good while to find one in the yard this morning. This, of course, is the time of year that each morning I awake wondering if yesterday was the last hummingbird of the year. But, happily, not today. Today there is at least one feeding and resting and deciding whether to stay and feed longer or head on south. An innkeeper could not be happier at seeing guests arrive than I am to host these little ones for so much of the year.

Once again I realize how important and how easy it is to provide habitat for birds and pollinators who are losing ground in our modern world. If only all could know how beautiful a yard can be and provide sustenance at the same time. How much closer to Eden our neighborhoods would be if others made the same garden choices. To live in the midst of non-human life who ask only a place to feed, find shelter and raise young is as satisfying an experience as any I have ever known. How I would have loved living in Eden.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Why They Come and What They Find

I thought you might enjoy seeing the autumn garden and what the hummingbirds and butterflies mentioned in the last post find when they come. The top picture is of the rain garden and the rest are from the backyard. You may click on pictures to enlarge.

Still Dark Autumn Morning

I am up early on this quiet autumn morning. The wonder is that it finally really feels like fall, though the season has been upon us for a while now. Though the days have been hot and far too dry the aster's royal purple, the honeylocust's golden leaves and the white pine's russet needles all point to the coming end of the growing season. Fall is a peaceful, melancholy kind of time and yet it is always tinged with the hint of as-yet-unknown possibilities. Whether because of all the years spent in school or the awareness of the avian and Monarch butterfly migration, this time of year, in some ways more than spring, feels like a time of new beginnings.

It really is a time of new beginnings for the lingering Monarch butterflies that are still here. Yesterday there were still a handful on the asters and Mexican sunflowers, though I could not tell whether they were recently hatched or are moving through from places unknown, all on their way to Mexico. The ruby-throated hummingbird youngsters are still moving through as well, taking nectar from the red and blue salvia and the native honeysuckle vines. So far we are still seeing several each day, though the time of migration is soon at its end. Some of these little ones appear as though they still need a significant amount of feeding and fattening up, as they aren't carrying much in the way of extra weight yet. Many, however, have the characteristic little protruding tummies and fat stores needed to carry them through their long flights. These late immature hummingbird migrants do not tend to use the feeders still left hanging, but take nectar solely from the flowers. The best guess is that because they are from remote, unpopulated northern areas, their mothers did not introduce them to feeders as fledglings and they did not learn to recognize feeders as a food source. They take in plenty of nectar from the flowers they find in our yard, however along with the tiny insects that make up such an important part of their diets If they make it through the long migration this fall and back north again next spring, through their breeding season and into their fall migration next year, they will be stopping in at our yard again at the end of next summer on their long journey south.

Another summer is ending and it has been one of learning and enjoying what has come my way, even as we have coped with heat and drought once again. Now each day seems as a gift, especially because I know that winter will soon follow on the heels of this wonderful autumn season. One of these nights the insects will be stilled, the frost will descend and I will look in vain for color in the landscape. But for now, the cricket and katydid chorus is in full swing, many of the trees have not yet started their fall display and I am still watching hummingbirds. I couldn't ask for more.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Gospel and the Mules

I don't usually write overtly theological posts on this blog but feel like making an exception this evening. A few days ago for one reason and another I entered into several discussions centering around theology, church history, attitudes of worship and congregational practice. It was a weighty couple of days and the more time I spent time thinking about these matters the more tired and discouraged I felt... which of course is not the purpose of church involvement or of relating to God in general. As I usually do, I started the following day with a morning walk, hoping to shake the mental fatigue that came from the quandaries I was pondering. Often times these walks bring moments of peace and often times I am fortunate to see and hear glimpses of God in the wild things I observe along the way. But this was the first time God has chosen to speak to me through through mules.

As I walked along the road overlooking the meadow I heard a strange sound I couldn't place and didn't recognize. It sounded as if it were coming from the nearby Amish farm, though it didn't seem quite right for a cow or a calf or anything else animal-like, for that matter. Just after hearing the noise I looked down into the meadow and noticed the resident German Shepherd running back and forth which was also puzzling since the dog is usually with the farmer as he goes about his plowing or harvesting. After a minute, the dog headed up into the farmyard and I happened to glance in the other direction, noting movement off in the distant fields. All of a sudden several mules came into view, slowing plodding along in my direction one after another on the narrow path they have worn through the fields over time. In the lead was a white mule with five dark brown mules following. They walked single file for a quarter mile or more at the same measured and deliberate pace, passing near to where I was standing with not so much as a turn of their eyes in my direction. I could tell they took note of my presence because their ears turned backwards as the passed me, as if to hear me better, but they never stopped to look or to wonder what I was doing there. As they approached the stream they stopped briefly, breaking ranks and milling around , almost as if trying to remember what it was they were supposed to be do next. After a moment the white leader took up the pace again, the others fell into line and soon they arrived safely at the barn. I stood there fascinated, realizing that the strange noise I had heard had been intended as a call to the mules far out in the fields and that they had heeded its beckoning.

As I had understood what I had just seen I remembered that the farmer actually had nine mules and wondered where the other three might be and whether they would come too or were ignoring the summons. I looked back in the direction I had seen the first group and sure enough, here came another two. These two were not plodding or nonchalantly taking their time, but were trotting and cantering along the same path, as if they realized they had tarried longer than they should have. They appeared to be younger than the first group, less self-assured and more anxious and the first one was certainly more jittery. I wondered just what was making him so agitated when I looked back once more and finally saw the ninth and last mule making his way more slowly over the fields and paths to join the others. This unsettled mule was clearly not happy at being left behind, nor at the slow pace of his last companion and as soon as the three were all together he took off for the barn, with the others following.

A couple of thoughts came to mind as I watched this unfolding equine drama. One had to do with Jesus words "the sheep hear my voice and follow me". I could not have asked for a clearer nor more powerful picture of that verse than what I had just witnessed. As opposed to those recent heavy discussions having to do with who is qualified to lead in the Church and their role in leading God's people, these mules presented a picture of simply individually heeding and responding to the call that came to them directly, just as in Jesus words about sheep. And as I watched those last three mules I thought of my mother and of others like her. She had known and followed God early in her life but then seemed to lose sight of Him. She spent most of her later years looking for Him in places and through means by which He would not be found. Yet in her final hours before she died, she once again heard and listened to His voice calling and this time she came. Just like those last mules.

I also thought about a line from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. For those who have read it, Ron was feeling badly about having deserted Harry and Hermione and after he was back with them and telling Harry about why and how he returned, he recognized that the present that Dumbledore had left him was given for the purpose of granting his return back to his friends. About Dumbledore Ron says something to the effect of, "He must have known I would...." and Harry jumps in and says, "...would want to come back." I thought of my mom and of all of those whom God calls day after day, over and over. Some hear and come immediately and some take a lifetime.

I had tears in my eyes as I stood looking out over the now-empty meadow, thinking about how powerfully and how simply God conveyed a message that I needed to hear. Through these creatures He spoke a message about trusting Him and responding as I hear His voice. As the call came to the mules directly, His call also comes to my ears. As they knew what to do, so do I. The call to them and to me was simply to come to where and to Whom I belong.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rainy Almost Autumn

Today is the kind of day for which I wait all summer long. Finally it is raining and cooling down and what was parched and limp in the garden is looking alive and as though it may bloom on a while yet. The purple coneflowers are finishing up their vibrant display but hidden among the now drab brown seed heads are untold numbers of goldfinches perching and swaying on the drying stalks, eating their fill. Each year I leave the dried flower heads to stand in the yard over the winter, providing cover and sustenance for whatever birds might happen upon them. Much of the garden is showing the unmistakable signs of the end of the season with spring flowers long gone, and summer flowers fading. But the glorious promise of asters still is waiting in the wings, waiting to unfold into a sea of pinks and purples as the finale of the garden year.

Today the front that has brought the rain has also brought new numbers of ruby-throats and they are zipping all over the yard, sometimes at flowers, sometimes at feeders and sometimes at each other. They will be here today and maybe tomorrow and then they will be gone to points southward on their long journey. They will be replaced by new travellers in the coming days until the fall migration is over. Hummingbird banders have documented repeatedly that, at this time of year, the little ones we see in our yard on any given day are usually not the same individuals we see on the following day. There is really wave upon wave of hummingbirds moving through and the ones that visit our yard this year as they travel are quite likely to be here again next year. I find it almost unimaginable that something so tiny and that travels so far can somehow keep in its brain where the good feeding stops were in previous years. Of course, the more feeding tables they find, the stronger their condition and the better the journey. I sometimes wonder what our landscape would look like if everyone planted to assist the creatures that move through on their their way south.

The other visitor that seems to be everywhere right now is the Monarch butterfly, again on its own way south to Mexico. Mid to late September is the height of the Monarch migration and if your yard grows flowers that nourish them- zinnias, asters, goldenrods, joe-pye weeds, ironweeds, Mexican sunflowers and others-you should be seeing high numbers this year. The dozens of Monarch caterpillars I wrote about previously have been pupating, emerging and feeding and will soon be moving on as adults. All of the summer's earlier Monarch generations have done their part in laying the eggs that sustain the population but none of the previous adults will leave our area to go elsewhere. Only these we are seeing now will head south and they will travel by the thousands. These creatures have been living this life cycle and making this trek for longer than any of us will know. To think that I can have a part in ensuring the success of those who come through my yard is both humbling and exciting. To still have a means of being connected to how life was once lived before we humans made so many changes is a rare privilege and joy.

I look forward to the rest of the seasonal parade that will move through and into our yard during the next couple of weeks. Sometimes there will be wood warblers on their way to Central and South America stopping in for insects lurking in the tree tops. Sometimes thrushes and towhees will come grubbing for worms and tasty morsels under the accumulated leaf layer of the hedgerows and the small woodlot. And soon the winter flock of white-crowned sparrows will move back and be taking up residence in the nearby brushy streamside area, yet deigning to visit our yard as well. They too are here every year, arriving in September or October and heading north to breed in northern Canada by mid May. I am honored to have them.

I am grateful to be allowed to share in the workings of this natural world, a world that has been present for far longer than people have lived in these parts. I need this space and these creatures as an anchor to a Life that is larger than my own and as a reminder that living on Earth is not all about me. I need the reminder that God invites me to participate in His creation and in relationship with Himself. The richness of both is my reward for accepting His invitation.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Handed-Down Wisdom

A few weeks ago I had the happy privilege of going to see my favorite uncle and aunt and their children in KY (Hi, Gerald and Felicia, if you are reading this!) This is the uncle who grew up in the Appalachian Kentucky mountains and from whom I first learned my way around the natural world. He told me a story about the years, not so long ago, when he had a 4 acre vegetable farm at his childhood home and about an ag extension service agent remarking on the rich tilth of the garden soil. My uncle mused about how his father, my grandfather, used to make sure that everything that grew out of the garden was put back into the soil, with the exception of what was actually eaten. He remembered he and his brothers becoming irritated with having to chop up the corn stalks and dig them back into the ground when their friends' families just burned those stalks as useless debris!

It wasn't until I got back home that I started wondering about how my grandfather knew the importance of taking care of his soil. It wasn't common knowledge in those days before the Dust Bowl years hit. Back then, Kentucky farmers were still tilling the bare mountian slopes that should have been covered with woodlands. My grandfather never learned to read and in the 1920's and 1930's there would not have been much information published about taking care of the land anyway. I imagine that he just knew somehow what good stewardship required and that he realized he would need to take care of his land if he wanted to feed his large family for years to come. That my uncle continued in the same vein and that his soil continued to improve over the years speaks a great deal to me about taking care of anything, be it land or home or children or other relationships.

It is not a difficult jump from thinking about intentionally feeding the garden soil to caring for that with which we have been entrusted. And I do not always do a good job of being a steward of what has been granted me, though I am starting to think more about the subject since talking with my uncle. There are numerous applications to this concept of tending what we have but I have been thinking about it lately as it applies to relationships. I have a husband, children who are grown or almost grown, a brother who lives several hours away, these dear KY relatives, and a handful of old and new friends whom I care about. The bonds with all of them are special but I have realized all over again that unless I put time and effort into nurturing those bonds, over time they are likely to weaken and even to break. The same is true with my relationship with God, and though I know that He will not let the bonds break, how intimately I am acquainted with Him is a choice that I make for myself.

I am grateful I am for the life I have been given. I do not lead an unusual life, or one filled with money or power or even some of the wishes that I would like to see happen. But the people I care about, my love for the land, and God's daily presence provide a richness that satisfies my soul and my spirit. As I tend the soil around my home I hope to remember the need to do the same with all that matters to me. What is true for the land is true for the rest of life. What we we put into it tends to determine what we receive back.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hands of a Healer

The Monarch butterfly caterpillar population is something to behold this year, at least in places where a healthy population of milkweed is found. In our yard this summer the various milkweed species have supported literally dozens of caterpillars and this morning as I looked over a couple swamp milkweed plants by our driveway I counted 15 caterpillars without really searching. The story is the same in friends' yards, in meadows and along roadsides where the road crews have spared the common milkweed plants. In fact, I am noticing common milkweed growing in places I have not seen it before and I am wondering whether its presence is due to people becoming more aware of its value. I hope so. It would bode well for the struggling Monarch population whose familiar breeding habitats are relentlessly being razed and paved.

In writing to a friend I was recently reminded of my favorite line from J. R.R Tolkien's Return of the King. It was said of Aragorn, "The hands of the king are the hands of a healer." The words inspire the same longing, the same sence of calling as they have for many years. I am not a healer of bodies as Aragorn was. I seem to be called to the healing of the earth. Whereas Aragorn conveyed healing directly from his own being, my hands can only provide ingredients and give opportunity for the land to carry out its own restoration. That the land is able to heal, in spite of all of the harm we sometimes cause it, is testimony to God's directive that the earth sustain the life of those who live upon it. That we can participate in its healing is testimony to God's intent that the land and the people He placed here would live cooperatively, in mutual interdependence. We are continually invited into that participation.

A particularly gratifying result of growing ornamental milkweed species or letting the common milkweed grow wild is how quickly it makes a positive difference in the life of those who depend upon it, how quickly it provides healing for a population in decline. We humans can be an impatient lot. Seeing measurable success encourages us to keep caring and to keep behaving as though we do. Caring inspires us to act boldly and to go out of our way to provide for the needs of those besides ourselves. Caring is a prerequisite for becoming a healer.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Considering the Birds of the Air and the Lilies of the Field

The familiar wet meadow is coming into its late summer glory these days and yesterday I took some time to examine at it through binoculars. Without binoculars it looks like a haze of muted colors, purples and yellows mostly, set against the drying grass. But through them the scene is brought close in detail and the mauve Joe-Pye weed, royal purple ironweed, and bright yellow goldenrods and grey-headed coneflowers stand out in sharp relief. As do the numerous Monarch, black-swallowtail and silver-spotted skipper butterflies that feed on these flowers's nectar. Completing the scene was the multitude of barn swallows and tree-swallows zipping around me out over the meadow and up and down the creek. The insect flight must have been excellent and these birds that struggled to find food in early spring are now fattening up for the soon-to-come fall migration.

While watching the meadow plants and the swallows I was reminded of the directives Jesus gave to those listening to him on at least one occasion. "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them." and "See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." God was pointedly referring to his care for people and His Creation as he spoke these words, and yet there are a couple of additional underlying truths that linger beneath the surface. I do not attempt to speak for God nor to alter what He meant when he spoke these sentences, but I can almost not help drawing further applications from them. I do not think He would mind.

In Jesus' day, as in ours, fields that were left fallow filled in with vegetation that naturally grew in sites that were right for them. If the field Jesus was looking at was a wet meadow, it grew wet meadow plants. If it were a dry meadow, it grew dry meadow plants. A diverse plant community grew up in concert with the provided conditions and it was the whole of the community that met the needs of the individuals found there. Jesus did not exhort his listeners to look at the myriad pollinators or the seed disperal methods of the various plants, but it was this activity that perpetuated the plant populations in the landscape. The reality was that though the lilies of the field may have looked as though they had been planted and tended by God's direct hand, they were actually thriving because they were living in a spot that was just right for them. Just like those meadow plants I noticed on yesterday's walk.

And in Jesus day, as in ours, those birds that God fed were found in the places that most suitably met their needs for food. Swallows hunted insects over fields and wet places, fruit eating birds would have been found where berries were abundant, raptors would have been found where there were rodents and birds to be profitably hunted. God set the world in motion to feed and sustain each of the individual members by the collective functioning of the various ecosystems that comprised the earth. His provision for His creatures was built into the very workings of Creation.

At one of the churches my husband and I attend there is an offeratory that is sung to the tune of All Through the Night. It is a beautiful, haunting piece in that I almost feel like we are singing about what used to be, especially as we sing the last line. I worry that because of the harm that our human quest for change has wrought, the earth will no longer be the fruitful and abundant home it was intended to be

For the Fruit of All Creation
For the fruit of all Creation, thanks be to God
For these gifts to every nation, thanks be to God
For the plowing, sowing, reaping, silent growth while we are sleeping
Future needs in earth's safe-keeping, thanks be to God.

On the other hand, I know that when the earth is protected and cared for, it responds with health and provision, once again filled with the promise of life for all who depend upon it. Visits to the nearby meadow remind me anew of the land's abundant potential and of the opportunity we still have to take care of that which has been entrusted to us since time began. With God's help and by his mercy and grace, we still have time to relearn how to "tend the garden". The lilies of the field and the birds of the air are not the only ones who depend upon our choices. We humans do as well.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

For the Common Good

These last couple of days have presented an opportunity to do some hard thinking about what I like to say matters to me. As in past years, we do not yet have our window air-conditioners installed and running. Some years we have given in and used them and some years we haven't and I have been thinking about that choice. This year particularly I want to make it through the summer without them, though that decision is not without its share of grumpiness and second guessing.

This year I feel acutely aware of our energy use choices. The realization that the collective "we" and the individual "I" cannot afford to continue living as though there are no consequences for those choices is sinking more fully into my consciousness. I have grown up in a generation that was told early on that we could have it all, that limits and boundaries were unnecessary and that whatever we felt like doing was OK. We railed at authority, we presumed we knew best and we slowly lost touch with the concept that a penalty would be paid for our selfishness. In fact, the word "selfishness" was almost a foreign concept in the age of "grabbing all the gusto" one could out of life. We know better now, or we surely should.

When my mind starts wandering, it often turns to the benefits and consequences of technology. It especially turns to the consequences and that is when people often say, "Well what about....?" What about medical advances? What about communication advances? What about transportation advances? All true, of course. It is human nature to want to improve methods, make life easier, invent new ways of doing things and that the tendency reflects our creative spirit I have no doubt. But human nature is also self-serving and hasty, sometimes, and does not always want to explore the negative ramifications of some new possibility. Unfortunately, along with the gains technology has brought us, it has brought a string of consequences that is already all too familiar.

Which brings me back to muggy summer weather and choosing to try and cope without the air-conditioners packed away in the basement. I do not feel noble in this decision. I feel hot and tired and grumbly sometimes. I particularly felt that way last evening after the heat of the long day and after monitoring my two miniature dachshunds all afternoon to make sure they were not overheating on their short forays into the backyard. In fact, last evening I was wondering if the decision was worth it. Are we using less energy in the running of the whole-house fan in the evening than we would be if we were using the window units all day long? I don't know. Is it fair to inflict my crabby mood on my husband and children because I am trying to help us conserve? I am not sure about that one either.

But I do believe we in the developed world will be soon faced with some choices that many of us will not think pleasant. We as a people are not used to sacrificing for the common good. An obvious example of this sad state of affairs is the relatively new cultural more of disregarding the yellow light at an intersection. Stopping when the light turns yellow, as we all learned was the expected behavior before passing our driver's test, would be in the interest of the common good. Running it and ignoring the potential consequences is the self-serving, selfish choice.

I believe that for the good of the world, for the good of the people and the other creatures with whom we share this world, all of us will be soon called upon to sacrifice what we might naturally choose for the good of all. If we cannot bring ourselves to that point of caring for others as well as for ourselves, the consequences of our apathy and our inaction will be our legacy. On the other hand, if we have the will to make choices for the common good, perhaps our children's children will have a world in which they too might find the wonders and delights still present in our world today. The choice is up to all of us.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Pictures of the Gardens

Thanks to those who have asked to see what the gardens around our home look like. I am adding these pictures from the front and back yards, all taken in the last few days. You will have to use your imaginations to "see" the insects because I don't have a camera that can do nice closeups that close. We live on a half-acre lot and have less than a quarter acre still in grass.

You may click on pictures to enlarge.

Back Yard Back Yard

Back Yard

Same as previous picture, I can't figure out how to remove it.

Back Yard

Rain Garden at end of Driveway
This catches a signficant amount of rain water that had flowed from the
driveway into the backyard during hard rains.

Rain Garden

Front Yard
Looking into planted "woodlot"

Front Yard
Looking towards house

Front Yard
Looking towards house
Hope you enjoyed the tour. When we first moved here 18 or so years ago there was nothing but grass planted. The landsccape has changed and so have the creatures who now also call this bit of earth home.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Unnamed Season

I always become particularly reflective around this time every year as we begin the transition from summer into autumn. Although our common vocabulary doesn’t really have a name for this period, I recognize and celebrate it as a definitive season nevertheless. The changes right now are subtle and if it weren’t for spending so much time outdoors I might not recognize nor appreciate them. The summer insects have been singing for a couple of weeks now and at some point I will make the effort to try and count the numbers of cricket and katydid species that are out in the front and back yards. The butterflies, bees, tiny wasps, beetles, flies and other pollinators are busy at the flowers all day long, as are the hummingbirds who are gearing up for their long flights south. The Joe-pye weed is blooming and the ironweed will soon create a purple haze in the garden as a forerunner to the asters and goldenrod who are the true heralds of fall.

There are other signs that I seem to notice more subliminally. The honey locust has just a few leaves that are already turning yellow and floating to the earth. It is easy to miss a handful of tiny butter colored leaves among the mass of green that still covers the tree and, in truth, there are not many of them. Still, to anyone who pays attention, they are a signal of the beginning of the end of the growing season. Fragrances abound that are particular to this time of year, though not as strong or as recognizable as the scents of fall. Field corn is tasseling now and its flowers have a fragrance that is as distinctive as roses. Goldenrod, while not yet in bloom, also gives off a spicy scent that I have known since my childhood and I pass a patch of it every day on my walks. The barn and tree swallow populations have grown and they are starting to sit together on telephone wires along the road. Though their migration is still a month or more away, they are clearly aware of its approach. Just this evening I watched as a large flock of starlings made their way across the field and into one of my black cherry trees. Their flocking means that they too are aware of the season and that the coming end of summer is not far off.

These changes remind me of the seasons of my own life all over again and I take hope in noticing the rhythms of the earth. Though my logic tells me that these changes mean that life is waning, my heart exults in the jubliation of the moment. The insect’s song is evidence of their determination to ensure the life of their next generation, as is the fragrance of the corn’s flowers. Whereas I may look ahead and know the next chapter in the seasonal story, these players are carrying out their purposes at hand with abandon. Whereas I sometimes fear growing older and worry about what I may or may not be able to do in the future, these creatures serve as a reminder that living in the here and now is a gift to be treasured.

I realize that I cannot control much of what may happen in my future life. But I also realize that I can choose to trust that God will walk alongside me. As I exhibit my own signs of transitioning into life’s next seasons, I hope to remember the lessons I relearn each year. Every season has its own tasks, its own challenges and joys. I know that the tasks have not been and will not be the same as those of the previous season but I trust that they will be rich in that which is appointed to them. May I accept and enter into them with the same abandon as do the creatures from which I learn each day.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Marking Time in the Garden

I imagine that almost every gardener knows the feeling. All of a sudden, there is too much vegetative clutter in the garden. It wasn't noticeable yesterday but today there is an overabundance of spent blooms, drying stalks, and newly visible weeds peeking out from under soon-to-be-blooming plants. I am repeatedly amused that some weeds seem have an innate skill for choosing the plants with whom they attempt to co-exist. It is as though they recognize their own form and lurk amongst the garden plants most resembling themselves. Thinking about weeds plotting and scheming brings a bit of humor to my eradication efforts. Perhaps I could write a book, Spies in the Under(story)world, or something to that effect.

I am always surprised at just how much biomass I pull out of the garden at this time of year. I'll make several wheelbarrow trips to the composter and after a while it will be filled to capacity, leaving no room for the excess. It recently occurred to me just why I seem to unconsciously put off tackling this tidying up project each summer. I do not like to face the reality of time passing. Like a child who puts hands over eyes and assumes she is invisible, I want to pretend that spring has not come and gone once again. Cutting down the stalks of sundrops and columbine means admitting they will not be back this year. Spring can seem so fleeting, like life itself. Will I still be here to see these end-of-winter, welcome flowers again next year?

Someone I know once said that we are surprised by the passing of time because we were made for eternity. I agree. And yet, though we live finite lives, we can choose to make the most of the time we are given. After I face the fact that the garden needs a good grooming and do the work required, it seems to sparkle with new life and promise. Removing that which has served its purpose and celebrating that which is yet to come brings an enhanced beauty and an eager anticipation for the next season of blooms. It is a lesson well worth remembering as I live out my days, even in settings other than the garden.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Unseen

It was the small white clouds of insects hovering over the meadow that prompted my musings about the seen and the unseen world. I did not have much on my mind as I walked and at the time was primarily paying attention to the antics of anxious avian parents bent on protecting their young from various actual and imagined threats. Along that short stretch of road there are a number of nesting families of yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, grey catbirds, Eastern kingbirds, brown thrashers, northern mockingbirds, robins, orchard orioles, willow flycatchers, song sparrows, and some I am forgetting at the moment. With all those families sharing the same quarter mile there are bound to be squabbles and territorial defenses from time to time and it makes for interesting observation. Sometimes it is nice not to think but only to watch. Today however, because of those insect clouds, my attention was drawn away from the obvious and towards the less evident. I went from being merely an observer to becoming a seeker.

I believe that as we go about living our day to day lives, there is an unseen spiritual world just out of our sight and everyday awareness. Most of the time I do not think much about it, I’m sorry to say, dwelling instead upon the tangible and the visible. I am easily distracted and sometimes forget that God lives as an eternal presence, as an unseen participant in my life and the life of the world around me. Sometimes I need to be reminded and He chooses well the tools He uses to bring my mind back around to Him. Today it was the mysterious insects hovering over the fields. They seemed to be floating in the air as mist and were only visible when the light was just right and the eye was in just the right position to see them. It was as if God left a hint to look for Him in unexpected times and places and I found myself wondering in what other manner He might have left similar reminders. I began actively looking for that which I would have missed if I had not been paying attention. I came upon a stand of Queen Anne’s Lace and noted the single tiny dark floret in the center of the flower head, surrounded by all the white ones. I found evidence of a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar in a partially eaten sassafras leaf, though the caterpillar was nowhere to be seen. I thought about all those maddeningly successful weeds that appear in my garden, though I have never seen the seeds from which they have sprouted. It was as if God were pointing out the fact that He is always present, whether we are aware and attuned to him or not.

It is human nature to be drawn to mysteries and children are not the only ones who enjoy looking for the next clue or piece of the puzzle. I think that God sometimes tailors His dealings with us according to those tendencies in order to draw us through our natural curiosities and wonderings. He whispers to us, sometimes in the wind or in the call of the geese, sometimes in a hymn or lines from His Word. He invites our questions, our challenges, our unbelief. He bids us come and search and although He may seem to have hidden, I believe He awaits just the right moment to reveal Himself. At least that was my experience today. I began my walk primarily attentive to the here and now and to the mundane tasks and concerns of everyday life. I ended it attentive to the unseen world of God’s care and the mystery of His involvement in the world around me. I will forget again and He will remind me, as He has so often in the past. My remembering God does not depend on my faulty memory nor on my determination to keep Him in mind. It depends on His gracious willingness to leave me reminders of Himself and to point me towards those reminders. What I do with them is up to me.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Full of Life

I have been meaning to keep a chronicle of my garden so that in the future I may look back and remember how it looked and what plants were blooming when. I never seem to get around to keeping that promise to myself so I am writing about it here. The garden behind our house is glorious, if I do say so. The trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, take up the better part of the back yard, and though I have left some walking paths, by the end of the season even they will be overgrown and difficult to navigate. It is a garden full of vegetation indigenous to this part of PA and is just now starting to come into its riotous summer bloom. In this sacred space tiny flies, bees, beetles, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and songbirds go about their daily tasks of eating, breeding and dying and it will soon be filled with the myriad melodies of crickets and katydids, as well.

Lately I have been thinking of this patch of earth as my contribution to the threatened populations of our local pollinators. My garden has become more of a study in ecology than in aesthetics, in restoration rather than style. Though people sometimes say they find the plantings beautiful, mere beauty is no longer my goal. Survival is. Since our human landscape has significantly altered the available habitat for the insects, birds, amphibians and mammals of our region, planting a garden that helps to provide for their need is an act of stewardship I find richly rewarding. And the best and most effective means to accomplish that goal is through the planting of plants that have been a part of Penn's Woods since before the first settlers arrived.

Pastels seem to be the dominant shade in the garden at the moment, though that will soon be changing. There is lavender, red and fushia beebalm, pink swamp and common milkweed, pinkish purple coneflowers, blue wild petunia, pink downy phlox, yellow coreopsis, and a magnificent orange stand of butterfly weed. In the next few days, yellow black-eyed susans and three-lobed coneflower will open, along with purple liatris, pink and white garden phlox, pink meadowsweet and some yellow early goldenrod. Later will come various species of asters, goldenrods, joe-pye weed, ironweed, and the golden color of the flowering warm-season grasses.

Each year I also plant in some non-native annuals that will grow big and lush by the time of the fall hummingbird migration. These plants will provide sustenance and calories to be converted into body fat before the long non-stop trip to South America. A few males are already regularly coming to the flowers, as are a couple of females, but by later in August the garden's airspace will become something akin to the halls outside a middle-school cafeteria at lunch time. There will be hummingbirds chasing, bullying and jostling one another all over the yard, eating on the run and putting on weight. Watching these autumn scenes is especially fulfilling as I contemplate the fact that the nourishment these small but scrappy creatures find in our yard will be what helps them make their long journey to the next stage of their lives.

Having a garden that sustains the life of the Creation embodies the concept of stewardship. It is a tangible means of partnering with God in caring for what He has made and what He intends to live on. I have realized that, for myself, participating in the sustenance of Creation is an act of worship springing from a grateful heart hoping to make a positive contribution to what is left of God's natural world. The invitation is open to all who care about the life around us. The invitation is open to you.

Saturday, June 30, 2007


How woefully easy it is to misplace our priorities and temporarily lose our sense of gratitude. Perhaps I should write that opening sentence in the first person singular but I have a feeling that the affliction is more or less common to most of us from time to time. It has been a problem for me this last month for one reason and another and might explain why June has surprised me with its fleeting swiftness. I am left wondering how this year's June has come and gone so quickly. Perhaps I was not paying enough attention. Perhaps I was too immersed in wishing for a way of life that was not my own to revel in the wonders of the here and now.

For a couple of reasons, I knew that when I started my new job with a local land conservancy I would likely keep company with a struggle that has been a companion for most of my adult life. It has been simmering under the surface for the last few weeks and, as is often the case, I did not recognize it for what it was until a couple days ago. Covetousness, or wishing for what is not ours, is unsettling and even deadening if not rooted out. I let myself slip back into it without recognising its symptoms. One of these days I would like to report that this companion and I have parted ways, but I don't hold out much hope for that. Instead, I hope to be infused with a pervasive spirit of thankfulness that does not succumb to the longing for more.

The liberating moment of truth came through an encounter with a tiny creature while I was gardening for one of my clients two days ago. These people have a beautiful 60 acre farm with old restored house, barn and lands and I garden for them every week. As I was on my knees weeding under some tall pines, up hill from the waterfall and pond they have installed, I found myself in tears and the mental dam finally burst and let me see what had been affecting most of my waking hours of late. The reality is that I am never going to have the financial resources that these landowners have. Nor will I have the resources and land of many of my friends, no matter how much I may wish to. My husband and I made different vocational choices early in our lives and there is no point in decrying the fact that we are not going to ever be wealthy.

After having my moment of anger much, I am sorry to say, like a small child stamping their foot I happened to catch a glimpse of movement, just under my hand. Through my tears I saw a tiny brown frog, not much larger than my thumbnail, making his way past me and on up the hill, completely oblivious to my anguish. I stopped to watch and realized once again that sights like this are all around me if I will just pay attention. I was filled with gratitude for having been in just the right place at just the right time to see that little frog making his way in the world.

I had to shake my head and chuckle at God and His ways. As is so often the case, He brought me to an awareness of my struggle as I was outside and interacting with the natural world. And then, after giving me just enough time to repent, He brought the means of healing and restoration through one of His creatures. This tiny one reminded me that wealth, at least for me, is to be found in entering into the wonders of Creation. I can do that no matter where I am and what I am doing. This wealth is free.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

My Calling

My daughter and I had an interesting discussion yesterday regarding the occupations to which we are called and the methods by which we discern that calling. Often times, maybe most times, figuring out our direction is a lesson in trial and error, in patience and trust. Patience as we sift through the many "good things" from which we may choose and trust that the answers will materialize as we pay attention to the leadings that speak to us from within.

This matter has been echoing in my mind as I think about my gardening business. "Annie's Gardens" is a very small enterprise serving a handful of clients who need or want help with their properties. Some of my clients are older people who have loved gardens but are no longer able to care for their flowers and yards. Some have properties that are just too big to care for alone and appreciate a helping hand. Each family is different and it is a privilege to be involved in their lives and working among their plants. Truth be told, however, being a gardener is more than a privilege, it is the fulfillment of a long-time quest. For most of my adult life I have been searching for a means by which I could serve people or at least bring some good into their lives. The trouble was that most of what I have tried over the years has turned out to be more draining than fulfilling and I have realized that I was not suited to most of the roles I had assumed, good as my intentions may have been. Such is the usual outcome of working from what we think we 'should' be doing, rather than simply from who we are.

I have found that just by taking care of people's gardens I can bring beauty and joy to hearts who need it. And the reciprocal is also true. As I tend and care for their plants and soil my own spirit is blessed and fed, as well. A new project I'll be starting soon is a good example of how this works out. I have a dear friend who has a dear 90 year old mother who, though intellectually and emotionally alert, is seldom able to leave the confines of her home. But the fact that she can and does enjoy looking out her windows has been the recent inspiration for the new butterfly garden we are poised to install. As impatient as a child waiting to open an intriguingly wrapped present, I can't wait to see the transformation of that myrtle-covered patch of ground in front of the porch into the riotous color of blooms and wings. To know that my friend's mom will be able to watch the display from her indoor vantage point just makes me smile and gives me a sense of accomplishment and gratitude and even of giddiness. I believe it is safe to say that when one feels that way about their work chances are good that they are, indeed, working within their calling.

As a last favorite line from the whole Lord of the Rings series comes as Prince Faramir, having imprisoned Sam and Frodo in a cave while on their way to Mordor, questions Frodo. When Sam indignantly challenges Faramir's right to threaten Frodo, Faramir asks, "Who is this, your bodyguard?" And Sam belligerently declares, as though the answer should be obvious, "No, I am his gardener!" And indeed, who could be more noble, more steadfast and more faithful than he or she who tends the earth with deliberate care. "Tending the Garden" was our first charge and responsibility. No wonder I am at home there.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Back Again

Not that I have been away, actually. I have taken a break from writing for a while, though I can't remember just why. I was honored in seeing Joanna, my daughter, refer to my postings in her own blog and her words have prompted me to take up writing once again. Watching one's children grow into adults, complete with their own views and convictions about what matters in life is a joy and a privilege. To have them come to some of the same conclusions I have come to is especially moving and though a parent may try and take the credit for such outcomes, I do not. When I think of my parents' values I did not and do not share I realize that our children must come to what they hold dear in their own time and through their own searching. Joanna's blog, A Veiw From Wood Road, has been a chronicle of what she treasures and what she wrestles with and the link to her postings is on the side bar.

I have been hearing a refrain over the last few months that I am starting to find somewhat amusing. People have been asking if I have read Wendell Berry's works. Whether the query is in response to something I have said about my Appalachian connections, my interest in the land, my love of wildlife, my philosophy of agriculture, my simple lifestyle in Africa or the presence of God in all of those areas, it seems that someone asks if I have read Wendell Berry's fiction, poems or essays. I have not asked them just why they are asking or how they think I will benefit from the reading but I think I might from now on. The fact is that I have read some of his works and what has been a surprise and a joy is that I have finally found someone who agrees with me in almost all that I hold dear. The convictions that matter to Wendell Berry do not need to be explained to me because they are already a part of the fabric of my makeup and being.

When people tell me that they like Wendell Berry's writings, I am curious. Do they like all of his writings and messages or just some of them? I know folks who like what he writes about community but don't agree with his emphasis on small farming or the need for an intentional stewardship of the land. I know some who would like his call to a simple, sustainable lifestyle without the acquisition of more and more of the latest innovations but would not agree with his position of Christian non-resistance. And I know of some who like his fiction but feel threatened because he is not utilizing the latest technology and, in fact, speaks against it.

I will continue to read his works because his words ring true and remind me of who I am. Just like my Uncle Orien's do. Both remind me of my family and heritage and of the legacy left to me by my grandparents. Both remind me of my connection to God through the Creation and through Jesus. The words of both men lodge deep in my spirit and call me to live with integrity and with purpose. By God's grace and call, I hope to be the same voice of encouragement and challenge to my own family and friends. I give Him thanks for the lives and hearts of both men and for their confirmation that who I am is just who God has intended me to be from the beginning and that who I am, is enough.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Deceiving Appearances

This morning I took my ramble up the road, anxious to see what birds might have dropped down into the trees at dawn. For those who may not know, migrating songbirds travel by night and stop to rest and feed on insects and caterpillars by day. At first light they look for a likely spot and settle in to eat and regain their strength for the next leg of their flight. When they arrive at what they somehow know is "their" territory they stay put and start courtship and nesting behavior and one can watch them day after day. Some people who spend time watching birds are excited by the prospect of seeing great numbers of different species. While I also enjoy these fleeting glimpses, I find it more satisfying to find a few birds I can observe over the course of their nesting season. This morning I was fortunate enough to encounter several such individuals and it was like greeting old friends, back from their travels abroad. One of the especially enjoyable aspects of birdwatching in the same location over time is recognizing which birds are likely to show up where. The brown thrashers are singing and courting in the same stretch of scrubby trees where they nested last year. The kingfishers are at home along the same stretch of creek near the bridge that the eastern phoebes use every year as their nesting own site.

It was while I was listening and watching for new arrivals that I happened upon the warbling vireos. Warbling vireos are small grey nondescript birds. In fact, they are about as plain as birds come and for many people seeing one would probably not be cause for celebration. Once they begin to sing, however, one wonders how any bird can produce a cadence so beautiful and so complicatedly rhythmic. They particularly like to nest near water and I have heard them singing down near the creek in previous seasons. Recently, however, they have been in the trees up near the road and today, for the first time, I was able to see and watch them at eye level. Though the males and females look exactly alike, I am fairly confident I was watching a breeding pair and I stayed for some minutes, the birds just 15 feet from where I stood. The light was good, as are my binoculars, and I could see their individual feathers. I could even the small insects that the birds were picking from a newly green hop-hornbeam tree. As they foraged, the male paused to sing and I stood still listening, thinking about the discrepancy between his song and his appearance. A bird so plain that most would pass him by singing a song that reminded me of bubbling streams and the exuberance of life...

I was humbled as I watched and listened. I thought about the number of times I have taken people and situations at face value, not pausing to wonder or seek out the uniqueness that lay beneath an outward appearance. The vireos' glory lies not only in their voice but also in the simple fact that they fill a unique purpose and a position in the world in which they live. It is a role filled by no other species in exactly the same way and its absence would leave a hole in the fabric of the riparian system. The same is true with people. We are each created to have a special role in the lives of those with whom we come in contact and each of the people we meet are created to be unique as well. I want to remember the lessons learned this morning on the road. Something that appeared so ordinary became the cause for joy and for praise and for learning.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

New Beginnings

When I think about writing a post I ususally have some theme or idea of where I want the topic to go. Today I don't exactly but feel like writing anyway. I am thinking, once again, about new beginnings, about taking a new direction when I am not quite sure where it leads, about trusting my heart and my God and hoping that I am not making some foolish mistake. I have been working two jobs of late and I am getting ready to leave the stable, reliable one to devote more time and energy to the one that is something I love to do, but carries no guarantee of what will come next. Bilbo Baggins wrote a poem about the Road that comes back to me in times like these. "The Road goes ever, ever on, down from the door where it began. Now far away the Road has gone and I must follow if I can. Pursuing it with eager feet, until it joins a wider way, where many a path and errand meet, and whither then? I cannot say." I feel like much of my life has been like a twisty road, with many offshoots and "inviting exits" as my Dad used to say. He used to tell my mom, who was always afraid of getting lost, to just stay on the highway and not take any inviting exits.

I, on the other hand, have taken many. I started out in college as a premed major and ended, three colleges later as an ag major. I have assisted African women with gardening, I have taught Pennsylvania mothers to birth and breastfeed their babies, I have counted bird populations, milked cows, talked with farmers about land conservation, worked in garden centers, had my own small gardening business, am now a library assistant in the reference department and promote the plantings of native plants in the landscape. There is continuity in most of the above though it may not be so readily apparent. I am a nurturer and my heart longs for restoration and wholeness-in the land, in relationships, and with God.

I have been challenged recently to think about "identity", what is at the core of myself and what is "put on" as image. It is a good question and one that I will be thinking about for a long time. It is an uncomfortable question, as well, if I be honest. It means facing not only what matters most, but why and what influences helped to form the values that are a part of me. What has guided the choices I have made? What guides them now? What do I want my life to count for and how do I live it with integrity?

Recently, I have entered into a new job with a local land conservancy and my role is to promote the plantings of plants native to this part of Pennsylvania in the home landscape. I am working alongside others for whom restoration is more than a worthy goal but a way of life and practice. I feel at home with these people and have been encouraged to find some kindred spirits among them. In his book The Wind Masters, Pete Dunne wrote about a young migrating peregrine falcon,"She was longing to return to a place she had never been, but one she would know when she got there." That is how I am feeling about being involved with the people and mission I have become a part of at the conservancy. I used to think that the situation I "would know when I got there" was a physical place. Now I realize that it is perhaps more tied to relationships and shared vision than a location. At least for now it is.

As I come back to the original topic of new beginnings and making changes, all of the above ramblings come together. I want to live my life intentionally, putting energy into the things that matter most and letting go of the things that don't. At this point in life, I am recognizing that my time and what I can accomplish are finite. I want to make a difference in this physical world, and to be a voice of restoration and redemption. I do not fully know how to be that voice but I have some ideas and by God's grace and favor, hope to be faithful to the call of the heart He has given me. May He continue to guide and may I be quick to listen as I attempt to live out the rest of my days with integrity.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Garden Thoughts

I have been spending a lot of time in the gardens around my house lately, planning, planting and weeding what is already in place. My mind tends to wander as I weed and lately has been pondering the various weed species, their growth habits and how they spread. This year we are beset with two relative newcomers, hairy bittercress and one of the many chickweed species. Hairy bittercress, a particular problem in nurseries and garden centers, stands a few inches high, with delicate white flowers that have been blooming for a few weeks now, and has more or less taken over the ground in spots where it never used to be. The fact that each plant produces up to 5000 thousand seeds and can project them up to 4 feet from the parent plant aids in its travels, obviously. I have never had much of a problem with the chickweed before but this year it is wanting to blanket the ground wherever there is a patch of bare soil. It presents yet another new adventure in the ongoing resistance against an invading army bent on domination. One needs to try and assume a sense of humor when working with weeds, lest one lose his or her good nature and optimistic outlook.

One beneficial aspect of weeding is the opportunity to think about the similarities of weeds and their management to my own weaknesses and tendencies towards sin. The thought came to me as I was struggling with the pernicious ground ivy that has been a resident of our yard for the last 15 years or so. Every spring I tackle this pest in its various strongholds around the garden, knowing that I will be dealing with it for as long as I live in this location. After many years of gnashing my teeth and wasting a good bit of mental energy railing against its advance I have come to a point of acceptance. I am not going to eradicate the ground ivy from my yard. I am going to live with its challenges and its reminder to be vigilant for a long time to come and hoping it will just go away is folly. But that realization has brought me a bit of insight as well. The truth is that we all have areas in our lives that we will likely struggle with for as long as we live. They may be areas of particular temptations or attitudes, areas of self-doubt or pride, areas that are as unique as each one of us.

Some weeds are easier to eradicate than others. It doesn't take much time or effort to pull out a purple deadnettle plant. They don't send out runners and don't seem to shoot their seeds so far and though they do multiply, of course, they don't seem to do it with much abandon in my yard. They make me think of areas in my life that need attention. Once they are recognized as being harmful or problematic they are relatively easily uprooted and replaced with something beneficial. On the other hand, there are the deep-rooted weeds like dandelion and thistle that defy all but the most dedicated efforts to dig them out. That they are able to grow back from any piece of remaining root makes them all the more difficult to deal with. I have areas of life that are just as stubborn and unyielding as these tap-rooted invaders... areas that have such a deep hold that I first need to decide whether I want to exert the will and the effort to free myself from them. The good news is that, as with these plants, adequate determination, diligence and prayer can effectively remove whatever is causing the struggle, though sometimes the battle is long and wearing.

We are fallen people and there is no escaping the reality. I don't have to look farther than the ground ivy my yard to realize that some struggles are just going to be life long, and that is ok, actually. I take comfort in the realization that God knows me well, knows my strengths and my weaknesses, my triumphs and my failures. I know that He loves me with all of my struggles and my flaws and even with the parts of me that I cannot seem to pull out, try though I might. But I also know that He loves me too much to leave me in a defeated state. He is continually doing His own work of weeding and pruning and as I cooperate, I have become more fruitful, more aware and more intimate with the Vinedresser, Himself.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Weak in the Knees

I do not usually experience fear when I go walking, especially in the early morning, but yesterday was an exception. I had been down to the creek, enjoying the antics of a pair of kingfishers and trying my best to figure out whether the backlit shorebird on the mudflat was a lesser or a greater yellowlegs. A pair of dusky swallows caught my eye as I turned to head for home and I spent another few minutes watching them, wanting to be certain as to whether they were northern rough-winged or bank swallows.

I was still mulling over these identification questions as I headed up the hill, not paying a lot of attention to the road in front of me, when I saw it. Having previously spent a few years milking on my neighbor’s dairy farm I am not normally one to flinch at cows, though frisky young heifers are another matter. But what was just ahead was neither. It was a bull. The farmer, whose cows I had noted grazing on my way to the creek, also owns a bull that usually is somewhere to be found amongst the herd. I like watching him from a distance, but this was not a distance. This was all of 25 feet or so, and though we were separated by a guard rail and a thin electric fence wire, I was not comforted. Neither was I comforted by the fact that I was a human and he was an animal, which theoretically might mean that I could out-think him.

My walking slowed considerably as I puzzled over my dilemma and part of my brain was trying to figure out just how he got up to the road so quickly without me seeing him on my way to the creek. The pasture is steep at that point, with no discernable path worn into the hill, so I supposed he bushwhacked up to the top to see what the view was like from that vantage point. He didn’t appear to be nearly as alarmed to see me as I was to see him and I considered my options. Seemingly, crossing the road to the far side was in order since I would have been face-to-face with him as I passed, otherwise. As I crossed, I wondered about the next question, the one I really did not want to face. Would the guard rail and electric fence wire, which was not buzzing actively at the time, deter him if he decided he wanted to leave the serenity of the pasture? I doubted it. I have seen heifers jump a fence the height of the guard rail with room to spare and I didn’t think he would let something so piddley stop him either.

Though I was familiar with the expression, “being weak in the knees” as a result of fear, I don’t know that I had ever truly experienced it up until that moment. My stomach was in knots and my legs were shaky but I decided the best thing I could do was to walk on, without making any show of being afraid or of challenging the bull’s authority. I did my best to simulate invisibility as I passed, assuming what I intended to be a non-threatening posture and being careful to avoid looking him in the eye. Whether as a result of my deliberate intentions, or because he was in an amiable mood or for some other reason, he let me pass with no more than a stare that followed me on down the road a ways.

Once I was back to breathing normally and enjoying the birdsong around me I felt a new sense of energy and adventure, having just lived through a potentially life-threatening, or at least health-threatening, situation. Or it might have been, anyway. I’ll never know for sure but the experience did make for a good story and something to look back on with gratitude for its outcome. Maybe next time I’ll greet the bull with a smile and remind him that we almost met once-upon-a-time.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Small Wonders

Yesterday I had the good fortune to see my first spotted salamander egg casings in a small vernal pond on our local State Game Lands. The day was glorious and much too inviting to stay in my yard so I ventured out to see what I could find in one of my old forested haunts. The PA Game Commission, in its unfathomable wisdom, has logged a large tract of what used to be heavily forested land and because it pains me to see it so, I have seldom returned in the last couple of years. Yesterday, however, I was drawn back to the old trails and was curious to see what migrant warblers and other birds might be moving through.

The woods were warm and quiet and still predominantly brown though hints of new life were all around me. Tiny leaves were emerging on the spicebushes and the serviceberry buds were silvery and soft, needing just another day or so to open into the first flowers of the woodland procession. The skunk cabbage has been up for a while now and ran along the streams like a green ribbon against the dry leaves. As I picked my way along the swampy trail, blue azure butterflies and mourning cloaks kept me company, as did several hermit thrush and Louisiana waterthrush. It was a good time for rambling.

I was looking forward to hiking a secluded side trail that meanders through a wooded valley. It had been my favorite part of what used to be a regular loop but the last few times I have tried to find it, somehow or other, the entrance has eluded me. It seemed as if the trail had disappeared altogether. I knew better, of course, and yesterday I decided to try a sneak attack from the rear. My plan was to hike the main trail to where the far end of the side trail intersected and then walk the side trail back from that direction.

It was on the way to that intersection that I passed the ponds. I had known that they were there and have stopped to look at them in the past, but this year I thought that perhaps I might see something new if I took the time to intentionally inspect them. And sure enough, I did. The first pond was about the size of my small kitchen and held an abundance of decaying leaves, mosquito larvae and wood frog tadpoles. The second pond was even smaller, not much larger than our kitchen table, and in addition to the tadpoles, also held three spotted salamander egg masses. The individual round eggs are held in a softball-sized greenish gelatinous balls that were attached to a submerged stick. The whole pond appeared to be in constant motion as the wood frog tadpoles congregated on the egg masses, eating the attached algae and the the mosquito larvae wiggled to and fro. Within the new few weeks the tadpoles will become wood frogs, the salamaders will hatch and mature and all will leave the ponds in search of their adult lives elsewhere. I am hoping to return to the ponds often in the coming days to watch the changes firsthand.

How blessed I am to have been nudged into walking to this spot on this day to see what I have been privileged to see. How blessed to be gifted with the introduction to these small wonders.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


We are in need of hope today, or at least I am. The painful reality of our fallen world is fresh in my mind as I still grapple with the news of shootings in southern Virginia, at a school and town with which I am familiar. We live relatively peaceful lives, many of us, not accustomed to coping with or knowing how to respond to such mindless hatred and violence. To complicate my emotions further, I discovered last evening that my former mother-in-law is in intensive care, struggling to breathe, and I am suddenly all too aware of my mortality once again. I went on a walk this morning, hoping to lighten my mood. I talked with God about my children and their various needs, about all the people saddened by the events in Virginia, about my own fears of aging and losing health and strength. For a while, the walk may not have been cheery, but it was honest and that is something.

It has rained recently and the water flowing through the oxbow was high. I wondered if the holes I noticed in the creek banks were muskrat homes and if so, how they were faring. I looked down into the marsh, knowing that the bittern was not likely to be present, and the brilliance of several red-winged blackbirds caught my attention. Their wing patches reminded me of rubies set against the brown clumps of soggy grasses. The morning was cloudy and there was not much in the way of color except for the greening fields and the red-winged blackbirds. It is in times like this, when things seem bleak and dark, that we are well served to search for signs of hope and indications of God's presence.

The weather has been cloudy, cold and wet for a long number of days now and the various swallows are suffering. Their food is primarily winged insects and these do not fly when it rains and do not fly much when it is cold. I have been concerned for these birds, as there is not much humans can do for them when conditions become harsh. I did not expect to find swallows on my walk today but, gladly, I was mistaken. First to catch my eye was a nervous looking rough-winged swallow who took forays out over the water and then returned to a branch, resting and watching for insects. While sitting, he continually turned his head from side to side and it almost looked as if he were unsettled by the realization that he was the only one of his kind in the area. As I followed his flight with binoculars, a splash of metallic blue zoomed past and I rejoiced that at least one tree swallow had also lived through the cold and dampness. With luck, the hardest days of spring are behind these birds and they will soon be able to go about their business of feeding and breeding.

Walking home, the verse "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen"(Hebrews 11:1) came to mind. I thought about the signs of new life that often occur in what first appears as complete destruction. Burned over meadows or woodlands are the places in which pioneer species can take hold. A degraded clearcut forest floor is the setting in which shade intolerant tree seedlings may flourish. And sometimes the grieving heart becomes a seedbed for the growth of new dependence and reliance on God and His grace. Nothing takes the place of what is gone and nothing is ever the same as what we have lost. But, sometimes unexpectedly, we are granted glimpses into the sure reality that God does not mean to leave us in our pain and in our sorrow. I am persuaded that He knows the depths of our suffering and our longings because He has experienced the same suffocating grief of losing someone He loved. He gives us assurances in His word and in His world that what seems to us to be the end can, in time, transform into a new beginning. These assurances are what we refer to as hope.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Refuge and Reminders

I walked out into my yard last night, into the high winds, drizzle and darkness, and stood by our relatively small crabapple tree for a moment. Suddenly, in my memory, I was transported back 15 years to a time when I stood in almost the same spot, by another similar crabapple and railed at God regarding a deep and unfulfilled longing I could not shake, nor accomplish. The intensity of that memory caused me to linger a while, unmindful of the turbulence and precipitation around me.

I have, over the years, sought refuge in my yard more times than I can count, sometimes in daylight and sometimes in darkness, in all seasons and for many reasons. Thanks to the hedgerows that line the property, and the fact that most of my neighbors seldom spend time in their own yards, I usually have a sense of privacy there, a sense of solitude and comfort, a sense of sanctuary. Often times, when I have been driven by grief, the situation itself has not changed. My mother’s dying, my marriage ending, the loss of dreams and people and pets I have loved have all sent me into the backyard with a gnawing ache to make sense of the why’s of this life. No setting can provide the answer to why, of course, but the natural world has often answered the question of how to live with the loss and even, surprisingly, granted a vision of new wholeness.

Sometimes the indoors just seems too small to hold my hopes and joys, my fears and grief, or even my faith. Sometimes I need the expanse of the outside to unleash the emotions, the thankfulness or sadness that build inside of me and need expression. It is in the space of this small refuge that I have felt God’s renewal as I watch spring unfold. I have sensed His faithfulness as I have welcomed “my” nesting birds back for another season, and His promise of sustenance and direction as I have listened to the cries of the tundra swans overhead, heading north once again.

I need these tangible reminders of what is real and what is important in a world and life confused by too many things, too many pulls and too many choices. The wonders of life and growth…tadpoles becoming frogs, acorns becoming trees, eggs becoming birds…help to hold me to what is true. May I never forget and may I continually be grateful for these reminders and for the wonders of simply stepping out my door.

Friday, April 13, 2007


I do not remember much from my Appalachian Culture class at West Virginia University. I took the course in hopes of learning more about my family’s heritage and history and, though I liked the class, I came away feeling that since I had grown up elsewhere, I had missed out on the common secrets woven into the life of a people and their homeland. The one characteristic I do remember, however, was the mountain people’s sense of place… a sense of being closely tied with the land and the community, a sense of belonging.

My own experience growing up was almost the opposite. My father was in the military and by the time I started high school we had lived in twelve houses, six different states and two countries. As an adult, my travels continued. I attended three different colleges, moved to yet another state after graduating, spent three years in Botswana, and after coming back to the states, lived in four more houses before settling in, eighteen years ago, to the home I have now. The moving around took its toll on my ability to connect closely with any one place and until just recently I have spent most of my life wishing that I could live somewhere else. Though I longed for that sense of place and knew that it was missing, I could not seem to find, nor manufacture it.

Thankfully, my outlook has recently changed. I am experiencing a new spirit of gratitude as I become better acquainted with the property on which I have lived and gardened these many years. If these words sound strange coming from someone who lives on a half-acre lot in the midst of other homes on half-acre lots, it is likely because they are strange. I think it would be safe to say that most of my neighbors have not given much thought to their own bit of earth. Our neighborhood used to be a farm, many years ago, and before that a forest. It was majestic and fruitful and filled with untold numbers of plants, birds, insects and animals. Now, it is covered with mown grass, a few trees and shrubs, volleyball nets, boat storage tents and utility sheds.

Our neighborhood has fallen a long way from the abundant life and diversity it once held, before humans came to live here. I realize that, though I fill our yard with native trees and shrubs, I cannot re-create what took centuries to produce. Still, I can and do choose to do something beneficial, something that adds to the “the health of the land”, as Leopold termed it. We are developing a new relationship, this land and I, and if I listen well I will learn what the land has to teach. I will learn to become its partner and its steward and it will reward me with its treasures. And I am finding that the greatest treasure is, after all this time, a sense of place.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter in Microcosm

Today was not the kind of day we hope for when looking forward to Easter. We tend to hope for sunny skies, warm temperatures and a sense that spring is fully and finally upon us at last. Today was not like that. Today was cloudy and cold and the sharp wind blew a few snowflurries across the frozen-again landscape. Not at all what we had hoped for.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about Easter services and the effort many churches make to portray the day as something other than what it really is...or was for that matter. This morning churches were filled with Easter lillies, bright springy dresses, and special music that was probably more grandiose than usual. The reasons given usually have to do with symbolism... lillies (depending the source consulted)to symbolize purity, hope, or radiance of the risen Christ, springy clothing to represent new life, and swelling strains of music, particularly of organ and brass, to stand in for the supposed angelic choral anthems that might have greeted the newly resurrected Jesus.

Personally, I find these depicitions of Easter distracting, in part because they misrepresent what that pivotal, historic morning was actually like. I imagine that whatever was or was not blooming on the day Jesus left the tomb was, quite likely, the same as what was or was not blooming on the day he died. I imagine that the garden around the tomb was typically a quiet place and that the stillness of that morning was broken only by the sounds of the women's footsteps and furtive whispers. The text tells of an angel's presence at the tomb, but makes no mention of anthems or an angelic choir or of disciples showing up in beautiful new clothes.

I came away from just such a service this morning, hungry to meet God in the cold and quiet stillness of the out-of-doors. I noticed symbolism of resurrection and new life everywhere I looked in my own slowly-awakening garden. Unfolding leaves of wild columbine, bleeding heart and tiarella were not showy but they reminded me of rebirth and beginning life anew. Goldfinches growing in new feathers and taking on their bright yellow breeding plumagage matched the daffodils that have been blooming for a while, now. The robins and house finches sang as beautifully as any choir and reminded me of their own eternal Choirmaster.

One of the appealing aspects of Easter sunrise services is that they are often held outside, where God is sought in the simple glory of the early morning. They seem a testimony to the fact that, if we are willing and if we have eyes to see, we will find God's handprints in the wonders of His natural world. He has left living symbols of His faithfulness all over what He has made, if we will but take the time to note and understand them. And if we make the effort to seek out what He has implanted, we will find that even on cold and cloudy Easters, as miniature leaves are just beginning to emerge, we will see glimpses of His grace...just by looking.