Wednesday, March 28, 2007


We have been thinking, lately, of moving to a small, simple, homey house perched up the hill from a wooded creek, a few miles away. Naturally, we have been discussing the pros and cons of relocating versus staying where we are. On the one hand, we would like to live in a woodland setting, the house is newly cleaned and refurbished, and maintaining the property would require less time and energy than where we live now. On the other, I have been planting and tending the gardens and habitat around our current home for 18 years now, the knotty pine kitchen I love was made by my son’s own hands, and the small bit of woodland I have planted in front of the house has finally, this past fall, hosted squirrels. We have been thinking about the decision for almost a month and a couple of days ago a new perspective was, unexpectedly, granted.

Interestingly, and at a surprisingly appropriate moment, my daughter recently posted a piece about loss on her own blog, A View From Wood Road (see side link). We all know loss of some sort or another. Sometimes it is of lesser importance and sometimes of much greater, sometimes of tangible objects, people or relationships and sometimes of hopes, dreams and ideals. Recently I received a letter from someone very dear to me, that caused me to face the fact that I have spent a good many years of my life hoping for something that was already gone, long before I ever had the chance to search for it. He wrote about the changes the years have brought to the culture and people of the Appalachian mountains and about the fact that he, himself, missed what used to be, a few generations back. As I read his words, I realized that, intellectually, I had known what he said was true, but in my heart of hearts for all these years, I have hoped that it wasn’t. I have hoped for the chance to return to Kentucky and find some remnant of what has been lost, some whisper of how it used to be long ago. I hadn’t put that longing into words until reading his letter and I was suddenly faced with the fact that it wasn’t going to happen, that it was too late, and actually, that it had been too late for a long time.

In trying to sort through the rush emotions his letter provoked, I did what I always do when I need to think-I walked. I took my usual route past woods and fields, past the creek and the oxbow and, though the way was familiar, I paid scant attention to my surroundings, busy as I was wiping the tears out of my eyes. After a while, my senses finally awakened to what was happening around me and I began to pay attention. The phoebes were back on territory and singing exuberantly, joined by a particularly noisy flicker. Where previously there had been one lone, belted kingfisher, now there were three, calling and chasing one another up and down the creek. In the field, an Amish farmer and his eight mules were busy plowing, readying the land for planting and I wondered if he felt at home on his own land, doing what he has done for so many years. I thought about the fact that I never wanted to be from here, but that here is where I am. I always wanted to be from, and live in, the mountains, but except for a couple of years in college, that wish has been denied me. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to feel at home somewhere, I just haven’t been able to figure out or find just where that might be.

And then, surprisingly, as I walked in the early light of a new day, the raucous sounds of spring all around me, I finally realized where my homeplace is. It is here-looking out over these meadows, living in this house and tending the land I have been given. Perhaps someday we may move after all, but it won’t be in search of what I have thought was lacking.

Sometimes loss seems so keenly unbearable and without reason. And it almost always hurts. But sometimes, in spite of the pain, the longing and the grief, loss can be a doorway into what lies ahead. Whether we walk through that door, and embrace the opportunity given, is up to us.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Life in the Garden

Today I spent the afternoon engaged in activity shared by hardy, driven souls all across the country, at least where weather conditions have allowed. I labored in my gardens, removing dried stalks, beginning the spring weeding and generally surveying the new growth in the hardy perennials, eager for spring. It is an activity that, though I might sigh to myself about how much there is to be done, I thoroughly enjoy. Squatting or kneeling with one's face to the earth, fingers probing and poking in the damp soil is a great way to be reminded of what is important in life and to be nudged into giving thanks for simple joys.

I cannot imagine a life unconnected to the earth, to its rhythms and its ways, for I know that I am enriched by its bounty and deeply thankful to God for its provision. I love the verse in Genesis 2:7 that says, "The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." God did not make us out of nothing, nor out of thin air! He put the very fiber of the land itself into our being and I, for one, hunger to share in its life and its workings.

I fully believe that, as our society has advanced in technology and mechanization, we as a people have become impoverished through our loss of relationship with this land that sustains us. We have more to keep us indoors now, more to keep us occupied, entertained and distracted. We have shopping malls, computers, DVD's, and supermarkets that bring us food from all over the world, no matter what the season. As a people, I fear, we miss out on the spiritual truths that God has written into creation and the lessons that come from working the soil and observing life in the natural world.

As you think of it, take time this spring to watch and learn from the outdoors. Take a moment to step out onto your porch, for no other reason than to see what is beyond your walls, to breathe deeply and to look and listen. The creation is not perfect and is certainly not as whole as it once was. But it is still a window into the heart of God and the means by which He sometimes whispers to us of His presence.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Hide and Seek

Do you remember those Hidden Pictures pages in the Highlights magazine of our youth, where the artist hid real objects amid a detailed scene of something else? When you first looked at the picture, all you would see was the subject matter portrayed, but the more you looked, the more the hidden objects became evident. This morning's walk was something like that. Today I decided it was time to start carrying my binoculars again, after a winter of leaving them at home, and it was the close up views of what first appeared empty that revealed the surprises I would have otherwise missed.

I don't know when I have last seen so many song sparrows, perhaps 200 or more in a 2 mile walk. Apparently they are migrating, returning to their breeding grounds and these are good days to see them.... except that to see them, one has to pay close attention. Without stopping to look carefully, it is easy to mistake the small, brown sparrows for dry leaves or stalks of grass moving in the wind. They blend so perfectly into the colors of the muddy stream bank, muddy farm fields and muddy ground beneath the brownish grasses and goldenrod stalks that it is very easy to miss them. Once the secrets of their camouflage are uncovered, however, and you become accustomed to their movements, you may find them everywhere. Watching and solving the puzzles of the natural world is part of the real fun I find in being out and walking.

The wet meadow also hid its share of lurking mysteries. What first appeared to be a forlorn and empty looking stretch of dried grasses and barren multiflora rose bushes soon revealed life going about its business in every direction. The grass clumps hid Canada geese thinking about nesting sites. The multiflora rose held numerous mockingbirds and cardinals, silently foraging amongst its berries and Carolina wrens, less silently, searching for insects. My favorite surprise was in the middle of a cow path that, right now, is more like a canal as it carries water from the melting snow down a gentle grade towards the creek. I would have easily said, just looking with my eyes, that there was nothing in that water, but once again I would have been wrong. Amid the seven mallards, squabbling and splashing in the puddle, was one bright male wood duck, standing out like a multi-colored jewel set in the still-drab winter setting. What a treasure, revealed just by taking the time to look! How easy it would have been to have missed him.

While I was walking back towards home, I thought about the fact that so often, if we insist on rushing through life, we miss so much that it has to offer. I don't think it is possible to live a hurried life and an observant life at the same time. I need to remember that. If we want to see what is around us, sometimes all we need to do is to take the time to look. As I was mulling all this over, and thinking about how to express these thoughts on the blog, I happened to glance up and noted, quickly moving away from me, a large raptor, unlike what I usually see around this area. It took me a moment to pull my binoculars up to my eyes and, with a sinking feeling, I realized I was seeing a northern harrier heading over the rooftops and beyond my line of sight. I hurried to get a better look but it was as if the sky, itself, had swallowed him up.

I chuckled to myself over such a fitting end to my reflections. Most times, if we want to see, all we need to do is to apply ourselves to observation. But sometimes, serendipity kicks in and all we need to do is be in the right place in the right time, looking in exactly the right direction. I'm sure there is a good illustration in here somewhere but I haven't yet figured out what it is :)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Oxbow

I have been dismayed by the concept of time for as long as I can remember. Now and then, people have remarked they think me odd for not liking to look at long-ago pictures of family and friends. I suppose that, for them, reminiscing about past times helps to keep those times alive in the present and integrated into their current lives. It doesn't seem to work that way for me, however. When I look back, I tend to do so with a profound sense of loss and sadness that what once was will never be again. It is almost as if time is a tangible foe, always working against me, taking away what I have loved most.

When I watch a stream or a river flowing by, on the other hand, I find myself relaxing into a welcome sense of timelessness. This morning's walk took me past a nearby stream that flows through an expansive, pastured floodplain. I stood on the road above it and watched, thinking to myself about how this creek has probably been flowing for hundreds of years and how, if left alone, it will continue to flow far into the future. I know perfectly well that what I think of as “the creek” is really made up of so many individual water molecules, each rushing past me only once on their way to the Chesapeake Bay. But I prefer the larger, the more eternal (if faulty) view that this creek has always been and always will be. It brings a sense of peace.

Today I watched the water, higher now with the added volume of melting snow, swirl through an oxbow formation in the middle of the pasture. One day the water will complete its work and the small peninsula being carved out of the meadow will become an island. I noted that its neck is appearing even more narrow these days and I see evidence of new wear on the steep and eroding bank... All of which caused me to return to my musings about the passing of time and its accompanying changes. I thought about my mortality and about the fact that I am as powerless to stop the flow of time as is the creek bank to stop the flow of water that washes its soil away. I realized something else as well, however. It was the water's force that created the creek banks in the first place and it is this same force that continues to create a place for bank swallows and belted kingfishers to excavate their nesting sites each year. The banks, battered as they are by the inexorable, relentless flow of the water are continually being sculpted into something beneficial for the lives that depend on them. It is my prayer that I might allow time, and whatever it brings, to have the same effect in me.

For a long time I have been wanting to sneak down the hill, under the fence, through the pasture and out to this particular spot to spend time on the peninsula sitting, watching and reflecting. I'd better do it soon for, given a few more storms, it may be too late.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Spring Snow

And so the snow came on Friday. And everything that was turning green and starting to grow was blanketed once again, and the robin's song was stilled. There will be time enough to begin singing once more when food is plentiful, as it was before the snow. Fortunately, the crabapple trees, the hollies, the winterberries, and the cranberry bush viburnams still have berries left to provide some measure of sustenance until the ground is bare again and the search for worms can be resumed.

I have been planting our yard for wildlife for more than 10 years now and am rewarded by being allowed to observe the creatures that come. When we first moved here, although the house was seven years old, there was not one tree planted on our half acre lot..Not one. There were three ungainly, upright arbovitaes in front of the house and that was it. Now there are 70 or so species of trees and shrubs on the property, and more than 200 species of herbaceous plants, most being native to eastern Pennsylvania. They have been chosen to provide food and habitat for the birds and insects of the region that have been crowded out or displaced by our unbridled human development.

According to Genesis, "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." My heart for wild things and their well-being is my response to this charge, though I recognize that my efforts are second best to leaving valuable habitat intact in the first place. Nevertheless, I hope to make a difference and seeing catbirds, house-wrens and bluebirds raise young, and white-crowned sparrows, red-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers winter here are the happy outcomes of my labor. And I do believe the sight causes God to smile and nod His head in affirmation of my attempts to partner with Him and follow His directions.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Snow, Hymns and Robin's Song

Yesterday, as I wrote about spring’s arrival, I knew that today’s forecast called for snow. Spring is like that. Snow today does not change the fact that the season we are all longing for is still, in fact, on its way. Early this morning as I started off on my walk in the sleet and drizzle, I noticed the neighborhood robins once again. Do you know what they were doing? They were singing! In the cold, grey dawn of a wet and snowy morning they were singing… as I had suspected they might be.

Immediately the words of a favorite hymn came to mind “No storm can shake that inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging. Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” (How Can I Keep from Singing by Robert Lowery). I was reminded anew of God’s utmost faithfulness to us, His children, even in the midst of our sometimes hard and trying circumstances. And of our own need to trust Him and to sing and rejoice in His very presence with us.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Spring's Arrival

Every year, for as long as any of us can likely remember, we tend to experience a sense of almost giddy gladness at the seeming end of winter. This year is no exception and even though I know what to expect, I am still amazed as winter thaws and spring begins to arrive. What amazes me about the changing seasons, the one sliding into the next, is the regularity and predictability of their progression, regardless of whether we humans are attuned to them or not.

A couple of weeks ago the grackles and red-winged blackbirds returned to my area of south central Pennsylvania, followed by the robins who moved back into our neighborhood a week or so ago. At first the robins were quiet, keeping their melodies to themselves, but now, a few days later, their singing begins before dawn and their chattering will not fade away until well past dusk. The cardinals and song sparrows seem unable to contain themselves any longer and their chorus begins as day breaks and the sun peeks over the horizon. Up until these newcomers’ arrival, the morning serenade began with the perky little Carolina wren’s song, and even though he is outnumbered by other species now, his voice may still be the strongest amongst the throng. It has always been this way and will be, hopefully, for a long time yet to come.

These days it seems like everywhere something calls out to be noticed and each day brings some newness to discover. Today, in our yard, it was the hazelnut, or filbert, catkins. All of a sudden they are green! They have been brown and dried out looking all winter and now they are plumping up and softening and turning green, in preparation for another year of reproduction. It just makes me smile :). The other new sight in the yard was something I have never seen before in all my years of watching bees. Now, I must admit to being only a casual bee-watcher and some of you readers have likely known about this phenomena for a long time but I had never encountered it until yesterday… I was crouching down on my knees, watching two bees take what sustenance they could from the blooming snow crocuses when I noticed, concernedly, what appeared to be orange parasites on their back legs. The blobs looked, for all the world, like orange aphids or ticks, even. Was the bees’ hive infested with yet some new organism that was working to compromise their survival? Well… no. Some quick research revealed that the orange areas were pollen baskets and are only found on the back legs of female bees. When the baskets contain no pollen they are not evident but when they are full, they bulge and take on the color of whatever pollen the bee has found and placed there for safekeeping. At this time of year, a few snow crocuses are what will sustain those bees until more plants begin flowering. The color of those pollen baskets was exactly the same hue as the orange pollen on the flowers themselves. Now I know!

What are you seeing as spring comes creeping in?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

First Post

I’ve been giving a good deal of thought as to why I would have a blog and what I hope to accomplish through it. I have decided to give it a try for two reasons.

It is not uncommon for most of us to live our day to day lives without sharing much about our inner selves with those we care about, with those we love, even. The first reason for this blogging venture is especially for my grown children (Hi, kids!) and for anyone else who cares to know me better. I did not really know my parents though I grew up with them, of course. I knew what they did and what they chose to talk about but, now that they are gone, I wish I had asked them how they felt, what had really mattered in their lives and what they would have liked yet to accomplish, had they lived longer than they did. I hope that this blog might be a way for those who care to learn more of my heart and heritage find what they seek and be able to pass it on to their own children someday.

The second reason for writing has to do with my hope that readers may feel invited into my observations of the natural world that surrounds us. Many of us live busy lives and don’t always stop to notice the wonders and the joys of such sights and sounds as say….the first honeybees buzzing amongst the early snow crocuses in March, the cone-head katydids singing on a warm summer evening, barn swallows swooping through an August sky or the first brilliant red fall leaf coloring of a black gum tree in early autumn.

Perhaps if you read of such things here, it will bring you a sense of peace and also a sense of curiosity that may drive you outdoors to see for yourself. If so, let me know. And please post to the comments section what you, yourselves, are seeing. There is always something new to learn, for all of us.