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.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Unexpected

This was one of the most amazing mornings of my adult life. I have a feeling that, as children, we experience more of these unique and unforgettable times, but we don’t always realize how special they are. We seem to take the wonders of the world more in stride when we are young, as if the wonders are the expected norm…as, indeed, they should be.

This morning started off normally enough, though I did notice that the robin chorus seemed more robust than of late and began singing well before dawn, a bit earlier than in previous days. I wondered about the cause and whether their early waking was due to the full moon, still hanging in the western sky. I also noticed that at 6:30 it was fully light, which took me by surprise, and I briefly questioned whether the clocks had somehow all been reset during the night and whether it were really much later than I had assumed.

One of my favorite reasons for walking early in the day is that it gives the opportunity to notice the differences in the morning light. Some mornings, before sunrise, the light appears pale, almost without color, and the entire landscape looks as if it has been painted in black and white. Some mornings, the early sky has a golden softness and the bare trees stand in dark relief against rising sun’s rosy glow. And some mornings, the world is enshrouded in dense fog, and only in the mind’s eye can you make out the landscape features at all. On this particular, amazing morning, I had the chance to experience all three.

As I said, the morning started off as usual, with me happily striding out my driveway and up our road, really expecting to have more of an exercise-walk than an observation-walk. Of course, even on an exercise-type walk, I am always listening and watching for something that otherwise might go unnoticed. I have been watching a few particular trees, lately, whose identity I thought I had known and a few days ago, the trees’ unusually shaped buds caught my eye. Try as I might, I could not remember ever having seen buds as large or as unfamiliar as these. I was puzzled. To make matters more confusing, some of the trees had buds and some did not, though I was almost certain they were all of the same species. This morning the mystery was solved, or most of it was, anyway. I will have to wait for the trees to leaf out, or for their seeds to be dispersed to know for sure, but I am fairly confident that they are either big-tooth aspens or an eastern cottonwood trees. The large buds I have been seeing have split open to let the catkins emerge, and these I recognize. I have also learned that, for both species, the flowering period for individual trees within a given stand may vary up to a month, which accounts for the fact that not all of them are budding yet. So, good. I am coming closer to solving that puzzle.

I walked on, idly thinking my own thoughts while noting the stream flow, the flowering red maples, the kingfisher’s rattle, the eastern towhee’s song, the abundance of mockingbirds in the brushy field, and the raucous calls of the Canada geese. I decided to turn back towards home and wait until tomorrow to check on the eastern phoebes down at the bridge, since I don’t work tomorrow but do today. I passed the oxbow and, as I was approaching the cow path that had previously been filled with water, I stopped to take a quick scan with my binoculars, just in case there were any wood ducks about, as there had been the other day. The path lies within a marshy, grassy wetland area and though it is not completely submerged, there are large puddles that made for good dabbling duck habitat. As it turned out, there were no wood ducks. What I did see, though, stopped me in my tracks and garnered my full attention. There in the midst of a muddy spit, surrounded by water, was an American bittern…the first I have ever seen. I have been hoping and waiting to see a bittern for almost 12 years now and the open floodplain I pass everyday is not a place I would have thought to look. On the other hand, you often don’t find American bitterns when you search for them. Often times, you happen upon them almost as if by accident. They are brownish-streaked, marshland birds, larger than a chicken and masters of disguise as they stand amongst tall grasses and reeds. To see one standing out in the open, as I did, is a rare gift and, though I will look, I may never see this bird again.

I stood watching the bittern for a half hour or so, thinking that I could perhaps have a better look if the light were better. Though it was fully daylight at that point, I wondered if the bird’s features might not stand out more vividly with the sun shining directly on its feathers. I decided to watch and wait, realizing that there was plenty of other activity going on around me as well. Down to my right, on the greening oxbow peninsula, were five squabbling geese. I had heard them while watching the bittern but had paid scant attention, since squabbling geese are a fairly common part of life on the floodplain. I turned to watch and chuckled to myself as I tried to figure out just what the altercation was all about. Judging by the sound of their irritated voices, there seemed to be three or four females and one or two males involved in the scuffle and the reason for the disturbance appeared to have had something to do with the defense of a few square feet of land on the very tip of the peninsula. They jumped and squawked and lunged at each other for a bit and then contentedly returned to their foraging, a few feet away. I suppose it all made good sense to them and made for good entertainment for me.

While enjoying the geese and scanning the meadow now and then, I primarily kept my eyes on the bittern. Even as I watched and waited for the direct sunlight, the look of the fields below me began to change. When I had first paused to look, the light had a pale quality to it and the predominant colors on the floodplain were the green of new grass, the white of geese’s breasts and light reflecting off the puddles, the brown of dried clump grasses and bare shrubs, and the grey of geese’s backs and old fence posts. It seemed as if everything in the scene had been colored coordinated. With the sun’s rising, however, all of the various browns took on a reddish hue and the tall dried grasses, glistening with dew, stood out boldly against the green background. Still, the bittern was in a more protected spot and the sunlight hadn’t reached him yet.

As I stood contemplating the colors and the beauty stretched out before me, I was surprised to hear a bluebird singing, quite nearby, from the sound of it. I slowly turned my head and found him perched on a fence post just 15 feet from me. He didn’t seem perturbed by my presence though, truth be told, he had probably been watching me as long as I had been watching the bittern. Apparently he decided that I didn’t appear to be much of a threat. His mate joined him and together they alighted on a nearer post, taking turns inspecting a promising looking nesting hole on the far side. I held my breath as I watched, feeling as though I had stepped right into a Ned Smith painting and wishing that I could stay. In fact, the scene before me could have been a whole portfolio of his works. In addition to the bluebirds, were Carolina chickadees flitting through the multiflora rose branches, song sparrows on the ground hunting seeds in the dry vegetation , downy woodpeckers calling in the trees behind me and red-winged blackbirds singing from the fence posts in the marsh, down near the bittern. It was an altogether transcendent moment.

Just then, I happened to look to the east and noticed that the light was changing once again. Where, just a few minutes earlier, there had been bright warm sunshine, there was now a strange darkening murkiness, as if the clouds had touched the ground and were moving west. And as I watched, that is exactly what happened. Within a few minutes time the air became white and damp, the bushes and stream faded into the fog and the bittern disappeared altogether. Interestingly, though the birds were no longer visible, they seemed to go on about their activity as if nothing strange had just happened. I was still able to pick out their songs and the fog didn’t seem to concern them as they went about their busy tasks. It was as if they were secure in their world and knew what to do to carry on with their lives.

As I finally headed home, I glanced back once again, and was surprised to find that all I could see was fog. There was no meadow, no floodplain, no stream, nothing at all, in fact. It looked as if the world ended at the edge of the road and seemed as if all I had witnessed might have been nothing but a dream. It felt like a dream, actually…or like being in someone else’s book about their own walks through the natural world.

In these moments I realized, once again, how much more I feel a part of this outdoor world than the man-made world I usually inhabit. I am far more comfortable standing on the edge of the old meadow, watching the light and listening to bird song, than I am going about the day to day interactions that make up my own life. I don’t expect to ever really understand why this is so and I don’t really need to. I am just grateful to live in a place where being able step out of my world and into this one is only a walk away

Who knows what tomorrow’s walk may bring?

Sunday, April 1, 2007


This word has been creeping into my consciousness the last few days, ever since the subject came up as a comment to my last post. Actually, I have been giving this word a great deal of thought for a long time now… decades, in fact. I am puzzled by the concept and what it really means and does not mean.

God's people are sometimes fond of admonishing one another to be content in all circumstances and I have been examining a couple of the passages often quoted. In 1 Timothy 6:6 Paul writes, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” and in Phillipians 4:11 he says, “I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances”. In its rightful context, the first passage is clearly speaking to the hazard of making the pursuit of financial advancement and the acquisition of wealth a goal and, thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be my problem. In the second, the Greek word for ‘content’ means self-sufficient, needing no assistance, adequate… Not so much a state of emotion as a that of being able to live in the midst of whatever the situation entails, without help, if need be. I’m not sure either is helpful in thinking through the attitudes and feelings I have struggled with in regards to my own contentment over the years.

In that last post, I wrote that I am satisfied to stay in our homeplace here, rather than looking for another setting, but I realize I am able to say that because of how our property has changed over time. Almost everything on this half acre, with the exception of the physical structure of the house, has been altered over the last 18 years. Have I manifested contentment as I have made the changes? I do not know, for sure. Certainly, adding the new trees and shrubs and filling the yard with herbaceous plants has created beauty, fed the wildlife and made me smile, but I am still planning and planting, even as the gardens now seem full and almost overflowing. Am I content with the way things are? Should I be? Is a gardener ever truly content? A couple of years back, while talking with my artistic daughter, I asked her at what point she knew that a painting was finished. She answered that it was finished when she could not see anything else she could do that would make it better. Recently, I thought to myself that an artist may have a realization of when their work is done, but I’m not sure that a gardener ever does. There is almost always something else that can be added, subtracted, moved or changed. (This very fact is the reason I love the book and movie title, The Constant Gardener and wish I had thought of it first.) But isn’t that what makes gardening a creative and fulfilling pursuit and passion? Not to mention that it is also following in God’s footsteps.

The Aldo Leopold quote, below the blog title, still holds true for me and I believe the main reason I am content to live here is that here is also where wild things live. What has enabled me to be content here has been as a result of providing for what I have loved and, come to think of it, for what God has loved. Perhaps that is my answer, for now anyway. Perhaps when we throw ourselves into caring for that which we love, contentment comes to us as a by-product, not as a result of our seeking, but of our serving.