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.