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.