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.