Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Winter Gardening and Life with God

I've just come in from the back what I like to call the vegetable garden area. Many years ago I created some raised beds in a back corner of the yard and they started out as a butterfly habitat area when there wasn't much other habitat in the yard to speak of. Over the years, as the yard plantings have expanded, the beds have served as an herb garden and a vegetable garden, though last year, I am sorry to say, my dachshunds managed to eat more of the produce than the humans did. Fencing the area will be a priority this spring.

Most years I have taken better care of putting the garden to bed than this year and this morning I was feeling considerable remorse for ignoring the soil that should be protected through the winter. Since the weather wasn't too cold or wet, this became the morning to take care of the long neglected chore of gathering my neighbor's piled up leaves and grass clippings and mulching the garden beds. The wheelbarrow and I made trip after trip gathering and dumping and though I took a break for a while, I knew better than to hope I'd finish it another day if I stopped for very long. Finally after a couple of hours in the wind I was satisfied with my work and called it a morning. Now when I venture out to the garden I'll picture all the soil microorganisms feeding on the plant material I put down and the beds being enriched by their efforts.

Somewhere along the line, while pushing the wheelbarrow filled with yet another load of dried grass and leaves, I thought about how I'd like my life with God to be similar to the garden task I had undertaken. I wasn't caring for the garden on this winter day because it was in crisis or because there was some extraordinary need. It was just a task that should have been done, a rather routine task really, particularly if it had been accomplished at the proper time instead of waiting until after Christmas. I was just doing what was necessary to ensure the health and fertility of the soil so that next growing season the garden will be as productive as possible. I think of cultivating my spiritual life in the same way. It is in my unremarkable daily interactions with God that we build the relationship that sustains me and from which I draw when I find myself in need. Lately my prayer has been that God will increase the presence of His Spirit within me, causing me see the world and the people in it through His eyes. I imagine the process is going to take even longer than the time needed to build and enrich the soil in my garden but just as in soil building, I do not see myself as the one who does the work. In soil building I bring in the organic material but it is the soil microorganism who do the work of enrichment. In the same way, as I bring myself to God, it is He who does the work of transformation in my heart and spirit. That work isn't something that I could ever hope to accomplish myself.

As so often happens, there are analogies between the natural world and life with God almost everywhere I look. The trick is to stop and pay attention and then to listen to what they have to say.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Garden for All Seasons

So often people seem to feel the need to cut down their gardens when the growing season ends and they must believe that dried seed heads, foliage and stalks serve no purpose. I would disagree and am offering these recently taken pictures of my garden as part of my reasoning. To be sure, winter gardens can seem untidy and unkempt at times. This I will concede and have to admit that by March I am more than ready to cut mine down as well. But now, at this time of year, when the frost and snow blanket the architecture of the garden, the sight can be almost as stunning in a black-and-white sort of way, as the full color of high summer. And when the chickadees, downy woodpeckers, goldfinches and pine siskins come in to eat on the standing plants and the white-crowned sparrows and juncos find numerous seeds on the ground below, the satisfaction in providing such a smorgasbord is rich indeed.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

All Good Gifts

Thinking back to Christmas morning....In this case the presents were not something I asked for or would have even thought to ask for. It had been a full and bustling Christmas Eve and Christmas day overflowing with happy times with family and joyous conversations. We live in a small ranch house and the common area consists of a smallish kitchen/dining room combination and a living room. When that space is filled with a large Christmas tree, 7 people and 2 neurotic dogs stepping outside for some calm and fresh air can be a refreshing respite whether anything noteworthy is happening in the yard or not. This morning as the dark gave way to early light I was expecting to see the various sparrow species, cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches and woodpeckers that are here all the time and had good reason to hope for the flocks of pine siskens that have been visiting lately. But in addition to the familiar birds, I was greeted with the calls of a handful of cedar waxwings, sitting high up in the honey locust. Whether they stopped to eat at the crabapple tree before leaving again I do not know.

The most surprising outside gift of the day, however, was the presence of what I have called "The Christmas Pheasant". We have had pheasants in the yard now and then over the years, but never one so bright and beautiful and never on Christmas day. After all the kids had left for their next destinations, and my husband the same, I was in the process of taking the leftover wrappings out to the trash when a large male pheasant scooted away from me, just 15 ft or so from the back door. He puttered about the yard for the next hour or so and then sailed over the fence and was gone, leaving nothing but a delighted memory of his visit...such a glorious and unexpected present on this day of days. Immediately words from the old hymn (and remembered in the Godspell rendition) sprang to mind.

"All good gifts around us, are sent from heaven above. So, thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all His love." A fitting reminder for heading into the new year and all it brings.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Starting Over

For those who are still checking this almost abandoned blog, I thank you. I figured everyone had given up on me ever having a noteworthy thought or post again and when I just looked at the blog statistics I saw that I had been wrong. So thank you.

I'll be writing again soon but not today. Today I am enjoying the fragrance of fresh Russian teacake cookies, peanut butter popcorn and berry candles. And listening to quiet reflective Christmas music and watching the many birds out in the yard feasting on the bounty there. There must be 50 pine siskens on thistle feeders and seed producing plants and a family of 6 or so bluebirds eating from the crabapples and winterberry bushes. There are white-crowned sparrows and juncos all over the ground, chickadees and titmice at the sunflower feeders, woodpeckers at the suet, and blue-jays coming in for peanuts in the platform feeder. The yard is like something out of Narnia at the moment... ice hanging from every branch and feeder. If the sun were out I'm sure all would glisten like jewels.

Today is a day to be thankful for Christmas coming, for remembering God's work in our world and for humbly accepting His grace and nearness. Writing can wait a bit longer.
A Merry Christmas to all who stumble upon these words and God's peace to you all.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Listen With Your Heart

For many of us, and as I have written before, autumn is a season that sparks restlessness and the urge to explore. It brings the kinds of days that are well described in a line from a favorite childhood book, Champion Dog, Prince Tom, ( paraphrased since I can't remember the exact words)...days that make you feel as though you could "walk across the top of the world without getting tired". And these days bring to mind a poem that I have been reciting to myself for almost than 30 years now, a poem I came across in a British magazine while living in Botswana in the late 1970's. I hope you enjoy it and even more, take it to heart.

Listen With Your Heart (Edna Jaques)
Go out, go out I beg of you,
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of Earth
With all the wonder of a child.
Walk hand in hand with nature's God
Where scarlet lilies brightly flame.
Make footprints in the virgin sod
By some clear lake without a name.

Listen not only with your ears,
But make your heart a listening post.
Travel above the timber line,
Make fires along some lonely coast.
Breathe the high air of snow-crowned peaks,
Taste fog and kelp and salty tides.
Go pitch your tent among the pines
Where golden sun and peace abide.

Follow the trail of moose and deer,
The wild goose on her lonely flight.
Savor the fragrance of the wild,
The sweetness of a northern night.
Drink deep of distance, rest your eyes
Where centuries of peace have lain.
And let your thoughts go winging out,
Beyond the realm of man's domain.

Lay hold upon the out-of-doors
With heart and soul and seeking brain.
You'll find the answers to all life
Held in the sun and wind and rain.
Where'er you walk, by land or sea,
The page is clear for all who seek.
If you will listen with your heart
And let the voice of nature speak.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Stuff of Earth

Many readers know Rich Mullins' song "If I Stand" and the chorus is usually pointed to as having particular significance. The chorus proclaims standing firm in faith and God's grace when we fail, good messages of course. It is the verses that have special significance for me, however, and the words are printed below.

There's more that rises in the morning than the sun
And more that shines in the night than just the moon
It's more than just this fire here that keeps me warm
In a shelter that is larger than this room

And there's a loyalty that's deeper than mere sentiments
And a music higher than the songs that I can sing
The stuff of Earth competes for the allegiance
I owe only to the giver of all good things

There's more that dances on the prairies than the wind
More that pulses in the ocean than the tide
There's a love that is fiercer than the love between friends
More gentle than a mother's when her baby's at her side

And there's a loyalty that's deeper than mere sentiments
And a music higher than the songs that I can sing
The stuff of Earth competes for the allegiance
I owe only to the giver of all good things

All who follow God wrestle at times with that which tends to draw them away from Him, with that which compromises "following hard after God". Sometimes it is clearly sin or willful pursuit of something we should avoid.
A friend of mine has just written a thoughtful blog post about "Issues of Personal Holiness" that speaks directly to the matter. (A link to his blog, Heart for God, appears on my Blog links.) But other times what pulls us away is what Rich Mullins has called "the stuff of Earth"...that which is good and beautiful, noble and commendable... that which in and of itself is not a stumbling block to faith nor to seeking God. What I appreciate about these lyrics is the recognition that sometimes what moves me the most deeply...literally the stuff of the physical earth and of relationships can "compete for the allegiance" that is due God alone. And when allegiance to the Giver is challenged by allegiance to the gift I need to be reminded that the two are not the same... that as much as I love and appreciate the gifts, the Giver stands separate and above them all.

Because I am finite, many times what I can see and touch, what I can experience with my senses looms largest in my mind and heart. I am captivated by images of dancing prairie grasses and ocean currents, sun and moon rises. I am captivated by the natural wonders I so often write about and appreciate every day. And because I am finite and because I am moved by music that sinks Truth into my very heart, I appreciate this poetic reminder to exalt the "Giver of all good things" above all else. This reminder is a needed call to personal holiness as I live out my days in wonder of the world around me.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Parable of the Late Summer's Song

Do you ever stand outside in your back yard at night in the late summer and listen to the myriad crickets and katydids calling? Do you ever listen closely to the individual calls and try to count the species? A few minutes ago I was out in the yard doing just that and after listening a while tried to imagine just how many noisy creatures might have been calling within the borders of our yard. It isn't always easy, discerning the various pitches and cadences of these nocturnal mating invitations but with practice I have become better at recognizing some of them. Tonight I counted 12 species, though there could easily be more since many of them sound similar. I have a CD entitled Songs of Crickets and Katydids of the Mid-Atlantic States that I listen to each year before the seasonal chorus begins in hopes of becoming better acquainted with the various voices. As difficult as it is for me to pick out and remember each call, I have a friend who knows them intimately and recognizes them all without effort. I also have a couple of friends who are knowledgeable about the nocturnal flight calls of migrating thrushes. They position themselves in a quiet spot well before sunrise and sit and just listen to the various thrushes calling far up in the darkness as they fly overhead. Sometimes the listeners tally what they have heard and will report that they counted 400 wood thrushes, 100 veeries, and 50 Swainson thrushes in the pre-dawn migration flight on a given day. While I am pretty good at recognizing many bird songs in the daylight, I have not yet even attempted to learn the nocturnal flight calls. And yet, I have no doubt that others can do it.

As I was outside listening a little while ago, my mind turned to thinking about God's ability to listen to the prayers of so many of us all at the same time, knowing not only who we are, but our very hearts as well. Whenever I have previously wondered about this I must have been sitting indoors rather than outside listening. When outdoors, I need only pay attention to realize that each voice is different even within the same species. It seems to me that the reason God recognizes of each our prayers is because He listens attentively and expectantly... just like I do when I'm out birding or mentally tallying birds while I am busy doing something else. It is their voice that reveals their identity and their proximity.

This evening I was part of a small group that meets to pray and encourage one another and as with any group, the members came together each with their own concerns, needs, fears and joys. And as we prayed God listened and attended to our cries, spoken and unspoken. He listens to our prayer because He loves us and He attends to our prayer because He knows us even better than we know ourselves. In future years when this late summer season rolls around, or when the spring avian migration begins and I once again have to tune my ears to recognize bird calls, I will be reminded to thank God yet again for His ability and His willingness to stoop to listen to the cries my heart, knowing that at the same time He is doing so for all who call on Him.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The World is So Full of a Number of Things...

This year's garden as it is today.

The Riches of Non-Ownership

This would be a great time of year to be a vagabond, wandering from place to place carrying just what is needed, stopping and moving on as one pleases. It is a time of year to stroll rather than rush, to be still and drink in the sights, the songs and fragrance of the season, to glory in the earth's bounty and to embrace its God. It is a time for thanksgiving and for wonder...wonder at the sudden departure of barn swallows who somehow know on just which day to leave their summer home and head south towards Central America...wonder at the hummingbird migration and the tiny brains that remember the exact places they found sustenance on their southern journey the preceding year...wonder at individual leaves that are green one day are changed into their autumn color the next. This season always reminds me of Robert Louis Stevenson's line, "The world is so full of a number of things. I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings."

This is also a great a time of year to be not tied too closely to possessions that weigh us down nor longings for what we do not have. Recently, whether a product of getting older or of God being at work, I have felt the allure of ownership lessen and the tug of "things" become more burdensome. I have managed to give away a few substantial possessions and have felt the old familiar invitation to a more simplified life. Somehow, our culture has come to confuse ownership with fulfillment and possessions as the bringers of satisfaction. How tightly we have come to hold onto what is "ours", all the while longing for a freedom that seems elusive. We have turned to reality shows to bring us the sense of adventure and risk we have personally forgotten. We have forfeited the first hand experience in favor of attempting to live it vicariously through someone else. And we have lost out on so much real life in the process, though the good news is that it is never too late to start again. As Gandalf said (more or less), it is dangerous going out one's front door. You never know where the Path will take you.

The Path has taken me in a new and gratifying direction of late. I have started working at a native plant nursery some distance from where I live and have realized that I have been confused for some time. I have thought about starting and owning a native plant nursery for more than 10 years. And I have wanted to own a piece of land with an old house and room for animals set in the midst of trees and meadows where I could watch the birds and listen to the insects. For years I have equated owning with experiencing and I am finding out I was wrong. Now I work at just such a nursery. I care for plants surrounded by a cacophony of honking geese, screeching peacocks and babbling turkeys and I watch the branches wave on huge old willows and horse-chestnuts whenever I look up. The nursery is ringed with wild meadows filled with the singing of summer insects and soon the meadows will play host to migrating southbound warblers, sparrows and hawks . I have found a kindred spirit in the nursery owner and have become friends with my co-workers, the Amish girls and women who have been at the nursery far longer than I. As I get to know them all, I am gaining insight into their world and their values. We talk of foals and cutting gardens, of community and family, of priorities and life choices, of tragedies and triumphs. I am at home there. At home in a place that is not "mine"and never will be.

And when I come back home to my own place...my house and yard and family, I am surrounded by those who like and love me and our half-acre is filled with flowers, with grasses and trees, with the singing of insects and birds and with hummingbirds zipping about. A couple of nights ago a screech owl called from in the back yard and I almost stepped on a toad who was waiting for insects on the stone path. What a rich and wonderful life! Not because of what I possess but by embracing what no one can own. This life of gratitude, of curiosity about the natural world, of communion with God in the wideness of what He has made is open and available to all who seek, to all who thirst for more than what they can lay claim to, to all who know their need. The world and the Creator are waiting with open arms to gather in all who embark on the journey and those who dare to will be enriched beyond measure.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Fullness of Time

It is so glorious a day that I have spent most of my Sunday outdoors and, as it is so often, time is on my mind...its passing and its effect on each of us as we live out our lives. This morning I took a walk before going to church and noted once again of the change of season as we head into late summer. It is the time of year when a reflective naturalist notices a familiar annual milestone...a different feel to the air and light...different scents, sights and sounds that whisper that the summer, though still going strong, will not last forever. The goldenrod has not yet come into bloom but its fragrance drifts through the meadows and soon its color will join that of ironweed, Queen Anne's lace and Joe-Pye weed, creating a late-summer palette of bright yellows, pinks and purples. Today the geese were flying, not yet in migration but in family groupings of parents and fledglings now old enough to take to the air. Though we have not heard much from them for the last few months, their honking calls will be a common commotion now that the young are airborne. The grackles have already started their flocking behavior, as have the barn and tree swallows and today I noticed the same of robins as I walked. And happily the cricket and katydid chorus has begun once again

While thinking about these predictors of waning summer I began to draw some parallels between the natural world's rhythms and those of my own life. This time of year is not as exhilarating as spring, not filled with the associated newness of life and promise of what is yet to come. And yet, it is a richer, fuller time. A time when when the fields are filled with insects and ripening seeds that will sustain the young of many species who are maturing past infancy. For many wild creatures it is a time of waiting and preparation for what will come next, be it migration or hibernation, or just coping with the leanness of winter. For the most part, the birds are past their nesting seasons and are finishing up their child rearing duties, frogs and salamanders have long since left their young to fend for themselves and many of the first year mammals will be on their own come fall. It is a time of transition for the natural world and this year I am finding the same to be true for myself as well.

I have loved being a mother and raising and sharing in the homeschooling of my children. I have found meaning and joy in watching them grow into the adults they have become and in knowing that God holds them closely. Now, however, I am entering into a season uncharted in my experience and I wonder about where it will lead. I am now past childbearing but not past nurturing and caretaking. I am past the sense of immortality of youth but because I understand that my time on earth is finite I want to live my life intentionally. As with the late summer season I recognize a richness to this time and the potential to sustain the life of others in a way that my earlier years did not allow for.

There is a verse in Philippians that has echoed in my mind for as long as I have known God, "...for it is God who works within you both to will and to work for His good pleasure." My prayer has become that He will lead me into the future in keeping with His good pleasure and that He will direct me towards what I am to be and to pursue in the years that lie ahead. Right now, at this time of transition, praying is all I know to do. I have every expectation that, just as the fields are being readied to feed those who will depend upon them, I am being prepared for whatever God's good pleasure will lead me to .

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

There and Back Again

Well, after such a long time away from writing I have decided to give it another try. Writing these blogs as so many of us do strikes me as strange sometimes. Why exactly do we do it? Do we hope to connect with people we don't know? Or with people we do? In the past I have hoped that something I have written may have encouraged or challenged another but perhaps the truth is that I just like the writing process itself. In any case, I'm going to give it another try whether anyone ever reads it or not.

Last Friday I had a wonderful day traveling with my son to my old alma mater, West Virginia University. He was there to work with a research team on something I only have the vaguest understanding of and I was there to share the day with him and to walk the trails of the college arboretum as I used to do as a student. This arboretum was the beginning of my relationship with wild plants and animals, though I was at the school to study horticulture. I went to classes about greenhouse growing, crop science, entomology and soils but my best and longest lasting education came from the well worn paths winding through the arboretum and I traveled them in all seasons at all times of the day and evening. The slopes in spring were covered with trillium, Virginia bluebells, dutchman's breeches and all the other spring ephemerals we associate with the beauty of the woodlands. And the fall colors were almost indescribably beautiful and I have to admit that sometimes their invitation was stronger than my inclination to attend class. Oh, but how I learned on those trails and had implanted a lifelong love of the woods.

While meandering the trails on Friday, wildflower field guide in hand, I pondered the unlikely scenario in which I was participating that day. As I wandered and studied the flowers some thirty years ago I could never have imagined that someday I would return with my grown son, a son with whom I share a special bond and joy. I could not have imagined my life as it is today or what all the ensuing years would bring me, happy and sad, easy and hard. I did not then know how deeply I would someday love my children or how my relationship with God would be tried and tested and found true. I did not know of the mistakes I had yet to make or the blessings that would be bestowed upon me. If I had been granted a glimpse into the future, would I have believed what lay ahead?

I don't know, as none of us do, how much time I have left to live upon this earth. I like to think I have learned some lessons over time, but sometimes I wonder. Am I any better at trusting God for what is yet to come? Do I any more easily hand over worries and fears than I did when I first walked those trails? Am I quicker to thank Him for the wonders or turn to Him in the uncertainties? I hope so. Last Friday, I was filled with thanksgiving for what my life has been and for the twists and turns that had brought me back to stand in a place that I had remembered and loved for so long. And I was filled with amazement that unbeknownst to me, as I went about simply living my day to day life year after year, I was actually being led back to something that had been so important to me but that I was sure I had lost.

I came away from West Virginia that day appreciating the "now" of life and appreciating what seems like mystery to us, but is sure knowledge to God. May I remember the lessons I learned in the mountains now that I am back home again, for as much as I love and sometimes long for what I left, the present calls to me now and carries its own promise of what is and is yet to come.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Secret Garden and the Desires of My Heart

It has been some time since I have posted anything of significance and the topic of this post has to do with why that has been so. For the last couple of months I have been doing a lot of thinking and praying about my role in life and in the Kingdom. I have been wondering and praying yet again about how to live in a way that best honors God within the framework of who I am and the gifts I have been given. I was back to thinking that perhaps my gifts in listening and encouraging should be given more priority in the paths I choose in serving people. I have mused about and considered ministries of compassion and spiritual direction and have explored what is needed for each and for a while I thought I was on to what might be a good idea. A week or so ago I chatted with the Pastor of Congregational Care at my church about his role and what it involves, thinking that I might gain a better sense of my direction from what he shared. And as it turned out, I did. It just wasn't the direction and confirmation I was expecting.

During the course of that discussion the topic turned to gardens and I mentioned that I was going to be taking care of the small enclosed open-air garden that was built into the addition of the church. And as soon as I said the words, I recognized the enthusiastic anticipation of getting to work on a neglected garden and turning it into something wonderful. I was hoping to create something beautiful for Easter morning in spite of the nighttime temperatures being in the mid-20s. As the week before Easter passed I had many other things to attend to, including presenting a program about gardening with native plants for the Lancaster County Bird Club and I was more busy than I had been in a while. And yet, even in the busyness my mind returned over and over to the garden at church and wondering about what I could put in that would bring joy to those who happened to pass by and notice. I went to a nearby garden center and saw that they had their bulb flowers and pansies outside where they had hardened off to the temperatures and I knew what I was going to do. I went home and got the pots I had planned on using out of the shed, scrubbed them in the bathtub, took them back to the garden center and after a good deal of searching and figuring, bought the needed plants. That was on Thursday and I knew that I wouldn't be able to do the planting until the evening before Easter because of everything else I needed to do on Friday and Saturday. Finally late on Saturday afternoon I was home again and began poting up my flowers.

It was as I was beginning to lay out the aforementioned pots, soil, water and plants that I realized just how much I had been looking forward to starting in on this very job of planting and creating what my mind's eye had envisioned. I worked hurriedly, knowing that I would have only a few hours of daylight left and that I would probably need them all. It was after six o'clock when I finally loaded up the car with the planted pots and headed over to church, hoping against hope that there wouldn't be many people around. I longed for an undisturbed time of quiet and peace, as I had more on my mind than just the flowers and the garden and I was happily rewarded with that which I sought. I unlocked the door into the garden, and spent the next hour raking leaves, mulching beds and setting out pots of bright yellow tulips and purple and yellow pansies and hyacinths. And as dusk fell I sat in the midst of "my" finished garden,breathing in its fragrance and thanking God for His mercies and His grace. As I left to head home I remembered the movie "The Secret Garden" and wonderingly realized that, as surprising as it still seemed, I had been given my own secret garden...a neglected and sleeping spot but one filled with promise and potential...and just like in the movie, it involved a locked door and a special key. I have wished for a secret garden ever since seeing the movie for the first time but supposed that, since I was an adult, it wasn't likely to ever really happen.

And so, no matter how many people might have been blessed with the garden's beauty on Easter morning, I was more so. I have carried a sadness these last few days that is deep and about which I'll say no more except to say that I am once again acutely aware of how desperately I need a Saviour. As I sat there in the garden, I thankfully realized that God had already known my need and given me an unexpected task that would bring more solace than anything I could have conceived on my own. He pointed me towards that needy garden and to making it into something beautiful...just like He does with our lives when we let him. The words of the Scripture passage came to mind as I was driving home..."Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart." Any who read this blog already know how much tending the earth means to me. To once again have God's blessing and affirmation of that desire means even more.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

February Doldrums

So, this frozen month of February is almost over, and though I don't want to sound like I take my life or time I am allowed to live it for granted, I have to say that I am not going to miss February when it is gone. As for many people, this past month is always one of the harder months of the year for me, and isn't one that insprires too many thoughts to write in one's blog.

But it surely hasn't been a lifeless month by any means. One only need know where to look to see signs of winter's ending and spring's promise. This month our yard has been visited numerous times by bluebirds and robins, partaking of the winterberry berries and crabapple fruits. We have had both black-capped and Carolina chickadees continually, more than in any other year I can remember, and visits by white-breasted nuthatches, titmice and downy woodpeckers almost daily. Not bad for a yard that had no trees when we moved here 18 years ago.

Today again the yard was filled with robins busy in the crabapple trees and on the ground as well and one of the mockingbirds was back. The most unusual part of the day was when I heard a ruckus outside that I didn't recognize and found two red-bellied woodpeckers either harassing each other or thinking about pairing up and I couldn't tell which it was. Kind of like humans sometimes. Perhaps they'll be back since they can find suet, peanuts and sunflower seeds readily available here.

Well, I thought that if I sat here and wrote a bit and posted something... anything... it would bring back to mind why I like writing and sharing these bits of adventure. If you stop back in in a few days, I will hope to have something more reflective or meaningful to say. Not that life is not full of meaning and reflection during the winter months. It is just that I have more trouble settling my mind to see it then. It is time to sharpen my vision.

Friday, January 25, 2008


As I am writing on this cold, frozen morning, there is a robin calling just outside my window as it forages through the crabapple trees and I am hoping that the bluebirds will stop in again today as they make their rounds searching for food. A little farther off in the yard a Carolina wren is singing, seemingly unintimidated by the temperatures as it goes about poking its bill into old tree trunks and branches piled up here and there. There is a bit of frenzy in the robin's call and movements, as if it knows that its survival is in question and that the diminishing number of berries our yard offers are its hedge against succumbing to the cold. And there is no question that though the yard offered an abundance of food a month ago, its provisions are being consumed at a rapid rate these days. Some years the small crabapple out the kitchen window carries its heavy fruit crop into the early spring but this year it will soon be picked clean. The garden beds, however, are still full of aster and goldenrod stalks, and coneflower and black-eye Susan seedheads provide an ongoing buffet for juncos, various sparrows, and cardinals. The river birch and sweetgum trees have been providing seeds for chickadees of late and the decaying trunks of old Christmas trees hide grubs and insects for titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers. Suffice to say that the yard is almost never empty or still, save for the occasional incursion of a hungry Cooper's hawk, bringing all visible avian activity to an immediate and silent halt.

I have just finished reading a piece by a friend of mine concerning decisions he and his wife have made in obedience to God about their lifestyle. The essay was about their choice to follow God's direction to live more simply than in days past and about the implications of that choice for their life of ministry and service. There is challenge in his words and also affirmation for choices I have made over the years. Along these lines, something I have pondered for as long as I have lived in this house has had to do with the resources that I have put into making our home landscape into the sanctuary it is for the wild creatures with whom we share this place. As anyone who loves plants and gardening knows, gardeners can be just as tempted to spend on "just one more" as can any connoisseur of technological or entertainment gadgetry. Our indulgences just happen to run towards that which is living matter. I don't delude myself into thinking that buying a living entity makes that purchase somehow exempt from examination... well, I try not to anyway. Gardeners can fall into the trap of exalting beauty or their own sense of aesthetics, the same as anyone else, and can be just as prone to overspending to achieve their botanical goals.

But that is not the type of gardening I am thinking of as I sit and reflect here this morning and my hope is that my efforts are for a higher good than simply self-gratification. Gardening simply for visual beauty can be almost as devoid of sustenance for wild things as can a neighborhood with nothing planted. The difference is in what we plant and why. This morning as I looked out and heard the robin I was reminded of Jesus words "Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them." And though we may like to quote that verse as evidence of God's intent to provide, we humans have removed almost all of what God had originally put in place to do the feeding of His creatures. We have, by and large, taken over the land and emptied it of the provisions that God originally intended to sustain the life that used to be here. We have fallen prey to a cultural model of living that elevates manicured lawn and barren landscapes over the life of pollinators, butterflies and the birds whom God placed here before we ever arrived on the scene.

And so I come back to my simplicity question as it pertains to gardening. I have come to a sense of peace in the answers because the choices and efforts I make, and yes, the money I spend are done so with life in mind. I live in the joyful awareness that simply by planting what will bring food and shelter for the birds of winter or the pollinators of summer I am cooperating with God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things. When I am awakened in the spring by the melodies of migrant songbirds in our trees, or when I turn into our driveway in August and am overwhelmed by the calls of singing insects, or now in the dead of winter when bluebirds and robins are finding bits of nourishment to see them through the winter I am exceedingly thankful for the invitation God has given to become partners with Him in caring for the world. The same invitation is open and extended to each of us. It is my fervent hope that others will accept and embark upon the adventure of partnering with Him in caring for the Creation. And it is my hope that we might always be mindful that we have been set amidst Creation not as kings but as caretakers, not solely for our own pleasure but for the good of all.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


In the bleak midwinter
Frosty winds made moan
Earth stood hard as iron

Water like a stone.

The seasonal, penetrating cold has returned and looking out on the yard recently I was surprised to see two bluebirds dropping into the winterberry bushes and eating the berries. I see them on my walks and know that they stay the winter, living on the various berries they find and what insects they can glean from the fields but I have not seem them visit my yard in January up till now. Just behind them was a red-bellied woodpecker eating from the suet cake and peanut feeder and I was struck by the contrasts in the two bird species... one larger and one smaller, one rather drab and one vibrant blue, one eating from a man-made food source and one from what the bushes naturally provide. Both were welcomed with what sustenance my yard could offer and both stayed a while and then moved on, leaving only memories behind.

The stanza above is from of one of my favorite Christmas carols, though the images portrayed hit closer to home during these couple of months after Christmas. The earth is hard and frozen right now and it takes all the imagination I can muster to believe that anything will ever spring from it again. And yet even as I look out on the barren landscape I am working on a program about gardening with native plants that includes numerous photographs of gardens ablaze with color. Many of the slides are of my own yard and I am again surprised at what the earth holds beneath its now-unyielding surface. Today snow is in the forecast and to those not botanically minded its coming might seem to forestall the promise of spring's reblooming. To gardeners, however, snow is welcomed as an insulating blanket, protecting the life that lies in waiting until the time is right to emerge once again.

I sometimes think about seasons of grief and anguish in the same way. The times that seem so hopeless and forlorn can hide away in their depths the seeds of new vision and renewed purpose. Though those seeds seem deeply buried, when the time becomes right and conditions become favorable they can stretch out and grow into something unexpectedly glorious if we give them a chance. I was reminded of this contrast during a recent discussion about the relationship between grief and bitterness... an inverse relationship, I should add. I have become convinced that the more genuinely and the more deeply we allow ourselves to grieve our losses and our pain, the more likely we are to come through them with hearts still soft and spirits free from bitterness. It is into such hearts that peace returns and wholeness is restored. If we allow Him, God will come to us in our grief as we admit that we have no control over events or hurts that so affect our lives. Bitterness, on the other hand, pushes God away. It is our vain attempt to deny how seriously we have been wounded and in its determination to protect us from being in such a fearful position ever again, it poisons and imprisons us.

The choice of how we respond to pain is ours alone to make. And in the choosing, unbeknownst to us, we turn towards life in its fullness or a slow erosion of the spirit. Grieving causes us to be confronted with just how vulnerable we really are in this world and yet, in a mysterious juxtaposition, it can bring the freedom to become who we have been created to be. Grieving, and its companion Forgiveness, are the only remedy to a life of bitterness and hardness of heart. Together they create the fertile soil that nourishes our soul and the beauty that lies within us, waiting to be reborn. May God, in His mercy, give us the courage to approach our pain with honesty and humility and thereby to realize new life.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Nymphs, Dryads and Taking Down the Christmas Tree

My mind is full of whimsy today and touched with a little sadness. Today is the 12th day of Christmas and, as such, the day I deemed appropriate to take down our Christmas tree. It was a dear, lovely, somewhat misshapen Frazier fir and truth be told, I didn't want to take it down at all. I liked our tree. Most years I am more than ready to restore the living room to its pre-holiday state by this time, but this year I would have been happy to have incorporated our tree into the ongoing living room decor. I would like to have a tree growing in our living room.

My favorite pastimes as a child involved trees in some form or another. I played house under low hanging branches, stringing hammocks to cradle my sleeping baby dolls. Stumps became dining tables, rocks became chairs and pine needles, dried leaves and bark became ingredients for soup and tasty desserts. Good books were best read in the sturdy branches of our crabapple tree with its trunk serving as a backrest. On rainy days my second favorite place to read was sitting under our oak, book in one hand and umbrella in the other. (My dad, who seemed to care what the neighbors thought of us, discouraged such behavior, however.) Favorite stories from my childhood often involved trees in one form or another. Christopher Robin, Piglet and Owl were lucky enough to live in trees, as were the Swiss Family Robinson members and Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain. Though I thoroughly enjoyed sharing life with those characters while I was reading, I was always disappointed when it came time to put the book down and face the fact that, in my neighborhood at least, there were no trees left with hollow trunks large enough to serve as my home. I felt cheated and as though the life I had been meant to live had somehow escaped me.

I can still remember the first time I watched the movie Fantasia and saw on the screen the very life I felt like I had missed. I don't remember very clearly now but the scenes that leaped out at me were of Greek mythology and depicted the wonderful, beautiful nymphs and dryads of the trees and forests...twirling, dancing, and singing they made their way through the woodlands and meadows, tree spirits whose only responsibility in life was to be the trees' protectors and care takers. Ahhh.. what a noble and joyous calling. Such beings have turned up in other literature too, of course. In Narnia, at least during the good times, the forests danced with the movement of the dryads and in Middle Earth merry Goldberry was a similar caretaker, though her reign seemed to encompass all living flora and not just the woodlands. (I have not come to grips with the ponderous and solemn Ents, however, though perhaps they became that way because their Entwives had forsaken them.)

And now I am grown and still, perhaps foolishly, miss the world the way it never was, or perhaps, was for only a short time in the very beginning. I know very are few who share this kinship with the trees, though there are some. One friend I recently talked with mentioned that his family had just had part of a birch tree break through their living room window during a recent ice storm and at the end of the telling said, "I'd still rather live under the trees." His words reminded me of my imaginings as a child and I found myself agreeing.

All of which brings me back to the taking down of our Christmas tree and placing it outside for the birds to shelter in during the rest of the winter. Amidst the whimsy of the thinking about wood spirits and talking animals, I find myself wondering about how I am to live out this kinship with the created earth in my day to day life. I have to believe that this bent, be it a gift or a hindrance, is for a purpose... for more than just to serve myself and my wishes for how I'd like life to be. For the time being and in the absence of other direction, I delight in planting and nurturing my gardens and the young saplings growing on our property. And I delight in the same in the gardens of others I care for. Who knows? Perhaps it is possible that I am actually a nymph after all :).