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 :).