Saturday, August 15, 2009

Much Needed Respite

Pollinators, pollinators everywhere in the yard! Bees of all shapes and sizes, butterflies and hummingbirds...Everywhere I look there is buzzing, humming and the fluttering of wings...swamp milkweed, green-headed coneflower, ironweed, joe-pye weed, cardinal flower, garden phlox all playing host to our tiny native wildlife...I feel like a shepherdess when I am out watching...

So began a Facebook entry a few minutes ago after coming in from trimming in the garden. I have spent my time today inside and out, with the outside times be a respite from the upheaval and concern for many of my husband's coworkers we are living with the last few days. Close friends and colleagues are being laid of at the State Library of Pennsylvania, from the least senior to the most senior and I feel like life as we knew it has completely spun out of control. We think his job is secure, as of yesterday, but with each new surprising revelation we wonder all over again. So, as I said, the garden is a place of sanctuary, a place of much needed refuge for me, this time, rather than just for the wildlife.

I've been thinking lately that the longer we live, the longer we love people and pets, places and endeavors, the greater the loss when they are gone. Over the years, loss upon loss changes us and makes us more tender or more hardened, more pliable or more rigid. Being out in the wilds, or in the garden where the wild comes to live along side me, doesn't take away feelings of loss or fear but it does provide a place big enough to hold these emotions and to provide comfort as almost no other place can. The natural world pries my eyes off myself and always points them to something, to Someone greater than my own worries. And though I may liken myself to a shepherdess at times, there are other times, like right now, when I feel more like a lost sheep in need of a Shepherd. And like the sheep my only security in times of danger comes in keeping my eyes on Him as He leads the way forward

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Environmental Stewardship and Native Landscapes

The following is an article I just finished that will appear in the summer issue of the Shalom publication of the Brethren in Christ church. Since it won't be out for a while and not everyone will see that publication I'm also posting it here.

“I’m going out to see my Father’s world”, Maltbie Babcock would say as he walked out his front door on a hike or jaunt around his northern New York home in the late 1800’s. It is said that one of his favorite destinations inspired his hymn, This is My Father’s World and there is a line from an obscure verse we do not often sing that sums up not only Maltbie’s understanding of God’s perspective of our world, but mine as well: For dear to God is the earth Christ trod, no place is but holy ground.

Dear to GodHoly ground…These lyrics have been echoing in my mind since reading them a few days ago. They resonate as old friends, as restated convictions that have guided my relationship with the land, with my land, for more than 30 years. Those convictions were forged and formed when I was a child during annual visits to my grandparents in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky. I had an uncle who took me on rambles up the hollows and down the riverbanks and it was on those outings that the wonders of the natural world seeped deeply into my soul without my consciously realizing it.

As an adult, finally with my own land to cultivate, I naturally gravitated towards planting for the life I had come to appreciate on those long-ago Kentucky walks.

When I moved to my present home 20 years ago the house stood as an island in a sea of grass, as did many of the other houses on our road. Land that once hosted a thriving forest community had been all but stripped of beneficial vegetation and a modern suburban landscape had been planted in its stead…a landscape almost entirely lacking the ability to feed and house the creatures that would have previously lived on this half-acre. What most homeowners did not realize then and do not recognize even now is that in order to sustain the populations of pollinators and songbirds we appreciate, the land must be planted to plants indigenous, or native, to the locale in which we live. For reasons too lengthy to address in this article, we now know that only our native plants, plants that were found on our continent before the Europeans arrived, can sustain the native insect populations that are the foundation of any given ecosystem The exotic plants that fill our garden centers and nurseries, and most often our home landscapes, cannot.

The journey of remaking my yard into native habitat supporting an untold number of insects and a “bird list” of more than a hundred species has been a rich and rewarding endeavor, one appreciated not just by wildlife but by human visitors who are taken with its beauty. We recently hosted my son’s wedding in the back yard and the gardens were a patchwork of color: deep red cardinal flower, pink and white garden phlox, red and purple bee balm, white daisy fleabane, orange butterfly weed, rose-pink swamp milkweed, and bright yellow black and brown-eyed Susans. During the wedding ruby-throated hummingbirds zipped about, grey catbirds murmured in the shrubs behind the pastor, mourning doves cooed in the background and robins, Carolina wrens, northern cardinals and cedar waxwings sang their evening song, to the enjoyment of everyone who paid attention. For many of the guests, this was the first time they had ever been surrounded by songbirds and pollinators and they were delighted to be a part of something even larger than they knew. They had come for a wedding but, in addition, witnessed an abundance of life that can only be had in a native landscape.

In contrast, sometimes I am almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of the damage we have done to our collective land, to God’s land. We have paved over a vast amount of acreage. We have erected shopping malls on valuable marshes that should have never been built upon. We have fragmented our forests for the sake of cell phone towers and summer homes. We have introduced invasive plant and animal species that are now destroying the last wild places we have left. At times I wonder how any of us can make a significant contribution to altering the course of destruction our society seems bent upon carrying out. And then, when I walk out into the backyard, I remember.

The answer lies in something each of us can contribute to the wellbeing of the earth and the creatures God has placed here. Whether our yards are large or small, whether we live in the country or the city, whether we appreciate informal or formal gardens, we can plant to provide nurture for the insects, birds and other wildlife around us. Gardening with native plants gives us the opportunity to make a real difference in the life of the region in which we live. It isn’t necessary to give up all the exotic plants that we enjoy, only to invite into our gardens many of the wonderful plants that are indigenous to our own area. I have learned that when the earth is protected and cared for, it responds with bountiful provision, once again filled with the promise of life for all who depend upon it. Meandering through my own yard reminds 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" and to partner with God the Creator in sustaining what He began.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Determining to Trust

This morning while my children, husband and friends were in their various places of worship I was out walking on the well traveled road I take when I need to talk to God privately and need to hear the assurance of His presence. This is a summer of uncertainty, of loss and joy, and of abundant opportunity to determine to trust God in the moment and for the future. And it is times like this morning, when I am torn between trust and fear that I need to be alone with God in the quiet, winding along streams, woodlands and meadows that have comforted me for the past 20 years.

As I expected, I was renewed and refreshed, surrounded by the sounds and sights of God's provision all around me. This being Sunday, the sunny meadow was populated with the Amish farmer's cows lazing about and his mules enjoying their day off. Barn and tree swallows zipped above me, red-winged blackbirds chased each other along the fence rows, cardinals and kingbirds scolded me for being too close to their hidden nests and a mother mallard with babies in tow made her way upstream. It struck me again that all of these creatures can go about the business of their lives because what they need to live is close at hand. In one way or another, all are provided for. As am I, I reminded myself.

I walked back home humming the lines from my previous post "This is My Father's World", thankful for the power of music and hymnwriters who wrote the convictions of their hearts into melodies that sustain my soul and spirit in times of need. Today's worship was rich indeed, full of confession, supplication and praise. And this morning different words from the same hymn are ringing in my ears, "The Lord is King, let the heavens ring. God reigns, let the earth be glad."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

July Banquet

This is the time of year that the sunny-area gardens begin to come into full bloom and the yard is filled with birdsong and buzzing of bees from before dawn till after dusk. Even I am surprised by the number of successful nestings this year, though I don't know if we really have had more than usual. Confirmed nesting species include: house wrens, cardinals, robins, grey catbirds, chipping sparrows, house finches, mourning doves and common grackles with several nestings each. The number of species in the yard has been far higher however and I am both delighted and puzzled. Apparently mothers have been bringing their young to the yard from other nesting sites, probably in the nearby woodlands, and they are coming because of the abundant food supply found here. While I have a homemade suet mixture hanging from one tree, that isn't the primary source of nourishment. All young birds eat a diet primarily of insects and I am puzzled that the yard is actually supplying so much of what they need.

Though I have long planted with insects in mind, planting plants indigenous to this area, I am still surprised both by the numbers that must be here and by the fact that I don't see many of them in my daily work in the yard. The myriad pollinators feeding at the flowers are obvious, of course, but those aren't usually what the mothers are feeding their babies. Be that as it may, I daily see a steady stream of bird after bird carrying tasty morsels to their nestlings and recently fledged young. At this point the list of babies, aside from those previously mentioned includes: at least two broods of downy woodpeckers , a family of white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, and ruby-throated hummingbirds.

As I report each year at this time, the yard will now host hummingbirds every day until late September as they take wing on their southward migration. They come because they have found food here in previous years and they know that this is a place to stop and eat on their toilsome journey. The males have already begun their travels and the females and young will follow in early August. I have had both for the last couple of weeks. The females and young I see now at the flowers and feeders have recently nested somewhere close by and are coming in for daily nourishment.

The garden will be glorious panorama of changing colors and textures in the weeks to come. I wish I had some way of knowing just how many pollinator and other insect species are fed here each year.

Perhaps you will enjoy pictures of the gardens as they are today.

What I can't capture in pictures is the amazing sight of lightening bugs by the hundreds rising up out of the vegetation each evening. They began appearing weeks ago, long before they appeared in my neighbors yards, and the backyard seems to be filled with dancing stars as dusk settles in. It is such a beautiful and peaceful scene, one to take the breath away.

Lines from the old hymn come to mind:

This is my Father's world and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world, I rest me in the thought of rocks and trees of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise, the morning light the lily white declare their Maker's praise.
This is my Father's world. He shines in all that's fair. In the rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere.

Exactly. May He do the same for you.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What I May Bring

I have recently been encouraged to begin writing again and it isn't so much a friend's personal affirmation that has sparked my resolve, as his words concerning how his faith life is strengthened by what he finds here. I am copying some of our written discussion because his thoughts have reminded me of what I may bring to others who look at and live life differently than I do. We were recently discussing the sometimes controversial (for those in the Church, that is) subject of caring for the earth and I wrote:

"I see absolutely no reason that the topic of caring for the earth we were put on should be controversial. Do we get so bent out of shape when someone suggests that we care for our home and protect it from degradation? Of course not. I know the topic is touchy and that some folks find it a political and social cause, which inflames other people's sentiments. But isn't it true that this is the only place we have to live and the less we care for it the more our own lives are compromised? Aside from all the other creatures that share the world with us..."

And my friend wrote back:

"You have such a very centered understanding of this topic (I was going to say “balanced” but that’s not exactly what I meant) because it is grounded in simply caring for the good gifts God has given us as well seeing and even hearing God in His Creation. Quite frankly, I give thanks to God for you and people like you who help people like me to think about these things in that divinely centered way."

So... if my writing helps anyone else to recognize and know God in the natural world He has given us and if If God can use the insights He has granted me to edify and strengthen others it will be reward enough for my literary labors. Keep your eyes and ears open as you walk through your days. God's presence is all around us, not only in the people we meet, but in the sights and sounds of His creatures and the works of His hands.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I Have Been a Child Today

But for the birds in my yard today I think I might be overwhelmed with sadness as a result of the recent, disturbing news on the international,national and local level. It seems the longer I live the more deeply the world's hurts bore into my daily consciousness and I do not know what to do with their effects, especially since most of the situations are far beyond my control. Fortunately for me, the birds are here and being that we are in "the bleak midwinter", they are hungry...which is really why they come, of course. Out my living room window, where I am writing, I can look up and see downy woodpeckers, goldfinches, pine siskins, Carolina chickadees, and tufted titmice in the tree branches of the front yard. The siskins and goldfinches are feeding from feeders, but also from the tiny seeds of the sweet gum balls that are still hanging on the tree. The woodpeckers, chickadees and titmice are feeding from a homemade peanut butter suet mixture but also from dead branches and a large hollowed out piece of tree trunk we attached to the sweet gum a couple of years ago hoping to attract screech owls . From this window I have watched the Carolina wren, the chickadees, the titmice and the woodpeckers going in and out of the large hole all morning and I wonder what they are finding inside.

Pennsylvania has been invaded by pine siskins and by white-winged crossbills this winter. Both are usually a northerly species that sometimes come this far south when the cone crops fail in their home range. Both have found refuge and nourishment from Pennsylvania's trees and people and we who watch birds are delighted to have them as part of our avian neighborhood this winter. Come spring they will be gone and probably won't be back in numbers like we are now having for decades. Because of today's extremely cold and windy conditions I spent a good part of the morning taking care of my feeders and thinking about where to add new ones and I finally got around to installing our old Christmas tree in the front yard as a temporary winter shelter. It is also a good place to hang pine cones covered with peanut butter and sunflower seeds as high energy treats. I will be watching through the day to see which birds first figure out that the cones are edible and start feeding.

It was in the process of making the peanut butter pine cones that I thought about feeling like a child again today. Making them took a good bit of time and effort...there was the gathering of the pine cones, the making of hangers out of some thin wire I bought this morning, the mixing of the peanut butter, lard, pecan meal and cornmeal, the rolling of the sticky cones in sunflower seed bits and finally braving the wind and taking them out to the newly installed Christmas tree to hang them....just what I needed to get through this frigid windy day in good humor. I thought about how children feel when they are happily working on a project, no matter how humble. Until they reach an age of worrying about other people's opinions they are proud and pleased with their creative prowess, and then delighted in the final result. I felt the same sense of satisfaction with my own efforts. It was a balm for my sadness to be doing something constructive, something that would tangibly benefit the creatures in my tiny bit of the world. Small an effort though it may be, I know that what I can provide sustains beings that come to find nourishment here and in the result warms and enriches me as well. On this cold, blustery and inhospitable day I feel once again the old delight in partnering with God in caring for what He has made. I only wish I could do the same for the inhabitants of rest of the world.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Winter's Invitation

One of my favorite books “Let Your Life Speak” by Parker Palmer contains some good advice as we head into winter. He says, “In the Upper Midwest, newcomers often receive a classic piece of wintertime advice: “The winters here will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Here people spend good money on warm clothing so that they can get outdoors and avoid the “cabin fever” that comes from huddling fearfully by the fire during the hard-frozen months. If you live here long, you learn that a daily walk into the winter world will fortify the spirit by taking you boldly to the very heart of the season you fear.”

Even though many of us would not choose winter as our favorite season, it is hard to deny that winter has a beauty and an invitation all its own. It is a time to soak up the silence of a snowy landscape, to be awed at the architecture of the trees we so often overlook when all is green and to joyfully welcome back the birds that call our land their home for these cold winter months. In the coming days, take the time and make the effort to heed Parker Palmer’s advice to “get out” into winter. Go for walks and watch the familiar juncos and white-throated sparrows as they scurry through the underbrush. Go search for the harder-to-find rough-legged hawks and flocks of horned larks, American pipits and snow buntings in the farm fields or the elusive hermit thrush in the woodlands. May the winter season, even as it sometimes tries the soul, bring us a sense of joy and of gratitude for the birds we will miss and fondly remember when they leave us in May. Get out and go look for them while they are with us and enjoy the seeking as much as the finding.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

End of Life and Living On

A man I have respected for many years passed away yesterday, the result of an unexpected accident on Christmas day. His life touched so many people both locally and around the world and his passing leaves a hole in the faith community and church of which he was a part. We are all grappling with that hole, with his absence, not quite believing it is real yet, not able to believe he is really gone.

Once again I am struck with the uncertainty of our lives...the fact that we can never really know what the next moment may hold. I am left with the familiar and well-worn question of how to live my life to the fullest. Not full in the accumulation of things, nor in recognition nor fame, nor in doing whatever I want to do. In my mind, living life to the fullest means living in communion with God...with knowing and serving Him as I am able, whatever that be. Everyone who thinks on this friend who died will think of him with fondness and with gratitude, whether they were actually personally close to him or not. He was the kind of person who enriched everyone around him by his caring and compassion and by his vital relationship with Jesus. He pointed people to God, just by being around them and everyone who knew him was richer for having come in contact with him. What more can anyone ask for as they leave their mark on this world?

I am reminded of the similarities between death of plants and animals in the natural world and such a person's passing beyond this life. In the woodlands or fields when something dies it leaves sustenance for the life around it in its remains. As its body is broken down, nutrients are made available to strengthen and nourish what takes its place in the ecosystem. My friend's life was like that as well, though in the spiritual realm. His legacy is a reminder of what a life consecrated to God and dedicated to loving people looks like. While we surely recognize those traits in people while they are living, oft times their character hits us with renewed force when they are no longer with us. Sometimes it is when we are keenly aware of their absence that the seeds they have scattered abroad into the lives around them take root and begin to grow into their likeness. May we all live lives, as our friend did, that cause others to see God and His invitation in us. May we grow in our communion with Jesus and encourage that same growth in those with whom we come in contact. And when our own passing comes, may we be remembered as ones whose lives and deaths pointed people to life in our Lord.