Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Unremarkable December Morning

A few days ago, I came across the lovely book, Tiny, Perfect Things, a children's picture book about a walk a young girl took with her grandfather and his repeated question, "What perfect thing do you see?"  And so, on this seemingly unremarkable, cold December morning, as I walked to feed a friend's cat, I asked myself the same question. In no particular order, here are some of my discoveries.

A burst of ash seeds whirling and helicoptering softly to earth, as if they had all decided to launch themselves from their tree at the same time.

Morning light on grassy hummocks, frost illuminating every blade.

A bluebird pair sitting on and then flying from a mounted nest box, the male, as Thoreau wrote, "carrying the sky on his back."

Fuzzy, white hoarfrost perfectly and daintily outlining the edges of fallen oak leaves.

Mistletoe growing in one of the bare deciduous trees, a ball of green against all the browns and greys overhead.

Sunlight on tiny ice crystals, glistening like fool's gold in the roadbed.

Soft rustlings everywhere, movement of white-throats, squirrels and deer through the dry leaves.

Perky, intrepid little Carolina wrens foraging and hopping about from log to log, wholly unaware of the joy their simple existence brings me.

Red on green of the hollies, nature's Christmas colors.

A colony of inch-high, dried fruiting bodies on the patch of moss at the base of beech tree, bright copper against the green.

Thick, needled foliage of red cedar and pines, abundance of color, and invitation to winter food and shelter for the non-humans among us.

Blanket of fallen leaves beneath the trees, the earth's winter comforter.

On this, seemingly unremarkable winter's day, what perfect things are you seeing?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Taking Off My Shoes

I came across this luminous passage this morning.

"Earth's crammed with heaven
 And every common bush is afire with God;
 But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
 The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries."
      Elizabeth Barrett Browning

There is nothing wrong with plucking blackberries, of course. And do not even the most devout and attentive need to eat, and to get to where they are going, private ruminations and feet intact? And yet, this powerful invitation stops me in my metaphorical tracks, gives me pause and bids me ponder what, and Who, I am missing.

The red-shouldered hawks are calling, a pair of them, their strident, high-pitched piercing "kee-a, kee-a" ringing through the woodlands, brown plumage almost invisible against the leafless oaks. Standing immobilized, listening...watching...waiting...I am drawn into bordering-on-reverent fascination, wondering at the pull of these winged predators on my soul.

I pass beneath yellow poplars and chestnut oaks, giants birthed in another time, silent watchmen bearing witness to the unfolding of recent history. I pause, involuntarily responding yet again to the deepening sense of awe in their presence, the welling up of gratitude for being allowed to walk among them, the not unpleasant awareness of the fleeting years of my life, as compared to theirs and my small stature beneath their vastness. 

"Earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush is afire with God." Is this very Presence not what draws me when I step outside my door or look out my window? Is not this Invitation, embodied in hawks and trees, who calls and bids me come? May I, indeed, learn more fully to see and in response, gladly and with abandon, take off my shoes. May we all.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Making of an Amateur Naturalist

Recently, a new friend asked me the meaning of the word "naturalist" and I began mentally reminiscing about the winding path that has brought me to this place of feeling confident about taking on that mantle for myself. The origins of the word "amateur" are from the Latin root amator, to love, and "naturalist" denotes one who "studies the natural world, or plants and animals as they live in nature." So, yes, somewhere along the line, I fell deeply in love with the natural world and it began to feel like my true home, its floral and faunal inhabitants an intimate part of my life and family.

As a child, though there was no one who named what I observed or taught me how to listen, there were myriad moments of awe that, over time, morphed into familiarity and kinship with the outdoors: buttercups in the grass behind the Air Force apartment building in Germany when I was four years old; a picture that my first grade art teacher passed around of an oak leaf that was definitely not a maple; many, many readings of Winnie the Pooh and his excursions into The Hundred Acre Wood; clandestine bicycle trips with my father and brother to gather and replant abandoned, rouge irises on an air base in New York when I was nine; uncountable hours spent playing house under a big old maple tree and dodging territorial blue jays, when playing too close to their nest; exploring our misty, moisty yard in Monterey, CA when I was 10, and finding snails, of all things, among the unfamiliar foliage beneath the live oak trees.

What wove all these random experiences together into a cohesive whole were our yearly family trips to my grandparents who lived in the Tug River valley in the eastern Kentucky Appalachian Mountains. There I went to sleep and awoke to the sounds of summer insects. I paid attention to the yellow jackets feasting on fallen apples as I walked barefoot through the grass. Along the roadsides I breathed in a spicy scent from an unknown source that only decades later I discovered to be one of the goldenrod species. In my grandparents' garden I picked beans and corn from plants that towered above me and got to feed what few meal scraps there were to their one black chicken, Susie.

Through the years, through all these experiences, the ways of the natural world seeped into my soul and formed me. I became ever more attentive to the large and small invitations to pay attention - from the caravan of ants at my feet, hurrying on their way to raid a rival ant colony to the startling  whoosh of immense wings as a pair of bald eagles took flight from a branch, far  above my head. In time, the outdoors became the place to which I turned when the rest of life became too much to bear. It became the place to ponder that which I did not understand, as well to give exuberant thanks for unexpected joys. In it and through it, I sensed God's whispers and opened my heart and soul in glad response.

And so, once again, as so I often write...the natural world offers this same welcoming invitation to all of us. As dusk falls you might go outside and listen for the loudly chirping cardinals that are bidding goodbye to the day. Or as first light dawns, listen for the recently arrived white-throated sparrows singing their clear "Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" song. Or you might step out your door, allowing your eyes to feast upon the last few autumn colors, knowing they'll soon be gone. Or, if you live near trees, pause and close your eyes, catching the fragrance of the fallen leaves around you. 

In all of these invitations and in so many more I wish you peace and an enfolding, tangible sense of the Presence that endows and imbues all things.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

If You Are Quiet You Can Hear the Leaves Fall

If you are very quiet you can hear the leaves fall, 
following their twirling, swirling dance with your ears as well as your eyes, until they come to rest gently at your feet.

Even in the noisy tumult of the gales that loosen their grip,
Even amidst the strident tumult that rages in your mind, 
If you stop, and if you will yourself to listen, you will hear their falling-gently-to-earth whispers, rustling through their comrades on their once-in-a-lifetime descent.

Background noise so fills our minds right now...
Outer noise of destruction, of greed, of power wielded wrongly.
Inner voices of fear, of sadness, of outrage, of powerlessness. 
Noise that will surely drown us entirely if we let it and render us deaf, even to the Good.

I desperately need times of stillness. 
I need to turn my attention to that which is beyond myself and all my thoughts.
My heart and soul's very functioning depend upon them.
Grace breaks through as I gaze at reddening and yellowing trees,
standing and swaying in the autumn winds that strip their leaves.
I am renewed.

If you are very quiet, you can hear the leaves fall. 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Telling Time Without a Calendar

Have you heard them? Shrill, clear whistling from the tree tops, sometimes one alone and sometimes a chorus. Spring peepers' last hurrah as they begin to prepare for winter, no longer in the marshes but clinging to trunks and branches high above us all. Or, how about the raucous raspy strident calls of migrating blue jays that descend upon us in late September, hungry for the acorns that our woodland oaks provide. Or the soft and muffled "wick, wick, wicka" at dusk of restless wood thrushes preparing for their long journey to central America, any day now. 

Have you seen them yet? The white-throated sparrows, who arrive every mid-October and the juncos who arrive soon after. Or, perhaps the purple finches who have chosen to feed in this area of southern Maryland for now. Bright red-purple males and grey females with a distinctive white eyebrow stripe, unlike our resident house finches, have come down from the far north to spend time with us, and whether they will stay the winter or ultimately move on is not for us to know. 

Have you noticed their absence?  The antagonistic migrating hummingbird numbers abruptly decreased overnight a few nights ago, and now I see only solitary individuals, dawdling at flowers and feeders until somehow recognizing when their bodies carry enough fat to sustain them on their journey. A few cricket species still sing on, but the true katydids and cicadas are silent, no longer calling from their summer perches in the trees, their breeding season accomplished. The lovely wood warblers, flycatchers and vireos who arrived last spring to bear and raise their families are gone now, excepting a few stragglers, and already I miss the melodies that were my constant companions these last few months.

And what of the changes in the plant life around us?  The winterberry and dogwoods's berries that were still green a couple of weeks ago are now bright red, signaling their nutrients to passing birds. The last flowers of the season, New England and aromatic aster, orange coneflower, and the ever present white frost aster, continue to bloom in riotous color, signaling nectar and pollen to late season bees and butterflies like the buckeye, and clouded sulfur and monarchs, all still searching for food. 

As we notice these changes, even if we haven't really realized that we have noticed them, we are being invited into a knowing that goes beyond what our busy, technological society deems important. Every day, every season, every moment, we are invited into wonder yet again, and into appreciation and into love for that which surrounds and sustains us. And, in so doing, we come to realize that we don't really need calendars to know what time it is, after all.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Renewal of Wonder

As a nation, we are in the midst of a difficult season-socially, politically, culturally, environmentally, physically and spiritually. In fact, at the moment, I can't think of a single component of our corporate life that isn't being challenged or threatened or compromised, somehow. No wonder I feel on edge, concerned about facets of national life that I have absolutely no ability to change. 

Even when I go walking, of late, I have difficulty letting go of the dismay, the sense of helplessness and, yes, sometimes the anger that hangs over the DC area these days. While I do not want to give in to these feelings or allow them to consume me, I find that I need tangible and effective means to deter and deflect them. I need something more powerful than my self-righteous indignation. I need wonder.

The healing of wonder lies in its surprise, moments of unexpected grace. Such was the case when, after a weary day with family reuniting after my mother-in-law's funeral, I looked up from the northern Virginia suburban back yard to see a  mass of migrating broad-winged hawks, kettling way up high, directly above my head. Or when, the day after, as I sat on my front porch, idly watching the birds and soaking in the silence, I noticed a commotion in the black locust tree across the road. It turns out that goldfinches eat black locust seeds, opening the stiff pods with their beaks and extracting the seeds one by one, something I had not seen or known before. I had happened to be in the right place at the right time to notice and all thought of commotions in the larger world vanished.

Wonder beckons when I peer into a bouquet of my own flowers, or pursue the insect making its long, high-pitched trill in the house and find a tiny, long-antennaed katydid no bigger than my fingernail. Or when I step out onto the back porch at night and narrowly miss the resident toad making his nightly hunting rounds. Or find a patch of bright pink torenia that, unbeknownst to me, self-seeded into my garden from the hanging basket where it grew last year. Or, glancing at the feeder and find that we are hosting several female rose-breasted grosbeaks on their southward migration.

Each of these gratifying, unexpected moments are gifts that keep me humble and, once again, remind me of how much more there is to this world than the concerns and fears that sometimes consume me. God speaks to me in wonder, and in this moment I can rest...for a while, anyway.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Life and Death and Orange Jewels

My husband's 94 year old mother died last week, a sad and difficult woman in life and in death. I am weary and so this morning I needed the woodland's embrace and there I found the refreshment and the solace I knew were waiting for me. I went looking for life, life in all its fullness, life of the forest floor - creatures, plants, fungi...all of it. 

On the short bank beside the woodland road, I came across a colony of tiny, bright orange mushrooms, themselves feeding on decaying matter...matter that is no longer alive, but giving life to these jewels of the forest. 

And in the distance, stood what first appeared to be a lone white mushroom... 

... standing like a single sentry guarding its place in the leaf litter. 

However, upon closer inspection, I realized that I had almost stepped on its nearly invisible companion of a different species, a couple of feet away. 

Two different species of fungi, quietly going about the work they were given to do, decomposing fallen leaves and branches, returning nutrients to the soil. Perhaps their mychorriza mysteriously co-mingle beneath the duff as they coil around tree roots, providing the giants greater access to needed water and minerals and a means of communication, tree to tree.

I have been thinking about death during these last few weeks and about its effect on those who are left behind, for death is never a solitary event. If we give ourselves to its effect, even in our agitation and deep sense of loss, over time we will be deepened and made acutely aware of and sensitive to that which is still alive...still alive in us, in those we care about, in the order of the natural world. I find the encouragement of God in the life of the fungi, strange as that might seem at first glance. They demonstrate that there is far more to each individual than what might be visibly recognized. Though their above-ground fruiting bodies wither away in due time, their life continues on in mystery, hidden away in where they can no longer be seen. And, because of fungi's role, though individual plants and creatures die, their life is never completely ended, for it is always recycled for the well being of another.  

In this season of coming face to face, again, with the reality of death I am reminded, again, of the abundance of life and my grateful participation in it.