Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Night Life

At the flick of a switch, the backyard was bathed in light and sure enough, there it was. You had to know where to look, as its hunched-up shape and scruffy gray and white blotched fur blended into the surrounding ground cover. Munching away on leftovers under the bird feeder, it seemed oblivious to the light - didn’t even look up until I tapped on the window, then its weird little white face appeared. With round, black ears at attention, pointed snout a-twitch, it stared briefly with beady black eyes before returning to its meal. Another movement caught my eye - it had brought a friend along this night.

Opossums are usually solitary creatures, but females tend to live in groups. Among the most primitive of living mammals, they have the unique distinction of being America’s only native marsupial, carrying their young in a pouch similar to a kangaroo or koala. They have 1 - 2 litters a year of up to 13 young, with 7 to 9 the average. Scavengers, they eat mostly insects and carrion, but also fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and bird eggs. They need to feast while they can - they only live for around 18 months.

Earlier, My husband had heard a muffled thud at the window. He looked up just in time to glimpse a bat at the screen. It landed - briefly and unceremoniously - then disappeared into the night. We thought this strange as bats usually avoid light, but various bugs are attracted to light and bats eat bugs. As temperatures rise in the spring, more bugs are active and available. Most insectivorous bats don’t catch insects directly with their mouths but scoop them up with wing or tail membranes first, consuming 30 to 50 percent of their body weight each night - that’s a lotta bugs! Perhaps bat and bug met at the screen.

A late night switch flick revealed that the opossums had been replaced by a lone raccoon. Also solitary, nocturnal creatures, raccoons will eat what opossums do, but tend to be more aggressive. The best meal for them is found in the wild, but they’re highly adaptable and cleaver. If human garbage or pet food is left unprotected, they readily devour it. They take what they can get and are very good at getting it.

We’d both been awakened in the wee hours the previous night by an eerie, strange wailing sound coming from the road out front. All was silent for a while, then the wail again, from further away. Silence - then a spine-tingling version, louder than before. We did not get up to look, so never did see the wailer, but we’ve heard it before. No regular dog sounds like that, so it must have been a lone “song dog” - a coyote.

Coyote families break up in late summer to early fall with the young hunting alone until late winter or early spring. Then, with distinctive yapping, howling, and barking, they try to establish their own territories and attract their lifetime mate. As far as we could tell, the cries that night went unanswered, but the season is young and we’ll see what the summer brings.

Highly intelligent and adaptable, coyotes vary their diet with the seasons or with what they can find. In the spring and summer, they feast on fruits and berries; carrion sees them through the winter. They aren’t picky and will munch on the same foods as opossums and raccoons. The paths of these creatures are bound to cross in the night, with small raccoons and opossums being fair game - bats get off scot-free.
The moon marks off the seasons,
and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
and all the beasts of the forest prowl.

These all look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
Psalm 104:19-20, 27-28

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Some bounced in
Spun me about
Held me breathless
Leaving the echo in my ears
Of their lyrical laughter

Some sauntered through
Caught me off-guard
Tripped me quite soundly
Leaving the blur in my eyes
Of their fancy footwork

Some stomped out
Slammed the door
Locked it forever
Leaving footprints in my mind
Filled with muddy memories

You walked forward
Held out your hand
Met me half-way
Leaving the rhythm of my heart
Decidedly different

So we dance
You do one step
I do another
Leaving room in our souls now
For some magnificent music

... Sing and dance together and be joyous,
but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone
though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each others' keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.

From The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

So Go Sow!

Sipping morning coffee while reading the paper, I catch a glimpse of a brown streak on the porch. Even before I turn to look, I know what’s going on. He’s at it again. Once more I open the door, shout, stomp and generally raise a ruckus in the hopes of scaring him off - or at least changing his ways. There’s not a chance.

With the gradually lengthening days and warming temperatures I, too, have seeds on my mind. The garden has been cultivated and weeded, snap peas and the first package of spinach seeds sown. Supposedly, spinach loves 40 degrees and I do hope that’s true. Last year, I thought I’d planted it early enough, but an unusual warm spell in late spring caused it to bolt before it could all be picked. And so I will try again - earlier.

Gardening can be risky business. Plant too early and the seeds may rot in the ground or sprout but grow very little until the weather warms. Plant too late, and cool-weather plants rush straight to blooming and seed-making. There is another package of spinach seeds to go in, as well as one of multicolored chard. The handful of garlic cloves planted last fall wintered over and should do well no matter what.

The little brown Chickaree (or Douglas Squirrel) has been busy indeed, and refuses to be diverted from his mission. Something within him screams “Save! Save! SAVE!” In fall he senses the coming winter; in spring the unsettled weather compels him to scavenge rich, black sunflower seeds that we put out for the birds. He plants them everywhere.

I’m pleased that the green onions made it through winter, as some creatures have been regularly nibbling down their tops. The suspects, two small brush bunnies who have been frequenting our yard, could easily slip under the netting. We don’t mind sharing, and the nibbling seems to have run its course; competition for food is an ancient struggle. Those who don’t plant still must reap.

The Chickaree has no assurance that his seeds will still be there when he needs them, either. For another squirrel (or chipmunk) may dig them up and eat them, the seeds may rot in the ground, sprout and grow, or thoughtless humans may cover them with mothballs so that they aren’t so appealing any more. To protect his assets, the Chickaree’s instinct is to scatter hoard - gather in a good food supply and bury it numerous places, so at least some of it is always available.

With time, warmth, water, weeding, and a bit of luck, the seeds I plant will produce well. And a good many sunflower seeds will also sprout throughout our yard and in most of our large flower pots and boxes. We’ve tried to discourage the Chickaree from the planter on the porch, as we’re not fond of the constant holes dug and dirt strewn far and wide, but so far we’ve not succeeded. He simply won’t give up.

Plant his seeds, he must and to plant mine, I wish. Only time will tell how the harvest goes.

A man reaps what he sows...Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Galatians 6:7, 9 & 10

Monday, April 19, 2010

First Step: Caring

A ragtag bunch they were, for sure. They’ve been labeled “teens at risk”; in street lingo some were “space cadets”, wandering around in a drug-induced fog or coming down from the latest high - their solution to dealing with life’s harsh realities. Each carried a load of baggage: a military father killed too young; parents divorcing with a gay lover moving into the home; a sexual relationship with a 30-something man; a severely dysfunctional family involved in drugs and alcohol; scrapes with the law; Attention Deficit Disorder; Bipolar Disorder; depression...

It‘s no surprise that these kids did not succeed in school. They copped out, flunked out, dropped out, and eventually came to the small, private alternative school where I taught. These 13 - 16 year olds were simply “my students” and I tried to offer them all the respect, support, structure, and motivation that I could. It was not easy. I always laid out my ground rules; they always tried to figure out ways around them. My expectations were high because I felt they were capable of good work and to expect anything less would be shortchanging them. I tried to make this clear, but they had a hard time believing it and the struggle was constant. Even so, there was something about these raw little survivors that I liked - they had grit.

One spring, as we waded through the plant kingdom, I had them do a close-up study of seeds. In typical teenage fashion, they thought the subject was oh too booooring. I mean, just how interesting can a dumb seed be? Seeds don’t DO anything! Being used to their ho-hum attitude and disinterest, I was not surprised by the blank faces as I hauled in bean, lentil, wheat, corn and barley seeds, paper towels and magnifying glasses. Most of them had sprouted seeds in grade school, they explained, and it was definitely not their idea of excitement. One launched into a teacher’s nightmare tale of what all he had discovered could be done with the experimental seeds when the teacher was not watching. I cringed.

Nevertheless, over the next few weeks I dove into the “life of the seed”. They reluctantly played along with me, although they really did not seem to care. They went through the motions - soaked the seeds, laid them out on damp paper towels, cared for and studied them daily, kept records. Each day I had new questions; they puzzled over the not-so-obvious answers. Sometimes, they had no answers and I explained that was OK - life’s answers are often hidden from us. I could not believe their excitement when the first seeds began to sprout, when they could spot the embryo plant, identify the stem and root ends, differentiate between the one and two-leaved kinds, see the young plants gradually turn green and grow toward the light. Then they had questions: “How does the baby plant know which way is up?” “How long can it live without dirt?” “Can it grow as well under artificial light as in the sun?” My seeds had been planted - they wanted to know.

Soon, we’d done all that I’d intended and I told them to dump the scraggly little plants so that we could move on to the next project. Dump the plants? You’d think I’d asked them to shoot their dog. Oh NO - they wanted to transfer the small seedlings to soil so they could continue growing.

They wanted to care for them.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
2 Corinthians 4:6 - 9

Friday, April 16, 2010

Millions of Hiding Places

A brownish cloud had suddenly appeared in one of the small aquaria and was squirming with life. Did I know what it was? Calling during his lunch break, the outreach instructor could not wait to tell me what he’d discovered while carrying our marine life lessons into a local elementary school. From his description I wasn’t sure, but could not wait to find out. Later that day, when he returned to the Marine Science Center, we managed to catch a few of the tiny creatures and view them through a microscope. One look told me - barnacle babies.

These amazing creatures begin life as microscopic larvae that swim about with feathery legs. In a short period of time their bodies change, resembling small shrimp with transparent umbrellas attached to their backs. Within the immense ocean, attracted by specific chemicals, they are able to locate others of their same species and search for a place to “settle”. Crawling among the shells of other adult barnacles, they check out each nook and cranny until they find a spot they deem satisfactory. Producing a natural glue - among the toughest substances known - they attach themselves head-down; extracting calcium from the sea water, they form six hard plates around their bodies. For added protection, they make a 4-part door at the top of their shelter, which they can open and close at will. Their bodies have undergone yet another change so that they no longer resemble the original larval form, nor the shrimp-like creatures they once were. They are quite unique - upside down and permanently attached to their shell.

Each barnacle spends the rest of its days, trapped if you will, within the confines of a small, sturdy fortress it has constructed for itself. As it grows, it must shed its skin and enlarge its shell plates. In order to feed, it must warily open its door and comb the water with its feathery legs, pulling bits of plankton inside to where its mouth is located. In doing so, does the barnacle feast on the young of its own kind? I suspect it does. Life in the sea is a dogfish-eat-dogfish world, so billions of young are produced to ensure survival of each species.

For the barnacle, securely attached to one place for life, finding a mate could be a problem. It can’t roam around to find one but it can, and does, settle close to one. Each animal is both male and female, but they cannot produce offspring alone. The fertilized eggs of each are brooded within the shell of the adult until they develop into the first larval stage. Then a cloud of up to 13,000 larvae is released, with each tiny creature on its own in the waters of the deep. Most are eaten, or otherwise perish.

Some do survive, however, to built their unique hiding places and continue to live out of sight. Their rugged little shelters protect them from most predators, careless feet, violent waves, winter cold, summer heat and dehydration during twice-daily low tides. And as each tide flows in, flooding them anew with fresh, cold water, they open their doors to the feast that surrounds them.

As days lengthen and we stroll the docks, beaches and shorelines, may we pause to contemplate the common barnacles; may we marvel at the lives lived within those plain, rugged shells.

You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance
Psalm 32: 7

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Olys and the Hood

Across the sparkling water
You loom, high and far,
brilliant with sunlight
or moody with clouds.

Pale, lofty heights and shaggy hills,
Ever-changing faces,
with each rain you wear away,
running to the Canal.

It carries you out,
slowly ebbing,
then creeps back and rises
smug and full.

A sudden shove,
you inch skyward -
Winning the race
or evening the score?

(In western Washington state, the beautiful Hood Canal lies at the foot of the mighty Olympic mountains. Contrary to its name, the Hood is not man-made, but a long, fish hook-shaped fjord which carries salt water inland from the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. Twice each day its tides carry water, and whatever's in it, in and out of this pristine area. Erosion is an on-going process, but just off the coast plate tectonics are at work, ever so slowly raising the mountians higher.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Water, Water Everywhere

A small pond lies in the lowest part of our front yard, near the road. It is a visible reminder of what lies beneath, and sustains, us. We may tire of rain, but we drink it, cook, bathe, and wash with it. We are entirely dependent upon it.

There are at least three other larger ponds in our neighborhood, all sustained through runoff and natural seepage. This area has abundant seepage evidenced by a series of old ditches, one of which carries water through our pond. The previous owners of our home may have dug the pond, but whether they did or not water would have flowed there, running ever downhill on the path of least resistance, as water will. Although the small stream diminishes to a trickle near the end of summer, only in extreme dry years does it disappear.

At least six glacial periods in the distant past left our part of the country with a mixture of materials including sand, gravel, silt and clay. Rain seeps down through the soil and other layers to become groundwater, which is stored in aquifers - in the pore spaces between the grains of sand and gravel. We do not have any underground rivers or lakes providing us with our groundwater in Kitsap County. No matter how much snow falls on the Olympics or the Cascades, we get no groundwater from them, either. It all comes from rain.

Groundwater feeds our streams in the summer and discharges underground into Puget Sound. It also supplies us with the water we need to survive and function. Eighty percent of residents in Kitsap County use groundwater that is pumped from wells. With all of us pulling this precious resource out of the ground, it is essential that the aquifers be constantly recharged. Areas with permeable soils covered with natural vegetation are best for recharge, while impervious surfaces like pavement, gravel roads, rooftops and even some lawns cause rain to run off into storm drains or creeks before it can recharge the groundwater. Groundwater can be contaminated and any substances put onto the surface or below the surface of the ground have a possibility of entering a drinking water well.

Although I grew up drinking purified river “city” water, I’ve since lived in homes in three different states with private wells. At our rural home in Colorado the well was marginal, pumping only enough water for one load of clothes to run through the washer before needing time to recharge. We quickly learned to conserve what little we had. In Idaho, during a summer of extreme drought with an older well and a pump that could not be moved down below a sinking water table, we were forced to drill a new well. We were totally without water until some compassionate neighbors ran a hose from their house to ours. As the well-drilling went on for days, through large underground boulders, at a pace and price we feared we could never afford, we came to realize the true value of water. Just try living – without it.

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.”
 Revelation 21:6

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Wet, Wierd, & Wonderful

Cher-ib-it...cher-ib-it...cher-ib-it rings through the woods - the song of the little Pacific Tree frogs. Their scientific name means “deceptive locust” and I think that fits them well. Less vociferous, but also becoming more active, are Northern Red-legged frogs and several kinds of salamanders. To the curious and observant, fresh water ponds will reveal their wonders. Along shallow edges, among pond weeds and grass stems, clumps of clear jelly-like egg masses appear. The adult animals may or may not stay around, but their eggs and young require water to live and develop. These eggs are interesting to watch because, being clear, it is easy to see the young grow inside. Blending in with their surroundings, they are less likely to be seen and disturbed or destroyed.

The previous owners of our house in Texas had filled a small cement pond with soil and planted giant Elephant Ear plants. When I discovered this, I dug the plants up and moved them, filled the pond with water and enjoyed the new landscaping. Little did I know. One evening, new sounds drew us into the backyard and we discovered an amazing sight. A large crowd of toads perched around the edge of the pond and filled much of it. They had come to mate, filling the air with their songs and the water with strings of crystal eggs. Somehow, from who knows how far away, they had sensed this new source of water and traveled to it. Amazingly, nature always finds a way.

Working in the yard here in the summer, I come upon slug and snail eggs quite often. It took me some time to figure out what these hidden stashes of tiny marbles were that I found under rocks, slabs of bark, etc. At first, I childishly enjoyed popping them in my fingers. Then, I tried putting them in a jar and waiting for them to hatch, which they never did because I couldn’t duplicate the particular conditions they needed. The parent knows where to find these conditions though, and their numbers prove that they are more successful than not. As a gardener, I feel I am always battling slugs, but I have to admit that I have a grudging sort of respect for them. They’re like the Energizer Bunny - they just keep on goin’...

Lurking about are numerous types of garter snakes, which take a bad rap, but are quite harmless. Their young, born alive in August and September, are charmingly earthworm-sized. However, I will never forget the day I heard the most blood-curdling, high-pitched shriek I’ve ever heard. It sounded like a small animal in pain; I tried to picture what it might be as I raced toward it. The sound led me to the pond, where I got the shock of my life. The shriek came from a frog, of all things, that was firmly gripped in the mouth of a snake. I usually believe in letting nature take its course, but the sight was too much for me. Grabbing the snake behind the head, I pulled on the frog until it finally let go. I don’t know whether the frog lived or not, but I felt better.

All of these have lived on this earth far longer than we have, so you know they’re sturdy survivors. They all have a purpose here, even though we may not understand exactly what it is sometimes. As for the snakes - they also eat slugs.

How many are your works, O Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.

Psalm 104:24 & 30

Monday, April 5, 2010

White Bird, Alone

The ancient ridge before me,
tumbled weeds beneath my feet.
Each step becomes an effort,
but I trudge on – ever upward -

to be met at the top with air,
sharp, cold, and piercing.
Cloud with rain showering my return;
Heaven’s tears mixed with my own.

The familiar bank, slope of sand,
and sea, endless sea.
Since time began its rhythm unchanged,
Swirl and crest, twist and return.

There asleep, rocking gently,
one white bird, alone.
Amid the churn and splash, he floats,
trusting in forces beyond his control.

I’m reminded that I am not lost,
for much sustains me, buoys me up;
I, like him, bob through life
with a star and a song.

(During the hard times in my life I seek the natural world, away from the busy-ness and noise of everyday living. There, everything is reduced to the basic elements and, if we allow them, our senses become sharpened and finely tuned. Listening for that small, still voice, I find solace, serenity, and strength there, if not always the answers I seek. Calmed, cleansed and refreshed, I become one with nature's ancient rhythms, and find it easier to deal with whatever comes next.)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Simply Live

I would never have recognized it, had I been expecting its former shape. Appearing lifeless, it hung there, suspended, shrouded, bearing absolutely no resemblance to what it had been before. But I knew the promise it held, so I carried it home for safekeeping.

During the passing weeks, I observed it carefully, hoping against hope that I would be present for the big event. I’d never actually seen one in person, only on television or on the glossy pages of a magazine.

When the predetermined time had passed, I was indeed privileged. First, the slow splitting open; Then, the silent emergence. It carefully withdrew one - then another and another - until all 6 rested securely atop the dangling shell. Then, braced & balanced, it slowly pulled the rest of itself out. How ragged it looked - all folded up & compressed - not at all yet the image of what it was to become. It appeared to rest, but silently shuddered - with anxious anticipation or from the pure effort of pumping itself into its full, final shape. I resisted any urge to touch it, for it was not yet ready.

Just what does a caterpillar think as it eats its way through its green world? Does it have any idea at all of what lies ahead for it? The fortunate ones - those not plucked off by some hungry bird, nor eliminated by an overanxious gardener, nor demolished from inside by parasites - have a transformation ahead that is difficult to imagine. I wonder if, deep, down inside their tiny brains, they quake in fear of the changes ahead. There will be the end of their gnawing, the slowing down, the searching for the perfect spot to attach and encase themselves. Then the months of waiting - the miraculous metamorphosis - as their bodies change into something entirely different.

There it sat fully formed, unfolded and spread into a gorgeous yellow and black shape. It nimbly climbed to the top of its branch, wings wide open then slowly closing and reopening , to survey the world through new eyes. Slowly I put forth a finger, gently urged it to climb on and lifted it high in the air to watch as it took off. I held my breath as it fluttered across the open expanse, wishing desperately for its safe, secluded landing beyond notice of those who would prey upon it. For it was, after all, only one small butterfly in the larger scheme of life.

And what of the caterpillar? Was not the progression of its life determined in the beginning? I think, perhaps, it spends its allotted days simply living. It does what it must, slowly crawling day by day toward its destiny - toward confinement, transformation - and glorious release.

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed - in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed...But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:51-52 & 57

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Sand Beneath Our Feet

The color purple - bunnies, lilies, chicks, colored eggs, butterflies, and the cross - the symbols of Easter are everywhere. Not nearly as attractive as some of these, and certainly not soft and cuddly, a symbol of a different sort lies here in our own backyard, right beneath our feet.

The average person finds only the bleached white remains, its markings symbolizing the Birth, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. On top, the outline of a five-petaled “flower” with a perfect five-pointed star at its center. Legend names this the Easter Lily and has the star representing the Guiding Star of Bethlehem that led the Wise Men. When broken, five little pieces resembling white birds are released. Some say they are the Doves of Peace, others say they are the Angels that sang to the Shepherds the First Christmas Morning.

In some parts of the world, five narrow openings run all the way through the body. These are said to represent the four nail holes and the spear wound made in the body of Christ during the Crucifixion. On the back of these, there is an outline of another five-petalled flower, considered to be the Poinsettia, the Christmas flower, and also a bell.

Living Sand Dollars are deep, velvet brown and sandpaper-rough to the touch. These cousins of Sea Stars and Sea Urchins are found in great numbers throughout our local waters where there are muddy or sandy beaches. Preferring the protection of deeper waters, living ones are not seen as frequently as the familiar white, rigid, flat, disk-shaped “shell” of dead ones. The lily pattern is actually five sets of pores which move sea water into its internal water-vascular system. This allows their tiny suction-cup feet to operate. These ancient creatures, totally covered with small sharp spines, plow slowly through the sand eating tiny bits of algae and detritus. Their mouth, found dead-center on their underside, is equipped with five tiny triangular white teeth. It is the hard, supporting structures of these teeth that form the little “doves”. Sand Dollars in our part of the country do not have the five holes that are found on some types - nor do they have the flower and bell on the underside.

Symbolism is a very old, rich part of the human culture. It is often how we associate and remember things that are important and dear to us. To me, knowing the facts behind the unique structures of the Sand Dollar does not in any way lessen the impact of the legend. Their design is so amazing - I turn them over in my hand, dead or alive, and remember ...

And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures...”
So God created the great creatures of the sea
and every living and moving thing with which the water teems,
according to their kinds... God blessed them and said,
“Be fruitful and increase in number
and fill the water in the seas...”
Genesis 1: 20-22

O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonders.
I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.
Psalm 8:9 & 9:1-2