Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sorting Out the "Needs"

courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

Ahead of me on the trail, my husband stopped suddenly and studied the brush to one side. “Look, look, look!” he said in excited, hushed tones. There, among the greenery, crouched a small, furry animal. About the size of a small rabbit, with grey, catlike fur, small ears and big, unblinking eyes, it eyed us with its mouth literally stuffed with leaves. We waited for it to run for cover, but it seemed frozen in place. Obviously frightened, its only movement was rapid breathing. We whispered to each other a moment, then backed off to give the creature room - my husband moving up the trail a bit and me moving back. Then it ran all right, but instead of heading off into the woods, it scurried straight up the path toward my husband, nearly crashing right into his boots before veering across to the other side, through the grass and under a large log. I watched it go and noticed it had a very poor excuse of a tail. We stood by and quietly watched for a while, hoping it would come out on the other side of the log, or maybe return the way it had come, but there was only silence. Neither of us had any idea what it was.

We’d taken this day to hike the Spruce Railroad Trail along Lake Crescent on the Olympic peninsula west of Port Angeles. It was one of those “two days in August” that I jokingly refer to as Puget Sound’s summer. The day was perfect - clear, quiet and sunny, the lake glass-smooth. As we reached the half-way point and began to hike back to the car, I kept thinking of that little critter and its odd behavior. Passing the log again, we kept alert for signs of the animal, to no avail.

courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

At home, I looked in our field guide to discover it was an Aplodontia, what most folks call a Mountain Beaver. The young are slate-brown, rather than dark brown, and - they build hay piles along their runways in late summer/early fall. Suddenly it all made sense - young, inexperienced, frightened out of its wits, but with a built-in program that said: “Prepare for winter!!” So, ignoring possible danger, it blundered ahead on its established route and tried to do just that. Now, as winter  approaches, I think of that little animal and hope that it succeeded in putting enough away to make it through. Its life will depend of that.

We live, these days, in a frenzied world. It’s so easy to be distracted with all kinds of things pulling at our time and energy. This season brings particular stresses along with special delights.

Perhaps we could learn something from the Mountain Beaver and other creatures like him. If we sort through all of our miscellaneous "to do" lists, figure out what we really NEED to do, and attend to those things first, all else will fall into place.

And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.
Luke 12.29-31

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Blessings, Wherever You find Them

The season has definitely turned; I've been on the lookout for stems with decorative seedpods, interesting twigs, and greenery that's relatively "un-nibbled". As the month has progressed, I've been out cutting them as a part of my yearly ritual. I've changed it some, but it is part of a family tradition.

Fancy dinners were rare in our home, but great effort and care went into them. Most meals were eaten in the kitchen, but for holidays we used the dining room. Out came the beautiful tablecloth, good silverware, crystal, and precious china. I was shown the correct way to set a table - proper placement of the knife, spoon, dinner and salad forks; position of salad plates, water and wine glasses; use of a cloth napkin. There was the quick course on how to receive and pass the serving dishes and where elbows belonged! I loved helping to prepare shrimp cocktails in Mom's special cranberry-colored glasses and watching that big brown turkey finally come out of the oven. We often had a guest on these occasions, usually a widower or single person with no family nearby. We were an informal family, so there was the awkward moment as we settled into our chairs, but after a heartfelt grace was said wine and conversation flowed, Dad began to carve the turkey, and a warm glow took over. As a child, such a feast was rare and I felt full halfway through dinner. I felt bad not being able to eat everything as I knew how hard Mom had worked preparing that meal. I was never chastised for that, but I was expected to remain at the table until everyone was finished. The older I got, the more I appreciated the adult conversation that took place at the table during those times. Invariably, one topic always emerged - sincere gratitude for what we had.

I came to realize the tough times my parents endured during the depression of the 30s. They had little money and did without much, but they "made do". They, and thousands like them, survived by raising and preserving their own food, making their own clothes, and working long days into the night. Friends supported each other and gathered together in homes for entertainment and to celebrate special occasions, sharing simple meals and enjoying each other's company. Because my parents worked in the floral business, they always had flowers. With time and hard work, they eventually owned their own floral business. A special arrangement was always made for our table, and no holiday would be complete without it. A constant reminder, I think, of simple beginnings.

I have carried on the tradition as best as I can. Wherever we've lived, whatever the conditions, we've celebrated holidays with family or friends, a home-cooked meal, and some kind of table arrangement. I've scoured woods, meadows, and roadsides to make bouquets and eaten roast turkey on a card table while sitting on packing crates. I, too, am forever grateful - for family and friends, a warm kitchen, heady cooking aromas...and flowers. They are, after all, wherever you find them.

You are my God, and I will give you thanks;
You are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Psalm 18:28-29

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tree People

It can first be noticed in August with the occasional golden dangling bauble and the slight scattering of pale orange across the floor.

You blink and in September catch a glimpse of brilliant yellow accessories, muted orange laces and vivid red trims around the edges.

Turn around and October brings the full-length mahogany robes, flowing, golden gowns and windswept capes of speckled patterns.

By the end of November, the grand parade fades away - all the finery swiftly shed to lie tattered and sodden on the floor beneath cold, naked bodies.

It is so easy to take them for granted. Especially here, in the Pacific Northwest, where we are so accustomed to seeing them that our eyes scarcely notice. From the time they first sprout, tiny and unimpressive in the forest duff, until (Lord knows how many years later ) they finally cease growing, producing leaves and flowing their sap, they are a constant, silent presence. Certainly, we welcome their blossoms and fine, lacy greenery in early spring after a long, dark, wet winter. In summer we enjoy the cool shade of some and lush fruit of others. Fall brings some to brilliant color, some simply wither to a dull brown & fade away, and many remain (outwardly at least) just as they are. By winter, there are the harsh, bare skeletons and ominous, dark shapes in the gray mist.

But even now, during this “resting” time , they are at work. Penetrating deeply, their roots seek out life-giving water, hold soil in place, create air spaces below. Above ground, they affect the air, taking in gases we don’t need, giving off the oxygen we do.

So many living things depend on them - grow beneath the shelter of their trunks, upon their branches, among their leaves, within their wood. Creatures perch, peck, claw, gnaw, scramble, slither and dig about and within. We humans are among their benefactors, using what they produce, as well as their very bodies, to such an extent that we never give it a second thought...
Take the time for a close look. Notice the shape, color, hang of their leaves. Examine their trunks and discover their patterns, textures, thicknesses - inhabitants! Rub your cheek against them, inhaling deeply of their particular scent - the dry pine forest, the dank cedar one are very different. Close your eyes to listen as the wind stirs through - fir, spruce, alder, cottonwood, willow, aspen; each chorus hums its own melody. I think of them as “tree people” and no two are exactly alike - ever.

In a quiet moment sometime, take note of your surroundings - wherever you might be. Mentally remove all that comes from trees. Odd though it may seem, spend some time thinking of those trees - and then imagine a world without them... I cannot.

I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;
I will set in the desert the cypress,
the plane and the pine together;
that men may see and know,
may consider and understand together,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
the Holy One of Israel has created it.
Isaiah 41.19-20

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rising to the Occasion

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain...

A wonderful, rich aroma wafts through the kitchen as my automatic bread machine bakes a batch of “homemade” bread. It’s so easy these days that I wonder why I don’t do it more often, but many things compete for my time and attention.

The evening news spews the latest political rhetoric from the current candidates. I try to pay attention, and I am interested, but it seems they all spend their precious time, and ours, telling us what they think we want to hear and berating their opponents. I want to believe what they say, but actions speak louder and we won’t know what they will really do until the election is over.

I grew up surrounded by wheat country, but never knew much about wheat. In elementary school we took a tour of a local flour mill, so learned what happened to those truckloads of wheat hauled in to, and the box cars of flour hauled out of, my home town. After that, I did view bread on the grocery store shelves a bit differently.

As an adult, I taught myself to make bread because I wanted to learn how and find out if it really did taste better than the store-bought kind. I enjoyed mixing the ingredients together, kneading the dough, and watching the yeast do its work in making the dough rise. There were times of trial and error and more than once, failure. The bread machine makes the job easier, but old yeast does not work well whatever the method.

Old rhetoric does not work well either, although the politicians do not seem to notice. It is obvious that they want to stir us up, get us to cast our ballots for them as they set out to save us from ourselves. Passions will build and rise up to Election Day and then what? Will the great American loaf fall or rise further toward the perfect ideal we want so much to believe in? Politics, economics, societies - none are perfect and none change quickly.

Pikes Peak, Colorado - by David Shankbone

Katharine Lee Bates did not perfect her lyrics to America the Beautiful immediately, either. An English literature instructor at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, she made a lecture trip to Colorado in 1893. While there, she journeyed to the top of Pikes Peak. Because of the altitude her stay at the top was brief, but she viewed the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away under ample skies and the opening lines floated into her mind. The resulting poem first appeared in print in 1895, but she revised the lyrics in 1904 and again in 1913. For two years after it was written it was sung to just about any popular or folk tune that would fit with the lyrics, with “Auld Lang Syne” being the most notable of those. Not until 1910 were the words published together with the tune “Materna”, which was composed in 1882, nearly ten years before she wrote the words. Even after that, the tune to be used was challenged to some degree. In 1926 a contest was held to put the poem to new music, but no other entry was determined to be more acceptable. And so the issue was decided, but Katharine never did indicate publicly which music she liked best.

The bread machine beeps, and I remove a tall, lovely brown loaf of fragrant bread. The yeast was good and did its job - now let’s see how the politicians do. Hopefully, they’ll rise to the occasion.

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

...”What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Luke 13:20 - 21

Pikes Peak picture file from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hidden in Plain View

Waking that morning, the change was palpable. Cooler, yes, but more than that there was a muffled stillness, as if a downy comforter had settled over the entire neighborhood. Rising, I went to the window and folded back the fabric shutters to peer out. Thick fog had drifted up silently from the canal, bunching up between trees and obscuring the road. Across our driveway, deep mahogany leaves littered the ground beneath the maple. While the plum was just beginning to turn, the snowball bush was aflame with color, though not yet willing to let go of its leaves. As I scanned the scene, something strange caught my eye - unusual white leaves scattered evenly about on the ground between the Snowball and a large Rhodie. Curious, I pulled on a robe, stepped into my fleece slippers, and went down to the kitchen. Grabbing a cup of coffee, I told my husband there was something I needed to see and headed outside. This is not unusual for me. During the summer, I often begin the day strolling the yard in my robe, coffee in hand, for I love to watch things grow. This moody fall morning, I had a date with those white leaves.

On closer examination, I discovered that they were not leaves at all, but finely-spun webs of the funnel weavers. The morning’s dew had settled on them, making them stand out conspicuously from the darker grass they were stretched upon. Deep inside, at the narrow end of each funnel, I knew that a small spider was hiding. On feeling the vibration of an insect crossing the web, the spider dashes out, bites the insect, and carries it down into the funnel. I wondered at the number of webs, as I hadn’t remembered seeing any of them before. When had they been spun and how long had they been there?

Patrick Edwin Moran

Cupping the steaming mug in my hands, I lifted my eyes to the surrounding trees and stood in wonderment. Stretched before me, between every conceivable branch and twig throughout the woods were a myriad of dewy webs. These, the work of orb weavers, were the typical spider webs that everyone recognizes. But that morning, they were far from typical. Each one, and they were of all different sizes and at various heights, stood out as glistening beadwork against the dark woods. Each bush, tree, and clump of tall grass as far as I could see was bedecked with more tiny strings of jewels, woven back and forth, as if some tiny beings had carefully decorated them. Was it really possible they had been there all along, revealed only with the combination of heavy dew and early sunlight? There must have been a million! I was humbled by the beauty of it all.

Just imagine how much exists in this world - right under our noses - that we never see. There is that old saying of not being able to see the forest for the trees. How many other mysterious wonders may be “hidden in plain view”? That magical morning I had a glimpse of the possibilities.

“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever,
      wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons;
      he sets up Kings and deposes them.
He gives wisdom to the wise
      and knowledge to the discerning.
He reveals deep and hidden things;
      he knows what lies in darkness,
      and light dwells with him.”
Daniel 2:20-22

The secret things belong to the Lord our God,
but the things revealed belong to us
and to our children forever...
Deuteronomy 29:29

Funnel Web Spider
picture file from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The River Running Through Us

As I stare at the computer screen, I am mesmerized by the view, totally lost in the vast terrain. Before me spreads the incredible - surreal, really - Canyonlands of southeastern Utah. Upstream and one state removed from the better-known Grand Canyon, they are nevertheless equally impressive.

That we can instantly view these images with the click of a mouse is no less amazing to me. Captured by a small digital camera, the pictures were instantly available to view, delete, edit, and/or print. Labeled and viewed as a slide show, they can now be revisited any time we wish. We’ve viewed them often since that trip, studying the images carefully, turning them over and over in our minds in some feeble attempt to grasp their true size and significance. It is a daunting task for human brains.

Shimmering on the far-off edge of the horizon, dusky blue mountains fade into insignificance compared to the massive landscape before them. Here, through countless eons and numerous inundations of both fresh and salt water, layer upon thick layer of sand and gravel deposits were laid down. The most recent, topmost, layer is mostly flat, arid, and devoid of any large vegetation. The land here has been twisted, bent, stretched, and intruded upon volcanically. Most significantly, running water and wind have been ever-present - scouring and eroding through the layers of rock. The Colorado and Green rivers snake their way through this wild land, carving magnificent, deep canyons, leaving huge plateaus and colorful mesas above. Eventually merging southwest of here, they rush on to sculpt the mighty Grand Canyon.

The beauty of this raw land is awesome, but so are the dangers. One should not venture out into it alone or unprepared. In the rain shadow of the mountains to the west, it is barren and dry. Thunderstorms bring dangerous lightening and flash floods. Strong, sudden windstorms whip up thick clouds of dust. Without shelter or shade, the sun burns and dehydrates. With clear skies and high altitude, the air thins and freezes. Poisonous creatures lurk about. Viewed from above, the Canyonlands are an intricate maze. Without a good map, compass, and knowledge of the land, one could easily get hopelessly lost.

The two rivers meander slowly through this area, twisting and turning in giant, lazy loops. Their flat, silty bottom lands are lush with vegetation; wildlife abounds here. Overhangs and steep canyon walls offer shelter and shade, some measure of protection. There is life-giving water.

Our lives might be compared to these Canyonlands: multi layered, twisted, turned, stretched, intruded upon. We may struggle with grief, loneliness, betrayal, addiction, mental and physical illnesses, violence, poverty or disasters. We may feel that we’re been carved up, hollowed out, worn down, and carried away. But beneath the rugged landscape of our lives, flowing silently and steady as a river, the mighty Sculptor is at work - offering sustenance, shelter, protection. Creating beauty.

There is a river whose streams
make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the most High Dwells.
Psalm 46:4

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life,
as clear as crystal,
flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
down the middle of the great street of the city.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wondrous Wetness

We had just arrived at the small fair in the tiny community of Utica - slap-dab in the middle of Montana - when it began. All morning we’d driven beneath cloudy skies, surrounded by miles of harvested grain fields in every direction. It was no surprise when large drops began to fall; what did surprise me was the reaction of the people who scurried frantically around donning rain bonnets and yellow slickers, popping open a few umbrellas.

It wasn’t that the rain was unwelcome; this region of the country had been suffering the 3rd cycle of drought since the dust bowl days of the 1930s. I could see the heavy, black clouds on the horizon, feel the wind pick up and remembered what these high prairie storms could be like. Still, a realization hit me as strongly as the wet gusts - I’d grown used to rain. So used to it in fact, that I rarely bundled up against it or altered activities because of it.

Before moving to western Washington, we’d always lived in dry climates. That rainy morning in Utica brought back a flood of memories. The sweet smell of rain against dry grasses and dust carried me back to hot, dry, summers and bright, crisp falls where rain was a rare occurrence.

Dark, brooding clouds and sudden, heavy winds usually came first and often moved through without a drop of rain. We, too, would dash about to secure or bring inside whatever might be harmed. When the rain did come, it poured, accompanied by deafening cracks of thunder and brilliant lightening flashes. Tucked away safely inside, we’d shout to be heard over the din and avoid touching anything metal until the storm was over.

Afterwards, there’d be standing puddles and miniature streams running along the street curbs. Children would wade and splash, floating small chunks of wood from one corner to the next, pretending they were boats. Adults would relax a little if no hail had fallen. Gardens would not need to be watered and farmers would be happy - for hail could ruin both.

Water has been here since the beginning. It helps to shape the land and determine what plants and animals live in any given place.

Although around 75% of the earth is covered with water, only about 3% of that is fresh. Over half of this fresh water is tied up in ice caps and glaciers, and much of the rain that falls seeps into streams and rivers.

These flow into the ocean and ultimately evaporate to return to the clouds. The small amount of water used by living things is recycled through respiration and wastes.

Imagine where the water - that you and I bathe in, brush our teeth with, and drink - has been before it got to us! And where will it go after it leaves our bodies? Since we are made up of 80% water, it is a vital part of us and we must have it to survive. It is a precious and finite gift.

Living here, rain becomes a part of everyday life. It is often the gentle, misting kind that goes on and on, day after day, sometimes month after month. We may complain about it or simply accept it and easily take for granted. We should not.

As this rainy season sets in, here in our little corner of the world, carefully consider the value of this wondrous wetness. Watch it fall from the sky, listen for its patter, inhale the musky fragrance as it seeps into the earth. Walk in it - let it dampen your hair, skin, and clothes - until it seeps into your very soul. We are indeed fortunate to have it - many others are not so lucky.

...’I will sprinkle clean water on you,
and you will be clean;...’
Ezekiel 36:25

He said to me: “It is done.
I am the Alpha and the 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