Sunday afternoon I took in the last bits of June at Fenner Nature Center’s restored native grassland area. I strolled among innumerable flowers, bees, butterflies, dragonflies, and a few mosquitoes (They’re finally here. Hooray.) and listened to birds trilling and wings buzzing. It was the perfect summer day — the one we remember from childhood — with blue skies and time stretched out in all directions.
About halfway through the afternoon I was joined by a friend who seemed content with my company for a while.
We eventually went our separate ways, I to the pond to look for frogs and turtles, she to another patch of grass.
It was a lovely time away from people and the Internet, though I was disappointed that I could still hear traffic and some kids screaming in a nearby backyard. It has me looking forward to quiet July mornings on Lake Louise before the campers drag themselves out of bed and hiking through Pigeon River Country State Forest in October with my sister.
I asked my husband if he ever feels the pull to be completely away from people and all people-related things. He never has that he can recall. If I don’t get that kind of alone time in the natural world, I start getting anxious. We are both reluctant suburbanites. He would prefer to live in a high rise in New York or Chicago or Boston. I’d prefer to live in a log cabin on a remote island off the shore of Lake Superior. The day after I shot these pictures, he and our son spent an impromptu day in downtown Detroit, riding the People Mover and checking out the skyscrapers.
When I think about it, this is practically the only difference between us anymore. We’ll have been together 20 years this October (since I was fifteen), and in that time we’ve grown up and into one another so that we really are one, as we should be. Our culture so prizes individuality that I think this notion is rather quaint these days. But when it works, there’s nothing better.
There was a semester in college when I had three classes that all lined up nicely in my brain and enhanced each other. I can’t remember now their exact names, but I know there was at least one history course, one English course, and something else. The stars aligned and nearly everything we talked about in one class helped my understanding in another. I felt very well-rounded during those few months.
This kind of synergy can happen in work, home, the books you’re reading, the news cycle. You can arrange it or let it be serendipitous, as it was for me just recently. It began with this book, which I read in April:
I’ve been an amateur naturalist, a conservationist, and an environmentalist since childhood, probably due to the large numbers of National Geographic nature documentaries I watched…
and the books I read, which all heavily featured animals, environments under pressure, or simply a deep connection to a particular place…
I’ve been keenly interested in the Christian environmental movement, which bases its conservation philosophy on the understanding that the Earth was placed in humankind’s care and stewardship and that we have a mandate to protect it and utilize its resources thoughtfully. I’ve always been troubled by the disconnect in the secular outlook toward environmentalism because it is fundamentally illogical. If evolution and natural selection are simply natural processes disconnected from morality, there’s no real reason for humans, the most evolved, to protect the weaker species or the endangered species because that’s simply the way the world is evolving. But if everything we see in the natural world was created, declared good, and given into our care, environmentalism and conservation make sense — and must be taken seriously by those who would call themselves Christians.
What’s helpful about Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology is that the authors root their arguments not just in Genesis but in many other parts of Scripture, in systematic theology, and in history, and then they follow through into the very practical implications of praxis. They do not take up the evolution debate at all. They do not pit science and religion against one another. They don’t waste time arguing about things that, while they matter, cause division that leads to inaction. While I didn’t always agree with everything the authors said, they didn’t always agree with each other either. And yet, disagreement in some matters should not cause us to sit in our corners and not act on one of the fundamental crises of our time.
I thought the most important part of this book was the distinction the authors made between talking about the natural world as a subject and talking about it as an object. Making that little semantic shift in our thinking and speaking about our environment has enormous implications. Seeing trees and animals and wetlands and resources as subjects rather than objects puts them not simply at our disposal, to do with what we will, but in our care, which is where they should be. It means they matter in and of themselves, not just in relation to humans. So a tree is good as a tree itself, not just in how we can use it for our own convenience. A bird or a snake or a bee is valuable in and of itself, not just in relation to us. And every thing in the natural world can point us toward the One who designed it. It’s not just there for us to use, it’s there to instruct us and cause us to glorify its Creator.
They also presented the ecological crisis as a moral issue, which it is but which many Christians sweep under the rug as they debate about other things that have less to do with their everyday actions (in other words, it’s easier and more fun to argue about others’ morality rather than face one’s own role in the destruction of God’s creation).
As I was finishing up Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology in May, I began reading Madeline L’Engle’s first book in her Crosswicks Journal series, A Circle of Quiet.
I had never read her nonfiction before and I was experiencing a period of mild despair over where my work was going (or not going) and so I picked this up to read about another writer’s struggles and insights. I’m so glad I did. In L’Engle’s need for nature and solitude, I saw my own. In her struggles to reconcile with a culture that was changing and a world that was under duress, I saw some of my own struggles. In her dark times as a writer with something to say but no platform from which to say it, I felt comforted.
In the pages of A Circle of Quiet was the personal end of some of the ideas I found in Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology. Simplicity. Family. Domesticity. Introspection. And as I was reading both books I was busy planting my vegetable garden, weeding the flowerbeds, trimming the dead wood off trees and shrubs — doing my part to keep my corner of the world clean and beautiful and productive and chemical-free.
This spring has felt good. And it’s beyond the combination of beautiful weather and almost no mosquitoes. It’s slowing down, lightening up, centering myself on what matters, trusting God to bring me through my small frustrations, considering others — other people, other living things — and doing what I can to lighten their burden. It’s puzzle pieces interlocking. It’s divine synergy. And I like it.
For the past few weeks my son and I have been gathering materials and building an Itty Bitty Bungalow for a contest being run at our local greenhouse, Van Atta’s. After many hours of hunting down the perfect materials and construction, this is our entry:
The house walls are last year’s Japanese anemone stalks from the garden. The roof is shingled with pieces of pine cone (that took forever). The little trees on either side are maple seedlings growing as weeds in my garden. The door is pine bark. The lawn is moss from my driveway. The flag is yew bark and a bit of dried oak leaf shaped like Michigan’s lower peninsula. The acorns are a bench for the star of the whole scene: a dead stag beetle we came upon last summer.
Our handsome beetle is raking his moss lawn with a rake I made from toothpicks and epoxied to his body. Then I suck a needle in his..ahem…nether regions and stuck him into the soil. Every time I look at him I crack up.
I can see myself doing a lot of this sort of thing when I’m an old lady. So instead of being the crazy old lady with the nine cats, I’ll be the creepy old lady with all the dioramas of dead bugs in her house.
Yeah. That will definitely be me.
Voting on the entries happens this weekend at Van Atta’s Spring Open House. I won’t be there (I’ll be in Colorado visiting a friend) but my boys are going to vote in my absence. We’ll let you know if we win anything next week!
At Fenner Nature Center on Sunday I observed a chickadee couple hollowing out a stump to nest in. I think chickadees are my favorite small birds. It took me a while of slowly creeping near to get close enough for a good photo. Then a jogger ran by and off the chickadees flew. I stayed in my spot for another few minutes, and they did come back.
The key to photographing skittish wildlife is always patience. Stay there, stay still, and they will eventually come near. It will always feel like it takes longer than it should, and because we’re programmed by everything in life not to wait silently you will want to give up, get up, and get on with it. Don’t. You have to force yourself to be still and be ready — that means you have your camera trained on the spot you believe the animal will appear, you have it focused, your eye is at the viewfinder, and your finger is on the shutter button. You can’t move your head or the camera or your hand after the animal has appeared, because that movement will frighten them. You have to be ready and you have to wait.
I guess one other helpful attribute is the ability to notice. I almost missed seeing this deer and her companion across the little pond where I was hoping to get a better look at the frogs I kept hearing.
One thing’s for sure: you will always miss moments like this if you never look away from that infernal smartphone. Life is out there. Go look for it.
The luck of the Irish must have been with me. I finally got to see and photograph the Northern Lights last night.
I’m so grateful for this as I’ve been aching to see it. It’s far brighter in a photo where the shutter was open for 60 seconds than it was in real life. Most of the time it just looked like a hazy cloud on the horizon with a few brief little curtains. I wish I’d figured out the right settings on the camera sooner and caught those, but I am happy with what I have at the moment. There will be more opportunities later in life to catch more.