Yearly Archives: 2011

Tree tales, muted colors, birds, and musings

“New Year’s” never has been that meaningful to me, coming as it does in the middle of the year’s school activity. It would seem more intuitively meaningful if it happened in the spring. But this year’s ending finds me noting some new things sprouting up even in the bleak midwinter.

For instance, we visited a new nature preserve today. It was in Elmira, and there was a nice nature center/museum with some animals and exhibits as well as 10 miles of trails. It’s been a comparatively mild December with no snow to speak of yet, and though our walk was soggy, we looked hard for things with color and found some.

Gold, brown, and gray-blue -- austere but quietly lovely. This scene should be titled "Dormant."

Mosses of all varieties thrive in the damp.

In addition to moss, the russet leaves still clinging to the branches, the evergreens, and the lichens added different shades of subtle color. And the ice formed delicate leaf rubbings in many places along the way.

To me, this next photo is the coolest of all. This is an elm tree trunk, but look at the patterns carved into it by the organisms! Don’t they remind you of the Nazca Lines? I’m leaving the image large so the detail really shows.

Other tree trunk messages included this woodpecker tree with dried sap trickling from all the holes — and a nut jammed into one of them. A nuthatch’s stashed dinner?

And the other discovery was this log. Surely a pileated woodpecker has been here. Look at that pile of wood chips!

We counted a dozen red-tails in the treetops on our way to the center, but on our actual walk the only birds we saw were tiny, perfectly camouflaged, and peeping as they spiraled up the bark. We determined later that they were brown creepers. My oldest found a bird’s nest fallen into the trail and took it into the center when we got back. The naturalist worked with her to identify it and told us about eBird, a new-to-us resource we look forward to exploring.

Both daughters are turning into quite the accomplished birders, and for Christmas my oldest received this bird book after wearing out the library copy in renewals. She’s already ingested large sections of it. My youngest is getting interested in drawing birds, and we went over the 5 elements of shape in Drawing for Children the other day to hone her eye. She loved that and has started churning out bird art.

(I have always felt overwhelmed by the idea of working systematically through Drawing with Children, but she certainly responded. Maybe Mom should get her act together and give it a try.)

It felt good to get outdoors, even though the sun went under by the time we were done. There’s always something to see, and now we have a place we can look forward to investigating more in the future. I really enjoyed the exhibits at the center, especially one that explained the five layers of the forest (canopy, understory, shrub, herb, and litter), and the different stages of a hickory/oak forest. (Anyone know of any titles to study these subjects further?) So we’re ending 2011 with a seed of exploration planted for 2012.

I took this photo with my phone, but I like its blur and dreaminess. It's a good representation of the path into the future, isn't it?

A Wing in the Door

A Wing in the Door by Peri Phillips McQuay is by turns a beautiful and a frustrating book. It narrates the fate of a female red-tailed hawk taken illegally by a would-be falconer from her nest when only a month old. The hawk — named Merak — is confiscated by Canadian authorities and kept at a rehab for awhile to be “untamed,” then released at a conservation center. McQuay and her husband, a naturalist at the center, live on site and observe the bird over the next several years.

At first there is some question whether Merak has been humanly imprinted, but it doesn’t take long to see that she has been. Her antics are both heart-breaking and humorous: building a nest on the front porch to lay her yearly eggs (always infertile, because she never mates); sparring with cats and dogs; finding various ways to communicate her moods to her human caretakers. For that is what the McQuays become, even though the original intent was to usher the hawk back into wild living. She proves permanently damaged — McQuay often uses phrases like “essentially infantile” — by her early contact with humans.

McQuay’s writing is beautiful. Her response to nature is poetic, and she finds many ways to infuse the narrative with interesting information about red-tails from her ongoing research. I found much of the material fascinating and could relate to many of McQuay’s perspectives on nature.

What was frustrating, though, was the co-dependent relationship the McQuays seem intentionally to preserve with Merak. It is clear early on that the hawk can hunt for herself. I couldn’t understand why they kept providing her with mice and (in winter, when she refused to migrate) muskrats from local trappers. It would have been more responsible to leave Merak completely on her own for a time to establish whether she could provide for herself, and, if she couldn’t, then keep her captive for use in the center’s educational programs. Our local nature center has several hawks that are not able to live in the wild, and they are licensed to keep them and provide for them, offering them some quality of life as well as protection.

Instead, the McQuays persist in providing food for the hawk as well as interposing themselves in other ways. Parents who never let their growing children make any decisions or experience any consequences on their own will be left with an unhappy, demanding human ill-equipped for life. In the same way, the McQuays end up with a moody hawk who looks upon them as her tribe, responsible for providing for her needs, and sharing her territory. By the end of the story they at last begin withholding food, and the hawk becomes more independent. (Even after Merak learns to supply her own food, McQuay’s husband interferes on one occasion by knocking a wild rat snake out of the hawk’s talons. ???) But she will never be wild, and she never learns how to relate to other hawks. It was hard not to feel that the McQuays were complicit in the unfortunate long-term results of the original crime against Merak.


Christmas Eve hawking and walking

We went for a walk on Christmas Eve morning. On the way to the trail, we saw this guy hunting for his breakfast. He posed for us in a variety of postures.

He looks chilly with his feathers all fluffed, doesn’t he? He changed branches after studying us coldly for a few minutes.

Then he flashed his lovely feathered pantaloons, and flew away with a few piercing “Keer!” calls. My husband was convinced that he was saying, “Merry Christmas!” I’m not so sure, though.

A few moments later, we came upon this one. I think of this redtail as a “she,” because she was larger. She also looks rather coy. It’s a younger hawk without the red tail feathers yet.

The walk was lovely. It was quite cold, and we didn’t see any wildlife to speak of; all the action in that regard had already happened by the time we got to the trail. But there were other feasts for the eye, even in this season of muted colors.

We had a wonderful Christmas. (It’s still going on today, in fact, with more family celebration.) I hope you did too!


The Messiah

Last year, I wrote a post about the reasons I love Handel’s Messiah. It’s one of the posts that was lost when I switched hosts. But again I’m thinking of this sublime weaving of art and truth, delighting in it in my kitchen, in my car, and with my children.

On Sunday, my husband was called into work before church and was there all day. He called and invited us to meet him for supper at Friendly’s, and on the way I popped The Messiah in. Just as we pulled into the parking lot, we heard, “And His name shall be called, Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace! The Everlasting Father — the Prince! of Peace!” I was compelled to stop so I could throw out my conducting arm on “Wonderful!” (Fortunately, there was no one behind me.)

This was a repetition of an incident earlier in the week, when my husband was getting ready for work, and I was blasting the Hallelujah chorus in the kitchen. I was conducting with a spatula, caught in the midst of unloading the dishwasher. He burst forth in a falsetto “Haaaaaaa-lle-LU-jah!” sending the girls into gales of giggles.

It’s interesting to me that although this music is more highbrow than our usual fare, they always respond to it. That morning, my youngest twirled around the kitchen, arms spread. Sunday, on the way home from Friendly’s, my older daughter said, “We need to put this cd in and all be in the kitchen for awhile, listening.” There were questions (“Did she sing, “He shall speak peace to the heathen? Who are the heathen?”) There were aesthetic observations (on “Rejoice Greatly,” my oldest commented that it sounds like laughter — something I confess I never thought of myself. How could I have missed it? That soloist sounds like she’s laughing her head off.) There were more twirling and conducting, more failed attempts to sing along with our hopelessly couch-potato voices. I told them that traditionally, people stand for the Hallelujahs, and so there was some standing on chairs. We also reviewed the “Hallelujah” flashmob on YouTube.

It’s such deep, moving truth, set to music! Our methods of celebrating may be a little unorthodox and loose. They’re undisputably geeky as well. (I’m comfortable with my geekdom. The world needs geeks.) But The Messiah is one of the real delights of this season for me. I love the way it’s all Scripture, and the way that the repetition creates a model of meditation: a phrase or verse is sung over and over, building, as it gradually sinks in. Much of it is from Bible passages I might find inaccessible, or might read right over, if I were reading it by myself. But hearing it sung and accompanied with all the synergy of instruments and voices brings it into a whole new life.

It’s said that when someone congratulated Handel on the effect a performance of The Messiah had on its audience, he replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them — I wish to make them better.” I’m not sure what he would think of our antics. I’m not sure what he’d think of the sounds I heard as the girls were getting ready for bed on Sunday night — snatches of operatic trills and mundane statements delivered in the style of Handelesque recitative (“It’s time, it’s time, it’s time to brush my tee-eeth!”). But maybe The Messiah was making us better — more joyful, more animated by God’s Word, more mindful of the wonder of the Incarnation, from Bethlehem 2000 years ago all the way into our kitchen. And for that, I rejoice greatly.

Merry Christmas!


My pastor mentioned Outliers in a Sunday school class. He’d read part of it, and it sounded interesting. I picked up a copy at the library to read, but I wasn’t expecting it to provoke so much thought or to have such an impact. It’s really given me a lot to think about.

“Outliers” are exceptional people — people who excel far beyond the norm in some way. Malcolm Gladwell takes a number of such figures — software gurus, pilots, hockey players, lawyers, geniuses — and examines their stories. He ends up showing that all of these people emerge from social, economic, cultural, geographic, historical contexts, rather than being “self-made.” “It is not the brightest who succeed,” he concludes, “…Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

He puts it pretty strongly there. I don’t agree with quite such a strong emphasis on outside factors; the giftedness of these individuals is crucial to their success, too. But looking at the Bible, I see that context matters. Look at Joseph, who was prepared for his position of power in Egyptian government through the seeming tragedy of his betrayal and enslavement. Or look at Moses, prepared for leadership in Pharoah’s household. Look, even, at Jacob, a weasel, but one who was loved and promoted by his mother, and so he rose above his brother in the long run. It all seems to reinforce what Gladwell refers to as “the Matthew effect,” based on Matthew 25:29.

The book is interestingly written and researched, and it made me think deeply about a number of things — only a few of which I’ll mention here, in order of ascending importance.

First, parenting. There is a difference, Gladwell explains, between the way different classes parent. Lower class, poorer parents tend to care for their kids, but let them develop on their own. Upper and middle class parents are much more involved, teaching their children how to assert themselves, and how to live comfortably in the world of people. Part of the way they do this is through conscious instruction in how to communicate and carry themselves, and part of it is through scheduling their children’s time and exposing them to lots of different experiences and activities.

I find that I’m a blend of these approaches. I think free time is important, especially for younger children. But I also see the value of giving them varied experiences in varied social contexts. I’m not sure what exactly this means for us, but I felt this book affirmed the direction my thoughts are already going on that score. I have no desire to overschedule my kids’ time, but I think it’s time to be more proactive about getting them involved in more activities.

Gladwell describes the best parents as actively looking for their children’s gifts and interests, and seeking out ways to cultivate them. I’m pretty good on the first half of the sentence but tend to flounder on the last half. I mean, I find play options for them to do the things they want to do; I have one daughter who wants to be a museum exhibit designer, and I get her dioramas to build, clay and legos to create with, drawing supplies, miniatures. But what can we do outside our four walls to cultivate this design interest? How can we bring it outward into more cooperative endeavors with others? (My other daughter is a little less focused. She wants to be either a pet store owner, a horse trainer, or an artist. I feel a little less pressure there…)

Another thing the book gave me lots of food for thought on was education. I think any home educator would find this book stimulating, not necessarily because we’ll agree with all of Gladwell’s conclusions (I certainly didn’t), but because there is so much interesting material about the learning process, and the values common to excellent students. As a teaser, I’ll mention rice paddies, taking 22 minutes to solve a math problem, and how Asian cultures count as factors Gladwell mentions. If you want to see how on earth they fit together, you’ll enjoy reading this.

Ultimately, of course, the book makes me think about what constitutes “success.” The operative definition for Gladwell seems to include wealth, recognition, and full realization of potential. He argues for a culture in which more people can succeed in these terms, one that could be brought about if we made a few key changes in our thinking. As a Christian, I find myself thinking about how I would define success differently. I believe there is a loving Creator who has a purpose for me. Wealth and recognition may or may not be a part of that. True success would mean transformation of the thoughts and intents of my heart toward Christlikeness, toward love for others.

But I think it also involves full realization of potential, as in the outliers Gladwell discusses. How do I parent in such a way as to help my children “succeed” as followers of God? How can I use the knowledge in this book to help my children become the people God made them to be, with the influence he intends for them to have? How can I help them to reach beyond the limits I feel myself? They have gifts and talents and aspirations meant to be realized, meant to be shared with the world. We all do.

One of the most interesting things Gladwell points out is that outliers all seem to follow the 10,000 hour rule. The Beatles, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Jewish lawyers who specialized in corporate takeovers — all of them had already put in 10,000 hours practicing in their field of expertise so that when their moment of opportunity came, they were prepared for it. It takes 10,000 hours, one neurologist explains, for the brain to assimilate all it needs to know to achieve true mastery of something. Gladwell points out that it’s next to impossible for anyone to log 10,000 hours at something by the time they’re a young adult — unless they have parents who support and encourage them. This book has been a wake-up call to be more intentional about some things with my children, and I believe that in the big picture I’m going to be very glad I read it.

I Saw Three Ships

The girls and I read Elizabeth Goudge’s I Saw Three Ships last year for Christmas, but it didn’t wow any of us. In fact, none of us even remembered it.

This year was different. It’s a short chapter book, and we read through it in a more concentrated way than we did last year, in two sittings. It charmed us.

Here’s the plot summary from the jacket:

Little Polly Flowerdew lives with her two maiden aunts, and she is absolutely sure that something special is going to happen this Christmas. She leaves her bedroom window open on Christmas Eve, just in case the three wise men decide to come visit. When she wakes up on Christmas morning, more than one miracle seems to have taken place.

The story required us to do a little digging about the English Christmas carol, which is thought to concern the three ships that allegedly arrived at Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century bearing the relics of the Magi. A British legend that Jesus visited England as a child, three kings, three ships, and perhaps even three persons of the Trinity, are suggested and layered in this little tale. So it’s a little story with big aspirations, but somehow it doesn’t topple under its freight of symbolism.

All the verses of the Christmas carol are sung in the story, and it’s printed in entirety in the back. My youngest loved singing it. There are several versions online, and this one by Sting includes all the same verses as the version in our story book (though the wording in the third stanza is ever so slightly altered).

Merry Christmas!

Literacy and empathy

When we talk about the death of the novel, what we are really talking about is the possibility that empathy, however minimal, would no longer be attainable by those for whom the novel has died. If the novel has died for the bureaucrats who run our country, then they are more likely not to pause before engaging in arrogant, narcissistic, and foolish policies. If the novel has died for men (and some publishers and critics say that men read fewer novels than they used to), then the inner lives of their friends and family members are a degree more closed to them than before. If the novel dies, or never lives, for children and teenagers who spend their time watching TV or playing video games, then they will always be somewhat mystified by others, and by themselves as well. If the novel should die, what is to replace it?

My guess is that mere technology will not kill the novel. It is too different from movies and other forms of visual entertainment to be replaced by them, nor do I believe that novels are bannable. Too many of them reside in private hands: they would be as hard to get rid of as guns or bullets. But novels can be sidelined — dismissed to the seraglio, where they are read by women and children and have no effect on those in power. When that happens, our society will be brutalized and coarsened by people who speak rather like us and look rather like us but who have no way of understanding us or each other. (Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel, quoted in The Lost Art of Reading)

Part of me really likes this. Reading is a way into other minds, other situations, and it can increase our exposure to humanity beyond our personal experience — therefore it can be humanizing. It’s one of the cornerstones of a western liberal arts education that it creates a certain kind of person, rather than merely a set of job skills, and literature is a big part of that. Job skills are important, but you can learn them at work. Education — largely attained through reading and engaging the ideas of the great minds that have shaped the currents of history — shapes your mind and values, the soil from which your vocation will grow.

But I’m not sure I like the flip side of this idea — that without reading, we’re less human. Do we really want to say that without literature, we have “no way of understanding each other”? What did civilization do before Gutenberg? Or before around 1800, when the novel slowly began to be regarded as a slightly reputable form in the West — but only if it was highly charged with moral instruction? Is it really true that without the novel, we’ll be more mystified by human behavior? (I read a lot and I’m still mystified — by others, and by myself.)

I think this passage comes on more strongly than I’m comfortable with, but I agree with the basic gist about literature as — well, one of the humanities.

Rufous Redtail

I read this book when I was around 10, and I’ve always remembered it as one of the best. I didn’t remember all the details, but I remembered some of them. Mostly I remembered it as a book that had a strong impact, opening my eyes to new knowledge and moving me deeply.

You won’t find much about Rufous Redtail (1947) online, or about its author, Helen Garrett. There is more information out there about its illustrator, Francis Lee Jaques. Out of print and priced far out of my range, this novel makes an appearance from time to time at used book sites. It follows a red-tailed hawk from the day he hatches out of his egg, through his mastery of flight and hunting and his fall migration, on to his return to the Northeast in the spring and his finding of a mate and raising of a family. (We live in the Northeast, and red-tails don’t migrate in the winter. Rufous spends summers farther North than we are.)

A young red-tail in our neighborhood.

Our library system doesn’t have it, but a wonderful librarian found a copy at the library of the state capital and requested it for us. It took us four days to read, and we enjoyed every word and picture. It’s full of detail about red-tailed hawks, and I wish I could learn more about its author, who must have had many opportunities to observe these grand birds firsthand. But it’s also a coming-of-age story that takes Rufous from the egotism of a newly hatched chick bursting with pride to the confidence and knowledge of a mature adult hawk. We laughed often as we read, and were sometimes brought to tears.

Another local red-tail, this one mature.

The birds talk in this book, but it’s not sentimentalized the way Thornton Burgess’s stories are. The dialogue carries the plot forward and gives us necessary information without spoiling the realism of the characters. Unlike many of the modern nature books we’ve read, there is no politicization — no page in the back highlighting the loss of habitat of this species, no legislative initiative for this or that, no website to visit to see how you can help. These things have probably been worthwhile and helpful in protecting species and cultivating an ecological ethic. But what shines through in this novel is love for nature, wilderness particularly, and for the creatures that make their homes there.

I think this delight and wonder are stronger influences than anything else. Reach the hearts of children, and they’ll remember. I have remembered this book for several decades, not because someone was defending hawks, but because someone painted their lives in words in such a way as to make me respect and admire and love them myself. I can’t see into the future, but judging from their reactions, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear my daughters saying the same thing someday.

Jaques' illustrations adorn the inside cover.

The Lost Art of Reading

David Ulin’s Lost Art of Reading has been a thought-provoking little book. Described as a “ruminative essay,” this compact reflection on the distinctiveness of reading, and its role in an increasingly networked information age, doesn’t really make an argument against technology or predict the death of reading. But it does acknowledge some ways books and reading are being changed by technology, and makes a case for being proactive about finding ways to preserve the immersion act of deep reading.

This author has very different tastes in books than I do, and when he talks of his own literary autobiography — his experiences with various books that have shaped him in the course of his life — I’m rarely familiar with the authors and don’t relate very well. But we all have our own stories of books that have been important to us, and experiences of reading that we treasure.

Ulin makes reference to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (as well as other sources), a book I read and liked very much last year. But where Carr makes a thorough examination of the effects of the Internet on our brain “circuitry,” Ulin’s focus seems more personal. How should we respond to the distractibility we develop when we spend time online? Ultimately his conclusion is not all that remarkable: “I sit down. I try to make a place for silence. It’s harder than it used to be, but still, I read.” There is a pleasure in the journey, though, as Ulin’s observations about why reading matters, and what we come up against as we seek to get lost in a book, strike many familiar chords. I really liked his analysis of reading on the Kindle, something he has mixed feelings about (as do I). It was an affirming read in this sense.

As I neared the end, I found myself paying closer attention to my own online habits, and it’s not pretty. The main thing I notice is how many times I feel the urge to go to the computer for something, and then I tend to drift out into Internet-land for much longer than I intended. So I started to challenge that urge by setting a time for computer work, closing the laptop, and keeping a notebook and pen close by to write down anything that occurred to me to do online: check the weather; check email; see if Jessie Wise has a 5th grade grammar book coming out; track the packages that should be arriving this week; check on some blogs; visit the IEW website to see if my feelings have changed about that writing program’s approach; blog post ideas; et cetera...

I saved these tasks till the designated time, then sat down with my list. It felt good, and it worked pretty well; I closed the laptop again when I was done. I’m going to keep doing it. (Not even New Year’s yet, and this sounds like a resolution.) It was a small thing, a small boundary, but it helped to keep me more fully available to my offline life, which includes important (loved) people and things to do, along with some drudgery — and some reading time. I used it to finish up this book. I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read The Shallows. Otherwise, start with that one. Like this one, it’s not a polemic, but it does establish a foundation that makes a more narrowly focused book like this one more meaningful.


Bursting with God-news

The Annunciation by Jack Mattingly

Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

“Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.” (Luke 1:28, The Message)

This afternoon I heard the song “Breath of Heaven” on the way home from the grocery store. It’s a song I’ve always assumed I liked, but today I realized: I don’t, particularly. It’s not really in keeping with the Scriptural account of Mary’s character in Luke 1. (I’m speaking from a Protestant point of view, by the way.)

In “Breath of Heaven,” Mary talks about “a world as cold as stone.” But in Luke 1, she speaks of God’s presence in the world — of his “mercy upon generation after generation of those who fear him,” and of how he “fills the hungry with good things.”

In the song, Mary says, “Must I walk this path alone?” She imagines God is having second thoughts about choosing her: “Do you wonder as you watch my face if a wiser one should have had my place?” But in Luke 1, she’s not alone. She and Elizabeth have the great gift of companionship in their high calling. And her sense of who God is is anything but distant and aloof: “My soul exalts the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave…”

In the song, Mary says, “Hold me together.” In Luke 1, she says, “The Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name.” (And later, when Jesus goes to the cross, Mary is one of the few who has the fortitude to stand near him.)

It’s an idea we try over and over: projecting ourselves imaginatively into the Christmas story. Sometimes it enriches our faith and our depth of understanding. But in this case I think it alters the story, shrinking it down into a rather desolate, impoverished mindset.

Though sometimes (for me) The Message can have a similar effect of reducing Scripture to language that’s almost too pedestrian, I think in the case of Luke 1 it captures perfectly Mary’s spiritual exuberance and moral stamina:

And Mary said,

I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.