Caterpillar Cogitations

3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3)

It’s been a few years, but we decided to bring home some monarch caterpillars and observe them through their process of transforming into butterflies.

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Currently we have 4 caterpillars and 4 chrysalises. The most recent chrysalis formed last night as we watched. First, the caterpillar found a good spot and attached itself with a silk button. Then, it hung in a J and waited for a day or so.

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We kept a close eye on it and got some video when the transformation finally began.

Monarch Metamorphosis from Snaphappy on Vimeo.

The whole process takes longer — perhaps a half an hour. The finished product looks like this.

IMG_0797What strikes me the most is how different the process is than I pictured as a child. I never happened to be watching when the chrysalis formed, so I imagined that the caterpillar somehow “spun” its casing — the way a moth does. But in reality it’s much more writhing and uncomfortable than that, and the chrysalis itself seems to grow from within the caterpillar. Up it creeps, carving away all the old caterpillar skin and legs and face, trappings the butterfly will not need.

Is there a spiritual comparison? I think so. For a Christian, transformation begins in the heart that trusts in the Lord. From there outward, he recreates a soul fit for what Hannah Hurnard called “the high places” of his kingdom — a term fit for a butterfly as well as for a mountain goat of the kind Hurnard had in mind.

I’m one of many that has mused over these things. The pictures God places in nature as reminders of his amazing work bring truths back to our attention in powerful ways!

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour… (William Blake)

Bagged

See who was in our garden today, enjoying the shade under the beans and tomatoes.

Peter Rabbit
Peter Rabbit

Thus my older daughter found yet another use for her butterfly net:

bagged

We let the little guy go outside the (useless) fence. Looks like we’ll be needing a finer mesh fence!

Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith

Natures Witness coverRecently a question occurred to me: what if the way we read the Bible is all wrong? Typically we approach it with the idea that the world was perfect until humans messed it up through sin. Jesus came and gave it all a partial fix. Now we can be restored to relationship with God, and live out our lives knowing that we’ll go to Heaven when we die. Meanwhile life on earth gets worse and worse, and the end seems to be approaching, but God tarries because he is gracious.

Lately, bothered by the pointlessness in this view of even redeemed human life, and equally bothered by the awareness that there was plenty of death and suffering on earth even before humans came on the scene, it’s occurred to me that maybe creating humanity in the first place was God’s first movement toward redemption: the creation of “rulers.” Then Jesus came, a divine corrective and clarification of our understanding of humanity’s role in creation. Now the Holy Spirit inhabits us, and we are granted access to a whole dimension “by faith” whereby we are supposed to be doing what Adam and Eve were originally supposed to do: “rule,” or “tend,” the creation as God’s representatives, made in his image. Rather than awaiting a transformed world in the distant future, the Kingdom is operative now. This is what Jesus said, after all. But looking at our typical experience of the Christian life, it’s hard to see it in action. Could we be missing something important, simply because we are looking through the wrong glasses?

I’ve been picking this idea up and putting it down, not sure if I’m being heretical or not. I’ve even written about it here, in a post I published privately, as I do with all my potentially heretical posts. Imagine how I felt when I encountered a similar idea in the pages of Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith. Except here it is developed more fully, and set into a fuller context of both science and theology. Perhaps, writes Daniel Harrell,

creation is not so much something good that went bad but something started as good that just is not yet done. It’s as if redemption was the purpose from the beginning. It’s as if the creation is being pulled, called toward that day when all things become radically new in Christ. If perfection never was and is “not yet,” the appearance of evil and suffering (including the suffering and struggle depicted by Darwinian science) is no longer inconceivable. That the serpent got into the garden may suggest that everything was not yet right with the world, even before everything went wrong… What this entails is that you flip your Bible around and read the end as the beginning. Instead of Genesis, what if Revelation is the more plausible place from which to view God’s creative design? What if the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1) already exist in eternity, and we’re just waiting for our experience to catch up with that reality — a compression, if you will, of eternity and time.

Daniel M. Harrell is a long-time pastor and has a doctorate in developmental psychology, and in this book he takes up the subject of evolution and whether it can be harmonized with Christian faith. Often Christians approach science defensively, rather than remembering that if all truth is God’s truth, and if God is the Creator of nature, science too will attest to his character and authority. Harrell points out that science and faith once had a cooperative interest in studying the natural world, but in more recent times, not so much because of scientific knowledge but because of the competing interpretations given to it by some branches of science and the church, this relationship has become much more wary.

This book is a model for how to explore the subject of evolution from a Christian perspective. “Christian theology doesn’t have to submit to accurate scientific findings, only to account for them,” Harrell explains. “Authentic faith strives to believe in what is rather than in what we wish was. All truth is God’s truth, however you look at it and whether you like it or not.”

This is not always easy, of course, and sometimes we need some help thinking things through. I’m an example of that. It’s not that I have intellectual problems with the idea that God could have used evolution; it’s that evolution involves so much pain and death and time that it seriously challenges my understanding of God’s love and his personal nature. This is something Harrell has felt too:

Theology teaches me that the character of creation reflects the character of the Creator — God’s beauty and order and goodness and purposefulness. But as soon as you start thinking about what an evolving creation truly reveals — namely, cruelty and disorder and indifference and randomness — you can’t help but wonder about your faith and about the God to whom that faith points.

Delving with equal energy into both science and theology, Harrell confronts such questions head on. Nature’s Witness is a veritable popcorn popper of ideas, and it will bear (it will require) rereading at some point when my brain has peeled itself off the floor and recovered from the intense workout these pages necessitated. It’s 137 pages long and relatively fast-paced, and it proceeds, I felt, in a somewhat cyclical fashion — ideas and questions surface and resurface rather than being pinned down, exhaustively detailed, and then left there. I found the reading experience to be a little frustrating in this respect. The book’s organizational pattern wasn’t always clear to me as I was reading (which naturally could be my own fault and not the book’s), so I wasn’t able to assimilate the material as well as I would have liked to.

However I don’t have any regrets about reading it, or any annoyance at the prospect of rereading it. In fact I was reminded that one of my main reasons for reading is companionship. I read for instruction too, and for entertainment. But when you’re troubled by questions that strike at the heart of your faith, and unsure of how to move through them systematically, the right book at the right time is — well, an answer to prayer. Even the 10 pages or so of nothing but questions about three quarters of the way through. We all have questions, but too often and for too long they have been casualties of the wars between science and faith, and between biblical literalism and whatever you call its alternative (it can make the Darwinian struggle for survival look pretty tame). We’re all in this together, and this book met a need I have for those questions to be given a full hearing.

I can’t conclude without mentioning that Nature’s Witness is also entertaining. It’s written accessibly, and there are dialogues and jokes sprinkled throughout. As a reward for anyone who’s made it all the way to the end of this post, here is one example:

My uncle told me this joke: Adam is lonely and moping around the garden, so God says to him, “I can make a companion for you. She will harvest the garden and cook you delicious meals. She will tidy up the house and do the dishes. When you disagree, she will always admit she’s wrong first, and she’ll never have a headache.” Bowled over, Adam says, “What will that cost me?” The Lord replies, “An arm and a leg.” Thinking about it, Adam then counters, “What can I get for a rib?”

Hardy Winter Citizens

My header images these days contain pictures of the birds that come to our feeders. I thought I’d do a post that matches up the images with their species. There are currently eight birds in the rotation.

Dark-eyed junco
Dark-eyed junco

This is a female; the male is darker. A pair of these nested in our hanging plant a few years ago. They usually feed on the ground, but we’ve seen them several times on our tube feeder this year.

Mystery junco
Mystery junco

This one has more tan on its sides than the juncos we ordinarily see. I think it may be one of the western variety that has ventured east, as they sometimes do. (Or so I’ve read.)

Female goldfinch in winter drab
Female goldfinch in winter drab

In summer these birds (especially the males) look like drops of fire as they dive from the branches to the feeder, but in winter they’re more dull-colored. I’ve read that if other birds lay eggs in a goldfinch nest, they rarely survive the all-seed diet goldfinches feed their young.

Redpoll
Redpoll

I’ve never noticed this bird before, but they’ve appeared at our feeder this week. When they look straight at you they look grumpy, thanks to the black fu and black mask. :-)

 

See what I mean?
See what I mean?
American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow

This bird doesn’t come to the feeder; it’s one of a flock we saw on a recent walk. It’s plump with a spot on its breast and a yellow lower beak.

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

I love white-throats, though prior to this year I thought they lived farther north in summer and migrated farther south in winter. Maybe because of the placement of our feeder further from the house this year, I’ve discovered that they are year-round residents in this area of New York.

Carolina Wren
Carolina Wren

I adore this little ball of bird that’s been coming to our cake of homemade suet (Christmas morning bacon drippings, hardened with peanut bits and sunflower seeds). It’ll be one of the earliest singers in spring, belting out its earsplitting “Teakettle Teakettle TEA!” (*Edited to add: I’ve since read that using bacon drippings for suet is not a good idea, so we won’t be doing that again!)

 

Black-capped Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee

Who doesn’t love chickadees?

Forget your troubles, try to be
just like that cheerful chickadee
and whistle while you work…

Actually,  chickadees are made of strong stuff. It was 5 degrees out this morning! They and the other little birds fluttering around out there are in a life-and-death search for food all day long today. It makes the bird feeder more than just a source of pleasure for us birdwatchers.

I read in The Forest Unseen that chickadees have various adaptations to the cold. They grow 50% more feathers in winter (the original down jacket). They sometimes sleep huddled together in a “ball of birds.” And they search constantly for food with eyes that are lined with twice as many receptors as humans’:

On a winter day, the birds need up to 65,000 joules of energy to keep themselves alive. Half this energy is used to shiver. These abstract measures become more understandable when they are converted into the currency of bird food. A spider the size of a comma on this page contains just one joule. A spider that fits into a capitalized letter holds one hundred joules. A word-sized beetle has two hundred and fifty joules. An oily sunflower seed has more than one thousand joules…

Sharing this information, I’m doing what I can to show what a great thing it is to keep the feeder filled in winter. And the fun of watching the birds is one of the real pleasures of the colorless season. There are many more than the eight species I’ve managed to capture lately in pictures: cardinals, titmice, nuthatches (red and white-breasted), house finches, downy and hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, mourning doves. There were bluejays, though they seem to have vanished. But as my stock of pictures grows they’ll appear in my header, at least for awhile.

 

Morning Reflections

Young Redtail

This morning I went for an early morning walk. This young red-tailed hawk was perched in a tree beside the road, and it was easy to spot. The morning sun struck its white breast and it seemed like it was emanating light.

Actually, it was sharing a few moments with a sibling, as I saw when I got a little closer.

Neither has a red tail yet; that won’t come till their first molt. But they both appear healthy, learning to shift for themselves in this first autumn on their own.

It’s always exciting to me to see these regal birds, and there was nothing on my walk that really compared. Just the usual suspects — chickadees and nuthatches, titmice, crackling leaves and squirrels, deer crashing away with a flash of white tail.

Breakfast time

But as always it was an internally productive way to start the day. As I walked, praying periodically about this or that as things came to mind, I got to thinking about the hawks again.

Last fall, I dreamed of getting a photograph of a hawk in a tree. The sight of a perching hawk on a bare branch seemed a symbol of wildness to me, a glimpse of rugged but elusive beauty. I thought it was impossible for me ever to capture in a photo.

As it turns out, I’ve gotten all kinds of hawk pictures over the last year, some in trees, some in flight — some, even, on our swingset and bird feeder. It began with a seed of desire, and then the opportunities came.

Same with photography. I replaced our old point-and-shoot with a better one that had a zoom lens, and I began to notice nature. The more I noticed, the more I wished I could take better pictures.

Then, at Christmas, my husband surprised me with a completely extravagant, completely unexpected thing: a digital camera. A year earlier, it would have been meaningless to me. But it had started with a seed of desire, and then, there it was.

I have other desires, yet to come to fruition. In unexpected ways over the last year, my thinking has been both clarified and enlarged about God’s purposes for our family, and for me. What form they will take remains unclear, but it gave the morning a shaft of color and possibility to recognize a few of the good fruits of past desires.

I believe God prepares the ground before sending blessings. And though uncertainty characterizes the season of planting, and even of watering, it doesn’t last forever. Sooner or later, the first fruits are produced.

All this also comes from the Lord Almighty,
whose plan is wonderful,
whose wisdom is magnificent.

Isaiah 28

Book Sale Bounty

This week is the annual Penguin Putnam book sale here in my town. It means a whole warehouse filled with new books, sold at discount prices.

I went on Saturday, the first day, by myself. My hope was to find some Christmas presents, and I did find a few — including the watercolor and watercolor pencil art sets pictured here. Older Daughter really wants a bird encyclopedia, but the only bird book I found was Eyewitness Bird, a book already well-known from our library. For $2.00 it was worth buying our own copy — but it wasn’t quite the encyclopedia I was looking for.

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This year I was struck by the avalanches of words. So many books! So many readers! To be honest, even for a reader it seemed almost oppressive in some way… So much to wade through in search of the words I may need at a given time.

I didn’t really want to go back. But both daughters had been looking forward to the book sale for months, and since I like that they long for books, and I want to encourage their love for reading, we set the limit at $25 braved the crowds again last night.

This time, we found a bird encyclopedia, as well as a field guide that expands on the Smithsonian guide Older Daughter has already pored over countless times. We also saw a Disney Princess Encyclopedia that Younger Daughter immediately went into raptures about. I am setting them aside to give them at Christmas — not my preferred style, which is to keep gifts secret until Christmas morning, but I think they will have enough to occupy themselves with until then.

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Aside from the The Meaning of Marriage, these are the girls’ choices. Younger Daughter’s picks are a bit below her reading level at this point, but both girls read, as the conventional wisdom recommends, at several levels: a little higher, for challenge; a little lower, for confidence; and spot-on, for steady practice.

What always strikes me as remarkable is the girls’ propensity for reading nonfiction. That’s a taste I didn’t really acquire until much later. I always joke that I chose English as my major field because I could only read and absorb stories. Perhaps my daughters will have a wider world to choose from!

In any case, we always come home feeling far richer than can be measured by our actual expenditure.

The Birds Our Teachers

“Many Christians have a good doctrine of redemption, but need a better doctrine of creation,” writes John Stott at the start of The Birds Our Teachers. Because God reveals himself in his works, and because he delights in creation, Stott urges Christians to study “at least one branch of natural history” as an avenue of knowledge about God.

Seeing as I just paused in my writing of this to snap pictures of two flickers jabbing at ants in my back yard, it’s plain enough that I share Stott’s chosen branch — or should I say, wing — of natural history: birds. Many times my reflection on the beauty and uniqueness of these diverse creatures has led me to consider aspects of my faith, but in this slim book John Stott gives us the gift of an extended, biblically based exploration of what he jokingly calls “orni-theology.”

Interspersed with photos from a lifetime of bird watching, and supplemented by a dvd in which he describes a trip to the Falkland Islands, Stott’s book is a delight. Each chapter focuses on the habits of a particular species as an illustration of a spiritual principle. One of my favorites was “The Migration of Storks: Repentance.” He writes,

Would that we had as strong a homing instinct spiritually as birds have physically! The more we come to recognize that God is the true home of the human spirit, and that we are waifs and strays without him, the more quickly and painfully will we become aware of even the smallest estrangement from him, and the more eagerly will we return to him. For when we come back, we have come home.

After the clarity of a passage like that, it will come as no surprise to hear that I read some chapters of this book to my daughters. Avid bird watchers themselves, they loved the natural details, and we all added to our knowledge of birds. But equally compelling are some of these unforgettable illustrations.

This was a birthday gift from my husband. It makes a great gift for the birders in your life, but it also educates the eye of the heart. In that respect it has broad appeal to all who want to learn to read the book of creation.

Pond walk

I’m considering starting a separate blog for nature posts. The idea of a second site to maintain has never really appealed to me before, but I seem to have so many photos and nature-related thoughts that a blog more narrowly focused on the subject might actually work.

But in the meantime, I can’t resist sharing just a couple (out of many!) of the sights from this morning’s walk with the girls.

Dame's Rocket
Glory the Oriole (named by the Burgess Bird Book)
Rattles the Kingfisher

We stumbled upon another nesting site, this one belonging to a red-bellied woodpecker.

There was a great blue heron fishing, and  green herons are back now too.

There were other wildflowers and ferns, yellow warblers, and two new kinds of vireos (to me) — warbling and white-eyed. We saw some turtles, as well as one “accidental” Eurasian bird, a greenshank.

Tree swallows swooped everywhere; Younger Daughter worked hard to get a photo of one in flight, and Older Daughter labored for the perfect yellow warbler picture.

It was the best possible way to spend the morning.