Darkness Isn’t All Bad . . .

Except When It Is

The first time I saw the Milky Way, some time in the late 1960s, I was on a ballfield at a Boy Scout camp in Morris County, NJ. It was awe inspiring, even to a largely clueless junior high kid. It’s no longer possible to see the Milky Way in many, if any parts of New Jersey. Maybe deep in the Pine Barrens or in the northwestern hills, but probably not within fifty miles of New York City.

Center_of_the_Milky_Way_Galaxy_from_the_mountains_of_West_Virginia_-_4th_of_July_2010
Center of the Milky Way Galaxy from the mountains of West Virginia. Photo by Forest Wander from Cross Lanes, USA (Center Milky Way Galaxy Mountains) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
The ability to view such sights is so important that some people are working to create dark sky reserves in such places as central Idaho. The absence of light is essential for those who want to observe celestial phenomena. Light pollution from cities and suburbs interferes with astronomical work that makes use of optical telescopes.

Darkness is beneficial to astronomers and to those of us who relish the sight of the stars and planets on a clear night and who hope to see a meteorite now and then. Darkness, though, has a [clears throat] dark side.

We are now in the liturgical season of Advent, the beginning of the Christian liturgical year. Advent occurs as the daylight hours are shortest in the Northern Hemisphere. This alignment of the seasons seems particularly appropriate now. Darkness fills more of the twenty-four hour day. Darkness also seems to want to fill our lives as the social, cultural, and political atmospheres in the United States are dominated by dense clouds of hatred, bigotry, and contempt for those with opposing views.

Darkness characterized the first Advent. The years between Ezra and Nehemiah, the last narratives of the Old Testament, and the Nativity stories of Luke and Matthew were dark years for Israel. Under the Persians, who were in power when Nehemiah rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem, Israel was essentially a vassal state. The Persian overlords were replaced by the Seleucids, including Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and ultimately the Romans.

Through this time Israel carried with them the promise spoken through Isaiah in 49:6 that God would send one who would be “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (ESV) Thinking of Israel during this period calls to mind the candle that remains lit after a Good Friday Tenebrae service. Did Israel remember that promise? When we see Anna and Simeon greeting Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus at the temple we know that some remembered (Luke 2:22–38).

The One who was to be the light for the nations did come. He told us that we were to let our lives shine before others that they would glorify God (Matthew 5:14–16). Yet He who is the light of the world was hidden momentarily in the darkness of the grave. In glory He arose and ascended to heaven, sending the Holy Spirit as a flame, bringing light and passion to our work (Acts 2:1–4). We also have His Word, a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105).

A further remark by Saint Paul seems particularly timely as well: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible.” (Ephesians 5:11–13 ESV) So too this remark by Justice Louis Brandeis: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

As we approach Advent and the short days of winter, and as we await the Second Advent, we can remember that we have sources of light that can help us see through any darkness. Let us live in that light, speaking what we know to be true, kind, and edifying, and shining light on the darkness that is all around us.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

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Buy Local, Give Local

Thanksgiving is followed quickly by two important days: Small Business Saturday (Saturday 25 November 2017) and Giving Tuesday (Tuesday 28 November 2017). Intelligent readers will have no trouble deciding what to do on either day. For Giving Tuesday in particular I thought it might be good to highlight some of the small nonprofit organizations that I’ve had contact with this year.

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I haven’t donated cash to or volunteered with all of these organizations. In fact I’ve volunteered with only two; three if you count playing in the Bloomfield Civic Band as volunteering. The point of this list is to encourage you to think about the charitable organizations in your own local area and think about ways that you can support them on Giving Tuesday and throughout the year.

What I would also like most of all is for you to comment with suggestions for local charities in your area that deserve support. Updates will be posted to my FB page and Twitter feed as they come in. If you and I are friends on FB or Twitter your friends will see the posts and may also be prompted to take action. I do not plan to filter any suggestions out unless they happen to be for some organization that most readers would find abhorrent. Please supply a URL along with the name of the organization.

I look forward to hearing from. Now, here’s my starter list:

Urban Farming, Sustainable Agriculture

Environment

Autism Awareness and Advocacy

Services for the Homeless and Other Neighbors in Need

Welfare of At-Risk Moms and Children

Music Education and Performing Arts

Miscellaneous

  • Friends of the (your town name here) Public Library

From Andy Walsh  (Mostly Pittsburgh Area)

  • Light of Life Rescue Mission serves the needs of the homeless and others in the Pittsburgh North Side community where I work; in fact, their newest facility will be going up where I used to park.
    https://www.lightoflife.org/
  • The Watson Institute provides services for many individuals and families with special needs, including those with autism spectrum diagnoses. The organization has a rich history, having previously served polio patients and working with Jonas Salk in developing the vaccine.
    https://www.thewatsoninstitute.org/

Final Thoughts

It should be clear to any observer, regardless of their political leanings or affiliations, that the current philosophy and actions of the U.S. federal government will make the need for private charitable enterprise much greater for the foreseeable future. Whether the enterprise is care for the environment, care for people who have fallen on hard times, or any of the dozens of other social concerns we could name, private individuals and small organizations will have a greater role to fill to meet the challenges of the coming years. Some may think that is as it should be. No matter; the needs will be there and they will be substantial. This Giving Tuesday I hope we can all stretch our imaginations and our budgets a little to stand in the gap.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Painted Ladies, Hurricanes, Earthquakes

A painted lady (Vanessa cardui) stopped and visited our coneflower (echinacea purpurea) today.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings closed

This butterfly visited as fall was arriving in the northern hemisphere. Like its more well-known cousin the monarch, the painted lady doesn’t stick around for winter. It gets out of winter’s way and heads toward a warmer locale. Some butterflies, such as the mourning cloak, can winter over in the temperate zone. That’s why mourning cloaks are among the first butterflies to be sighted in the spring.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings partly open

Sometimes we can see changes or events coming and we can prepare for them or get out of their way. In the past few weeks millions of people saw storms coming and got out of way or prepared to weather the storms. In spite of their preparations, many people suffered great personal harm from the storms. In Mexico many thousands of people had no way of knowing that earthquakes were coming and also suffered great personal harm.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings open

If you are like me, you do not have the skills to help the survivors rebuild their lives. But we can give, and we can pray. Please do both as you think about creatures who are preparing now for the coming of winter.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Is it Time to Put Hurricanes on a Diet?

We have been following hurricane news for several weeks now. Before it gets pushed out of the headlines by other events and out of our consciousness by cute animal videos or political diatribe, I thought it appropriate to do a little assessment and write out some thoughts.

Have you donated to an organization that is providing relief or recovery services in the stricken areas? If you have, good for you! If you have volunteered or will volunteer for one of those organizations, even better!. Please share your experience in the comments on this blog or on social media.

Next, have you considered the impact that climate change has had on the recent storms? That’s a little trickier to assess. Climate scientists can’t make a precise connection between a warmer climate and the characteristics or behavior of a specific storm. But they do tell us how a warmer climate can affect such storms. A warmer atmosphere, which we have, holds more moisture; storms such as Harvey can carry and deliver more rain. Warmer oceans, which we have, transfer more energy to the storm, which translates into stronger winds. We saw this in Irma.

Hurricane José graphic
Hurricane José running laps in the open ocean, 12 September 2017.

Like so much of the American population, hurricanes seem to be getting bigger. They could stand to lose a few pounds, so to speak. One solution might be to make hurricanes exercise more. As of this writing Hurricane José is running laps in the Bermuda Triangle. Let’s hope he exhausts himself before taking aim at any land mass. Inasmuch as past attempts to control the behavior of storms have failed, it seems unlikely that we will be able to do so in the near future, however.

Some changes in our diets might have a positive effect on climate change. Eating more vegetables, especially beans, instead of feeding vegetables to animals and eating the animals is one such change. If you can’t contemplate giving up meat, or even beef, altogether, may I suggest meatless Mondays or something similar? Oh, and please keep the beans-to-methane comments to yourself. Thanks.

There are limits to using vegetables as a protein source, but fish, eggs, and dairy products can help overcome those limitations while having less climate impact than red meat.

Not sold on beans as a protein source? What about crickets? Eating insects will take more of an adjustment than switching to beans, but when I shared the article on beans on social media some weeks ago, one of my connections enthused about eating barbecued mealworms.

Are you surprised that a small change that individuals can make could have an impact on the environment? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)

Next issue: food waste and climate change.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat

DeKorte Park

Labor Day 2017 was an ideal day to spend out of doors in New Jersey. We chose to spend part of the morning at Richard W. DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. The park features several trails that wind their ways through and around tidal enclosures fed and drained by Kingsland Creek and the Hackensack River. It’s a great place to see migrating birds and year-round resident wildlife. (For great information on events at DeKorte Park and other New Jersey Meadowlands sites, visit The Meadowlands Nature Blog.)

When we arrived the tide was in, so few wading birds aside from great egrets were visible. Soon after we arrived we met two photographers whose camera lenses were longer than my forearm. One of them graciously directed our view to a nearby opening in the phragmites at the water line and said that there were several least bitterns hiding there. I caught a quick glimpse of the head of one and another flew past moments later.

great egret
A great egret at De Korte Park.

We were then treated to a display by a Forster’s tern. He hovered briefly a few yards above the water, then dove in, presumably in hopes of catching a fish. I wasn’t able to photograph the acrobatics, but I did manage to photograph him while he was resting on a metal railing. Please excuse the quality of the photographs. At maximum optical zoom my camera lens is the 35-mm equivalent of about 70 mm in focal length.

Forster’s tern
A Forster’s tern. Notice the comma-shaped eye- and ear-band.

We heard but did not see several other small birds hiding in the phragmites. Two pairs of medium- to large-size wading birds (dowitchers?) flew by while we were watching the tern. We also got to see several swans, an American black duck, several goldfinches, a ruby-throated hummingbird that was being harassed by a small brown bird that we could not identify, and a couple of turtles.

The walkways and other fixtures in DeKorte Park were heavily damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. They have since been repaired or replaced and, in some cases, enhanced. Sadly, invasive phragmites have replaced much of the native flora and this undoubtedly affects the well-being of the wildlife that makes its home in the park or passes through on its migratory journey. The park staff work to keep key viewing areas clear so that folks like us can spot birds and other creatures.

The Environmental Center also has an observatory that is open to the public on Wednesday evenings from 8:00 p.m. until 10:30 p.m., weather permitting. We went one Wednesday evening in 2016 and saw Saturn, rings clearly visible, through the telescope.

DeKorte Park is adjacent to the offices of the Meadowlands Environmental Center and the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority. It’s located at the southeastern end of Valley Brook Avenue in Lyndhurst, NJ. Valley Brook Avenue turns to the right and becomes Disposal Road just before the park entrance.

The name “Disposal Road” is fitting because the offices and park are located at the southeastern edge of a large landfill that is now closed. In our less enlightened past we viewed the Meadowlands region as someplace to dump our garbage. Thankfully our governments and businesses now recognize that wetlands such as the New Jersey Meadowlands need to be preserved and protected. It’s worth a visit to understand why. Also, check out this interesting article on how wetlands mitigate damage from severe storms such as Superstorm Sandy.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat

Winter Silence

Just before sunrise, at approximately 7:15 a.m. on New Year’s Day, our neighborhood in the Allwood section of Clifton was very quiet. No surprise, really, given the day and time. The sounds that could be heard were mostly bird calls, including jays, crows, English sparrows, and a nuthatch. A grey silhouette, shaped like a mockingbird, sat in a nearby bush but made no sound.

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Sunrise over Allwood, May 2015

The birds that remain in the area during the cold months are active and vocal. They call to alert one another to the presence of predators or to the location of food sources. In a few weeks they will begin calling to attract mates and any quiet early mornings will be filled with those hopeful sounds. By coincidence our pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church, Paul Leggett, preached on New Year’s Day about the sometimes unrecognized presence of Christ in our midst. In discussing John 1:26b Paul said that anything that brings us joy, such as hearing bird calls, is a token of the presence of Christ.

By another coincidence Krista Tippett’s On Being broadcast on New Year’s Day 2017 featured her interview with Gordon Hempton, originally aired in May 2012. Hempton refers to quiet not as the absence of sound but as the absence of noise. Big difference. He also says that humans have evolved to be most sensitive to sounds in the frequency range of bird song. This suggests to him that one of the key indicators of a habitat or ecosystem that will support human life is the presence of bird song.

Silence can allow us to hear important things that we ought to hear or that will enlighten or gladden us. Silence can also make us uncomfortable or unsure of what’s coming next. I once attended a meeting with other members of an organization. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss strategies for publicizing the organization and its events. I said little and mostly listened. When I was next in the presence of another member who was also at this meeting she said she was tempted to hold a mirror under my nose to see if I was still breathing. 🙂

As Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us, there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. Many of us think now is the time to speak, if social media activity is any measure of those inclinations. Yet few of us are truly the prophets whose voices need to be heard. (Yes, I do grasp the irony and hypocrisy of that statement.) Bill McKibben is a prophet. Wendell Berry is a prophet. Tim Keller is a prophet. [insert name of your choice here] is a prophet. I am not. I need mostly to listen, evaluate and think critically, and, because being silent does not mean being passive, act in ways that will benefit humanity, the planet, and the church.

For my part I hope 2017 will be more a time for keeping silent and for being  thoughtful, intentional, and charitable when speaking is necessary. I wish for you a year filled with beneficial silences, profitable interactions with those around you, and actions that bear good fruit. May contentment and health also be yours in abundance. Thank you as always for stopping by.

Caterpillars, Compost, and Natural Cycles

Recently our parsley patch hosted some black swallowtail caterpillars. At least two were observed over several days. A family member suggested that we remove them and display them in Jody’s first grade classroom. The expectation was that they would soon enter the chrysalis stage, and would subsequently emerge as adult butterflies.

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Spring Has Come Early to New Jersey

Spring has come early to Northern New Jersey. That is a cause for concern. More about that later.

The early arrival of spring is also a cause for rejoicing. The furnace runs less, and we have more reasons and opportunities to step outside for what passes for fresh air in Northern New Jersey. The growing season may also be a bit longer. Although it is a bit of a risk, seeds for cool-weather crops such as spinach, lettuce, and peas can go into ground that later can be planted with tomatoes or summer squash.

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Do Crows Keep Calendars?

On a recent Saturday morning the air was cold and the sky was clear for the walk to the bakery. Blue jays and cardinals called in the distance but I did not stop to look for them. Other birds might have been calling but I paid them no attention. It was impossible not to pay attention to the crows, however. There were dozens of them in the trees and on the utility lines; here and there a few hopped around on the ground.

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