Fireflies on the Basil

On a recent morning I was picking some fresh basil to make pesto sauce. I found two fireflies hanging out on the basil plants. By the time I got my camera to try to get a photo they were gone, so I’m substituting a Wikimedia photo of fireflies.

Fireflies, Georgia, US, April 20, 2017
Fireflies, Georgia. By Jud McCranie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
I checked each basil leaf as I washed them and I’m confident that the fireflies didn’t get into  the pesto (unlike the bug that survived three washings of the lettuce and found its way into a salad).

Two years ago, during our first year in our current home, we hardly saw any fireflies in our yard. Even now the air is not filled with them in the evening, but there are many more than that first summer. I should have suspected that we might not get many fireflies when I was contacted by a lawn care company that first spring. They wanted to have a technician come and spray the yard with pesticide. The previous homeowner had a contract with this company, and I think they also sprayed the lawn with fertilizer and weed killer. I declined the offer.

The decision to spray for pests is a difficult one, especially for families with small children. We want our families to be able to enjoy the great outdoors, but the great outdoors is filled with health hazards. Deer wander through suburban neighborhoods less than two miles from our home. They spread ticks that carry Lyme Disease. Recently lone star ticks have made their way to the northeast. In the southeast they carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but in some colder locales they are believed responsible for a potentially life-threatening allergy to meat. Mosquitoes can carry West Nile virus and the Zika virus. Pesticides and repellents can help us keep these risks at bay. Even something as simple as wanting to keep ants from invading our homes sends us to the store for some Raid®.

As we’ve observed in our yard, the use of pesticides can have unintended consequences. Protecting fireflies is not sufficient reason not to treat a yard to keep out or destroy harmful creatures. But maybe protecting other species that play a more active role in our well being, such as pollinators, is. Beyond consideration for individual species such as honeybees, protecting biodiversity is essential, including biodiversity in the soil, which can be greatly affected by the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Whatever your summer plans are, dear reader, I hope they include plenty of time out where the bugs live: in your yard or garden, at the neighborhood park, or on a hiking trail or bike path. Do your homework and take precautions to guard your health and safety, as we will. Then when evening falls, look for the fireflies. Let them light your way toward a thoughtful, environmentally responsible plan for pest control.

Now, in honor of poet and friend Sandra Duguid Gerstman, a firefly haiku:

Firefly on leaf,
Do you light up in the day,
When I cannot see?

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Review: The Shadow of the Sun

The Shadow of the SunThe Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The writing style of Shadow of the Sun is lyrical and even poetic in places, and not what one expects from a book that covers such challenging subjects. Does that reflect the style of Ryszard Kapuściński or of his translator, Klara Glowczewska? In any case, the style alone makes reading the book enjoyable. Some of the personal accounts are harrowing, others charming. But to focus on the style is, of course, to miss the point.

Kapuściński asserts early on that to use the word “African” to speak in generalities about the inhabitants of the continent is a gross oversimplification (p. 15). With that understanding in mind he proceeds to pack into this book many vivid descriptions of African economic, social, spiritual, political, and physical life. These descriptions, coming from a white European, speak of an admirable acculturation and respect for the people in those descriptions. Statements such as “The kinds of borders for which blood is shed were yet to come into being.” speak also of a deep understanding of the history of Africa and of the lingering effects of the slave trade and colonialism that linger into the twenty-first century.

That history has more than its share of enormous tragedies. Reading the chapters on Uganda, Rwanda, and Liberia is like coming upon a bad motor vehicle accident on the highway. Damage has been done. People have been injured, lives lost. Lives have been disrupted and altered in ways that may take months or years to unfold and then restore if that is even possible. There is nothing we could have done to prevent the accident. Little we can do to bring about any restoration except to pray for the victims and their families, but we may gape and gasp at the damage anyway. What created the havoc that we see? Fog, whiteout conditions, slippery road surfaces? A distracted driver? An impaired driver? An angry driver?

Consider what Kapuściński says about the fall of Samuel Doe of Liberia on Page 252:

“History is so often the product of thoughtlessness; it is the offspring of human stupidity, the fruit of benightedness, idiocy, and folly. In such instances, it is enacted by people who do not know what they are doing—more, who do not want to know, who reject the possibility with disgust and anger. We see them hastening toward their own destruction, forging their own fetters, tying the noose, diligently and repeatedly checking whether the fetters and the noose are strong, whether they will hold and be effective.”

This book was recommended to a small book group of which I am a member. Like me, almost all of the other members are white of European descent. Speaking strictly for myself, my grasp of European culture and history is insufficient to enable me to understand current tensions on that continent. How can I expect to understand the whole of Africa or even a small part of it? Yet this book has added to that understanding significantly.

View all my reviews

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Lessons Learned, or Not

During my first season of volunteering at City Green, I learned that having too much wood-chip mulch in the soil can retard the grown of plants. The organization had received a load of what was supposed to be horse manure and wood chips that turned out to be mostly wood chips. It was spread on part of one field and tilled into the soil as fertilizer. Soon afterward seedlings were planted in that part of the field; after a few weeks many were stunted and discolored.

The decomposition of wood chips removes nitrogen from the soil. Remove too much nitrogen, and the plants in that soil won’t grow properly or at all. I noted this in a guest blog post for City Green near the end of that season.

Spinach seedlings.
Spinach seedlings that should have been mature plants by the time this photo was taken. Note the wood chips visible in the cells with the seedlings.

This season, for our garden, I decided to start seeds for spinach, lettuce, and cilantro in some used potting soil from last season. I knew there were some wood chips mixed in with the soil; we had mulched our flower containers with cedar chips last season. But I worked to eliminate the larger chips and went ahead with my plan. Bad move. As can be seen in the photo, seeds planted in this soil mixture in late March had barely germinated and were nowhere near where I expected them to be by early May. In contrast, some seeds sown directly into the garden in subsequent weeks have grown into plants that will be ready to harvest soon.

We enjoy eating produce from our garden. Thankfully we don’t depend on it for survival. If we did we might be in serious trouble.

Some mistakes and errors, such as this one, are the result of foolishness. The Apostle Paul tells us in the seventh chapter of Romans that some of the poor choices we make come about because of the persistence of evil in human nature: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (verse 19)

I just finished reading The Shadow of the Sun, written by Ryszard Kapuściński and translated by Klara Glowczewska. It is a memoir that includes stories of the author’s travels in Africa from the 1950s to the 1990s, along with brief histories of some of Africa’s most tragic episodes from that period. I will post a more detailed review here and on Goodreads but here is a striking passage from the chapter on Liberia about the fall of Samuel Doe.

History is so often the product of thoughtlessness; it is the offspring of human stupidity, the fruit of benightedness, idiocy, and folly. In such instances, it is enacted by people who do not know what they are doing—more, who do not want to know, who reject the possibility with disgust and anger. We see them hastening toward their own destruction, forging their own fetters, tying the noose, diligently and repeatedly checking whether the fetters and the noose are strong, whether they will hold and be effective. (p. 252)

Sowing vegetables in wood chips doesn’t fall to this level of benightedness, but history and personal experience teach all of us to think carefully about what we do and to seek wise counsel before we do something big and important. City Green’s field recovered and has yielded produce in abundance in the years since the wood chip debacle. Thankfully the more recent history of Liberia in particular also teaches us that, by God’s grace, healing and restoration are sometimes possible even when terrible mistakes are made.

Thank you as always for stopping by. Keep the conversation going.

Hats Off to Career Federal Employees

It can’t be easy to be a career U.S. federal employee these days. Many federal agencies are facing budget cuts, and they are being led by political appointees whose goals might include altering the missions of their respective agencies or eliminating the agencies altogether.

Two recent personal events demonstrate that, despite uncertainty and related stressors, federal employees are still hard at work, doing their best to respond to the requests of the people who pay their salaries.

Last month we applied to renew our passports. The opportunity to renew them by mail would end soon, so we completed the forms, got the requisite mug-shot photographs, paid the fees, and sent off our applications. We did not request expedited service, as we do not have any specific plans for international travel in the near future. To our surprise, the applications were processed and the new passports arrived in less than three weeks. Hats off to the passport office staff!

More recently we witnessed a citizenship ceremony at the Peter Rodino Federal Building in Newark, NJ. 102 people, representing 33 different countries of birth, took the oath of U.S. citizenship in the first of at least two ceremonies that day in that office. The staff of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices located in the Rodino building went about the tasks associated with this ceremony, which were many, with professionalism, courtesy, and respect. It would be easy for these staffers to be perfunctory and even cynical in the performance of their duties, but they displayed a genuine enthusiasm for their part in what for many immigrants may be a dream come true. Hats off to them as well!

Judy, a brand new U.S. citizen, and her son Matt.

There may not be much I can do to express appreciation for the work that career federal employees do every day. I do like the approach that some U.S. citizens at large are taking to the plight of career staff at the EPA. They are baking and sending them cookies with personal messages of appreciation.

What other tangible things can we do to show our appreciation to the career federal employees with whom we interact?

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Book Review: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

The Moral Case for Fossil FuelsThe Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex J. Epstein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m writing this because I want to allow myself some credit for having read this book. It is my sincere hope that no one reading this review will believe that I endorse the arguments in it. It will take some time to more fully understand them and work through a response to them, but this may suffice for now.

Alex Epstein is certainly an intelligent, articulate writer. He makes what appears to be a compelling case for continued use of fossil fuels to allow humanity to thrive and prosper. However, even at a quick glance it also appears that he is minimizing, or even completely ignoring the costs of that continued use.

“Human ingenuity can dramatically increase the amount of coal, oil, or gas that is available” (p. 18). Yet we need to drill in permafrost regions or deep ocean waters, blast the tops of mountains away and dump the poison-laced rubble in nearby streams, or inject brine deep into the ground and trigger nontrivial seismic events in order to do so.

Throughout the book his only reference to greenhouse gasses is to carbon dioxide. This ignores other carbon compounds such as methane that are many times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

On page 27 he compares the warnings of climate scientists to financial/investment advice given in the years leading up to the 2007–2008 financial crisis: take on more debt, riskier debt, because the things securing that debt are going to increase in value indefinitely. Doesn’t his own philosophy and advice compare more favorably with that advice, and aren’t the predictions and advice of climate scientists urging us to err on the side of caution, if anything?

He states on page 24 that the number of deaths related to climate is fifty times lower now than it was 80 years ago, even though CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have risen dramatically in that time. On page 62, in arguing in favor of nuclear energy, he observes that there have been zero deaths related to nuclear energy in the free world. That is true, but Chernobyl must be considered when evaluating the safety of nuclear energy.

I couldn’t help but think of the principle that it is possible to make statistics say anything one wants them to.

Fossil fuels allow us to pursue personal happiness (pages 84–85). This is central to his argument. Moreover, he affirms that his moral philosophy is based in the philosophy of Ayn Rand (pages 138, 213).

Mr. Epstein repeatedly claims that the greatest good is human flourishing. The resources we find around us are to be used in pursuing that aim. Their value is only seen in light of that aim. As a Christian I would argue that the created world, the environment from which we extract resources, is good in and of itself (Genesis 1:25) and deserves our protection even if we need to deprive ourselves of some physical pleasures. Yes, we need to use the resources we have to provide reliable medical care to people in The Gambia (pages 38 and 39) or clean drinking water to people in many developing nations. We don’t need to use the resources we have to indulge our passion for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (p. 85) if it means that we despoil the planet in the process.

Full disclosure: I enjoy a standard of living—yes, thanks in part to fossil fuels—that is obscenely high by global standards. If you’ve read this book and find yourself in a similar frame of mind, I’d welcome your thoughts.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Squiggles and Dots

A few days ago our daughter Betsy sent us a photo of Ellie Rose leafing through a copy of a magazine. Ellie is fifteen months old, so the photo isn’t really evidence of her precocity, especially since the section she was looking through at the time is filled with ads for graduate schools and seminaries. But it did start me thinking about forms of communication, and especially about communication that makes use of words.

Continue reading

Birds in the News

Greetings. I hope this finds you well. This is just to share two stories about birds published recently.

New York news outlets have been carrying stories about a painted bunting that has been seen in Brooklyn. This bird would ordinarily be in Florida or Mexico at this time of year, yet here it is in Brooklyn. Why? Who knows?

Meanwhile, the November 26 issue of The Behemoth carried this story about bird memory. Unlike the painted bunting, the black-capped chickadee is a common year-’round resident. If a New Jersey homeowner puts out a bird feeder, there’s a good chance that chickadees will find it.

Chickadee on the feeder.

The notion that chickadees and other birds have such remarkable memories brought to mind a post from two years ago on squirrels and how they find their stashes of food.

With no leaves on the trees, the late fall and winter represent a great time to observe birds and other wildlife in our neighborhoods. In New Jersey we will see an assortment of birds, including chickadees but probably not including painted buntings, throughout the winter. It’s worth enduring a few moments of cold to enjoy their presence.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Of Marion and Aberystwyth: What’s in a (Hymn Tune) Name?

Thanks to Sandra Duguid Gerstman for encouraging me to turn this into a blog post.

The choir’s anthem for a recent Sunday at Grace Presbyterian Church was an arrangement of the hymn tune “Marion.” When I saw this piece in the folder, the image of Robert Preston chasing Shirley Jones around the River City library popped up. But I was scheduled to bring the devotional for the choir rehearsal on the Thursday before, and The Music Man notwithstanding, hymn tune names seemed an appropriate topic. Afterward, when both the choir director and his wife shared that they had named their cat “Aberystwyth,” I knew the choice of topic had been appropriate.

So why is this hymn tune is named “Marion”? We’ll come back to that in a bit.

Naming musical tunes is an ancient practice. Several of the Biblical psalms have instructions about what tune to use to sing them. The tunes have names such as “The Death of the Son,” “The Doe of the Morning,” “Lilies,” and “Do Not Destroy.” Music notation as we know it did not exist until hundreds of years after the last of the psalms were written, and so naming tunes that the temple musicians found useful might help the musicians remember their favorites.

Some well-known hymn tunes of our day started out as folk tunes or dance melodies. Think of “Greensleeves,” (“What Child is This?”)  “The Ash Grove,” (“Let All Things Now Living”) and “Slane,” (“Be Thou My Vision”) for example. Others have the first line from the verse for which they were originally written as their names. Some bear the names of places or people. The congregational hymns from the Sunday that we sang the arrangement of “Marion” are good examples:

  • “Cwm Rhondda” (the tune for “Christ is Coming!”) refers to a valley in Wales.
  • Lasst uns erfreuen herzlich sehr” (the tune to which we sing our doxology) is the first line of a seventeenth-century Easter hymn for which this tune was composed.
  • “Isaiah Jones” (the tune for “God Has Smiled on Me”) is the name of the composer.
  • “Moody” (the tune for “Marvelous Grace of our Loving Lord”) is named for D.L. Moody, with whom the composer was associated.
  • “Hanson Place” (the tune for “Shall We Gather at the River?”) refers to the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn.

Where does the name “Marion” come from? Marion, for whom the song is named, was the wife of the composer, Arthur Henry Messiter. It seems to be the only hymn he composed, and he named it in honor of his wife.

None of us are likely to have an object or a piece intellectual property such as a hymn tune named for us, but we do bear the name of someone else.

Luke notes in Acts 11:26 that the New Testament disciples were first called “Christians” in the city of Antioch. Maybe the locals intended it as a put-down. But the name stuck, and now twenty centuries later we still bear that name. Do we honor it? To quote the expression from the 1970s, if we were arrested for being Christians, would there be enough evidence to convict us? In Oregon bearing the name of Christ cost some people their lives recently. In other parts of the world people lose their lives every day for bearing the name of Christ. Do we bear that name no matter what it might cost us?

Thanks as always for stopping by.

A Request for Prayer and Financial Help

Craig Winsor is a 45-year-old teacher at Sahel Academy in Niamey, Niger. Craig and his wife Jennifer (J.J.) teach at Sahel under the aegis of SIM USA. He recently was diagnosed with melanoma, had surgery to remove it, and is awaiting test results to learn if it has spread beyond the initial site in his back. Without waiting for the tests, his surgeons recommend another trip to the United States for a second surgery to remove lymph glands.

Craig and J.J. have requested prayer, of course, and Jody and I will be praying. Will you join us in that effort?

Craig has also shared his financial need with his supporters. SIM has health insurance but, as with most health insurance, the patient often still has significant out-of-pocket expenses. Between expenses not covered by insurance, and travel to and from the United States, Craig has approximately $7,000 in outstanding expenses from the first procedure.

We are all bombarded with requests for donations to charitable organizations, especially at this time of year. It is presumptuous to ask this, but would you please consider giving even a small amount to help defray these expenses? You can do so at SIM USA’s Web site. Craig and Jennifer’s ID number at SIM is 25646. Click “Give” in the lower right corner of the main page, then click “Support a Missionary” on the next page. Enter Craig’s name and ID number and you will be taken to a page where you can make your donation. Include this note in the Note field: “Min. Acct. Medical Expense.”

What is our relationship to Craig and J.J.? Craig is a second-generation SIM missionary. His parents, Garth and Marge Winsor, retired last year after 40+ years of service in Niger, Nigeria, and finally at SIM’s retirement village in Florida. We got to know Garth and Marge during our three years in Little Falls, New York and have supported them since the early 1980s. I taught Craig in Sunday School when he was in fifth or sixth grade.

Thank you for your thoughts and prayers. Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

Were There Groundhogs in Eden?

In the far corner of the field, between the neat rows of tomato vines supported by posts and string, hoof prints give evidence of visits by deer. Further evidence can be seen on some of the vines themselves; they have been eaten down to within a foot or so of the ground.

Out west, in Pittsburgh’s North Hills, a tiered raised-bed garden, lovingly planted and tended by our daughter-in-law, has been browsed by the local herd. These are tough deer; the hot pepper plants went first. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a juvenile groundhog found a home for itself under our shed with the help of an adult groundhog. So far there is little in the way of damage to the plants: some lettuce and kale have been nibbled, and a couple of potted salvia provided a snack. The local rabbit has actually done more damage. But groundhogs, like deer, can mow a garden down to stubble in no time.

A young groundhog has found its way into our garden.

Deer especially are part of the created world that many, myself included, find enchanting. Think Bambi’s forest without the hunters. But like weeds, when they are some place where they are not wanted, doing things that we don’t appreciate, they become pests. They test our tolerance for inconvenience and unpleasantness.

We might be able to eliminate that inconvenience and unpleasantness if we we make certain compromises. My compromise was to buy a Havahart trap. Only two days after placing the trap I watched as the young groundhog walked onto the trigger plate. An hour later he was running for his life in his new home far from our backyard. I’m not sure it was entirely legal to transport him there and so I have that doubt on my conscience. My conscience thus seared, however, it will be easier for me to make that compromise should I find that the adult is still around.

The unwary young groundhog walked into a Havahart trap and so I was able to transport it to a wooded park a distance from our home.

For a hobbyist gardener this is an easy solution, aside from the ethical questions. Solutions don’t come as easily to real farmers. On our most recent visit to our favorite pick-your-own apple orchard, we found that they had installed a deer-proof fence around the entire perimeter, no doubt at great expense. The farm with the neat rows of tomatoes, operated by City Green, has a fence around some beds but not all. Even with this fence in place rabbits and groundhogs still insist on taking a share of the produce.

How do we balance the desire to see wildlife flourishing in our neighborhoods with our desire to grow some of our own food and to surround ourselves with attractive foliage? It gets a bit more complicated when we think about choosing to grow plants that attract wildlife and arranging our surroundings so that animals, birds, and beneficial insects will want to live there. Did Adam and Eve chase away the groundhogs as they were tending the Garden of Eden? (Groundhogs aren’t mentioned in Scripture, although both the Psalms [104:18] and Proverbs [30:26] mention a member of the marmot family in a neutral context.) Will groundhogs be a part of a restored creation?

Turning back to more immediate concerns, how do farmers, and especially organic farmers, keep local wildlife from consuming and otherwise spoiling the produce that the farmers need to sell to stay in business?

These encounters with lettuce-munching rabbits and groundhogs and with tomato-eating deer have strengthened my belief that growing the produce that we need to feed our communities is a difficult occupation. I don’t fully appreciate what farmers have to do to get fresh food to local markets. My hat is off to them.

Thanks as always for stopping by.