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.

sunrise_clairmont_rd_sept_2015
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.

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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Wildlife in the Local (North Jersey) News

The Herald News for Sunday, 10th January, offered two pieces about local wildlife:

The Bergen County Audubon Society advocates for smarter gardens.

A pair of bald eagles, residents of Ridgefield Park, are given some space by a local developer.

A third article about Ivan Kossak of Lincoln Park, a birder and an environmental activist, appeared in the print edition but is not available on line.

It’s great to see the local news media giving such extensive coverage to local wildlife. Enjoy! And thanks as always for stopping by.

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.

Childhood, Curiosity, and Crows

This past weekend our granddaughter E__ and her Mom came for a visit. Yes, it is pretty shameless to exploit an adorable infant to draw readers to this blog.

Baby girl
E__ at five months.

We had planned on Saturday to take her for a walk and introduce her to the local park and library. The weather proved contrary, so we stayed in.  When E__ took a nap, Mom and Grandma left briefly to run errands, thinking that the nap would last until they returned. Within minutes she was awake and calling out, although not crying.

I can’t say that I was displeased to have a few minutes alone with her. She is good company and rewards attention with good cheer. At that moment she preferred being up and wandering about, and I was happy to oblige. We found ourselves looking out at the rain through the sliding glass doors.

As we stood there, E__ looked back and forth at the houses and trees surrounding our backyard. I hoped for a rabbit sighting but the rabbit did not oblige. Soon a crow passed over the yard and it caught E__’s attention. She followed the bird until it flew out of sight.

When you are five months old everything is new, and the objects that older children and adults find commonplace can be fascinating to you. We see and hear crows by the dozens every day, and aside from learning recently that crows will sometimes bring gifts to people who feed them,  they hold little fascination for us. That may be short sighted. I would wish for E__ that she would always be fascinated by the world around her, especially the natural world.

As it happens, the sermon at Grace Presbyterian Church this past Sunday was about children. The faith of a child—eager, imaginative, and uncomplicated—is a model to which people at all stages of life can aspire. It was not an accident that I was struck with a small sense of joy and wonder when I heard a nuthatch, saw a sharp-shinned hawk, and saw and heard killdeer on a brief walk to another nearby park today.

Spring arrives this Friday, 20th March 2015. The weather for the coming weekend promises to be suitable for spending time outdoors. I hope you get at least a few minutes to watch the crows, see whose crocuses and daffodils have emerged, or look for Venus, Mars, or even Uranus in the evening sky.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Thanksgiving and Monarch Butterflies

Overnight temperatures in the low to mid-twenties meant that most of the remaining flowers in the garden were done for. The snapdragons and marigolds had faded some weeks ago, but until the temperatures dropped below freezing the vincas had remained robust with firm shiny leaves and bright white flowers. After the freeze the flowers dropped off and the now-dull leaves drooped as if they had been steamed. The dry, brown leaves of the hydrangeas rattled with the breeze. Even the mums, heavy with spent blooms, bowed to the ground.

It was time to clean out the flower garden for the winter.

As the branches of the butterfly bush fell to the shears, a bit of color appeared in the debris at its base. It could have been a candy wrapper or other bit of human detritus. It was instead a large fragment of a butterfly wing. Probably from a Monarch, although it came from the part of the wing that is similar to that of the Viceroy. It was a moment of wonder mixed with melancholy.

A fragment of a butterfly wing.
A fragment of a butterfly wing.

Monarch butterflies have an amazing life story, as some readers might already know (see www.monarch-butterfly.com or www.monarchbutterflyusa.com). Their annual migration to and from Mexico and Southern California is well reported, as is the danger they face from pesticide use and habitat loss. A new bit of information for me this year is that four generations of Monarchs are born in their breeding locations each spring, summer, and fall.

One generation overwinters in the warm climate, finds mates and migrates north in February and March. The females lay their eggs on milkweed plants and soon both males and females in that generation die. The eggs of this first generation hatch, move through caterpillar and chrysalis phases, then mate as adults and lay eggs. Having laid their eggs, the adults then die. From egg to adult, this generation and the next two generations live only six to eight weeks.

The fourth generation goes through the same egg, caterpillar, and chrysalis phases as the preceding three, but instead of laying eggs and dying, this generation of adult butterflies migrates south, where they will hibernate for the winter to begin the cycle again in the new year.

While this story could form the basis for an essay on God’s design for creation, the thought that prompted reflection is the ephemeral nature of encounters with creatures such as butterflies. They do not hang around. The longest they stay in one place is the time they spend as a caterpillar or chrysalis, which are interesting in their own right but not as memorable as the adult. Adults visit flowers for a few seconds or a few minutes and then move on.

I am thankful to God for the tangible blessings of family, friends, shelter, sustenance, and security, and I am also thankful for the moments in the past year when I have had a slice of joy or wonder in the natural world. The moment we spotted a grape-size toad or a pileated woodpecker while out on a hike. The moment four killdeer chicks sprinted across the field at City Green. The moment in early spring when a Mourning Cloak butterfly lit nearby and we later learned that they can overwinter in cold climates due to their bodies’ ability to produce a substance like antifreeze. The moment I picked the first blueberries of the season or the last raspberries of the season. These moments are brief and fleeting, like the visit of a butterfly, but the memory of them gives reason for thanks.

Thank you for stopping by and reading. I wish you and those close to you a blessed and peaceful Thanksgiving and holiday season. May you be granted your own moments of wonder in the natural world.

Bumblebees and Chaos

Thanks to a faithful group of bumblebees, our raspberries are producing prodigiously. The bees visit blossoms throughout the daylight hours and as a result we have a constant harvest of berries. One recent morning I was picking some when a bumblebee flew into the group of berries that I was investigating. I enjoy watching the bees and I am happy for their presence so I made no attempt to flee or to shoo this one away. At one point he was close enough that I could feel on my forearm the breeze produced by the fluttering of his wings.

Photo of bumblebee visiting raspberry blossom.
A bumblebee visiting a raspberry blossom, with an immature raspberry nearby.

Of course this brought to mind the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect is an expression, if you will, of chaos theory. Chaos theory says that a small change in the initial conditions of a dynamic system will result in that system taking a very different path from the path it would have taken had the small change not been introduced. The butterfly effect expresses the notion that the breeze generated by the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can affect the strength of and path taken by a hurricane thousands of miles and several weeks away.

Could my bumblebee have something to do with Tropical Storm Polo, the latest in the series of tropical storms to threaten Baja California this year? It’s not likely. But it does remind me that small things sometimes make a big difference.

The writer of the New Testament Epistle of James had this to say about some small things:

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. (James 3:3-5, New International Version)

The negative effects of even a few poorly chosen or ill-timed words are well known; who among us has not known of a friendship, marriage, or career ruined or derailed by a few words? Conversely, we may also know of a situation where a few words or a small gesture, such as a note of thanks or encouragement, can refresh and restore a person who is going through a challenging time, and thus enable that person to persevere and overcome the challenge.

May all of our words and actions be such that they help maintain peace, harmony, and order instead of introducing chaos. Thanks as always for stopping by.

It’s late, but it’s not too late.

We tend to think of birds as raising their young in the spring. A pair of robins might build a new nest in our area in April. A pair of red-tail hawks may build a new nest or refurbish to an existing nest in the spring as well. Because we see this nesting activity in the early spring, it’s reasonable to think that spring is when a new generation is raised.

Some migrating birds that nest in New Jersey, such as barn swallows, will raise more than one brood in a single breeding season. However, their offspring need to reach maturity and build sufficient body mass in time to start the trip to their wintering grounds. It’s not a good idea for pairs of migrating birds to start new broods too late in the season.

Birds that stay in the area throughout the year, such as robins and mockingbirds, can afford to start new broods late in the season. Although it’s already September, at least one local pair of mockingbirds only recently sent their latest brood out into the wide world. Below is a photo of one of the juveniles. I’ve also just seen an immature robin perched on a fence, perhaps waiting for one of its parents to bring it a beetle or worm.

juvenile_mockingbird
A juvenile mockingbird perched on a power line.

These late-season broods remind me of a term that’s entered my vocabulary recently: Encore Career. I will update this post if I can find out where the term originated. I encountered it in the course of pursuing options for future employment.

The Baby Boom generation, of which I am a member, has given rise to the notion of the Encore Career. I’ve encountered numerous organizations, each with it’s own Web site, Facebook page, Twitter presence, blog, and so on, dedicated to Baby Boomers looking to start new careers. The conceit is fairly simple: with U.S. life expectancies in the mid-seventies, and more people remaining healthy and productive into their eighties, the notion of retiring and settling down to collect a pension or a Social Security check does not appeal to many of us.

Then there are those of us who are between careers because of layoffs or other involuntary disruptions. The pension or 401K is not quite sufficient to meet our retirement needs, and Social Security is still a few years away.

So here I am writing this blog, posting to Facebook, following lots of NGOs of various descriptions on Twitter, and attending Webinars on using social media as an outreach or marketing tool. I’m also planning to take a fairly intense copy editing course at considerable expense. Looking for my Encore Career.

Summer is over. The career that I had with Pearson is over. It’s highly unlikely that I would be hired again for a similar job in a commercial publisher. And to a large extent that’s OK.

The quote attributed to George Eliot, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”, has a certain romantic appeal and there are many times when I think I can do lots of things. Then I spend two and a half hours working at Shultheis Farm and the next day I can barely walk. Let’s be reasonable and realistic. Even being reasonable and realistic, though, I am convinced that it’s not too late to be a person who contributes in a measurable and meaningful way to the local and global community and make a living doing it. I’m looking forward to my Encore Career, whatever God has planned for it.

Bees, Trees, and Katydids: Restoration

Several recent observations have combined to suggest the theme of restoration. The first is hearing the sound of a katydid. In the backyard of a house across the street a katydid has been singing in the maple trees for some days now.

Katydids are not unusual and certainly not endangered. As this piece from two years ago suggests, they are part of the soundscape of many suburban neighborhoods. I’ve heard them singing in nearby Memorial Park, but I can’t recall the last time one was heard on this block. I remember them most clearly from the Boy Scout camping trips of my youth.

What made a katydid return to this street? Who knows? That certainly isn’t a question that’s worth a lot of time and energy, but it’s worth a moment of thought to acknowledge the change and be cheered by it.

The second observation has to do with the pussy willow tree in our backyard. I’ve written about how it was grown from a cutting taken from a tree that grew at my childhood home. It’s about thirty years old. Somewhere around twelve to fifteen years ago a large, low branch died, and the necrosis extended down the trunk to the ground. I cut away the dead branch but left the remaining dead wood attached to the tree trunk until I found that I could just pull it away.

The trunk of our pussy willow tree showing a large scar. The tree is growing around the scar.
The trunk of our pussy willow tree showing a large scar. The tree is growing around the scar.

When I pulled the dead wood away there was a scar but the healthy part of the tree already had begun to grow around the scar. The tree had started to heal itself and continues to do so to this day. There is evidence that carpenter ants have infested the tree and so its days may be numbered anyway, but it is remarkable that the tree could potentially heal itself.

A honeybee feeds on our buddleia (butterfly bush).
A honeybee feeds on our buddleia (butterfly bush).

I’ve see more honeybees this year than in the recent past. That’s the third observation. Recently I read a news article–although I can’t remember where or when–that said that locally maintained honeybee colonies have a better chance of remaining healthy and avoiding colony collapse than do commercial colonies that are trucked from location to location.

Some recent news items also suggest that restoration is taking place elsewhere in the natural world.

Little brown bat populations have been declining dramatically for years as a fungal infection known as white nose syndrome has spread. Some local populations may be showing signs of a recovery, however, as this story from Vermont shows.

Atlantic puffins are also showing signs of resilience, if not recovery, after several difficult years. (http://blog.nwf.org/2014/07/puffins-faring-wellfor-now/)

For each of these stories of restoration it’s likely that we can also find several comparable stories of degradation that has taken a species or an ecosystem beyond the hope of recovery. With all of that in mind, I have been asking myself if enough can be done to restore the health of the environment, including reversing climate change (assuming it is caused by human activity)? Is there enough healthy tissue left, so to speak, to enable the healing of the diseased tissue?

Christians debate whether the new heaven and the new earth discussed in Revelation 21:1 are really the environment that we inhabit now except in a restored state or a completely new creation. This isn’t just an academic issue. Some who hold the latter view argue that it is not important for people to work to care for the created world. The apocalypse is near and therefore so is the time when the existing creation will be destroyed and replaced with the new. Regardless of which view turns out to be correct, or even if neither is correct, I maintain that good stewardship of the heaven and the earth that we inhabit now is a valid Christian responsibility and a part of our witness to the healing power of the Gospel.

Even allowing for the fact that we may not be able to stop damaging the environment in time for healing to take place, we have to acknowledge that creation, including the human body, has a remarkable ability to heal itself designed into it.

Hiking

Hiking 1

We start together.
She is the tortoise
To my groundhog.
No hares in this event.

Jody at Ramapo July 2013

A stop at the kiosk;
Check the map;
Orange trail, red trail,
Time for a drink.

Orange trail, blue trail,
Sandwiches, fruit,
Another drink
Keep us going on.

Going on to see,
Encounter, marvel.
A big buck,
A tiny toad.

Toad

A flash of blue;
A bunting?
Cascades and rivulets
From last night’s rain.

We have not
A timetable to follow.
No need to risk
More titanium plates and screws.

Miles later,
Wide and paved with gravel,
The silver trail.
We finish together.