Friday, August 5, 2022

Summer and the Seasons

"Too hot!"  That has long been a common complaint by many people on the hottest days of summer.  However, when the extreme becomes even more extreme (aggravated in part by climate change), it can be very hard to dreamily sing "Summertime, and the livin' is easy."  Perhaps the following article, first published five years ago, can help make us more appreciative of summer as part of the recurring cycle of the seasons.

~ ~ ~

It was a late summer.  There were more clouds than typical for a summer day, but that felt good because it gave relief from the hot summer sun.  What felt even better was a breeze that brushed across my face, bringing the promise of a respite from the summer heat we had endured for weeks.  "Maybe we'll get a cooling rain," I thought.  My slight elation at the change in weather was, however, kept in bounds by a larger awareness.  Namely, I knew that the pleasant shift in weather I was experiencing was the result of a distant hurricane that was coming ashore farther away, bringing destruction upon other people.

Natural forces more powerful than myself.
The soothing breeze that brushed my face thus raises the question of how I should think and feel about those things in Nature that bring both good and bad.  That tiny breeze raises spiritual and theological questions far beyond its small size.  To my way of thinking, the most distasteful responses to a hurricane during the past few years have been by people who claimed that God steered the hurricane away from them in response to their prayers.  Those people were thinking only of themselves, and seem to have had little concern about the other people who would be hurt by a re-directed hurricane.  Nor do such comments display an awareness of a long tradition of theological thought about the matter.

A less selfish response does not require more scientific understanding of storms.  It only requires a "compassionate heart," to use a Buddhist phrase.  A wiser and more  open-hearted response to tragedy was modeled by Jesus after a tower fell, killing people.  Even without a knowledge of Newtonian physics, Jesus knew that natural disasters do not injure just bad people, and that they do not spare just good people.  Challenging his listeners to join him in that enlightened response, he asked rhetorically,  "Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them -- do you think that they were worse offenders...?  No, I tell you." (Luke 13:4-5, NRSV).  Jesus's reminder to us that "bad things can happen to good people," as we say today, echoes that same insight form the Jewish tradition's book of Job in the Bible. Job's suffering from natural forces was not a punishment.

Although in English we have separate words for "wind" and "spirit," in the Bible's original languages, the two are the same word.  We might think "wind-spirit." That equivalence can remind me when that light wind touches my face, to ask myself what my own spirit is like, especially when I know of the dangerous hurricane further away.
What winds are blowing through my own spirit?
There is another side of the coin to this matter of the uncertainties of the natural world -- the fact that natural forces can bring both damaging winds and needed rain.  I easily notice when bad luck befalls me.  In contrast, I easily overlook all the ways I have been helped by good things that were just as much beyond my control. The light wind that brushes my face can, therefore, widen my awareness even further.  The double meaning of wind-spirit can remind me to remember a larger spirit of unseen forces that support my life.  A native American Ojibwe song put it this way:
"Sometimes I go about pitying myself,
But all the while
I am being carried by great winds across the sky."


Is there a way you have come to think about the uncontrollable uncertainties of life?

Friday, July 1, 2022

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Even though I love many aspects of Nature, I confess that I am not a very good gardener.  That is why the plants in my yard that have endured over the years are those than can survive with little care (except perhaps for a brief soaker-hose during extreme drought).  One plant that has just managed to endure through tough times is a plant with an unusual common name -- the "yesterday-today-tomorrow plant."  It is so named because each flower is a deep blueish purple when first appearing but changes to a light shade the next day. On the third day, the flower has turned white.  And so, when flowers come frequently enough, they display a range of three colors.

He also lived in changing times.
The scientific name for the yesterday-today-tomorrow plant is Brunfelsia, so named for Otto Brunfels, who lived in Germany during the first half of the 1500's.  Those were tumultuous times because in 1517 Martin Luther posted his famous theses on a Roman Catholic church, thus beginning the Protestant Reformation.  Otto Brunfels' life exemplifies those changes:  He had trained in a Catholic monastery but later became a pastor of a Protestant church.  One thing endured through those decades:  Brunfels' interest in herbs, which were one source of medicines.  Although the three-volume work on herbs he wrote included sometimes questionable folklore, it also displayed woodblock illustrations, which was a fairly new innovation for printed books.  As the contemporary commentator John Lienhard states about Brunfels' compendium, "The images long outlived the words."

I know that biologists have to name species with Latin names. Nevertheless, I do enjoy how the common name for that Brunfelsia plant expresses one aspect of how humans experience time.  We remember yesterday.  We are aware of today. And we think ahead to tomorrow.  How should we handle our awareness of those three periods of time?

I think it is a reasonable assumption that anybody who has lived any length of time is bound to have some regrets about the past (even if they don't like to admit it). However, as  the 5th-century B.C.E poet Agathon wisely reminds us, “Even God cannot change the past.”

What about tomorrow?  Our modern, Westernized technologized societies change so rapidly that it makes life harder than it otherwise might be.  Our uncertainties about tomorrow can make it easy to worry about what challenges will come next.  Yet Jesus encouraged his followers by saying "Do not worry about tomorrow... Today's trouble is enough for today." [Matt. 6:34, NRSV]  (Is a bit of wry humor perhaps being displayed in his second sentence?)

What about today?  Many spiritual advisers (ranging from yoga teachers to authors of self-help books) tell us to "be present" to what is happening right now.  Or they phrase it that we should "live in the present."  I do need to cultivate awareness.  Nevertheless, I also need to draw upon my memories of the past, sometimes being sustained by them.  And I need to think about future days and plan for them.  I cannot very well be isolated in the present.

Maybe I can learn something from that yesterday-today-tomorrow plant.  Despite its name's dividing time into three parts, it is the same flower that endured and evolved through the string of three days.  There was actually a continuity through the course of time.

~ ~ ~

As you reflect upon your life, are there some continuities you would like to sustain?

Inspiration for today, and for tomorrow.

(The quotation by John H. Lienhard is from his Engines of Our Ingenuity website, episode No. 2241, "Otto Brunfels.")
(The quotation by Agathon is taken from Bloomsbury Treasury of Quotations, edited by John Daintith, © 1994, p. 523.)
(The photo of flowers is by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K.
 and is used under a  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license..)

Friday, June 3, 2022

Something Dependable

As summer approached, there was increasing discussion on the radio about the condition of my state's electric power supply.  Would it be able to withstand the high demands that would be placed upon it during summer's heat, when more air-conditioners would be run more often?  Had enough steps been taken to strengthen the state's electric grid to prevent the type of massive, extended blackouts that had occurred the winter of the year before -- shutting off furnaces, leaving people shivering inside their houses, some even dying?  The state's public-utility board and the electric grid operators both assured the public that the problems had been fixed.  And the company operating my local electricity ran TV commercials showing smiling people, happy that their electric company "had their back" (as the saying goes).  We could depend on them, we were assured. 

Nevertheless, I was not surprised when I awoke at 5:00 one May morning -- even before summer had begun -- and saw that the power was out in our house.  A glance out the window showed me that the same was true for my neighbors across the street, who are on a separate electric line and set of transformers.  Something on a much larger scale than the line to a single block of houses had been put out of commission.  And the cause had not been any extended period of intense heat, but instead a run-of-the-mill thunderstorm in the night.

Electricity of another kind.
Storm in the night
Admittedly, a power disruption for several hours is a modest challenge for most homes.  But it can symbolize the many failures of our human societies that can make them so undependable that sometimes we don't want to get out of bed in the morning.  Such incidents can, unfortunately, lead not merely to frustration (and maybe anger) but to hatred of some people who have not been dependable.  After a few hours in my house without hot coffee and without eggs being fried on my electric stove, I remembered that the power-company employees that were trying to restore the system also depended upon the same vulnerable system when they returned to their homes.  They had their challenges as well.

Fortunately, not too long after getting up in my dark house without power, there came something I know I could depend on: The sun gradually rose in the east.  It did so at the same predictable time it had the morning before.  Its light filtered through the clouds, bringing into my house a gentle but appreciated illumination through the windows.  I was able to set aside the flashlight I had been awkwardly carrying about, trying to do those morning tasks that did not require electricity.

In the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew, Jesus presents to his disciples what must be one of the most difficult of his instructions. Namely, “Love your enemies.” And what does Jesus put forward as an example that might inspire his disciples in such a difficult challenge? Does he point to some very noble person around him? No. Does he point to himself? No, not even that. Instead, what he points to is the reliable rising of the sun every morning, saying that we should be inspired by our “Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.” (Matt. 5:44a & 45a, NRSV). Thus it is that Jesus encourages his disciples to turn their attention to the non-human sphere that they might widen and deepen their appreciation of God, and thus be inspired -- even while living in human societies that can, at times, be so frustratingly undependable.

Seven hours after I had woken up in a house without electricity, the power was still not back on; and the electric company had given up on making any prediction of when it would be.  I, however, was able to make a prediction with considerable assurance: I knew the sun would set in the west that coming evening.  And I knew it would be dutifully rising the coming morning.  And that would be good.

Being energized by the sun.

~ ~ ~

(Is there a way you deal with the ordinary frustrations of life?)

(The picture of lightning is by Vedrin Jeliazkov
and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Friday, May 6, 2022

On Birds and Humans and Love

Spring brings not only the colors of new leaves and flowers; it also brings the sounds of birdsong.  Behind those reassuring notes lies the new life of nests and eggs.  That annual occurrence makes the following Wisdom in Leaves article just as relevant as it was seven years ago:

It is a tale of tender, parental care -- among both humans and birds.  It is also a tale of love, even among the birds, dare I say, even if instinctive.  The story will eventually lead to the family of a virtually forgotten 19th-century author.  But let me begin with the matter of those birds.

The contemporary naturalist David Attenborough, in his TV series and book Life on Earth, pointed out how so much of birds' instincts, behavior, and time expended is centered on nurturing one thing:  the egg, and, of course, what comes from it.  He wrote, "Birds... have to incubate their eggs and that is a very dangerous business."

Now shift back over a century to the Centennial Exposition of 1876, a world's fair held in Philadelphia.  Among the exhibits was a display of the now famous artwork of John James Audubon, who introduced Americans to many of the birds of the North American continent. The critical link in this story is that among the fascinated viewers of Audubon's art was a twenty-nine year-old woman named Genevieve Jones.  Audubon's work engaged with two of her own interests.  Growing up, she had learned watercolor painting from her mother. And she had collected bird nests while accompanying her doctor father on his buggy rounds to patients.

A project to lovingly nurture
Genevieve Jones
"Gennie" Jones became captivated by the idea of creating a book similar to Audubon's but covering the 130 species of birds that nested in the state of Ohio, where she lived with her parents. She hoped such a book would enable people to do something she had been unable to do as a child -- identify such nests as that of a Baltimore oriole.  The immense project was undertaken, with Genevieve and a friend learning how to make the life-sized lithographic drawings.  Her brother helped collect nests, and her father financed the project.  Neighborhood girls helped hand-color the prints.

Then tragedy struck.  Only two years into the project, with only part of the book published,
Imitating Nature's beauty
Genevieve caught typhoid fever and died.  Nevertheless, just in the way that birds do not abandon a nest after one of the chicks dies, the Jones family committed themselves to completing the project.  The mother learned how to make illustrations more scientifically precise than she ever had.  The technology of the time required transporting the sixty-five-pound printing stones to a printer 50 miles away in Cincinnati. After seven more years, the project was completed. Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of the Birds of Ohio, with text by Genevieve's brother, was published in 1886.

The full story of Genevieve Jones, her family, and their book is told in America's Other Audubon by Joy M. Kiser (© 2012).  I am struck by how the matter of parental nurturing weaves throughout the tale:  Birds nurturing their young in nests.  The parents of Genevieve nurturing their daughter's love of art and of Nature.  The entire family contributing to the Illustrations of Nests project.  And all of that nurturing symbolized by those all so natural nests.


Do you have any remembrances of nests or of birds nesting?

(The quote about birds is from
 Life on Earth by David Attenborough, © 1979,  p. 195.)

Friday, April 1, 2022

The Colors of New

I know it dates me, but I remember well when physical card catalogs were the means of locating a book in a library. The 3 in. x 5 in. cards were kept in small, deep drawers that had a rod running though the cards near their bottom edge so they could not be spilled, disrupting their alphabetical order. In middle school, when my fellow students' class and I were taken to the library, we were taught how to use its card catalog. (In elementary school, simply browsing in the books had been sufficient.) The middle-school librarian taught us that for every book in the library, there were three types of cards in the catalog's wooden drawers: Title card, Author card, and one or more Subject cards.

Having learned that system, when my father took my sister and me to the city's central library, I was delighted upon seeing the massive wall of inviting brown drawers. I could browse through the creme-colored cards with almost as much enjoyment as browsing in the books themselves.

A recent book put out by the Library of Congress informs me that, "Harvard's assistant librarian, Ezra Abbot, is credited with creating the first modern card catalog designed for readers" in the 1860's. Previously, books that were being added to a library had often been merely listed in a librarian's ledger book -- making locating a listing as hard as locating the book itself. Another invention of that time-period was the book's card-pocket, in which a checkout card was kept, removed as a record when the book was borrowed, and replaced upon the book's being returned.

I marvel at not only the efficiency but also the simplicity of these two inventions: They were something any librarian could easily adopt and create on their own. (In contrast, imagine trying to build a computer and write cataloging software, or trying to draw today's barcodes by hand!)

Thinking back upon these changes in libraries, I become more aware of how countless new inventions have appeared during my lifetime. Even staying within the walls of a library, microfilm replaced paper newsprint, but was then itself replaced. Long-playing records were added to some libraries, but then became outdated. Changes in technology have come so fast that two historians, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen (in The Library: A Fragile History) caution today's librarians against jumping too quickly on the bandwagon of the new. Today's innovation can become tomorrow's antique artifact. A newer technology seems to always be just around the corner. Changes occur even more rapidly beyond a library's walls.

A joyful sign
When I turn away from human societies and look at Nature, I also find the new, but it is a different type of newness.  I see the bright yellow-green spring-leaves emerging on a tree that had been bare for months. And I see the brilliant pink blooms on an otherwise bare redbud tree. This is a type of newness that is different from human inventions. It is the newness of renewal and rebirth. It is a type of newness that is ancient. And it is reassuring amid a world of human struggle and destruction. For, as the 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:
"... nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things...."
Hopkins saw that type of newness as a gift of God's Spirit, which "broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

The newspaper's headlines might be only bad news, but the view of spring out my kitchen window is very good news.

~ ~ ~

Is there a way you find a renewal that lies deeper than human innovation?

(The quotation about the catalog is from the book
 The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, © 2007, p. 82.)
(The lines by Hopkins are from his poem "God's Grandeur.")