Transfiguration

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to be able to share this beautiful November reflection as a guest post by Carolyn, a fellow writer whose thoughts formed the July 11, 2014 post, Giving children room to wonder. The photo of the ice-encased crabapples was taken by her oldest son, Francis, whose pictures also were part of the earlier post. 

As I sat on the tractor, in the chill of the frosty November morning, it seemed as if neither the world nor I would ever warm up. But, watching from the edge of the field, I saw a slow transformation begin to unfold. The sun had been making a late appearance on these fall mornings. Now, just in time for my mid-morning break, it was finally rising over the tops of the leafless trees. Meter by meter, the dark, cold field was illuminated, reminding me of a shade being opened in a dim room. The Goldenrod, Joe-Pye, and Ironweed looked a little dull and “seedy,” but as the sunlight kissed them they caught fire. IP1080696 watched in awe and realized that each flower in the field, each stem of grass, was encased in its own very fine layer of icy frost. What had seemed a dead, wet, dull brown field was awakened into a warm palate of late fall color. Cinnamon, umber, ochre, and mahogany shades materialized as I realized that I, too, was beginning to warm up. My eyes hungrily attempted to take everything in before the angle of the sun changed and the magic dissolved. And then, there seemed to be a pause in the stillness as if an artist were taking his breath before painting the final and most difficult part of a scene. The sun reached a copse of crabapple trees. I never saw a diamond that dazzled me as much as each single ice-encased red or yellow crabapple. The light entered the ice at the top of an apple and kindled a halo of liquid fire around each one.

As if attracted to a beacon, a flock of birds alighted in the first tree. The bright red feathers on their wings and yellow-dipped tails seemed to want to find understanding in the clusters of red and yellow berries. But, at the same time, the bold, black mask and flashy crest of the Cedar Waxwings asserted their singularity.

Sitting back in my seat, overwhelmed by emotion, I realized that a corner of my heart had a profound sadness. I wanted to be able to capture the moment in a painting or picture, but would never be able to recreate in any way even a portion of the beauty I had just encountered.

When I sat on the edge of that field, I was 20 years old. My lifelong faith was just beginning to be caught by that transforming fire that turned it into something beautiful and alive. When I experienced the beauty of that field, I sat still and knew that God’s loving hand was touching my face. And I was thankful.

Now almost 20 years later, I look back on the encounter and see many more layers. Each year since then has been an unfolding of some new aspect of the beauty of God’s love. Little by little, the shade has been opened in my darkened room so that I can now begin to see the transformation of the events of my life. Things that would have looked at best, mundane, and at worst, like overwhelming suffering, I can now see as having their own profound beauty.

The sadness I felt on the seat of that tractor is still tangible. I am constantly faced with the depth of my inability to share the beauty of God’s love. But I also live a great hope. I know if I offer him this cold, dull, dark field, he can transform it into something that will reflect the splendor of his love — something even more dazzling than an ice-encased crabapple.

Otherwise engaged


“I’m so sorry, but I am engaged tonight.”

With that simple expression of regret, Mary Lindsay, the lead character in Elizabeth Goudge’s novel, The Scent of Water, gracefully – and successfully – declines a dinner invitation from Mrs. Hepplewhite, the neighborhood social maven.

Goudge’s story, which takes place in England in an earlier, more genteel time, leaves me wishing that we in our day had such a lovely and acceptable way of responding to similar overtures. But in our “so busy” culture, it seems we are expected to either recite a litany of activity to justify our regrets or, better still, find a way to wedge one more gathering into an already full schedule.

On the night of Mrs. Hepplewhite’s invitation, Mary Lindsay had planned to pore over the old diaries she had found in the house inherited from Cousin Mary. To her credit, she kept to her plan, held her hostess at bay, and went home to have aP1040537n early supper, light a fire “for the sake of company and loveliness,” and sit beside it with the diaries piled nearby.

Had Mary lived in our time and place, I wonder if she wouldn’t have thought to herself, “Darn, I was going to page through Cousin Mary’s diaries tonight, but, oh well, I guess I can do that another time – or maybe look at a few when I get home.” Thankfully, though, in Goudge’s imagination, Mary stands her ground and lives on to inspire me – and other kindred spirits.

Like most people of our day, I have become deft at tweaking schedules and rearranging the time to meet a myriad of obligations – even if I arrive at them late or breathless. But as part of my quest to incorporate more quiet – and sanity – into my life, I’ve been trying to shed the practice of “wedging” in favor of weaving some breathing room into each day, whether it’s to stay home and garden or catch up with the laundry and mail. This means saying “no” to more invitations and “yes” to a few, remembering, as one friend has pointed out, that other people can’t see our calendars.

I’ve also learned, though, that the world in which we live is largely made up of Mrs. Hepplewhites who cannot imagine why someone would prefer staying home to any organized activity or social gathering. As a result, few of us have the wherewithal to say we are “engaged” when we have planned – and perhaps need – an evening at home with a good book.

Yet that is precisely what Goudge’s Mary Lindsay did. Would Mrs. Hepplewhite have understood if Mary had been more forthcoming about her plans? Unlikely. Which is why I sometimes wish for a world that permits and accepts “otherwise engaged” and does not pry into what that might mean.

Thankfully, I have among my friends a few Mary Lindsays who would understand if I said I needed some unscheduled time to recover from a packed calendar, or who are trying themselves to infuse their lives with a little more serenity and sanity.

Recently, one such friend and I made plans to see an art show and scheduled it around an afternoon party she already had agreed to attend. When we discovered that the art show was starting later than we had thought, I suggested we abandon the plan so that my friend could go to her party without having to rush. Kind and accommodating soul that she is, she wanted to “make it work” by having us get to the art show a little earlier, perhaps catching the artists as they were opening their booths.

I reminded her of a conversation we had had a few weeks earlier about building enough time into our schedules to get to where we are going, instead of rushing. That particular day, she had multiple commitments in wide-ranging locations and she later told me that the afternoon of seemingly nonstop driving had been exhausting.

After she finally agreed to skip the art show and let me go alone, she wrote: “You’re right. I’ve been trying to make my life more peaceful, which means not doing everything I’d like to.”

It took fortitude – for both of us – to come to that decision and to resist social messages that urge us to keep moving and to collect as many pleasures and diversions as we can – even if they’re not very enjoyable in the long run because they’ve left us tired, ill, or just plain irritable.

Doing one thing on a Sunday afternoon is not easy when everyone else is doing – and talking about – three or more. It can feel, at first, like you’re missing out or, perhaps worse, not as important as all those people with crowded calendars. Our world, after all, values activity – and the more of it the better. It loves the biblical Martha who was busy in the kitchen while her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’s feet, seemingly oblivious to the work that had to be done.

We are told, however, that Mary has chosen “the better part.” And when I follow her example and that of Mary Lindsay, so have I.

In good company

“Nature does nothing in vain.” – Thomas Aquinas

It is a welcome visitor to our little woodland patch who doesn’t call wildflowers weeds and sees beauty in brush piles.

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One of several brush piles that shelter birds and other wildlife.

When such a person stops by as one did recently, I smile in silent gratitude for his or her appreciation of a setting that is friendly to birds and other living things, even though it lacks the carefully cultivated, meticulously planned look of the suburban gardens I so admire.

For years, after looking at more orderly yards and gardens, I would return home with tinges of regret that my place paled in comparison to the visions of manicured loveliness I had just seen

But mostly now, those feelings are infrequent and easily forgotten when I hear a Wood Thrush singing in the spring or watch bats swooping overhead on a summer evening. Even in the fall, with leaves tumbling down as a reminder that winter will soon set in, there are delights to savor in migrating birds and the restful sounds of the earth settling down at the end of a busy growing season.

Each day, I am reminded that much of what we enjoy was here long before my husband and I began preparing to live in this spot nearly 14 years ago. From the beginning, we saw ourselves as interlopers more than conquerors and were determined to minimize our intrusion as much as possible.

Still, on the November day we ventured in, carrying colored string and spray paint to mark trees that would have to be felled, I still remember feeling anxious and not a little sad. Even though we were moderate in our choices for cutting – probably too much so for the sake of what would be built later – I felt like an invader.

Pictures from a week later when the big machines arrived show me smiling. I suppose by then, I had resigned myself to the idea of what we were doing. I’d like to think remembering that sense of incursion, though, kept us both in check as we began to develop the site by adding a small barn, house, and trails through the woods. Always, we kept in mind what had been here when we arrived, a pattern that has continued to this day.

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Jewelweed allowed to grow around a fallen log.

Even as we occasionally fall victim to the prolific poison ivy around us, swat at mosquitoes, and encounter the digging habits of chipmunks and squirrels, we have resisted most interventions that would eliminate what some might consider nuisances. Our brush piles, built up with fallen tree limbs and providing shelter for wildlife, are just one testament to this. Another is our choice to relocate piles of fallen leaves rather than burn or bag them as refuse.

Elsewhere, as I make an early spring effort to pull innumerable starts of native Jewelweed out of some areas, I let them grow in other spots, remembering that the hummingbirds will be enjoying nectar from their orange flowers in late summer.

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This sprig of Joe Pye weed popped up late in the summer between some stones.

When I notice foliage being gnawed by who-knows-what insect, I take some comfort in thinking of the culprit as food for a bird, frog, or toad, satisfied that I haven’t poisoned or repelled an avian or amphibian friend with an arsenal of gardening chemicals. Likewise, milkweed, the bane of our farmer friends, is allowed some space because it is a host plant for the Monarch butterfly.

And when I find salvia, coneflowers, and Joe Pye weed growing in cracks between the flagstone and popping up in places I know I didn’t plant them, I think fondly of the birds who are most likely responsible for adding such lovely, random diversity – and more food sources – to our landscape. It is good to know, too, as our recent visitor reminded me, that birders and others share our passion for an environment that is friendly to living things besides humans.

Most importantly, though, I cherish the serenity that comes from living in harmony and partnership with the creatures and plants of a place that predates me and from recognizing and cooperating with its great design in the mind of the One who conceived it.

From emptiness, fullness of joy

The Phoebe nest is empty and its occupants have moved off into the trees, leaving the garden to wrens and hummingbirds.

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A House Wren pauses briefly in the garden.

In relocating their fledged chicks to a place with more cover, the Phoebes have lifted a curtain on our surroundings, revealing activity we had barely noticed during their frenzied feeding phase.

Suddenly, it seems, we are hearing and seeing afresh the chatter and flitting of House Wrens and the movements of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, both of which seem to have claimed the territory formerly ruled by the Phoebes.

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A Ruby-throated Hummingbird over the Bee Balm.

Now, instead of watching the aerial feats of flycatchers, our eyes are trained on the hummingbirds feeding on Bee Balm and Salvia and the wrens busily tending their young in an assortment of dwellings.

We are appreciating anew the songs of cardinals and robins, the bold whistle of the Great-crested Flycatcher, the varied sounds of the Tufted Titmouse, and the simple notes of the Black-capped Chickadee, all occasionally punctuated by a Phoebe crying “FEE-bee, FEE-bee.”

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We last saw a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher during the spring migration, so were quite pleased when this one showed up under the summer sun.

We have been on the lookout, too, for birds that seemed scarce, likely because they were having their young, and now are reappearing more frequently closer to the house. Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Red-headed woodpeckers and Northern Flickers have shown themselves again along with a Red-eyed Vireo and Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher we had seen earlier in the season.

As in life, it seems the absence of something we had become accustomed to seeing has given us fresh eyes and ears for other things we might not have noticed in our midst, or had taken for granted. Just as the departure of a high-achieving first-born can open our hearts to the quiet beauty of a younger child who has been living in an older sibling’s shadow, so changes in our landscape have the potential to enrich our awareness and appreciation of what is around us.

When we allow change to show us what is present instead of what is missing, we hear and see things that may have been obscured or drowned out by our focus on the very thing we had cherished. Just so, if we can bear to be quiet and brush away the distractions that drive our culture, perhaps we can open ourselves to receiving that which is given only in stillness.

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One of the last photos taken of the Phoebe chicks before their departure from the nest.

The Phoebe chicks, by the way, fledged on July 10. They were in the nest when I left that morning and gone when I returned in the afternoon. The day before, we managed to snap a few last photos of them in the nest. For days afterward, we saw nothing more than one adult, but my husband has since discovered them in an area of pine trees on the edge of the woods.

With a change of season approaching, we know it won’t be long before they will be moving on, along with the other migratory birds who have been with us in the spring and summer. When they leave, another curtain will be pulled back on a garden fading into fall, revealing a new landscape. May we look on it with eyes that are open to seeing its gifts instead of longing for what is passing.

Phoebe summer

It has been more than two months since I wrote about the return of Eastern Phoebes to a nest on our house, and amid the busyness of spring and summer, I’ve been remiss in not reporting what transpired.

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These two chicks stayed in the tree near the nest long enough for us to snap their photo on May 29.

I’m pleased to say that we are having another Phoebe summer, just like the ones we had enjoyed before the last few seasons when these favorite birds arrived on schedule, but did not produce families. In May, the nest on the stone façade of the house just under the soffit yielded two chicks, who lingered long enough after fledging to allow me to snap their photo on the 29th.

Even better, as of this writing, the adults are feeding another family of what looks to be at least three chicks. For several weeks now, the parents have been sallying between garden and nest, snatching bugs and ferrying them back to gaping beaks. Those days appear to be numbered, however. In just the last week, the bulging mass of beaks and feathers we had been observing is now a clearly defined family that is outgrowing the nest and will soon be urged to depart.

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The porch railing post has been a favorite stopping-off point for the adults before they take food to the nest.

That rite of passage always is tinged with sadness for us because we know we won’t be seeing these beloved birds as often, but the days leading to it are pure delight. Throughout the day and in the evening, we love watching the adults fly into the garden, perch on branches, arbors, and posts, stop by the bird bath, or use the porch railing as a segue between their little nursery and the food supply. As they move about, they seem to become accustomed to our presence, allowing us to train the camera lens on them or weed and water the garden while they are in it, provided we keep a respectable distance.

Before the last few chick-less seasons and after several consecutive years of Phoebe summers, we had come to take the presence of these charming flycatchers for granted. This year, having experienced drought, we are reveling in the joy of abundance, enjoying every sighting of a drab brown-and-white Phoebe, whether we are walking outside, sitting on the screened porch, or peering through the kitchen window.

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Time to leave? This shot taken on July 7 clearly shows the chicks are outgrowing the nest.

We are hardly the first to discover that Phoebes make companionable and beneficial seasonal guests. In Birds of America, a treasured early 20th-century book we keep alongside our Sibley Guide to Birds, George Gladden writes, “ . . . the [Eastern Phoebe’s] confiding ways and gentle manners have won the real affection of its human neighbors, who should realize as well that it is very useful as a destroyer of noxious insects.” Gladden also praises the Phoebe’s skill and speed in pursuing its prey and provides this apt description of its movements: “Like its relatives it generally selects a perch on a dead limb or fencepost whence it has an unobstructed view of the immediate surroundings, and it is likely to return to this perch after each darting sally.”

Lest anyone even think of discouraging these migrants when they build their nests near human habitations, he writes: “Let the Phoebe remain just where it is. Let it occupy the orchard, the garden, the dooryard, and build its nest in the barn, the carriage house, or the shed. It pays ample rent for its accommodations.”

I couldn’t agree more. From its insistent call in the spring to its aerial feats, bobbing tail, and appetite for pesky insects, the Phoebe brings us many gifts, not the least of which is the window it opens into a world designed to work all things to the good.

Faith, hope, and Phoebes

It’s little more than a cluster of mud, moss, and twigs, but to me, it is cause for joy, and not a little excitement.

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This year’s Phoebe outside my office window.

An Eastern Phoebe nest has been affixed to the stone on the front of our house under a soffit for several years now, serving as a marker of spring when it is visited by the brown-and-white flycatchers and refurbished for a new brood.

This year, the first Phoebe arrived the week before last and since has been insistently calling “FEE-bee! FEE-bee!” in the morning, afternoon, and evening, sometimes stopping outside my office window to bob his tail and announce his presence. One morning last week, another flash of brown revealed he has a mate and that she is shoring up the remains of the old nest. We can already see the evidence of this in the fresh mud, moss, and bits of vine she has applied as she ferries material from the pond and the garden to the nest.

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Nest-refurbishing in progress.

Our hope, of course, is that these industrious little birds who have worked their way into our hearts will succeed in raising a family like those we have seen in past years — though not the last two. The year before last, we suspect that a predator bird ravaged the nest and sent the Phoebes fleeing. Later, they began building new nests in two alternate locations, finishing one that still sits atop a post on our wood-storage unit, but despite some nest-sitting, no little Phoebes ever emerged from it.

Last year, the Phoebes again abandoned the nest on the house, this time early in the breeding season after a Brown-headed Cowbird had been seen nearby. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and leave them to raise their young to the detriment of the host bird’s own offspring. Although we saw the Phoebes occasionally later in the season, there was no sign that they had established another home nearby.

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Time to fledge. Phoebe chicks getting too big for the nest in June, 2012.

After several consecutive years of watching these delightful birds raise their families, we had almost come to expect that we would spend our summer evenings on the front porch watching the adults swoop down in the garden to catch insects and fly them back to the waiting mouths of their chicks. While working outside and passing by the site, we also had become accustomed to the sight of little heads popping up and their bodies growing to the point that they were practically spilling out of the nest as the day of departure approached. One year, after the chicks fledged, and thanks to my husband’s keen eye, we even were able to spy the entire family in the woods through our binoculars and spotting scope.

Although the Phoebe is not a “pretty bird” like the Northern Flickers and Red-headed Woodpeckers who frequent our woods or the colorful warblers who pass through during the spring migration, its dogged, no-nonsense habits have endeared it to us. And for the privilege of being in its company, we are more than happy to provide it with an environment abounding in the insects that comprise its diet

In her enchanting book, Letters from Eden, Julie Zickefoose, who is so fond of this bird that she named her daughter Phoebe, writes that to her, the Phoebe “embodies bird spirit” in its constant motion and charm. I heartily concur and would add that underneath the Phoebe’s unadorned appearance seems to beat the heart of an indefatigable warrior with perseverance in its veins.  For that, we love these birds in the same way we love people who have little in the way of looks or sparkle to offer the world, but whose virtue most likely is keeping everything around us intact.

In this, they remind us of faith that is unseen yet is the assurance of things hoped for. So it is that each spring, the Phoebe beckons us to believe in possibilities and to watch for their fulfillment.

The best of the birds:  A post about spring birds is a great opportunity to include a plug for the Biggest Week in American Birding, which takes place May 8-17 in northwest Ohio. If you can get to this area, known as the “warbler capital of the world,” next month, you will not only see some amazing birds showing off their spring colors, but you will meet some wonderful people. 

 

 

Loving the least of spring’s gifts

In the swampy region where I live, spring doesn’t exactly arrive on the doorstep with a bouquet of daffodils. More precisely, it announces itself with a sump-pump alarm going off in the middle of the night, in adjustments to toilet-flushing, showering, and laundry routines, and, in general, the presence of mud and water outside.

P1020533While those who reside on higher, dryer ground seize the first mild day marking the end of winter to enjoy a walk or a trip to the park, we rural swamp dwellers laser in on what the spring thaw is doing to our drainage systems. We monitor sumps, septic systems, and fields, and hope for a favorable wind direction and a return to normalcy.

This is not to say that we miss spring’s kinder side. In fact, I think we may enjoy the smallest, most humble harbingers of the season more fully than others do its splendor. Just as my religious tradition’s Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer cleanse the senses so that we hear and see more clearly, so a little bit of water-related discomfort and deprivation goes a long way toward enhancing our appreciation of the least of the season’s gifts.

A friend’s email informing me that her snowdrops, which in the past have bloomed as early as January, finally had opened gave me a surge of joy, as did the sight in my own garden of a patch of lemon thyme that had survived the winter. P1020544I felt the same excitement in discovering dianthus foliage, still surrounded by snow, and a spray of leaves at the base of the rue plant that last summer had been a host for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars.

Although little else was growing amid the matted remnants of last year’s garden, I could delight in observing the state of transition everything was in – the melting snow receding to reveal moss-covered paths and clusters of leaves P1020554under water looking as if they had been arranged beneath glass. In other places, trees reflecting on the standing water formed a striking backdrop for the sounds of blackbirds announcing their return, adding their voices to those of the nuthatches and black-capped chickadees who have been here all winter.

These scenes, stripped as they were of the lushness we witness in late spring and summer, nonetheless contained a kernel of hope that something unseen was in the air and about to materialize.

Those of us for whom spring intersects with the 40 days of Lent experience something similar as we use this time of year to detach ourselves from that to which we have become attached. In the decluttering of our souls, we gaze at a barren landscape and sense what has been hidden from us in our hurriedness and preoccupation with doing and achieving. We begin to hear, taste, see, and know that something is coming – and that it will be good.