Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

An Unusual Visitor

March 17, 2010

There’s no reason for this post, I just thought it was really interesting.  This kind of conflict is becoming an increasingly common problem in the Northeast.  It’s good to have a resurgence in wildlife, but humans just haven’t left them much room to find food and shelter.

Spring at last?

March 11, 2010

I am so glad this wet, cold, miserable winter is coming to an end.   South Texas was blessed to finally have a drought busting end to 2 years of the most intense drought in a century, however, it is not possible for us to live on less than 300 days of sunshine a year.  We get awfully cranky and depressed if it’s not sunny and 70 degrees in January.

The photo above was taken last weekend in a country cemetery near Smiley, Texas, on Highway 87.  I was returning from the dedication at All Saints Orthodox Mission in Victoria and even on a cloudy day, the intense color made me do a quick u-turn, and bounce through a cow pasture to get to this beautiful spot.  As I got out of the car a Great Horned Owl flew out of an old tree in the cemetery.  In a few weeks these Drummond Phlox are going to give way to a mass of Bluebonnets and Winecups that are growing up behind them. 

Drummond Phlox or Annual Phlox (Phlox drummondii)

The birds of the air…

January 19, 2010

Lesser Goldfinch

I’ve added a new page to this blog – The birds of the air…  It’s simply a bit of  dabbling in one of my biggest passions – bird watching.   It’s not remotely related to Orthodoxy, except in the sense that it’s an appreciation of the creatures put on this Earth by a loving God.  I’ve been an active birder since I took some ornithology classes related to my wildlife science major at Texas A & M, but it’s much more than a scientific study for me after 25 years.  And yes, Orthodoxy and science are not enemies.  I just happen to believe in the Orthodox teaching that some stuff is just a mystery.  Science is great, but don’t look for it to explain the unexplainable.

For me birding is the most immediate contact with the natural world and its animals.  Birds are everywhere around us; they are the most visible and accessible creatures, and picking up a pair of binoculars and “hunting” for them satisfies a human desire to understand and be a part of the natural world.  I’d go so far as to say that in some sense it’s also a spiritual experience, but not so far as to say ‘nature is my religion’ or ‘the outdoors is my church’.  Too many people these days substitute a worship of the creation for worship of the Creator.   Anyway, if you’re interested, check back once in a while and I’ll update the list with reports about my backyard feeders or any birding trips I’m taking. 

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.     Matthew 6:26

Up a Tree with Zacchaeus

January 14, 2010


The past few days I’ve been enjoying Fr. James Coles’ postings on his blog Schole  about Zacchaeus and his encounters with our Lord in the Gospel of Luke.   Fr. James’ writings are simple, straightforward and very applicable to our own lives, much like the meeting of Zacchaeus and Christ.  

I’ve often wondered why the Gospel writer troubled himself to actually describe the species of tree Zacchaeus was perched in.   He identifies it to species, Ficus sycomorus, the Sycamore Fig or Fig Blackberry, named for the blackberry-like shape of its leaves and fruit resembling the fig.  This is a bit confusing for us in North America  because the sycamores of the Americas are actually members of the unrelated Plane tree family, misnamed sycamores for the tree in which Zacchaeus sought to view Christ.   However, for the 1st century readers of the Gospel account, a reference to the “sycamore” was immediately known to them.  They were familiar with it as a common shade tree of the valleys and river bottoms throughout the Middle East and Egypt – a tree that was widely cultivated in Egypt before the 3rd millenium B.C., considered both sacred and an important food source and carpentry wood for the construction of coffins for mummies. 

In the Old Testament the sycamore is mentioned in several places.  During the time of King Solomon, “the king made silver common as pebbles, and cedars plentiful as the sycamores of the lowlands” (I Kgs. 10:27).  In Psalm 78:47, one of the plagues of Egypt comes “By killing their vines with hail and their sycamore trees with frost . . .”   The Prophet Amos identifies himself as a simple shepherd and tender of sycamore trees, rather than a great prophet, when he said, I was no prophet, neither did I belong to any of the brotherhoods of prophets. I was a shepherd, and looked after sycamores: but it was Yahweh who took me from herding the flock, and Yahweh who said, “Go, prophesy to My people Israel’ (Amos 7:14-15). 

So what was the purpose of identifying the tree?  And would it have made any difference if Zacchaeus had climbed a palm or olive tree?  Was it simply a matter of availability and ease?  Maybe the sycamore fig’s wide, spreading branches could have been more easily climbed by a small man like Zacchaeus, at least more easily and comfortably than a palm.  The palm achieves its significance at our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem as a banner announcing the coming King; the oil of the olive as part of His anointing and blessing.   But in Zacchaeus’ meeting with the Lord, Christ enters into Jericho as a simple traveller, hungry and tired, greeted from a fruit tree by a hospitable man, ready to offer him a place at his table.   It seems there’s something special about climbing up to Christ; about one’s willingness to look for Him and to accept whatever He asks of you. 

Please read Fr. Coles’ posts here and here for some real knowledge.    Father offers you five minutes of reading and a lifetime of spiritual application.  Don’t waste the opportunity; rush out like Zacchaeus and climb up to meet Christ! 

Fruit of the Sycamore Fig

Owls at Dawn

October 20, 2009

One of my backyard Great Horned Owls was calling yesterday morning in the pre-dawn time as I rushed around getting ready for work.  Those deep hooting calls have the power to make me stop whatever I’m doing, grab my children and rush into the backyard to look for the beautiful bird silhouetted against the barely brightening sky; its great size and ear tufts outlined above the top of the oak tree.   There’s an almost spiritual moment in the few seconds of shared observation between the bird and us, before it launches itself with broad wings into the deeper woods.  Then we go back inside to finish our rushing around, busying ourselves with an ordinary day.

 If the Owl Calls Again

at dusk from the island in the river, and it’s not too cold, I’ll wait for the moon to rise, then take wing and glide to meet him. We will not speak, but hooded against the frost soar above the alder flats, searching with tawny eyes. And then we’ll sit in the shadowy spruce and pick the bones of careless mice, while the long moon drifts toward Asia and the river mutters in its icy bed. And when the morning climbs the limbs we’ll part without a sound, fulfilled, floating homeward as the cold world awakens.

                                                                   by John Haines

Ken Burns, The National Parks

October 2, 2009


Is anyone watching Ken Burns’ new documentary series The National Parks?  I love the style, beauty and quality of his documentaries, well, except maybe not the World War II series.  This one is different though.   It has the majesty and emotional pull that affected us in The Civil War series.  The power to fill us with pride and patriotism, and a deep feeling of ‘Americanism’.   If you’re feeling a little cynical, an hour of Ken Burns will make you feel foolish and faithless.  You’ll suddenly be saying to yourself, “Damn, I love this country.”

This show is stirring up my earliest dreams to join the National Park Service.  My plan and my college majors were in parks & recreation and natural resource conservation, but   23 years later why am I not a park ranger?  It’s a long story, but life, love and President Reagan and his trickle down economics changed the course of my dreams.  Since then I’ve had to satisfy my wilderness craving by extensive travel and obsessive birdwatching.   

Tonight is the final segment and I think that, in part, what makes The National Parks documentary so moving is the recurring theme of spirituality and reverence; that a love of the natural world brings out something pure and good in man, and moves many to a deeper communion with God.  The national parks are truly our American cathedrals.  I’ve stood in the great naves of Notre Dame and Westminster, and never felt as spiritually touched and awed as I have on the rim of the Grand Canyon or dwarfed beside the trunk of a Giant Sequoia.   I have been baptized in the spray of a Yellowstone geyser, communed from mountain streams, and been in the fellowship of other worshippers along backcountry trails and remote 4 x 4 roads.

It sounds blasphemous to say, but I believe that if I were cut off from the natural world I would die.  Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I would pine away, depressed, sad, withering, like a plant without sunlight.  But as an Orthodox Christian I know that the ultimate source of life and light is God, and I’ve come to understand the Church’s teaching on communion with God and the natural world.   We believe the present natural world is a window, reflecting the beauty and goodness of God’s original Creation, and made as a place of living communion with God.  The window though is clouded by the sin of man and the distortion of creation.   The history of the world has moved through the age of Creation and Separation, to Incarnation and Salvation.   Now is the age of Salvation, through the coming of Christ, His death and Resurrection.   As Orthodox Christians we understand this in a holistic, communal way.  Christ didn’t merely pay some tit for tat exchange of sins with his Blood.  He didn’t balance the ledger of judgment and damnation.  Instead, he sanctified and restored our humanity with His Incarnation; he defeated death by death; and He heals and restores us daily by calling us to live a sacramental life in His Church.  All of this Christ accomplished not solely for Man but for the whole of Creation that was clouded and changed by sin.  Trees, fish, water, birds; the very rocks and dirt we stand on – everything is to be transformed and restored as a means of communion with God.  

Is it no wonder that mankind finds so much spiritual life in the beauty of nature?  There is a danger, however, that such an honest love is twisted, and nature itself becomes an idol.  Theologian and nature lover, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, writing in his book, For the Life of the World, observed that

Man has loved the world, but as an end in itself and not as transparent to God … The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communication with God in whom is all life … When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is a ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence … The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world.

 This is a hard truth for me to wrap my mind around.   Can’t a tree just be a tree?  An object of reverence merely for its beauty?  Isn’t the mere inspiration of awe good in itself?  Or maybe it’s impossible to just look at a winter flight of Snow Geese against the setting sun and not praise the God who created them?  

John Muir, father of the American conservation movement, was himself the son of a brutally strict, Campbellite lay preacher.  It was in Muir’s rejection of his father’s judgmental, wrathful God that he found love and his own personal salvation in the trees and mountains of the American West.   His writings reflect a universalist God, who expresses doctrines of faith in the Gospel of Nature.   It may not be strictly Orthodox, but I think it still has truths to teach us.

Rocks and waters, etc., are works of God and so are men.  We all flow from one fountain Soul.  All are expressions of one Love.  God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless  over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.


Birds of the Holy Land #1

May 26, 2009

I may never get to make a trip to the Holy Land, but I think I’ve found a way to combine Orthodoxy with one of my most passionate and long-standing hobbies – birding.   Have you ever seen or wondered about some of the common birds mentioned in the Bible and still found in Israel and Palestine?  

Think of the Lord sitting under a tree, observing the natural landscape around him.  He had to have taken notice of the plants and animals around him – he certainly knew them in a most intimate way as their witness from the beginning of Creation. 

I think of the swifts when I read the Lord’s words, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them”   Swifts are fast-flying, insect-eating aerialists that are almost never seen on the ground (unless sick, injured or affected by violent weather).  Even their taxonomic family name Apodidae, refers back to the Greek word apous or “without feet”.  They cling vertically with weak, tiny feet to the sides of their nests, through the whole awkward, clumsy business of nest building, egg laying and chick-rearing.  An unproven but popular belief is that they are such completely airborne birds that sleeping and mating are done on the wing as well.


Alpine Swift

Little Swift

Little Swift

Pallid Swift

Pallid Swift

Up Close With Carrion

April 5, 2009

Black Vulture

What’d you do on the way home from church today?  Visit grandma?  Take the kids and the dog to the park?  Get a venti latte at Starbucks and read the Sunday paper?  My kids and I stopped at a roadkilled White-tailed deer down the street from our house to watch a Black Vulture take a lunch break.  You know your kids see things a little different when someone says, “Cooool – he’s picking its brains out!”   

Now that makes a mom proud (at least birdwatching moms).  My boys are so awesome. 

(Sorry I couldn’t get any pictures, but hope you like these stock photos of this really beautiful bird.)


Cute They’re Not!

March 30, 2009

And God blessed [Adam and Eve], and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.     Genesis 1:28

It wears a mask so it must be evil

Anything that wears a mask must be up to no good

I’m gonna be doing me some subduing and dominating this week over the *#@!*&# raccoons who’ve taken over my attic and turned it into their own love shack!   I thought they were so cute walking around on my deck, strolling through my yard, little knowing they’d ripped an enormous  hole in the siding under the eaves and built a nest right above the head of my bed.  I have been up since 3 am today and for the past few days, listening to the costly sounds of raccoon love and even confronting them with a flashlight in my attic (they are not afraid of me one little bit – they just sit their glaring at me, like ‘what ya gonna do about it?’).

Believe me I’m a tree hugger; I majored in Wildlife Science in college, and wanted to make a career saving animals – except, I concede, the two masked terrorists that are destroying my house!   I was sorely tempted to have a cop friend send out the SWAT team, but seeing that might be a little overkill, literally, I’ve opted for live trapping.   Updates coming soon.

Beautiful and Scary

March 28, 2009

Alaskan volcano Mount Redoubt is acting up this week, with explosions and 10 mile-high ash clouds.   If you’re not sure of your geography, Mount Redoubt is located in the Chigmit Mountains in the Aleutian range, about 110 miles southwest of Anchorage.   Here is a great slideshow of additional photos taken this week.

Alaska Volcano

The photo below is of the nearby town of Ninilchik and it’s Transfiguration of the Lord Orthodox Church (founded in 1846; the present temple dates from about 1901).  The snow on the ground and roof are covered in dark grey ash.

Orthodoxy has prayers for everyone and everything, so I wonder if there are special prayers or patron saints that protect from volcanic eruptions?   Among the Roman Catholic dedicated saints, the Martyr Januarius (d. 305 AD and also an Orthodox saint) is recognized as a volcanic intercessor.   I’m thinking if I lived close to a force of nature that could obliterate me off the face of the Earth, I’d have to ask for help from every known saint possible!

APTOPIX Alaska Volcano