Facilitating spiritual and cultural transformation through connection with wild spaces, with the help of God and neighbor, to create a world where wildlife and wild spaces are known as neighbors worthy of our love, kindness, compassion and care.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Call of the Raven

Have you felt stuck in the busyness of small-town life? Have you heard the call of the raven as she flies over town beckoning us to follow? They say the raven is among the most intelligent of birds. I believe it, because the raven knows the wisdom of wild spaces perhaps better than most. It’s my day off, and with this reprieve from work I chose to follow.  The raven’s jet-black silhouette outlined by pointed wings and notched tail led me to The Pine Creek Gorge, a fine wild space indeed.

Time to slow down, sit on a rock ledge, let the busyness of life fade away, and breathe. And breathing with me are the creeping dwarf junipers and gnarly red cedars firmly rooted in the nutrient poor soil along Barbour Rock vista. The vibrant green needles and leaves of these two evergreens are a pop of life on the canyon wall today, especially with the oaks and maples looking so dismally brown and naked.

Looking south-east, a string of clouds dances between the canyon walls with an elegance which easily surpasses that of the most skilled ballroom dancer. The beauty of this wild space is magnified by a flurry of juncos on the rocks and a mixed flock of kinglets and chickadees in the branches. 

Dark-eyed juncos, with their slaty-gray backs and white beaks, bellies, and outer tail feathers seem to me to be among the humblest of sparrows; tough enough to survive the northern winters but content not to brag about it. They are easy to overlook but worthy of our admiration.  Then again, so are all of our wild neighbors.

 As I rest here pondering, a pair of ravens are putting on a show of aerial acrobatics, and my heart is at peace.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Exotic Wild Neighbor: Ring-necked pheasant

As I sauntered along the Railroad Grade at Ives Run Recreation Area I was greeted by three male ring-necked pheasants. These birds seemed not too bothered by my presence. Maybe that's because they were raised at a game farm and very recently released here for the Autumn hunting season.

Regardless, they were beautiful; iridescent greenish-blue heads bordered by a bold white ring around the neck, blood-red faces, and goldish-brown body feathers with gray and black patterning. The long pointed tail and (upon close observation) small horn-like feather tufts on either side of the head make for a very interesting wild neighbor. I watched as these three meticulously picked for grit and grasshoppers along the gravel road.

Ring-necked pheasants are birds of field edges, hedge rows, and farm fields. They are an exotic (non-native) species native to the continent of Asia. Each year millions are raised from eggs at game farms then released to Game Lands to sustain the population in Pennsylvania.

I often ask myself though, why make so great an effort to maintain unstable populations of ring-necked pheasants when we are blessed with such fantastic native birds of field and forest as wild turkey and ruffed grouse?

I would pose the same question if populations of ruffed grouse were introduced in the home range of the ring-necked pheasant in East China.

It's a question for all of us, really. Why transport species of animals and plants to different places around the world without knowing the impact it will have on ecosystems that are new to it's presence?

A prime example is many of our own front yards. Why do we landscape using so many non-native and ornamental species when there are so many unique and beautiful native species to choose from that are inextricably connected with the wild spaces that surround us?

Sometimes when we choose to introduce an animal or plant that's native to a different part of the world it has a destructive impact on the ecological balance. Prime examples are European starling, house sparrow, Japanese knotweed, Autumn olive and multiflora rose.

But in the case of the ring-necked pheasant, not to worry. Not every exotic species is an invasive species. There is something very much to be appreciated about the ring-necked pheasant now that it’s here.

Considering the place in the world where this remarkable wild neighbor has evolved, as I stand here watching these three it's like catching a glimpse into East Asia. The only thing missing is a few oriental magpies, a Beijing babbler and the landscape as well as the complex ecosystem of East China. Okay, so maybe there is A LOT missing from an experience of a ring-necked pheasant that is akin to experiencing this species in its native context.

Still though, I do believe that to experience my wild neighbor the ring-necked pheasant at Ives Run Recreation Area, knowing what I know about it, does afford me a tiny yet significant glimpse into the wildlife of China.

The next time you encounter a ring-necked pheasant, I hope you may be transported to a far away place in your mind as I was.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Find Your Path and Follow it

Take a look at a wind-whipped hillside in Pennsylvania's north country during late-October and you'll notice that the oaks cling tightly to their leaves after all other deciduous trees have shed theirs for the year. This is a beautiful time of year. Then again, every moment of the year holds its own beauty.

It's like Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his book titled Nature, "To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again." (Nature Walking. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Beacon Press; Boston, MA, 1991. page 15)

"To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I recall a particular moment that held a special kind of beauty to me. It happened during a recent saunter in one of my favorite wild spaces in Tioga County, PA. The sun was drawing near to the western horizon. Looking for an advantageous spot to take in the beauty of the final hour of the day, I climbed onto the lowest branch of a big white oak tree which overlooked an expansive meadow. I reclined with my back against its trunk.  The meadow was filled with tall stems, each one crowned with the white fluff of goldenrod that had gone to seed. He approached from the north; antlers made of bone containing eight long tines, each one pointing towards the heavens. He made his way in my direction along the edge of the meadow towards the cover and sustenance provided by the grove of white oak trees. Now within 30 yards of my vantage, golden beams of evening sun illuminated his warm brown coat as he took every cautious step. Senses in tune with this wild space, the whitetail buck paused for a moment to survey the landscape, offering the hunter and the wildlife photographer the perfect shot, and to all who are fully present and aware a moment of inarticulate beauty. Though I had neither bow nor camera, the moment is etched in my mind forever.

The wildlife photographer may see this buck again some other day. The hunter may intend to make a meal out of it. Either way, the buck is far more beautiful alive in the meadow than he ever would be mounted on the wall of a hunting camp. A truth to be shared by hunter and non-hunter alike.
A photo of the same buck taken another day.

I'm currently in the middle of reading Aldo Leopold's, A Sand County Almanac for about the fiftieth time since I was first introduced to it fourteen years ago during my time in college. Through the pages of his book its clear that while Leopold is a hunter, he is first and foremost a conservationist who values wildlife more alive than he does on a dinner plate.

When it comes to the qualities about wildlife and wild spaces that inspire and motivate, the reasons are different for different people.

  • For some, its the eye for beauty.
  • For some, a heart ablaze with love for wildlife and wild spaces.
  • For some, a spirit that revels in the thrill and challenge of the hunt.

I have felt all three; and perhaps you have too.

And what do you do when the logic of the hunt says "shoot," but the heart feels a sense of kinship with wild neighbors as the hunter locks eyes with his/her quarry?

This was my dilemma.

For me, the joy of the hunt always faded quickly at the moment of the kill. I've learned that I don't need meat to live healthy. In my geographic region there are plant alternatives. Perhaps this is part of the reason I took up birding.

During the past three years I've grown to understand the way I want to live, and the way I've felt led to live as the Spirit of God continues to fill my heart with love for wildlife and wild spaces.

Jesus affirms that one of the most important things is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Furthermore, by his definition, to count someone as a neighbor means to extend mercy towards them. The term 'mercy' can be defined as 'love, kindness, and compassion.'

To love my neighbor is to work for the good of my neighbor and to help my neighbor to thrive.

Because of the love in my heart and my experiences in life I'm led to count wildlife and wild spaces as a neighbor to me.

As best I can my chosen path is to live as an expression of the mercy of God towards my wild neighbors. To me this means doing no harm as much as I can. If an animal doesn't have do die in order for me to live, I don't want it to. It also means doing good to my wild neighbors as much as I can. It means supporting organizations like the Audubon Society and the American Chestnut Foundation. It means helping to establish and preserve habitat for native species in the places where I have influence.

I always find joy in my experiences with my wild neighbors as I get to know them better; the oak, the deer, the jay, the goldenrod, the woolly-bear caterpillar, and many others.

This is my chosen way of living. But there are different ways of living.

I've found my path. I hope you'll find yours if you haven't already.

I wish that we would all provide one another that freedom.

There are different ways of expressing love towards wildlife and wild spaces. I know many a hunter and omnivore who love wild spaces as much as I do; they are my family, my friends, and my neighbors who express that love for wildlife and wild spaces in many and varied ways.

While I certainly enjoy spending time with kindred spirits, that is to say, people whose love for wildlife moves them to be vegetarians too, I don't want everyone to be like me. How arrogant would I have to be to think that way?

What is important is that each of us should provide one another the freedom to live in a way that is faithful to God's love for all of us and true to the person whom the Spirit of God is making each of us to be.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Reflections from a saunter at Hills Creek State Park

check out the beaver dam behind the saunterers!
I Thoreau-ly enjoyed today’s saunter with old and new friends as we made our way around Hills Creek Lake, pausing to reflect upon something from Henry David Thoreau and to greet and be greeted by wild neighbors along the trail. We watched golden-crowned kinglets with our Tiadaghton Audubon Society binoculars as the tiny birds foraged in the branches just above our heads, heard the monotone call of a red-breasted nuthatch before it descended from the treetops to our eye’s level, felt the curly bark of a yellow birch, and tasted the aromatic wintergreen-flavored twigs of black birch. It was a cool October evening highlighted by Autumn leaves over placid water. It was solitude and community. It was good for mind, body, and spirit. It engaged intellect and emotion. It was good for the heart in more ways than one.

One of the things I appreciate about sauntering in wild spaces is that it invites a kind of personal transformation that naturally flows from the experience. So often in the church growth is encouraged through sermons, studies, and small groups. These are good things. But on the trail the words which are read come alive in the moment, and the Spirit of God nurtures us to take on more of those attributes of Jesus that we cherish and want to embody in community with our wild neighbors and other people along the way.

Suffice it to say that my own pathway for growing as a student of Jesus is literally a trail; and it is one of life’s greatest joys to share it with others.

An excerpt from John Muir read along the trail
Hills Creek Lake
a caterpillar that Elias found along the trail.
Sauntering lakeside
We finished the saunter with the final page of Thoreau's book titled Walking.
An upcoming saunter

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Search for the Bumble

This morning I sauntered along the Pine Creek Rail Trail tapping into the same spirit with which John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Saint Francis of Assisi traveled the earth, "stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow-mountaineers." (My First Summer in the Sierra. John Muir. Dover Publications, Inc.; Mineola, NY, 2004. pg 87)

But today I was not in the mountains; I was in the glacier carved valley just to the southeast of the Asaph Wild Area. I parked the car at the Pine Creek Rail Trail's northern terminus just next to Pag-Omar Farm Market. There were also some others on the trail today. A woman and her dog. A man and his dog. Two other people. I can keep a quick pace when I want to, but today I was the slowpoke on the trail. And for good reason.

I'm looking for bumblebees. I seek a bumble but it seems the recent cold snap may have driven the majority of them into dormancy.

Clouds filled the sky above as a cool Autumn breeze caused the leaves that were still holding tightly to the branches of the quaking aspens along the trail to dance and clap in synchronicity with the wind.

This wild space brings a happy melancholy to my heart today. It's clear that the flowers have begun to fade. There are scattered patches of goldenrod, water hemlock, Queen Anne's lace, and daisy along the trail but that is all. I count about twenty paces between each flower still in bloom. Suffice it to say that there aren't many flowers blooming this late in the year. The shortened days, morning frost and cooler temperatures that mark the end of the season for flowers also mark the end of the season for pollinating insects. As I saunter along the trail in search of the illusive bumblebee, the leaves that have decorated the branches of maple, aspen, and box elder trees are now dropping like rain under the force of a gentle breeze.

The creative life-giving Spirit of God works in such a way that, in the natural balance, there is food in every season for a great variety of our wild neighbors. As it is, by the grace of God life sustains life. Flowers bloom from early April well into October. Many varieties blooming at different times and for varying duration insure beauty for the landscape and food for pollinators. But now, as the flowers fade most of the pollinating insects have either left, gone dormant, or died.

Except for the bumbles I've found! Two of them. Sluggish, hugging small daisy flowers that are certainly on their way out, these bumblebees have found an oasis in the desert of dying and dormant plants. For the first and only time in their lives they will follow in their ancestor's footsteps. The average lifespan of a queen bumblebee is about 2-3 months but the last generation of the year goes dormant in late fall, burrowing in the ground under the leaf litter for the winter and emerging in the Springtime to produce the first generation of the new year.

 While I stood carefully watching the two bumbles enjoying what was potentially their last meal of the year, white-throated sparrows and a ruby-crowned kinglet could be heard calling from the thicket adjacent to the trail. These birds are northern breeders, having just arrived from somewhere between the Adirondack Mountains and the boreal forest in Northern Canada. The white-throated sparrow may spend its winter here. The ruby-crowned kinglet will continue farther south. The winter will hold its own joys. Soon to come will be rest for the landscape and excitement for those who enjoy being visited by the birds that call the arctic home during the Summer.

As the seasons change, in wild spaces someone is always coming or going, waking up or settling in. We are the only ones that insist on living at the same breakneck speed from dawn till dusk, from Summer through Winter and from birth to death. Why is that? Could it be that wild spaces and wildlife have something to teach us about healthy rhythms of work and rest?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Wild Neighbor: American Chestnut Tree (Castanea dentata)

I happened upon a special tree near the top of Turkey Path at Leonard Harrison State Park on October 3rd and have been back to see it again twice since that day. What an awesome tree it is, and I'm glad I had eyes to see it!

It was so small and scrappy of a tree that it would have been easy to overlook. But contrary to it's appearance this shrub of a tree has been fighting for a hundred solid years. 1904 was the year that the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, commonly called Chestnut blight, was introduced to New York City. It spread very rapidly from there infecting virtually every American Chestnut tree in the Eastern half of the United States. Within 40 years no American chestnut trees were left standing.

They were a giant of a tree; a hundred feet tall, reliably producing a heavy crop of chestnuts each Fall, and the trunks of mature American chestnut trees were so massive that if you wanted to hug one you'd have to find four or five adult friends, join hands, and streeeeetch your arms as far as they could go to embrace its full circumference!

Photo from http://www.classichistory.net/archives/chestnut-trees
The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) was arguably the most important tree in the forest; for the wildlife and for the lumber industry. If you want to read more about the historical significance of the American chestnut tree I recommend this article produced by The American Chestnut Foundation.

 Cryphonectria parasitica has made dwarves of giants. For many of the American chestnut trees the fungus proved to be an unbearable struggle, and they died. However, there are scattered remnants of this incredible species which once numbered about 4 billion strong in the Eastern United States. There was a time when 1 in 4 trees in the forest was an American chestnut tree.

I did say that there are remnants of the American chestnut tree in our forests and this is true. The photos in this article are of the one I happened upon at Turkey Path.

But why is it so small?? It's because that pesky fungus (diabolical might be a better choice of adjective) makes its way into the bark of the tree causing it to crack. Too many cracks and you have a dead tree. Well, kind of. Some of the American chestnut trees have been continuing to produce new shoots from the same root system every time the above-ground portion of the tree becomes a snag (standing dead tree).

If you're observant during your outings in the forest you may notice a snag surrounded at the base by new shoots from the same root system. If you do, take a look at the bark. The bark of an American chestnut tree is dark brown with light speckles. Take a look at the leaves. The leaves of American chestnut trees are vibrant green from Spring into early Fall, narrow, oblong, pointed, and toothed along the edges, turning yellow before they drop.

Its been reported that there are isolated patches throughout the Appalachian Mountains where some have grown to the thickness of a telephone pole and are producing nuts (which are brown with more fuzz than a Chinese chestnut and come packaged in a protective layer of green needle-like spikes!).

Some good news is that your great-great grandchildren may one day enjoy spending time with a giant Chestnut tree like your great-great grandfather may have done in centuries past. The American Chestnut Foundation has been working on producing a hybrid Chestnut tree that has all of the physical characteristics of an American chestnut tree AND the blight-resistant qualities of a Chinese chestnut tree.

 I was given $60 for a Wildlife Tour that I led at Barbour Rock Trail on October 4th and I've been thinking about what I want to do with that money. I don't charge for the Wildlife Tours that I lead but I do welcome the money if someone feels led to compensate me for my services. I knew I wanted use it for something more fun and meaningful than using it to help pay off student loan debt or to buy groceries.

My time spent with my Wild Neighbor along Turkey Path has helped me to make that determination. I've decided to give all $60 to support The American Chestnut Foundation in their continuing work. If you'd like to join me in supporting the work of The American Chestnut Foundation for he sake of our Wild Neighbor the American chestnut tree, here is a link to the ACF's Membership and Giving page.

 Lastly, here is my personal reflection of my time spent with my Wild Neighbor the American chestnut tree:

Meeting you here moves me to wonder what it was like a-hundred-and-twenty years ago to saunter in your shade, or to lean against your mighty trunk for a mid-day siesta. Many of your kin have died, the weakening done by the dreaded fungus proved too much to bear. But you remain. Clearly your strength is not in your stature, but in your perseverance. You've got grit; like Rocky Balboa you are a fighter who keeps getting knocked down but every time you get back up. A remnant of a species that once dominated these hills in centuries past, with whom I am thankful to have made the acquaintance today.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

"It can't be true!," said the forest.

(The forest ecosystem itself is a Wild Neighbor worthy of our respect, love and kindness)
God won’t give you more than you can handle.

Maybe you’ve heard that statement. Maybe a friend, a family member or even a complete stranger has thought to share that platitude with you. 

Some say it makes sense because if we are given more than we can handle then its because it wasn’t from God.

Okay let’s get philosophical for a moment.

What’s from God and what’s not from God? 

If God is love then it sounds like it should be pretty simple to figure out, but there are situations where making that determination is impossible.

What about ticks that carry Lyme disease? 

A thematic interpretation of chapter 1 of the book of Genesis suggests that like all other creatures, the tick is somehow inherently good because “when God looked upon all that God had made, God saw that it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

The author of the Gospel According to John, who understands Christ to be fully-God, puts it like this:
“God created everything through Christ, and nothing was created except through Christ.” (John 1:3)

  • including ticks.
  • including tectonic plates that move continents and cause earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunami’s.
  • including wind and weather that cause tornadoes and hurricanes.

It’s easier for most of us to accept the statement that everything God made is good, when looking at a happy baby, a puppy, or a cotton candy colored sky over placid water.

The statement, God won’t give you more than you can handle is easy to consider when things seem to be going well; when job, family, house and health are all in good order. 

But when the storms of live rage on the high seas and in the human heart it doesn’t jive with reality.
God won’t give you more than you can handle.

  • Say it to a mother who just lost a child.
  • Say it to the friend who recently received a diagnosis of stage four lung cancer.
  • Say it to the survivor of a loved one’s suicide.
  • Say it to the members of a community that’s been ravaged by a hurricane that will take decades to recover from.

Say it- and if we are in tune with reality- we realize that statement- God won’t give you more than you can handle- is a big fat lie that should never be repeated.

Every day there are people who deal with more than they can handle and if God is all-powerful then we have to admit that God allows for us to be given more than we can handle.

 God allows for us to be given more than we can handle

The implications of this truth expand beyond the scope of human society.

  • Would you say God won’t give you more than you can handle to our wild neighbors the elephants, rhinoceroses, and polar bears threatened with extinction?

  • Would you say it to honeybees suffering from colony collapse and monarch butterflies dealing with habitat loss?

  • Would you say it to our Pennsylvania forest ecosystem, our wild neighbor who has suffered the damage of deforestation, strip mining, and development, wrestled with the chestnut blight which has made dwarves of giants, felt the impact of hemlock wooly adelgid that saps our Eastern hemlocks of their strength and nutrients, and most recently come to know the affliction of the strikingly beautiful invasive emerald ash borer which has made brittle lifeless leafless snags of the ash trees which up until a few years ago made our autumn hillsides pop with variegated shades of red, orange and yellow?
 The invasive spotted lanternfly may be the next crashing wave in the unbearable storm suffered by our forests during the past century alone.


In his book, A Sand County Almanac, American Nature Writer Aldo Leopold writes the following:

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or be must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” (A Sand County Almanac. Aldo Leopold. Random House Publishing Group; New York, 1966. Pg 197)

Our forests are going through a hell-storm of abuse, over-consumption, and introduction of invasive species- but only those who have become students of wild spaces have eyes to see it.

As bad as it is, it’s still easy for most to overlook.

Our forest landscape has been weathering a storm too great to handle and the vast majority of people who have hiked its trails have failed to notice its plight and its unbearable struggle.

As many of us do not have eyes to see the unbearable storms the forest is experiencing, many of us are blind to the unbearable storms that our human neighbors are going through as well.

In chapter eight of the Gospel According to Luke we are given an image of Jesus’ first disciples experiencing such a struggle. The sea of Galilee is about five miles from one shore to the other. One day they found themselves about halfway across the lake when a fierce storm came down upon the lake causing big waves to crash over the sides of their little boat. Fearing for their lives amidst so great and terrible a storm they cried out to Jesus who had been peacefully sleeping in the boat with his head on a cushion (can you imagine!!??).

Upon waking Jesus calmed the storm and asked them, “where is your faith?”

Considering the unbearable storms that I and my neighbors have been given; I want to experience Jesus speaking that peace to me amidst the storms. Can you relate?

And I want to speak the peace of Jesus into my neighbor’s unbearable storm.

I want to speak the peace of Jesus into the unbearable storm of the whole forest ecosystem.

I can do this by treating each with the love and kindness due to anyone I’d count as a neighbor,
  1. by choosing to be present, 
  2. to listen, 
  3. to understand,  
  4. to care.
Sometimes God may give us the ability, working together, to bring the peace of Jesus in a way that calms the storm for good.

But it seems that more often, bringing the peace of Jesus into the unbearable storm of a neighbor’s life is about making the unbearable storm and life itself a little more bearable because of the love and kindness that’s shared.

Regardless, the peace of Jesus is rooted in the wisdom contained in this tenet:

love your neighbor as yourself...and who is my neighbor? Your neighbors are those to whom you extend love and kindness.

Jesus is there. In Community. In the Love. In the Kindness.

And until the time comes when the whole world and every part of it will experience the peace of Jesus Christ on the day of his return, therein lies Christian faith.