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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Straight To The Point (Tioga Point) June 29th, 2020

My route.
I did something today that I've been wanting to do since I moved to Athens two weeks ago. I sauntered the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers via kayak; launching into the Susquehanna at the Front Street Bridge, following the current southwards from there on down to Tioga Point, and then paddling north along the Chemung River from Tioga Point to the Route 199 Bridge. It was an amazing experience. I had the joy of encountering a great variety of wild neighbors along the way. There were white-tailed deer, a fox and her pup, vireos, flycatchers, eagles, ducks, and swallows!

Sycamore cove.
At one point I found a little cove off of the main current of the Susquehanna where I could rest in my boat on the water without going anywhere. There I paused for five minutes or so, noticing the unique perspective provided by my kayak. A pair of great-crested flycatchers sallied for insects on the wing just a few feet over my head while a white-tailed deer grazed on choice vegetation which included some silver maple leaves and even a couple of leaves from a knotweed plant. It is amazing to be so close in proximity to a wild deer to be able to identify the vegetation that it's eating without the aid of binoculars. Sideways tail flicks that communicate "all is well" by this deer at a distance of just twenty feet says to me that these wild neighbors either don’t care about or are oblivious to relatively still floating objects, however close to shore.
Gnarly sycamores resemble a grape orchard.

Upon re-entering the Susquehanna's southward current, I noticed that there was one spot where the forces of the river's flow had caused a patch of gnarly sycamores to resemble a grape orchard. These river orchards of lush vegetation and nutrient-rich waters are fertile indeed! Teeming with life! The banks are so full of life because the river is too.

Bank swallow.
Yes the river itself has a life of its own, forever oscillating between riffles and pools. It's easier to hear the songs and calls of birds while navigating the relatively calm and quiet pools, and the swallows seemed to enjoy low flights over the riffle sections. It makes sense. Insects like mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies prefer the well-oxygenated riffle sections of our rivers and so where do the swallows go to find the best tasty flying insects? The riffles! It's impossible to talk about one neighbor without discussing the place as a whole. The river and its surrounding forests is community; each animal interdependent upon the other; plants and trees engaged in competition as well as in mutual support of the riverbank. There are stratified habitat zones here, beginning with river cobbles or mud at the water's edge, transitioning to a zone of low-growing vegetation, and then into a layer of sturdy trees that are dominated by strong and beautiful silver maples.

I cannot get over these silver maples which in their context are made all the more beautiful as wave after wave of shimmering light dances upon trunk and branches, a gentle wind whispers through silvery leaves, and I hear the Spirit of God speaking into my heart, "these are your partners in sharing the love of Jesus. Make peace with this land and its wild inhabitants, and with the people of Athens. Be a neighbor and share what it means to be a neighbor for Jesus." What great joyful work is being prepared here! How amazing to be here, in this moment! How ecstatic yet deeply peaceful and serene to find myself drawn into a true moment of sauntering; senses in tune with this wild space, heart in tune with the Source of Divine Creativity! Onward I go, every moment, one of sacred and indescribable beauty. The low-dipping wind-whipping flight of a tightly clustered flock of bank swallows at Tioga Point is a sight to behold. Farther up the Chemung river, water striders were so prolific in one spot that it looked like a million tiny raindrops touching the surface as thousands of insects securely suspended atop the water moved about under the sun's dazzling light.

Today I am thankful for the beauty of this place, I'm thankful to have had the opportunity to traverse the route that I did, and I'm thankful for the unique perspective of the riparian community provided by my kayak.

Tioga Point

White-tailed deer along the Chemung River.
Harris Island

Friday, June 19, 2020

Paines Island Saunter

Catalpa blossoms.
An early morning saunter around the edge of Paines Island brings blessings beyond articulation. I stand at the north tip of Paines Island where the waters of the Susquehanna are channeled left and right in shallow riffled currents. A foggy veil rises as if summoned by the light of the new day. The smell of dead fish lingers in the air; breakfast fit for an eagle. Gazing outward from the shore of Paines Island the oscillation between riffles and pools that carry fine particulate matter as well as the occasional leaf or branch downstream is mesmerizing; the sound that the water makes as it rushes on by is enough to drown out the noise of nearby roads, farms, and businesses. If you ask me, this retreat is a priceless gift in and of itself. My prayer is that my senses be brought in tune with this wild space and that my heart beats in tune with the Source of Divine Creativity.

Zebra caddisfly.
Turning the focus towards the islands interior, layer upon layer is teeming with life. Grackles work the gravel banks that form and reform with the seasons. Yellow-throated vireos reside near the tops of towering silver maple and bigtooth aspen. Song sparrows and various warblers abound among the thick shrubby growth in-between. Zebra caddisflies seem to fill every bush and branch as well as the air in-between. Standing where gravelly shore transitions to shrubby edge the caddisflies land on me! They are attractive to my eyes and attractive to many a songbird's stomach! At present there are at least three broods of Baltimore orioles on Paines Island that are being sustained by a majority of these superabundant caddisflies!

Catalpa trees, scattered intermittently along Paines Island's east shore, are an accent of beauty. The elegant purple, yellow, and white blossoms adorn the trees and litter the ground beneath them. As I pass by I'm careful not to step on a single discarded flower. I know that ecologically it makes no difference if I step on them for they've already served their purpose; but it feels wrong to carelessly trample upon something so charming and delicate.

common grackles and a killdeer foraging among riffles.
This morning I met a muskrat with a look of extreme fear written across his face who startled me when he unknowingly ran straight in my direction to within three feet of where I sat.  While muskrats may not be an eagle's primary target, when a bald eagle's shadow is cast overhead this muskrat takes cover!

I met a white-tailed deer and her young fawn who seemed to be getting a guided tour of the island.

I met the green heron and the belted kingfisher who hang out in the same stretch of river but have no qualms with one another since the heron hunts along the shore and the kingfisher acquires her catch where the water gets deeper.

Muskrat, deer, heron, kingfisher, and so many others; I thank God for you.

Though there is work to be done, as I leave this special wild space, wherever I go today I'll carry the blessing of my wild neighbors at Paines Island in my heart.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Shimmering Forest at Carantouan

The Susquehanna River in Athens, PA is a connection to distant places. Beginning in New York, this lively watercourse carries suspendable matter southwards through Pennsylvania and then through Maryland, ending up in the Chesapeake Bay. That being said, this morning I spent less time thinking about this distant connection and more time getting to know what's right here. Erin and I moved into the town of Athens on Thursday of last week and have been enjoying the network of forested trails that border the Susquehanna River that are called the Carantouan Greenway.

At 6am the sun shone brightly. It seems that on every clear and sunny day that is warmer than the night that preceded it, an amazing display of dancing light can be witnessed from the riverbank. As fog rises, morning sunlight refracts off the surface of the flowing waters and dances on the underside of the leaves of majestic silver maples with masts high overhead! The whole place becomes aglow and shimmering! What great joy to be in the middle of it all! This dance of light on the west bank of the Susquehanna is a spectacle worth rolling out of bed for at the crack of dawn. But that's not all! As light dances, vireos, redstarts, and wrens fill the riparian forest with a symphony of birdsong!

So many wild neighbors. Such diverse community. Ever flowing. Ever changing. With all of this new and vibrant life abounding, while I sit along the bank of the Susquehanna, in my heart I'm hearing the words that are attributed to God who is the Source of Divine Creativity speaking through the prophet Isaiah; "I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Can't you see it?" (Isaiah 43:19)

God seems always to be doing something new. Here the layers of the forest speak to this truth. At about knee-height are plants such as poison ivy, jewelweed (which has the fortunate ability to counteract the rash-inducing oils of poison ivy), and sensitive fern as well as plants like the green dragon of yesterday's blog post. At shoulder-height are various shrubs, then at about twenty feet or so are small trees, and finally towering high overhead are the huge masts of water-loving deciduous trees like the silver maples, some of whose trunks must be about 10 feet around! Beneath it all are last year's leaves that cover the forest floor; layer upon layer upon layer.

God is doing something new in every season. In the forest, last year's leaves must released to make room for new growth. It's not just the trees either; the exoskeleton of a stonefly clings to a blade of grass here at the water's edge. That which has been released becomes the fertilizer for the something new that is emerging.  Nowhere have I seen this truth expressed more profoundly than in the forest.

The forest is a good teacher. Release the former things, welcome the life that is newly emerging with every next season. This sacred activity of release has been a prominent theme of my move from Wellsboro to Athens. Releasing the stuff that Erin and I had acquired which we had not used at all during the past five years felt liberating. Releasing those I've grown to know and love into the care of another pastor is hard. But it is good. Release is a life-giving act; because again, that which is released becomes the fertilizer for the something new that is emerging.

God is always doing something new.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Green Dragon of the Susquehanna at Athens/Sayre River Trail

A nice profile of the entire plant.
While sauntering the west bank of the Susquehanna River near Athens, I had the joy of getting to know a (new to me!) wild neighbor. It goes by the name green dragon (Arisaema dracontium). I don't think I've ever heard a more awesome name for a plant. To me it's a fascinating plant for a number of reasons.

The thing about it that initially captures my curiosity is the long thin part of the flower that is called the spadix, which stands erect reaching five or six inches above the hood out of which it emerged. The flower's inflorescence resides inside of this hood.

Nicely illumined by the morning sun.
The second interesting characteristic about this plant is the flat whorl of leaves that sits above it's flowering part. Looking at it from above and from the side, I wonder if this whorl of leaves is the reason for it's common name.

The third thing I like about this particular wild neighbor is that it is a unique representative of the diverse riverine forest that it calls home.

After spending two days exploring the banks of the Susquehanna in the Athens and Sayre, PA area, and getting acquainted with a wonderful variety of birds, plants and trees, I'm thinking that this "land of the green dragon" might end up being my adopted wild space while I serve in the Athens community.

The green dragon is one of countless wild neighbors whom I've witnessed rooting, climbing, reaching, crawling, walking, hopping, swimming, and flying in and around the Susquehanna River in the Athens and Sayre area these past few days. I feel like at this point I've just barely scratched the surface of a truly remarkable wild space.

A convenient location, just next to the trail!

Whorl of leaves as seen from above.

Can you see it's "dragon wings"?

Erect spadix protrudes from the flower stalk extending high above its hood.

Inflorescence tucked within it's hood.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

My Favorite Wild Neighbors on Waln Street

As Erin and I prepare to move to Athens, PA tomorrow, I'm reflecting on some of my favorite wild neighbors whom I've gotten to know during our five years in Wellsboro, PA. 

Chubbycheeks is the Eastern chipmunk whose home is a complex of small burrows in the back yard of the parsonage (within the fenced in area). The location of his burrows tend to change a little from year to year. I’ve enjoyed periodically feeding him/her black oil sunflower seeds by hand. Chubbycheeks has taught me a thing or two about patience as well as joy.

Spot is an American Robin whose breeding territory includes the lawns of the addresses 54, 56, 53, and 57 Waln Street. While American robins may migrate hundreds of miles each year between wintering and breeding territories, each year during our 5 year stay in Wellsboro I’ve enjoyed seeing Spot on his breeding grounds from late March to early September. I've seen him every day during my short walks to and from the parsonage. I must have given him about 900 blessings, each time we see one another with a simple, “peace be with you, neighbor.” I feel that he’s given me about 900 blessings in return, just with his unique and beautiful presence. I've been able to recognize Spot by the unique white spot behind his right eye. Here is a photo of him:

During two out of the five years we’ve lived in Wellsboro we’ve had Fish Crows and Merlin Falcons nesting in the tall pines on our block of Waln Street. They've been fun to keep an eye (and an ear!) out for. Instead of the typical American Crow’s “caw! Caw!” the fish crow sounds like a muffled, “cu-uh!” These are typically southern coastal birds so sometimes when they are calling in the back yard on a sunny day, Erin and I could close our eyes and imagine ourselves at the beach in Florida!

Here is one of the merlin falcons perched atop the great big sugar maple tree on Waln Street:

Here is a merlin falcon alighting from the upper branches of one of the Norway spruce trees bordering the neighbor’s yard:

While it saddens me to leave these wild neighbors behind, I wish them well. 

Peace be with you, neighbors.