Category Archives: nature

He paints in fairy lines.

JACK FROST

The door was shut, as doors should be,
Before you went to bed last night;
Yet Jack Frost has got in, you see,
And left your window silver white.

He must have waited till you slept;
And not a single word he spoke,
But penciled o’er the panes and crept
Away again before you woke.

And now you cannot see the hills
Nor fields that stretch beyond the lane;
But there are fairer things than these
His fingers traced on every pane.

Rocks and castles towering high;
Hills and dales, and streams and fields;
And knights in armor riding by,
With nodding plumes and shining shields.

And here are little boats, and there
Big ships with sails spread to the breeze;
And yonder, palm trees waving fair
On islands set in silver seas,

And butterflies with gauzy wings;
And herds of cows and flocks of sheep;
And fruit and flowers and all the things
You see when you are sound asleep.

For, creeping softly underneath
The door when all the lights are out,
Jack Frost takes every breath you breathe,
And knows the things you think about.

He paints them on the window-pane
In fairy lines with frozen steam;
And when you wake you see again
The lovely things you saw in dream.

~ Gabriel Setoun (1861-1930)

Raj in the California atmosphere.

The highlight of our Thanksgiving season was a visit from Kate and family, including that baby I met back in January, who came from India this month for various family get-togethers and his baptism. Glory to God!

He and Kate and Tom did land first in Colorado to meet our newly relocated clan family, a few days after I’d come back here. So I wasn’t present when Raj encountered snow.

Two days after my return, my part of the state was inundated with smoke and ash from the Butte County Camp Fire far to the north, and the day of Raj’s baptism far to the south I was not physically present. My friend and I were here in what looked for a few days like a thrift store, organizing donations to the fire victims. Myriah did not lose her house, but she did certainly lose her home.

As soon as Myriah drove on to the  disaster area with lots of sweaters and socks and new coats, the Glad Group began trickling in, starting with Pearl’s family from Wisconsin and San Diego, and continuing with Raj and his parents, then Pippin’s people from northern California. Everyone wanted to meet Raj! And of course, to see his parents whom they’d been missing for a year and a half.

Until Wednesday, the smoky and cold air had continued to hang over our county oppressively. Then RAIN, glorious and cleansing, fell from the skies, and overnight the Air Quality Index fell from the 160’s (similar to what I experienced in Mumbai last winter) to below 20. All day Pearl and I baked pies, and yams in orange sauce, and prepped the turkey dressing. With the rain came milder temperatures overall, so we had to leave the door and windows open at times to vent all the oven and stovetop heat, and for two days we had the comforting background music of steady pattering and drumming. Pearl took lambs’ ears and dodonea from my garden to add to spider mums from Costco and created table decorations for the feast.

I had braved the smoke one day, wanting so much to get Pippin apples for pies, and drove a half hour to our favorite apple ranch where they still had stock of four varieties. I brought home Pippins, Romes, and Pink Ladies. It is still a sadly nostalgic thing for me to go there alone, but I am trying to embrace the joy of having such a rare and wonderful farm to go to, where I can find two or three dozen different varieties of apples over the course of the season. It makes me want to embrace and cherish apples more actively, too!

I looked and looked online to find a recipe for pumpkin-chocolate-chip muffins, the hankering for which had come over me when thinking of how to get ready for my crowd. I discovered just in time that I had my own “best” recipe right here on my blog. It made a generous batch, enough for everyone to enjoy while waiting for the primary offerings of the feast.

Fava beans

When the rain stopped briefly we looked at the newly-washed and radiant garden,  and breathed in those scents that are like an autumn feast in themselves. A whole flock of bluebirds visited the fountain for baths and we wondered if they were washing off soot. My fava beans that sprouted when I was in Colorado are doing great. I cut a butternut squash down from the trellis to roast for soup, and Ivy found giant fruits on the arbutus (Strawberry Tree).

After everyone had arrived, the “usual” fun began. This time, I think the unique circumstances of my recent sojourn in Colorado, followed by the fire and smoke, followed by the rain that kept me from walking, all contributed to lack of sleep, so that I felt alternately flat and in a hole — maybe in a flat-bottomed hole? — for days. But I did manage to take a few pictures, so now in recovery I have the vision to see them as a cohesive expression of a moment in our Glad cultural history.

The Usual included wrestling and snuggling and staying-up-too-late-talking with brothers, daughters, aunts and uncles, and all the assorted kinfolk that one only sees once or twice a year anymore. Oh, it is hard being scattered over the continent and globe!

I didn’t have it in me to go with everyone to San Francisco, the aquarium etc. at the Academy of Sciences on Saturday, and to Fort Point, so the smiling picture of Raj I also stole. But Sunday after church Kate’s and Pippin’s families and I did go to the redwoods! It was a dreamy time to go, almost winter and after several steady downpours had removed every trace of dust from the big trees, and both Pippin and the Professor helped me in my ongoing botanical studies.

Lichen fruticose hanging from California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia)
Coast redwood needles – shorter/compact grow higher on tree

I learned that the lichens that hang from the trees like tresses are lichen fruticose, and that the needles in the tops of the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) resemble those of their cousins the giant redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) that grow naturally in the Sierra Nevada. Big leaf maple and hazelnut trees made splashes of light and color in the groves that were dark in midday, the close canopy blocking the light from way up there. We made little impact on the deep quiet of the woods, strolling on the duffy paths — but that atmosphere was broken by a big crash and boom, the sound of a tree falling somewhere in the park. If everything hadn’t been thoroughly wet, we’d surely have seen some dust raised by that event.

When Raj was carried into my house last week and met the third or fourth new crowd of relatives in a fortnight, he did respond to my face and voice with a sweet smile. Perhaps the FaceTime sessions truly did help him to remember my voice, adding to whatever deeper memories were embedded from those newborn lullaby sessions with me nine months ago.

Now Pearl’s and Pippin’s families have departed, but Tom, Kate, and Baby Raj will be with me for a few more special days. A good rest and a forest walk have perked me up quite a bit, so I have hope of making the most of the rest of this week and entering into the joyful work and celebrations ahead.

I will close with a few lines [surprised to see that out of all the many stanzas we used, I chose the same lines three years ago to share here] from the “Akathist of Thanksgiving” that we read together on Thanksgiving evening, and which express my mood right now:

I was born a weak, defenseless child,
but Thine angel spread his wings over my cradle to defend me.
From birth until now Thy love has illumined my path,
and has wondrously guided me towards the light of eternity;
from birth until now the generous gifts of Thy providence
have been marvelously showered upon me.
I give Thee thanks, with all who have come to know Thee,
who call upon Thy name.

Thou hast brought me into life as into an enchanted paradise.
We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue,
where in the azure heights the birds are singing.
We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest
and the melodious music of the streams.
We have tasted fruit of vine and the sweet-scented honey.
We can live very well on Thine earth.
It is a pleasure to be Thy guest.

Earth, sky, and symphony.

It’s a wonder, all the fascinating things I get to discuss and learn about, inspired by reading books to boys who range in age from two to six years old. Before they’d even shed their pajamas this morning they brought me a book found on the shelf here at the temporary house, a worn 1966 school discard by Isaac Asimov titled The Moon.

What instantly got my attention was the picture on the first page, a closeup of the moon showing its topography, with many names of craters, valleys and mountains. Where did these names come from? When were they given? Who is Piccolomini? Astronomy has never exactly sparked my interest; maybe because of my inability to grasp the spatial arrangement of bodies and trajectories in the Universe. But show me a map, and names that carry historic or literary or philosophical meanings as these seem to, and I’m intrigued.

Mr. Asimov doesn’t get into all that. He goes right to theories of ages and descriptions of orbits. Liam was happy to stay with me a while on the names — remember, we both love words — and pointed out that Piccolomini has two words in it: piccolo and mini. This name is significant to our other “studies” as I will come back to later.

Before we could turn the page of this book, we had to sit down and eat the breakfast I’d made, and then the rest of the household who weren’t at work went to visit another new friend, and as I was simultaneously working on some oatmeal muffins for lunch I read about lunar topography. The man who came up with the first nomenclature for the moon, much of which is still used, was a Jesuit priest of the early 17th century, Giovanni Battista Riccioli. Riccioli considered himself first a theologian, but spent the vast majority of his long life researching and teaching about astronomy, as well as logic and physics, especially pendulums. What a learned and productive human, who lived in a challenging time for a natural philosopher. People debate about his possible secret beliefs, based on how he chose and arranged names of lunar features.

“He said that once the enthusiasm for astronomy arose within him he could never extinguish it, and so he became more committed to astronomy than theology. Eventually his superiors in the Jesuit order officially assigned him to the task of astronomical research. However, he also continued to write on theology…”

Will I integrate these evocative moon names into the tangled web of my mind’s musings? Perhaps the only thing I will have gained is another name for what’s in my head: “Sea of Vapors.” That name is from this newer map, featuring the waters of the moon, which I will leave at closing of this subject. Oh, and Piccolomini was an Italian poet and astronomer.

Soldier and Joy did bring along a big bag of their own books for the children, including several titles I wasn’t familiar with before, like this one about orchestral instruments. It made me think of the song I used to sing with my children, “Nous Sommes à la Musicale.” (“We are at the musical,” in French.) I couldn’t remember much of it, but Pippin came to my rescue and sent me a cute video of herself singing it. It’s ultra simple and catchy — there are no other French lines other than the names of the instruments — and you can hear a clip of it on this Folkways recording. Perhaps I borrowed the LP from the library once in the distant past.

More singing: here is Liam sweeping while singing “I love the mountains, I love the rolling hills,” etc.

I wanted the children to be able to hear the sounds of all the instruments pictured in the book above, and  I found quite a few good videos on YouTube, including a half-hour performance without any lecturing, from Benjamin Britten’s Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra. I loved it because it showed nearly every instrument and closeups of the musicians playing, and the conductor was fun to watch as well. There were many shots of the piccolo player!

The boys had heard “Peter and the Wolf” many times, but never seen it played. I found a charming ensemble of seven musicians from Qatar performing to a backdrop of a sort of shadow puppet show of the story, and that was a hit.

Browsing the library shelves last week with Laddie, I came across this beautiful book, Behold the Trees, by Sue Alexander, illustrated by Leonid Gore. It is a simple telling of the story of “living, life-giving trees” in the Holy Land, from ancient times when they were plentiful, to the 20th century when Jews all over the world contributed funds for planting trees to replace those that had been over the centuries and for various reasons cut down.

 

“They grew in stands and groves and great forests. They held back the sea, cooled the air, and protected the earth for the people and animals who lived there… So it was, for hundreds and hundreds of years….”

But then, people needed cleared land for farms and doors for shops; armies “cut down trees to build fortresses and palaces, shrines to their gods, cities and towns.” Whole forests were burned to remove hiding places for enemies. Eventually “the land became salt marsh and sand,” and animals disappeared.

I love the illustrations in this book showing these events and the people planting trees. And the names of the trees listed simply, and as elegant as a poem. I wanted to know more about the history of this re-greening effort, and I learned a few things online that were fascinating and encouraging.

As recently as the 1960’s the project was begun to plant Yatir Forest on the edge of the Negev Desert. A long Wikipedia article tells much about this “living laboratory” that is the largest forest in Israel, and on another site I found a succinct explanation of one way that the trees survive the climate that they are not suited to:

“Partial results of the research by Professor Yakir and his team show that the forest’s trees have adapted themselves to arid environmental conditions by naturally smart use of the high level of carbon dioxide in the air.  Professor Yakir explains that because of the rise in the level of carbon dioxide in the air, the trees absorb all the carbon dioxide they require without needing to fully open all the stomas (apertures) in their leaves’ membranes. Partial opening of the stomas reduces the evaporation of the water on the leaves and so a tree uses less water without any damage to its development.”

The last of the recent book discoveries was one I found at a used bookstore just yesterday. I was headed straight toward Target, but when my eyes saw a sign declaring “BOOKS,” my feet veered that way. When I finally escaped I had bought several used books for me and for the children. The illustrations in Once There Was a Tree are rich, and do justice to the beauty of the forest, where the main character is a tree stump, and the questions are philosophical.

It might have been titled “Whose Tree is It?” or “Who owns the earth?” The fundamental message is gently told, of how countless numbers of us creatures benefit from as humble a piece of earth as nurtures a stump in the woods, and we should share. I intend to write on the end page Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.”

Because truly He is the beginning and end, the source of all the wealth of gifts and resources that surround us, and of which I have been partaking by means of the sharing of so many of His creatures, from tree-planters to musicians, from a scientist-priest to a children’s book illustrator.

The world — my world — His world — is full of delights.
And I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s offering.

Rabbitbrush and butterscotch.

Last week was full of rocks and trees and even flowers. Joy and I took the children to Garden of the Gods, where red sandstone in ragged forms towers above the walking paths. Even the littlest guy walked more than two miles among the juniper and mountain mahogany, and wildflowers mostly gone to seed. The Gambel oaks, also known as Rocky Mountain white oak or Colorado scrub oak, had probably displayed more varied shades of orange and yellow a few weeks ago, but when we encountered them the leaves had aged to a rich, mellow gold.

We saw the rabbitbrush in many forms and places, but didn’t know what it was until just before we left the park and saw its picture in the visitor center. I have known of rabbitbrush for decades and I hope that after this extended encounter I will not forget it so easily. We saw its flower, two sorts of galls on the plants, and noticed its needly leaves and how they are softer than conifer needles. One of the galls is cottony gall; the other I haven’t been able to identify.

The very next day the whole family drove up to Woodland Park; it’s less than an hour to this town that lies at 8500 feet. We walked along Lovell Gulch Trail, among several species of conifers and groves of aspens. We suspected they were aspens, but we knew that birch have similar bark, so when we got home I googled around and it became clear that yes, what we saw were aspens, so plentiful in the Rockies and in dry places high up, while birches like floodplains and shade. And the few leaves that we saw  — most had fallen after turning bright yellow — matched the pictures of aspen. I only saw one bright leaf, of another species.

We admired the bark of other trees, especially one that had lots of texture, and fresh sap flowing. Soldier had a sudden thought, came close to get a whiff, and concluded, “Oh, it must be a Jeffrey pine — they smell like butterscotch.” Indeed. Oh, that was delicious! I made up a mnemonic story for myself about a boy named Jeffrey who was walking down the trail and discovered a butterscotch drop on a tree trunk.

The view of the mountains is striking from there, a different perspective from our daily one. We have seen Pikes Peak from several angles now, and don’t know the names of any of the other peaks visible from here. Soldier just read that Colorado has more than 50 peaks over 14,000 feet. Colder temperatures are coming this week, and yes, snow is on the forecast, too. So our views will grow even more spectacular.