Category Archives: Nature Studies

The Birthday Club Strikes Again

Happy Spring to you!! We celebrated spring and Cindi’s birthday yesterday, which was so much fun that I wanted to share right away in case any of you living in the GR area might be interested in going to the Sugarbush Festival at Blandford Nature Center tomorrow (March 24, 2018) where they’ll be making maple syrup, etc! Also, this coming week would be an ideal time to take your kids
to the Critter Barn in Zeeland, MI, during spring break because they have all sorts of babies being birthed,  and if you show up at feeding time,  they may even let you give the baby goats a bottle of warm milk!  (This may depend on how many children come.)  Of course, being our Birthday Club, we stopped at Sandy’s Donut House  for some of their famous donuts,  and we took a lunch break at El Aztecas Mexican Restaurant,  where they spontaneously blessed us with some festive fried ice cream and sang “Happy Birthday” when they found out we were celebrating Cindi’s birthday.  If you go to the Sugarbush Festival tomorrow,  dress warmly, because it’s only supposed to be a high of 39°F,  but there are lots of things to see outside and some lovely nature walks.  Also,  think about stopping at Sandy’s for a donut on your way, or maybe serving pancakes and syrup at home first, because there isn’t a pancake breakfast there. However, they did let us taste the syrup,
and you’ll be able to buy some yummy maple syrup cotton candy or other treats! If you decide to go the Critter House,  I’d recommend going in the next few weeks while the mothers are birthing,  and call ahead to see what time the next feeding will be.  Be sure to wear clothes you don’t mind getting a little warm milk on,
because even kids will be kids…but it’s well worth the spilled milk! I’d never in all my years fed a baby goat before, and it was so much fun!One of the things I love best about our Birthday Club (and about life), is that we’re never too old to try new things, experience new joys and find new beauties. Are you trying new adventures? Keep exploring! The world is full of good things!

The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 33:5).

He hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord” (Psalm 40:3).

How Would You Like a Beautiful Mink Coat?

We have an adorable little mink who’s taken up residence at our cottage, and I love to see him skittering everywhere, but he hardly ever stops long enough for me to take a clear photo. I always admire his gorgeous fur coat!Do you have a favorite place to shop for clothes? Mine is Goodwill. Oh, I do shop sometimes in other stores, particularly if we’re traveling where the prices are great and the styles unique, but for every day staples, I’d rather let someone else pay 10 times as much to wear their new outfit a few times before getting tired of it. Usually nothing I buy costs more than $3.50, and sometimes the item still has tags on it. Pretty hard to beat! My all-time favorite purchase from a second-hand shop was a lovely fur coat, which did cost more than $3.50 but less than $100. I just looked online at Sax Fifth Avenue, where they’ll give you a mink coat if you’ll give them $10,141.00, so I figured I got mine at a 99% discount. All winter long, our mink runs across the waterfront and dives into a hole under our dock, where I suppose he’s ice fishing, but this morning he was out enjoying the early spring sunshine, so he spent a few extra minutes on top of the dock.I remembered my son Joel telling me at the breakfast table that he’s reading a new book called Being a Beast by Charles Foster—a veterinary surgeon, London barrister and teacher of medical law and ethics at the University of Oxford.  In trying to understand what it feels like to be a beast, Foster attempted living like various animals, and his book relates what he’s learned from this unique experiment.  I’d probably never spend weeks underground eating earthworms the way Charles Foster did, but I can definitely identify with how lovely it would be to have a warm fur coat, especially if you’re going to jump into ice cold water!As humans, I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand what it’s like to be a beast…or to be God, for that matter! We’re greatly limited by our intellectual capacities. We don’t know much about communicating with animals or God! However, unlike animals, God has given us a revelation about himself in the  Bible. If we want to know more about God, we can start by reading his book! Right at the beginning of the Bible, we learn that humans chose to disobey God and tried to cut off communication by hiding. But guess what? Instead of getting angry, God loved them and made provisions for them: Beautiful fur coats!  Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). In the New Testament, we learn that God still loves us—every one of his created human beings! God longs to communicate with us and is still providing for us: But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).                            That’s not exactly a beautiful mink coat, but it’s even better!   Not just a covering for our skin, but a covering for our sin! Will you accept it?I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10).

See It, Touch It, Hold It…Including Snappy the Alligator?!

During the first Christmas my oldest was able to toddle around, he kept asking for permission to “see” then “touch” then “hold” the Christmas ornaments. Unfortunately, he was too young to hold an ornament for very long before it would fall, and if I wasn’t right there to catch the bulb, it would break.

So, in our home, the line went, “See it? Hold it? Touch it? Break it!”
But, don’t we all love to get our hands on things we’re curious about?I think we all have a fascination with holding things that fill us with awe—whether it’s a shiny Christmas ornament or an exotic living creature. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what can be touched and what to avoid! In Tunisia, the zookeeper seemed fearless and knew just how to hold a scorpion while the scorpion held on tight to a pack of cigarettes, but none of us dared try! He also knew how to handle a deadly sidewinder… but nobody wanted to try that one, either! Of course, some critters seem more cuddly,
and those we’d like to touch as well as see. In fact, when it comes to camels, I like to ride them too! A well trained camel can take you for a pleasant ride down the streets in India. A well-trained elephant will let you pet him in the jungles of Nepal, or let you go for a ride (only with his mahout aboard, however!) Baby elephants are something else, though!  They’re 250-pound characters who love to push you around if they can!!I only dared touch this little playmate while he was distracted by someone else! Many creatures look almost irresistibly cuddly, like these monkeys,  but monkeys are pickpockets with nasty bites, so I’ve been trained to keep my distance lest I lose my camera…or worse! Over the years, I’ve been able to see and hold many different creatures,  but on our trip through the Panama Canal,
I got to hold a baby alligator named Snappy.  Snappy has been handled by this park ranger since his birth,
and he’s quite friendly…as long as you don’t put your face next to his mouth.

Alligators have a brain about as big as a pea, so most of what they do is instinctive. Nevertheless, we were back in America, so I figured they wouldn’t let us hold him unless it was relatively safe, and when they asked who would like to hold Snappy, I volunteered. Yes, being in America, they made it quite safe! Although the ranger hadn’t forewarned us, he put a big strap around Snappy’s mouth to keep him quiet. He was totally docile and let me hold him by his soft underbelly. Holding living creatures touches something deep inside me…a trust given to me to hold without hurting…not to break…and hopefully not to get hurt either. As we go through life, I hope we continue learning what is safe and what is not…       and just how close we can get to others without asking for trouble!    But I hope we keep exploring and trying to connect,  not only with critters,  but with people! There’s a huge world out there full of people who’ve never heard the good news that Jesus came to set us free from sin and give us eternal life!                       Can we hold them so gently that we don’t hurt them?

Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not; But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:1-7).

Late Bloomers

Do you ever find it hard to throw out a perfectly good plant that has finished blooming but still looks hardy? I  have this “thing” about letting anything die, and it sears my soul to throw out even diseased plants that I can’t seem to rehabilitate, although I eventually do get rid of them lest they infect the rest of the plants in our little garden room.  What I’ve noticed is that, unless they are annuals, most flowering plants will bloom again the following year if I wait patiently enough. In particular, we have three Christmas cacti and two poinsettias, all of which were in full bloom during December when we first got them (more than a year ago), but all of which bloom more in January and February now that they are not being “forced.” I don’t know when they would bloom in their native soil, but I’ve grown to appreciate that our garden room is dotted with bright flashes of reds and pinks during the otherwise dreary, dark days of winter in January, February, and early March!

Do you ever think of yourself as a late bloomer? Or, maybe you think you’ll never bloom again. If you’ve got the Holy Spirit inside, then you’re a perennial, not an annual! Even if you look back and lament that you’ve lost the beauty and bloom of young faith, take heart. Be patient. If you want to, you can bloom again, and when you do, you’ll find unexpected joy that blesses not only you but everyone around you!You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again” (Psalm 71:20).

(Photo with verse compliments of Robert Hardee. Thank you, Bob!)


In The Cave

As we prepare our hearts for Easter, I’d like to share this meditation written by a dear friend from my writers’ group who is a retired English teacher…wise, deep, and sweet!

It is the season of Lent, before Resurrection Sunday, and our church is encouraging us to be more contemplative in our personal worship, to be quiet, to listen to the voice of the Lord as we clear our minds and pray and wait. We have practiced being quiet in the worship service, in small meetings, in vesper services. It is a lovely and beautiful time. It is also totally awkward for someone determined to learn through study, to work out the faith in good deeds, to be busy just about all of the time.

In the middle of Lent we take a trip to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky with two of our grandsons. We have been there before and also to various caves around the country, so small wet stairs going down down down, slippery handrails, and the “Now I am going to turn off the lights” from the Ranger are not brand new events. However, they are the events I most dread even though I am thrilled to be there with our grandsons.

After a long hike down into a truly mammoth cave, “you can do it you can do it” keeping time with my footsteps, our group reaches a large inner space with high ceiling and park-supplied benches. The Ranger tells us all to “take a seat.”

He talks about where we are, how the large space has been formed, and answers several questions from the group. Then he says, “I am going to turn out the lights.” I schooch over closer to my husband. “But first, I want all of you to close your eyes. Keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them.”  Yikes, I find my husband’s hand, move even closer to him. And I also close my eyes. Best not to remember we are 250 feet underground in a damp cave, “Now I am going to turn out the lights. Keep your eyes closed.” Click, he turns them out. Best not remember we are 250 feet underground in a damp cave with our eyes closed and the lights turned off.

“When I tell you to, open your eyes.”  Momentarily, he tells us to open our eyes. I do, and it doesn’t seem to make any difference, the darkness, the blackness, is all the same. I can’t see anything. Then the Ranger says, “I am going to turn on my light; it is the equivalent of one candle.” He clicks something and a light goes on. He is standing in the same place as before, he is holding a small light, and I can see the whole cave — ceiling, walls, jagged floors, bench seats, my husband, our grandsons, everyone else.

The Ranger makes some jokes about the overhead lights. Then he tells us that we can see well enough to get all the way out of the cave by this one small candle light if needed.  However, he does turn on the regular lights and we breathe easier.

And deep in the cave I think, “Wow, this is just like the practices for Lent. ‘Close your eyes,’ the Ranger says. ‘Be still,’ the Lord says. The choice is mine.”

The Ranger says, “I am going to turn out the lights. Keep your eyes closed.” The lights go out which is not by my action, but I keep my eyes closed which is my choice. I choose to let my eyes adjust, I choose to clear other images out of my mind and heart. These are my choices.

The Ranger says, “Open your eyes.” I obey. It is deeply dark, fearsome. When I am quiet, focused, it can be deeply dark, fearsome. Light-action-busy is much more comfortable. “Now I will light one candlepower of light,” he says, his action not mine. The acuity of my vision astounds me. How can I possibly see this much? I see because I obeyed the Ranger and prepared my eyes.

So it is in the time of Lent. I can be still and quiet, close my eyes to the confusion of life. I can accept the darkness and allow the eyes of my heart to adjust. And now, with my eyes prepared, what more do I see?

Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10, ESV).

(Written by Helen Bell. Thank you so much, Helen!)

Casting Your Net

Monday, I wrote about canoeing where dangers lurked by air, land, and sea, (which hadn’t occurred to me beforehand but seemed to be the case à l’époque)!  (I will say that tourists can do much more dangerous things abroad than would ever be allowed in America, so never assume a tour is really safe just because you can choose to do it…such as hanging out at the edge of Victoria Falls in Africa.)At any rate, it wasn’t until we finished our exploration through the mazes of mangrove tunnels and came out to Lake Cartagena that I began to relax,  and when we were reunited with our English-speaking tour guide, he assured us that he’d not seen a single crocodile in the lake for forty years. Okay… However, there is good fishing in the lake (as attested to by this cormorant),   so at least some birds and one man spend their days fishing on the lake. Our guide poled us over so we could watch the lone fisherman in action.

Apparently he and the cormorant were willing to take the risks, although after hearing about alligators migrating north to Georgia in the U.S. and seeing crocodiles on the shoreline of the Panama Canal not far away, I wasn’t totally convinced it was completely safe.   However, the fisherman was working hard, and he was catching fish and crabs!I felt inspired by his hard work and courage! Jesus calls us to be brave and follow him, promising to make us fishers of men (and crabs?). It’s pretty easy to say, “Ya, but it’s dangerous! I might get killed. (Many do in the 68 countries where Christians are persecuted.) So, should we leave our boats and give up?                                Or, shall we follow Christ and cast our nets?

“The slothful man saith, There is a lion without, I shall be slain in the streets.” (Proverbs 22:13)“He [Jesus] saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)

So You Want To Paddle Your Own Canoe?

In Cartagena, Columbia, we  had a chance to go canoeing through a mangrove swamp, which I anticipated as being reminiscent of our canoe ride in Nepal last fall down the Narayani River.                    You, know—beautiful day, park-like setting, relatively safe.  Only, this time I was hoping we could paddle our own canoes, because…well, just because it’s good exercise and lots of fun.  I was disappointed to see men lined up to escort us, although I knew it might be a bit tricky trying to pole with a stick; I was used to sitting down with a paddle. Nevertheless, it looked like not all the canoes were attended, so I hopped in one that had no apparent captain, hoping they’d let me try my hand at the helm!     Not so fast! There were strong, capable young men assigned to each craft,                              so I settled back to relax and enjoy the ride…sort of… Being a tropical country, and having seen some crocodiles lounging on the bank just the day before, I quickly realized that it was a great idea to let experts pole,  since if I were just trying to learn, I might land our whole canoe in the water!       I had visions of a crocodile or an alligator jumping out of the water           to bite off somebody’s hand at any moment, and it gave me the creeps!  I tried to ask the young man poling our canoe how dangerous it might be, but he just smiled and shook his head as if to say, “I don’t speak English,” so I kept my hands well inside the canoe, tried to hold very still, and hoped for no crocodiles!

What had we gotten ourselves into? I had failed to research this tour option! 😦 Have you ever been for a ride through a mangrove swamp? In a way, it’s awe-inspiring. Frogs and fish darted through the cloudy water. Iguanas hid among the branches overhanging the passageways, and termite nests, looking like discarded Darth Vader helmets, rested on trees. The air was alive with bird songs, although the songsters were hidden behind tangles of branches and flew off skittishly before I could get any good photos. The only birds large enough to be unsettled by our canoe were great blue herons  and the great white herons, who fished silently along the edges of the byways.  Our canoe was almost as quiet as we glided through the maze of tunnels.
The only sound was our guide dipping his pole in and out of the murky water. I suspect we were all being still to escape notice, but for whatever reason,
I had a lot of time for reflections!

Considering the possibility of a poisonous snake dropping down on us from above, a deadly reptile attacking us from the muddy waters below, or catching malaria or other insect-borne disease from the mosquitoes in the air surrounding us made the whole experience seem a little surreal.  I kept remembering terrifying stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and thought about the horrible fears and dangers that slaves endured while running away from their masters toward freedom, back in the dark, early days of America.  Can you imagine how desperate people must have been to wander through the mangrove swamps in southern Florida in an effort to find freedom?  We were at least dry, sitting in a somewhat protected environment, which I found out later was an old, original dugout canoe made from mahogany! Most importantly, we were being carried along by someone who knew the way  through the tangle of tunnels  and had the strength and experience to get us safely “home” after our wild ride.       How about you? Have you—like me—wanted to paddle your own canoe? Have you been surprised by how much more complicated and potentially dangerous life is than you ever imagined? It’s definitely been much harder for me than I remembered from earlier experiences.             It’s all too easy to get into a situation where it’s not obvious      which is the best way to actually get you where you feel like you need to go! Alan and I are reading a wonderful book by Joe Stowell called Following Christ.       If you’re tired of paddling your own canoe, try following Christ. It’s simple, and following Christ takes the pain and frustration out of trying to find our own way to freedom and happiness. He loves us and will help. Besides, only Jesus has the wisdom and strength to get us safely home to heaven, which is where we’d all really like to end up…right?! Even if you’re not yet sure it exists?? I mean, if a heaven exists, wouldn’t you want to go there?!

From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2).