Sunday, April 18, 2010

Place entry #8 week of 4/12-4/18

 Lessons from the pond

The clouds hang like draperies, thick and low,  shifting from charcoal to purple, then green to white.  Tiny flakes of ice swirl and fall down intermittently with the biting wind. It can't be more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit today. Without sunshine, it reveals no emotion. It's swollen due to recent rains and probably a little sore from shouldering so many twigs, seedlings, waterfowl, fish and silt. The leaves of the towering Maple are now fully formed. It will soon provide refreshing shade from the sun for the ducks when temperatures soar into the 90s. The pink and magenta blossoms from the shrubs forming the perimeter along the south bank shout out their beauty in contrast to the silent, colorless waters. A few heavy branches and sticks with torn bark and other debris lay clustered around the Maple, most likely sliced off by the impressive thunderstorm winds a couple nights ago.

I think about the power of water, ice, wind and lightning on all plant life and recall how massive branches and leaves and twigs choked the streets of my former tree lined neighborhood in Kansas after a tornado. We look with dismay and call it destruction. Maybe nature calls it pruning and trimming.

 There are multiple life lessons to be learned from communing in nature because it reflects the wisdom of our Great Creator. Regular visits to the pond have reminded me of this during the past few months.

  1. Life is seasonal. There are seasons of renewal, rebirth, growth and death. There are periods when it appears nothing changes or happens because the activity is hidden and silent. And when you least expect it, everything changes. This is how nature teaches us patience.
  2.  Sometimes it is necessary to let go of what may seem to be a precious treasure in order to receive something even better. What if the Great Maple refused to drop its leaves last fall? What if it was so proud of its beautiful colors that it tried to keep them? Then there would be no room for new leaves to sprout forth now.
  3. The ducks don't quack, "I don't need you!" to the pond. The birds don't twitter "I don't need you" to the trees. The trees don't bark "Stay off my branches," to the squirrels and birds. There's a beautiful display of interdependence. Each living thing is sustained and nourished by the other. We can accept this in nature, but often fail to apply this  elsewhere in human relationships. We were not created to be emotionally or spiritually self-sufficient.

At the conclusion of this final required entry, I ponder "turning over a new leaf" in choosing another physical place for the summer and visiting regularly to write about it here. This exercise has become a form of meditation and prayer and has thus changed me. It's taught me to observant to the present moment.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Final post #8 week of 4/12-4/18

Bridging the gap between awareness and apathy: A skeptic changes attitude about nature and writing

Mission Impossible, should I choose to accept: Select and commit to a physical setting that you will go to regularly and give detailed descriptions of in blog.

It sounded simple enough in the beginning. After much contemplation about inspiration and travel distance, however, I realized this would require more discipline than I was comfortable with.    Furthermore, having lived in Pittsburgh for just three months, I still wasn't yet familiar with the city to have a sense of a "perfect place." This prompted me to do some research on the city parks. Alas! There are so many! Highland Park revealed itself as a potential candidate, but after a couple drive-a-rounds in January, it failed to inspire me.

Then someone told me about Washington's Landing, a little marina off of 31st street where I could access a walking trail near the river. I was on my way there for the first time on the Friday before this was due when I received an unexpected and upsetting phone call. The conversation soured my mood to the point where I was totally unable to focus on the original purpose for driving there and devoted six pages of my journal reflecting on it. No more Washington's Landing for me. Too far to drive.  By Sunday, I still hadn't made up my mind. I happen to be on campus then, and noticed the pond for the first time, stopped and christened  it "my perfect place" out of desperation. 

I had been seeking out a specific natural setting regularly when living in Des Moines, not for the purpose of describing it, but as a means to escape and pour out angst regarding another area life. But something startling began to unfold. Sitting on the bare ground, writing in the present tense about my observations of this pond also helped ground me in the present moment, something I've always wrestled with. Rather than seeking out a natural setting to scribble complaints and discontent about circumstances beyond my control, this activity helped me put myself aside and open up to whatever the present had to teach me.

Mission Impossible, should I choose to accept: The readings and a 290 page text called Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams.

Although postings on this text were wide ranging and controversial, it has influenced me the most. Her concern about the Great Salt Lake was the undertow that drew me in. TTW's relationship with her family and the illness touched me deeply because I had a similar experience with another family member.  She has become a role model and guide for me.

Lisa Couturier's work on urban nature also excited me and helped me understand how to seek out nature in an urban setting. The Native American's approach to nature writing was also deeply moving. Their land and sense of place is so deeply ingrained within their culture that it flows "naturally" into their  writing.  They don't need to give it a name and genre. It's humbling and inspiring.

Barbara Kingsolver's essays were thought provoking as well, and I think it's noteworthy to mention that I'm a quarter of the way through Animal Vegetable Garden as one of the required readings to prepare for a field trip to Spain in a few weeks. I wish I could share my reactions to this work in this class because I'm discovering many connections. (It suddenly occurs to me that every writer I admire from this class is female.)

Final Mission Impossible, should I choose to accept: The Final Project . . . navigate my way through the crazy maze of highways.

I began fretting about this weeks before it was due. Ideally, I wanted to focus on oceans or beaches, but those don't exist in Pittsburgh. I thought about sense of place and water and the readings on urban nature turned me on to the idea of writing about what the City of Bridges is most famous for: the rivers.  A Pittsburgh native and friend helped orient me to the newly renovated south side near the Hot Metal Bridge. A classmate and I explored part of this river trail together and then I took a wrong turn on our back and we took the scenic route home. The two week process of losing and finding my around the riverfront walking trails were critical in helping me feel a little more connected to the City of Bridges. After losing my way around downtown several times -- with and without the GPS -- this small town two-highway girl in me was zipping around the North Shore to the South Shore freeways like I'd lived here all my life. Well . . . sort of.

The City of Bridges has bridged the gap between apathy and awareness to nature and my surroundings.  It has shown me the rivers. It has instilled me with more confidence. It has revealed a part of my writerly self that would not have surfaced if I had not intentionally changed my environment. And it's only just begun. These bridges have more plans for me.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Place entry #7 week of 3/29-4/4

 Based on observations on April 2 and March 31

The animal kingdom thriving by the pond

Cast of characters:

Cardinal - Rupert
Robin - Loretta
brown duck 1 - Molly
brown duck 2 - Clarisa
green duck - Mavis
squirrel -Jimmy
little girl - Sara

Loretta, Molly and Clarisa enjoy basking in the warm sun light. They paddle gracefully in the olive green waters, each dunking her head to nibble at something on the bottom. "Over here, girls," Mavis calls out to Molly and Clarisa, "There's a ton of snacks at the south end!" Clarisa  and Molly effortlessly glide over to investigate.
"No, it's too muddy over here. We don't like these snacks," Clarisa complains.
"Don't you think it's time to ease up on the food?" Molly asks Clarisa. "Aren't you putting on a few spring pounds?"
Clarisa glares at Molly and continues nibbling.
"Knock it off, Molly. She's a growing duck. She can afford the calories," advises Mavis.
"Hey everybody!" Loretta hops to the shoreline. "Anyone seen any dry grass or weeds? I'm still not done building my house."
"Check over on the north side," says Mavis.
"What's the water like?" asks Loretta.
"Fabulous!" says Clarisa.
"Okay. I'm gonna wash my feathers too as soon as I find some decent weeds," says Loretta.
"Hello there, pretty lady, you come here often?" Rupert twitters from a nearby bush.
"Oh you wish! I am so far out of your league . . . I'm not even your same species!" Loretta tweets.
"Don't be so hard on him. He flirts with all different kinds of birds," says Mavis. "Alright girls, I think we've bathed long enough. Time to dry off."
"Not me, Mavis," says Clarisa.
"Yeah, I agree, all this eating and swimming can wear a poor duck out," says Molly. Molly and Mavis waddle up on the west bank, next to the Maple. They shake their water-logged feathers, tuck their feet underneath them and bury their bills in their feathers. Molly closes her eyes. Just as Mavis is also drifting off for a nap, she and Molly are startled awake by Sara.
"Hi duckies! Say quack! Quack! QUACK!"
"Oh my god, what the?" stutters Molly.
"Back in the water, immediately! Remember, humans can't be trusted!" orders Mavis.
Jimmy scurries over to the shoreline. "I heard someone asking about weeds! Who was asking about weeds? I know where the weeds are! Right by the nuts! Under that pile of leaves!"
"Uh huh, Loretta was asking about those," says Rupert.
"Tell her I found dry grass and weeds! Tell her it's over here! Tell her she's got really pretty feathers this year! Tell her - "
"Yeah, yeah, I know Jimmy. I'll give her the message," says Rupert.
Loretta reappears, fluttering from shrub to shrub, grass in her beak.
"There you are, Loretta! Jimmy wanted me tell you that he knows where some dry grass is," says Rupert.
"Awesome," mumbles Loretta, her mouth full. "But first, I have got to wash my feathers."
"Say, you need help with your house?" Rupert asks.
"Ah no thanks. And I have a boyfriend already, so quit looking at my feathers that way," says Loretta. "Good-bye Mavis Claris and Molly. I found all the weeds I need. See you later!"
"Bye bye" the ducks say in unison.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Blog prompt #7 week of 3/29-4/4

Holy Waters

They were beaten, abused and overworked as slaves to the Egyptians for more than a 100 years. And then on day they are told that deliverance is on the way, that some God is about to rescue them and lead them to a place called the "Promised Land." But this is hard to believe when the Egyptians discover this and work them even harder. Nevertheless, the deliverance comes as promised. Their leader guides them south and east on foot toward the Red Sea. The Eygpitans, however, change their minds and are in hot pursuit. The slaves are cornered at the shoreline. Someone forgot to arrange for a boat to transport them. Just as they wonder whose bright idea it was to escape bondage using this particular route, a great wind blows down and splits the Red Sea waters in half, creating a dry trail in the middle. What's even better, the second the slaves have all safely walked the trail, the waters return and drown the incoming Egyptians.

The Jordan River was the natural barrier between the desert and the Promised Land then known as Canaan. When the slaves, now known as the Israelites, approach it, they believe it's an obstacle and a setback. But there's a reason why God expects them to cross it. They've been vagabonds in the desert for more than 40 years while God has been patiently teaching them to trust him. The generation that witnessed the Red Sea parting, sadly, didn't live long enough to reach the final destination. The kids have grown up and have to continue on, but this is terrifying. This is the rainy season, so the river is flooded and, according to their assessment, too dangerous to cross. They're convinced God is sending them on a suicide mission. But as soon as the first person in line gets his feet wet, the river calms and recedes.

At the first crossing, God is demonstrating his faithfulness to the Israelites. At the second crossing God  expects the next generation to demonstrate their faithfulness to him.

God uses the physical landscapes of rivers, seas and desert to lead, guide and reveal himself. 

Two young men greet each other warmly and converse for a few moments. Then they wade in the might current of the Jordan River until they are waist deep. One gently dunks the other, and then they hug. Suddenly a dove descends from somewhere and flutters around the pair. "This is my son, with whom I am pleased," booms an unseen voice.

Jesus knew he needed to be baptized before beginning  his ministry and there was no one more appropriate than John the Baptist. It was an initiation rite and he was setting the example for his followers. Baptism today symbolizes initiation into God's family as well as "washing away" of sin.

These events are as relevant today as they were to all the early followers of Christ. God continues to demonstrate his faithfulness to believers and he also still expects his followers to demonstrate trust and obediance, although it's often not quite as dramatic or literal. The scriptures are drenched in water imagery. There are many more examples of how God uses water in a literal and figurative way to teach, guide and communicate.