Adventure Tourism, Birds, Blessings, Camping, Faithful Living, God, Home, Nature, Prayer, Religion, River, Uncategorized, wisdom

With a Honk and a Prayer

On our meandering way home last week, we camped near a lake in northern Kentucky.  We went on a rainy walk before supper, so glad to stretch our legs, gladder still to see geese on the water, which, like robins, I prefer to interpret as another sign of spring.

After dinner and washing up in the RV, we settled into our bunk with our books, lulled by the sound of rain on the roof. Outside was a deepening twilight. Faintly at first, then growing louder, the honking of an army of geese approached the lake for the night, answered robustly by the birds already in residence.  The honking was a roar at splashdown.

At first I thought the geese were honking to establish some kind of hierarchy, a kind of threat between resident and intruder. But my reading revealed that geese make such a racket in their dusky landings and dawn takeoffs so that other geese will know where they are.  They don’t honk in threat, or greeting, or goodbye. They honk to be “seen” in the dark, to prevent accidentally colliding with one another. Our church has become so crowded of late that I laugh to think about honking in the vestibule so that no one accidentally elbows me while drinking hot coffee! Still,

we can use our hearing as a kind of sonar, to listen for people’s stories, hopes, fears, and needs.

The other time geese routinely honk is while migrating. Bird experts think it is a form of encouragement. It reminds me of they way players on the bench, and the fans behind them cheer on their team on the court and field. My church family is truly my flock in this regard.

In returning to our home church for worship, it felt wonderful to be welcomed by our church family… the honking of landing back in our fold, of encouragement in the questions about our trip, our welfare, what we learned, how it went. And we learned what had been happening at home in our absence.

The Bible calls this being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses… people on both sides of the river, alive and dead, who greet us, enfold us, encourage us, pray with us, and then send us back out into God’s world with a honk and a prayer.

Who is in your flock to encourage you, to see you safely home? Listen for them!

 

~J.A.P. Walton

Photo credit: bestof:canada geese branta canadensis …snappygoat.com

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My Favorite Lesson

I am watching the birds at Trout Creek today, the outdoors swathed in snow mantle, the wind chill temps blisteringly cold.  After our month-long absence, we found the birds waiting in the wings of the Norway spruce for “their” feeder to be refilled, and the water bath topped off.

It was blizzarding out, lacy snow swirling in a blinding, biting wind.

The intrepid titmouse was at the feeder immediately, running laps from there to the gutter to hammer open his seeds, and find a crack to hide them. The red-bellied woodpecker was not far behind, carelessly scattering seed for which the ground-hugging juncos were thankful. All afternoon they came, the hapless chickadees, bold cardinals, upside down nuthatches, purple and house finches, and downy woodpeckers. This morning, a finch parked itself on the feeder as I worked at my desk through a month’s worth of mail. Though birds’ feet can withstand the cold quite well, it was a happy sight to watch the finch balance on one foot with the other tucked up into her fluffed up feathers. Every so often, she switched feet.

While strolling through the ruins of the Roman Forum earlier this month, I sat for a time to rest and imagine the people who once lived in that grand, impressive place. In the Temple of the Virgins, statues of twelve virtuous ladies line the walk, but only one still has her stone head. On the headless statue in front of me, a small sparrow-sized bird landed, and began to drink out of the water bowled in the lady’s neck.  Next, this bird, a red-breasted flycatcher common to southern Europe, jumped into that pooled water for a bath. I doubt the sculptor could have imagined his beautiful work serving as a bird bath!

Also in Rome, while watching the filthy Tiber River flow by, I observed a pigeon-a fat one at that- limping along on stumped legs; the bird had no feet.  Still, it had adapted quite marvelously, and didn’t even seem to know or care that it was footless.

Jesus taught that

God cares for even the lowliest of sparrows, and that we should never worry about our lives, because He loves us even more.

It is why I like to watch the birds, knowing that while they neither reap nor sow, they are still known by their Creator. While we are busy flitting from thing to thing, worrying the bones of life like a determined dog, God sees us. Knows us. Knows our needs better than we do. Cares for us. Loves us. Provides for us. Hears us.

The birds teach me that. It’s my favorite subject in the school of nature.

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The ‘Unhurried Grace’ of the Wilderness

The Walton brothers are back and rested from their rafting trip down the Colorado River, full of stories, memories, and the gratification one gets from completing a once-in-a-lifetime wilderness adventure.  Over eleven days, they rafted 192 miles, bucking through 66 rapids, 28 of which were level IV or V (i.e., significantly formidable).  Since the Colorado is open to paddlers only by permit, almost everyone on the river is with a professional outfitting group. This is good because the rapids and cold water (around 50 degrees) are dangerous even when you know what you are doing.

So the brothers joined 12 other trippers at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, as well as 4 guides and 4 support staff from O.A.R.S. outfitters. They spent time at the start in orientation: man-overboard drills, helmet rules, and “groover” instructions (a groover is a backcountry toilet for solid waste, because we all know that everything we eat must come out, and that on the Colorado, everything solid that comes out must be packed out).  At 4:00 a.m. the next day, they set off down the Bright Angel trail from the rim of the Grand Canyon hiking down (with a capital D), nearly 10 miles to Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River. They began in a frosty, pitch dark with headlamps, and 3 water bottles apiece. By the time they reached the bottom it was 95 degrees and they were footsore, more than ready to on the river. The rafts were awaiting them in the cool brown Colorado, 4 for the 16 trippers and 4 guides, and support staff with other rafts with supplies like food, drink, gear, and groover. The group all agreed that this was the most physically-challenging day of the trip, and that hiking 10 miles downhill makes everything hurt: back, hips, knees, and, most especially, toes.

When you trip with an outfitter, you have to learn that you are the patron, and the staff is there to serve you.

This is so unlike any trip you would plan and execute on your own; on this trip, carrying the gear, brewing the coffee at 5:30 a.m., cooking the food, cleaning up the camp kitchen, and steering the raft through dangerous rapids was all done for the trippers.  This is fun for most people, and allows them a chance to enjoy being in the wilderness without any of the obligations of planning and paddling.  But, for the two paddling Walton brothers, this was hard. They enjoy the process, and welcome hard physical challenges, where testing themselves against the beauty, danger, and mystery of the wilderness is the main thrust of why they go in the first place. This is not to say they didn’t have a terrific time on the Colorado, only that they would have enjoyed a more hands-on experience.

It begs several questions that have plagued the national parks for decades. How do we get more people in touch with what the wilderness has to teach, and accommodate the novice explorer’s lack of expertise and physical fitness, while preserving the true notion of “wilderness”?  How do we make the wilderness accessible and relatable for people with disabilities?  We know that hands-on experience is a master teacher. So, if we want people to advocate for wilderness preservation, how do we help them be active participants instead of passive passengers?

The world is shrinking. The national parks are experiencing record numbers of visitors, and the wildness of the lands the government preserves is in peril when accessibility/development is at loggerheads with preservation of the virgin wilderness.

Edward Abbey, John Muir, and Henry Thoreau would decry the bulldozers ripping and gnawing at the wilderness so that the auto, RV, motor boat, and trail bike can reach far corners, in faster time, than would happen if we could only get there on foot, or with mute paddle.

What’s lost is the silent stretch of time and physical challenge that births reverence and awe in the undiminished wilds, something that industrial tourism* can never authentically afford.  For now, there’s the shallow surface beauty that national park visitors can enjoy in a quick stop-for-a-day.

The deeper, more mysterious, yet difficult to access  “unhurried grace”* of the wilderness, is won

only by those able and willing to do the hard work to get out and away from the crowds, and it is diminishing by the year.

~J.A.P. Walton

* Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire. Chapter 4. 1968.

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Thin Air, Thick Dust, Beauty All Around

It is good to be home in Michigan after a 3-week spell in Arizona and Utah. Here, I can drink deep draughts of the autumnal palette of green, vermillion, orange and gold, reveling in this bounty of colors so much rarer in the western landscape.

Phoenix was particularly hot and dry where the greenish-yellow of the prickly pear and saguaro cacti stands in base-relief against the purple of distant mountains. Here, the only deep greens are on the golf course, watered with precious and dwindling flows from the Colorado River, and on the cell phone towers painted green to look like giant saguaros.

Climbing out of the desert into the high mesas to the north, the landscape changes in an instant. The cactus and sand give way to rock and bristlecone pine at the higher elevations. In appearance it seems an unforgiving landscape, but

the Hopi and Navajo have lived here for a thousand years, “thriving long in adverse conditions: poor soil, drought, temperature extremes, high winds.”*

Past the Grand Canyon and on into southern Utah, aspen join the autumn chorus, waving golden, glittering arms in gladness. Here, the weathered rock cathedrals tower, where sandstone is king, and sagebrush his queen as they reign over free-ranging cattle on a thousand hills. Here is the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, those life-giving ribbons of water, home to the pronghorn antelope, nattering prairie dog, and swift peregrine falcon. Here, too, is Zion, a river-carved fortress of sheer honeyed walls, and Bryce, with its colorful hoodoo armies blown by winds like fine glass.( Zion National Park   and Bryce Canyon National Park )

It is an entirely different kind of wilderness than what we experience in northern Michigan and southern Ontario.  Here, damp, verdant, fertile. Out west, thin air thick with dust, where the only immediately visible abundance for hundreds of miles is rock. To be sure, both are beautiful in their own ways. Both point to an imaginative Creator, who paints with a bold and vibrant palette.  Both give us the same gifts that wilderness always gives: delight in its bigness, contentedness with our own smallness, hope that life and beauty abound wherever we find ourselves, and that

nothing on this earth is godforsaken at all.

~ J.A.P. Walton

* William Least Heat Moon. Blue Highways. Chapter 2.

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When God Floats Your Boat

Two years ago, the Walton brothers paddled in Ontario’s Spanish River Provincial Park. SRPP info   They chose a route that threaded through multiple lakes connected by short, shallow outlets. In low water, these outlets turn into tricky portages that leave the canoeist knee deep in boggy, rocky muck. It can quickly become a slog hauling canoes and supplies over challenging barriers that were supposed to be paddled but instead have to be portaged without any trails to follow. The brothers were dismayed to find when they arrived in September that the water levels were at their lowest in a long time, clogging their planned paddling route with clots of muck and rock where lakes should have been.

After Hugh underwent his second round of chemotherapy and subsequent bone marrow transplant, he developed blood clots called DVT, or deep vein thrombosis in one leg.  It is actually quite common for leukemia patients to acquire DVT.  DVT info  These clots are life-threatening because they can move through the blood and lodge in the lungs. Once in the lungs, the clots become barriers to oxygen exchange, and the patient can quickly die of suffocation. As a result, Hugh is now on blood thinners. While this is a terrific remedy for blood clots, it does raise the risk of a dangerous bleed-out from cuts or accidents. As a matter of fact, on one trip, Hugh was pulling a canoe up onto a sandy beach in his bare feet when he stepped on a buried and severed tree root that stabbed deep into his instep. It took some time for the bleeding to stop, and the brothers were too far into the wilderness for immediate help. They now have a rule that you can’t ever be barefoot on trips unless in your sleeping bag.

There are barriers in life that quickly and easily clot our thinking. I often find that they are spiritual in nature, and usually begin innocuously when we let our focus become too heavily inward. Our inner dialogue evolves into a diatribe. We’ve been wronged, treated unfairly or with disrespect, and the “I” language in our head bubbles over in frustration and anger. These are times to take great care, because the lifeblood of the Holy Spirit is clogged, and our sour thinking then deprives us of the spiritual oxygen to act and live rightly toward God and others. Days become a slog of carrying heavy burdens that weigh us down in the muck of our darkened thoughts.

There is a spiritual blood thinner though, and it is incongruously connected with the blood of Christ.

If you can intentionally move your thoughts from yourself to God, if you are willing to unyoke yourself from life’s burdens, to think of and serve others first, God will float you up out of the muck. It’s a wonderful experience to feel the waters of the Spirit float you up, out, and on your way. Next time your language is laced with “I’s”, get in the boat with God and get moving again.

~J.A.P. Walton