adventure, Anishinaabek, beauty, black bear in Michigan, Creation, Do all bears hibernate?, Faithful Living, Forest, God, going against one's instincts, Hardiness, Lake Michigan, Lessons from the Wilderness, Living Faithfully, National Parks, Nature, Seasons, taking risks, The Legend of Sleeping Bear, Tracks, vigil, What does it mean to go against one's nature?, when time stands still, Why do bears hibernate?, wisdom

The Bear who wasn’t Sleepy

We live in lower Michigan not too far south of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. https://www.nps.gov/slbe/index.htm The Sleeping Bear is a 400’ silken sand dune famous for its shimmering white presence in the afternoon sun and glorious lake views of the two Manitou Islands. People love to run down it to Lake Michigan. The climb back up-not so much.  Anishinaabe (Ottawa/Ojibwe) legend has it that a mother bear and her two cubs fled a great famine in Wisconsin by swimming across Lake Michigan. When Mother Bear reached shore, she turned to watch her cubs founder and drown in the waves. The great dune marks the Mother Bear’s place of vigil, and each cub one of the Manitou Islands.   https://www.nps.gov/slbe/learn/kidsyouth/the-story-of-sleeping-bear.htm

And Mother Bear sleeps on. As a child here, the legend did not much resonate with me because we never had any bears in our forests. That has changed in the last several years. Mamas, cubs, and boars are now routinely spotted, and their tracks are common. Here in the northwest tip of the county, we’ve had a large boar by the name of Buttons roaming from cottage to cottage for about four years. Buttons is, most definitely NOT a sleeping bear. Around here, we like to joke about the bear who isn’t sleepy! He has a regular site visit schedule, meandering from bird feeder to bird feeder, from trash can to trash can. He may be upwards of 400 pounds. Just last month he tore through the screen on our cousins’ porch trying to get at a trash bag.

A bear that doesn’t hibernate? Is that normal? Doesn’t it go against what bears are supposed to do?  Our friend Alan, a retired DNR game warden says that hibernation is less a deep sleep than a nap, and that “boars, in particular, are not powered by the maternal instincts that drive pregnant sows to ground, often resisting slumber as long as there is ample forage- an unprotected garbage bag rings a bigtime dinner bell in a bear’s little brain. So does a well-stocked bird feeder that is within reach.”  https://summerassembly.org/stories

Still, I find myself ruminating on what makes anyone go against their better instincts. Why do we go against our own nature sometimes to take risks, to do something totally out of character, to fly in the face of everything that’s been done before?

In my late thirties I left a good, fulfilling, and secure job to accept a temporary two-year post as a college professor. People thought I had lost my mind. But for me, there was an inner nudge, a very small, still voice saying, “Go ahead and try it out-you will like it!” And I never looked back, having jumped impulsively with both feet into an unsecure and unsure situation. I was the bear who refused to sleep.

Now, sometimes we need the respite and the dormancy. We need to give ourselves permission to enter a temporary torpor that we might recover from a particularly stressful season in life. The pandemic was a hibernation of sorts, where entire populations joined the turtle, frog, skunk, and groundhog in a metaphorical winter of forced inactivity. But now, maybe it’s time to rise up, snuffle around for some goodies, and get busy not sleeping-more like the energetic chickadee and the lumbering Buttons the bear than the sleeping bees and bats. Happy lumbering!

Thanks for reading along! If you click on the BLUE FOLLOW button (top and bottom of site) you will automatically receive blog posts by email. I truly wish for my writing to be easily and freely accessible for any who can use the encouragement. 

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D. 

Send me a note at jpraywalton.writing.com

Buttons the bear
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At Home in the Here and Not Yet

It has dawned a clear, crisp early November day at the Bluff following two days of gales on Lake Michigan. As I sit at my desk writing, Mark is out with his chainsaw helping saw up the neighbor’s fallen ash tree. The whipping wind pushed it right out by its roots.

There’s something doleful yet timeless about a tree’s newly exposed roots- it is death, and homelessness, and loss, and capitulation and rebirth all rolled into one.”

I have been thinking about home lately-all the places I have called home, making a new home here at the Bluff after pulling up our lives at Trout Creek by the roots, and all the years my heart was searching for a home when what it really needed was God himself.

Being at home is a sense, a feeling of being nurtured yet challenged, content yet ever searching, with a pillow for your head and loved ones within reach. I have been at home in hiking boots on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the rain forests of Costa Rica, and the stony paths of the French Alps. I once had a home in Wales for a semester, rope-climbing the steep cliffs that face the Irish Sea, and paddling the wild Welsh rivers. I have made my home in a flat in Paris, writing for a whole blessed month while my daughter was at work. I was at home for many years in my calling as a college professor, enjoying the gift that thousands of students unknowingly gave me to fill the emptiness of infertility.

Nowadays, having endured the moving of the house back from the bluff’s edge and reconstructing the entire lower level, we are finally settled into home at the Bluff. Since I was five years old, I knew I would live here someday. That is because it has always been the place I come back to; on this side of the river, this has always been my one true home. This is where I set down roots and made lifelong friends, clothed in the balm of nature’s call and care. Here, I am embedded in forest and dune, blissfully at home on the long, lonely stretches of beach with a cherished petoskey stone in my sandy pocket. Here is the delight of slowing down, of welcoming the unplanned coffee and conversation with a new friend, and of taking the time to read, and reread some timeless favorites.

We are one short step from heaven here, figuratively, and literally.

 I know full well that this home is as temporary as all the others.”

Even as I wait on God in prayer and obedience, he too waits for me to finish my upward climb to my last and forever home with him. On that day, that most glorious day, my physical body tumbled like a dead ash tree by the gales of age, my soul will be loosed to heaven, my new and forever home. I can’t know from this side of the river what that will be like, but I suspect the surprise outweighs the not-knowing.

Keep climbing-your home awaits.

Thanks for reading,

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

Contact me at jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com

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The Advent of Aging

The fall winds have picked up intensity here at the bluff, mercilessly stripping the bluff-top maples of their leaves. Although I welcome the changes autumn brings, I must steel myself against the knowledge that winter will be fast on fall’s heels. 

The nakedness of the maples always shocks me, and that jumpstarts a sort of nesting instinct. The to-do list is long. Wash and store the outdoor furniture and bird baths. Do a final weeding. Pull and compost the garden and plant the winter greens in the greenhouse. Ready the tiny milk jug “greenhouses” to plant the saved milkweed, butterfly bush, and black-eyed Susan seeds for overwintering. Get more firewood split and stacked and top off the propane tank. Fertilize the evergreens and blanket their hems in fresh mulch. Make applesauce and apple butter. Start up the soup pot. Get the outdoor Christmas lights up before the polar vortex takes its first frosty bite. Lay in the baking supplies-all that butter, and flour and sugar and cocoa that the holidays will demand. Waterproof the winter boots and get out hats and gloves. Re-dress the beds with flannel sheets.

I am, obviously, just a giant squirrel with lists.”

And the lists seems endless. Still, it is good to have things to do that anchor us in the present while preparing us for the future. But I must yet do the harder work- to see the coming of winter as a gift, the advent of salvation as the real hope that it is. 

How incongruous that the maples shed their clothing just as I reach for more; I cannot go naked into winter like they do.

And all this reminds me to hold fast to my hope in the future God has ordained. We watched our parents leave us. Dust to dust. God gave them first breath, and gently helped each one to take their last. Naked they came, and naked they left. We have had to wear our hope like a stole to fend off the snows of grief. 

It has always been human nature to understand aging as decline, as the loss of robust strength and youthful vigor. To see it as a descent into nothingness. My own entry into my elder years has me thinking much differently, much more hopefully. 

This aging is not a mournful descent but a peeling away of the things that keep us from God.”

It lightens our souls for the glorious ascent to heaven. God removes our health, our energy, our ability to will an outcome through sheer hard work to strip us bare in preparation for “next.”  

Aging is not descent but an advent. 

Entering our older years is the beginning of something mysterious. A victorious yielding of what was and what is to what will always be

May you find your own aging less about mourning what you lose, and more about an ascent that promises to be breathtakingly beautiful.

Thank you for reading,

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

jpraywalton.com

jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com

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Soldiering On

There is a dead calm in the trees today after a string of gusty days. The calmness amplifies animals’ movements; looking out just now, I can see a doe raise a front foot, then continue her slow browsing in the woods across Trout Creek.

Though a calm is often just a comma between storms, we should pay attention to it, because it invites introspection and watchfulness, a time heavy with anticipation like a maple leaf just waiting for the wind to ask it to dance.

I am at a point in life of watching and waiting. Watching sick loved ones cling to life, waiting for God to answer prayer. My eyes see misery clawing at hope. My pulse drones in my ears and pacifies the waiting like an undisturbed river flowing deep and sure.

Vigil is the gutsy response to life’s gusty times.

It is a posture of watching with loved ones, and waiting for an outcome while in the eye of the storm.  Every day I see adult children in their 60’s and 70’s visiting aged parents at the nursing home.  The visits are difficult-many residents can’t even remember their kids’ names-but the children soldier on out of respect, accepting the duty to honor the last days of a parent’s life. There is calm, and order, and rightness in the watching and waiting.

Vigil gives time for forgiveness and reconciliation, for sharing old memories, and for meditation on the way all of life soldiers on.

At the bluff, there is a lone cedar tree about 10 feet from the dune’s edge.  The dunes along this stretch of Lake Michigan have been unstable since the ice age created them, crumbling in the constant onslaught of waves and winds. The property my grandparents bought has lost 88 feet since the early 1960’s. This means that the cedar soldier was once deep in the forest at the back of the dune, playmates with the grand, towering beech, the stately ash, and the playful maple.  But, time has marched on with unstoppable force. The other trees succumbed to the storms of disease or the loggers’ saws. The dune continued to roll into the deeps.  So, now this cedar stands alone and bent, facing its inevitable demise with deep roots and grace in its vigil of watching and waiting. Each morning it greets the eastern sun and takes delight in the jays and cedar waxwings that haunt its branches, and the bald eagle who hunts from its crown. At night, it lifts its face westward, basking in the sun’s glow, a view it never had in its youth.

Today, my dad would have been 90 years old. But, like the ash and beech, disease took him before he could have a better view, a vigil cut short. Like the cedar, my mom stands at the edge, soldiering on through the indignities of Parkinson’s disease, in a vigil for glimpses of heaven.  Watching. Waiting. Praying.

~J.A.P. Walton

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The Plover and the Crocodile

Last month, we hiked through a mixed forest of beech, oak, pine, and hemlock. It is evident all through the north that these hundred+ year-old forests are stressed; the ash still standing are all dead from the ash borer, the beech are ringed with deadly fungus, and the hemlock is next, expected to succumb to the wooly adelgid in Michigan as the tiny insects migrate from the east.

When we came across this tree (pictured), I began to think about the nature of parasitism, that form of symbiosis between species in which a squatter takes advantage of a host. The deer tick is a good example; it sucks the host’s blood, and transmits Lyme disease. Obviously, there is nothing good in the relationship for the host. The photo is of a hoof fungus on a decaying tree. It is a true parasite, attaching to a vulnerable place on the tree and causing stem rot, which eventually kills the tree.

Other symbiotic relationships can be mutually beneficial, in which both host and parasite benefit one another. In Egypt, the plover and the crocodile have made peace for millennia. The crocodile opens wide, the bird flits in and eats the rotting food stuck in the croc’s teeth, and, in apparent gratitude, the croc doesn’t eat the plover. Voila!  The bird eats and the reptile gets a free dental cleaning.

I think the most interesting of these relationships is that of commensalism, in which a parasite attaches to a host for a free ride. One benefits, while the other is not harmed; think barnacles on a whale. Or a person who has asked for prayer.

This has had me thinking mostly about human relationships.  I am people-shy by nature,

in a lifelong struggle to reconcile scriptural demands to love my neighbor with the fact that I prefer solitude. Instead of open arms that welcome “the inconveniences and suffering that love requires,” [1] I tend to flee into myself, wrapped, not in apathy, but in a dread-frosted cake of isolationism.

I do not want to be needed. I do not want my energy to be sucked dry like a tick sucks blood. I do not want to be used. And, to be sure, there are people who are parasitic on one’s time, emotions, money, and good intentions. Thus, most of my freely-given time goes to things like making the coffee, offering to pray for people, serving a meal, helping people move across town, even recover from a hurricane. I can do these things without much chance of exposing my inner self to the deep, sometimes twisted, often long-term (even endless) neediness (especially emotional neediness) of others. It is as much as I can do to avoid parasites while agreeing to a time-constrained spell of commensalism.

I guess, if I am honest, I dislike sacrifice.

And that’s too bad. Here, Nature is such a good teacher. I know that, like the plover and the crocodile, the Church is full of people who both need and love God.

I know that people will come alongside me to model what it means to love without dread, to give without constraint, and to be the hands and heart of God to someone who is hurting-even when that someone, someday, is me.

We always want our relationships to be mutual, in which both parties benefit. I see this naiveté all the time when young people head out on a mission trip; it’s less about sacrificial service than they like to think.

Truth is, the foundation of faith is sacrifice. And bloody.

Freely given that we might be greedy takers of forgiveness and salvation.

But, once freed from our wayward living, the expectation is that we follow. All the way to our own death if necessary. I believe this, but I have to continually pray that God helps me in my unbelief.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1]www.desiringgod.orgaccessed July 13, 2019. John Piper. Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God.  pp. 283-284. 2012.