On the first day of June we decided to get clear away from office, computers, books, and other projects. My husband and I felt a hankering for bird watching and wildflower viewing. So we drove out to the Pawnee National Grassland, bringing our dog, Jasper, with us. This mile-high, protected habitat on the prairie of Northern Colorado provides nesting ground to a colorful variety of migratory birds.
Some years the grassland—a vast solitude under changing skies—is hot and dry. This time. after a wet spring, we found it cool and green. Wildflowers dotted the native grasses. Prickly Pear had started opening their blooms. And the birds! They foraged in the grasses, perched on fence posts, did aerial gymnastics to catch flying insects, scratched in the sandy roadside, hunted from the sky, and paddled on small ponds.
We walked a little ways on a trail through the grasses. Larry took a picture of Jasper and me:
We identified 25 bird species, including Vesper Sparrow, Prairie Falcon, and Loggerhead Shrike. At one point along the gravel road we spotted a bird that looked like a miniature roadrunner. It ran on the ground with its tail held high. We watched it through binoculars and checked our bird guide (and the birding app on my cell phone, the only technology we used that day). It appeared to be a Sage Thrasher. Then the bird lifted into the air and we thought our chance to observe it was over. But it landed on a fence post just ahead of where we had stopped our car on the narrow road (The occasional approaching car or pickup could be seen miles away, in plenty of time to pull over).
As the breeze ruffled its feathers, the Sage Thrasher lifted its head and sang! And sang and sang. What a show. It felt like a gift to have this bird—uncommon in our area—perch and sing for us. I took a picture the best I could with my smart phone:
Here’s a clearer photo of a Sage Thrasher singing:
Used with permission of sagegrouseinitiative.com
In the wonder of this bird perching and singing so close to us, we felt even more connected with nature around us.
Connection is important. We connect with people, share ideas, express creativity, and conduct business through keyboard, screen, digital images and sounds, artificial light and wifi. This virtual world is full of potential and offers fascination. But experiencing life through technology can gradually drain our souls. One way I know this soul drain is happening is, when I go to bed, close my eyes and, instead of drifting to a peaceful sleep, I see images and text, web pages and video flashing across the screen of my mind. (This is why I generally turn off my computer by 9:30 p.m.)
King David said, “He leads me in green pastures and beside still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23).
Once in a while we need to unplug, go out into a world that engages all the senses, and let our souls be restored. Nature and the rediscovery of wonder offer a gateway to a restored soul.Carol O’Casey, author of Unwrapping Wonder, writes, “I escape expectations … and take a walk on the wild side. Whether exploring field or forest, marsh or meadow, or the edge of the sea, in the natural world I am transformed. There, in the solitude of nature I experience God’s presence.”
That night, after a day of birding on the prairie, when I lay my head on the pillow, I began to realize what a gift I had brought home with me from the grassland. When I closed my eyes, my mind wasn’t filled with a screen through which virtual images came atme. No. Instead, I was still among the Lark Buntings, Horned Larks, and Longspurs winging, swooping, twirling in the air. I was still surrounded by the songs of Meadow Larks, Brown Thrashers, and Mountain Plovers. I was still watching Swainson’s Hawks soar on high and kite in the breezes. I was still enjoying the yellow, blue, and red wildflowers and smelling the sweet grasses. With these images, sounds and smells came a peaceful, delighted and deep sense of Presence—the presence of our Creator, the Restorer of our souls.
Gifts are always better when shared. To my surprise, when Larry got in bed and turned off the light, after just a few moments he remarked, “I’m still seeing birds.” Lying side by side in the darkness, we compared notes and agreed that it had been a wonderful day.
A special sense of being attuned and restored has stayed with me—even as I type this at my computer.
An unseasonably warm day here in Colorado yesterday prompted my husband and me to go out birding. We took our nature-loving granddaughter with us. We drove toward the mountains west of us, into a little canyon formed by a ridge along which a small creek flows, where an American Woodcock has been spotted (a common bird in some states but rare in Colorado).
Our granddaughter suddenly exclaimed, “There’s a rainbow cloud. I love rainbow clouds.”
I looked out the car window, and sure enough, all the colors of the rainbow were displayed in this cloud against a blue sky. I’ve never seen such a cloud in my life. Sometimes at dusk the Colordado sky is rimmed all around with clouds glowing orange and pink. This was about 2:45 p.m., though—not even close to sunset. The day was sunny, warm (for February), and dry. Yet this one, lone cloud contained a rainbow. We quickly and excitedly took pictures with our phones.
The three of us shared a moment of awe and wonder.
The past week I had been reading an old book by the Scottish writer and minister, George MacDonald, The Hope of the Gospel. In it, he quoted the poem by William Wordsworth that begins,
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The soul that rises with us, our life’s star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home…
Then MacDonald quoted Henry Vaughn’s poem:
Happy those early days, when I Shined in my angel-infancy! Before I understood this place…. And looking back—at that short space— Could see a glimpse of His bright face; When on some gilded cloud, or flower My gazing soul would dwell an hour And in those weaker glories spy Some shadows of eternity; From God, who is our home
That sense of wonder that is part of childhood, that makes children spiritually sensitive, and that perhaps is a trailing cloud of the glory from which we each came when God created us a living soul, born into this world … I want to nurture this sense of wonder and awe as I become older. I want to see the rainbow clouds when they appear so briefly in the sky. I want to see and wonder at a little bird that surprisingly shows up in cold Colorado in February to forage along a tiny, protected, flowing stream full of watercress and fallen cottonwood leaves before flying on to its faraway spring destination.
George MacDonald wrote, “To cease to wonder is to fall plumb-down from the childlike to the commonplace—the most undivine of all moods intellectual. Our nature can never be at home among things that are not wonderful to us.”
A photo I took on one of my walks on the river trail not far from my office.
Stressed, working hard to prepare books for publication in the midst of several life adjustments, one morning I knew I had to attend to my soul. For me, soul care and renewal involve reading, meditating, praying / releasing, and experiencing nature / creation.
First I drank my coffee and read a devotional article that said: “Am I willing to continue yielding my life wholly to God? If so, there is power for me…. God promises help to accomplish the task toward which His Spirit points me.”
I wrote a list of the things on my heart that had become burdens, prayed over them and gave them to God, again.
Then I read: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” (Eph.3:20-21,NIV) I prayed this scripture, inserting my name and then the names of our family members. Assurance came.
Then, for the solace and renewal of nature, I drove down to the nearby river trail. There my senses were immediately overwhelmed and filled with the sights and sounds and smells and textures of that lush spot where grassy farmland meets the river that has flowed down from the Rocky Mountains. There, nature burgeons with life.
One thing my husband and I are learning as we live in this high place of Colorado where every season happens in every season—We are learning to appreciate and “seize” the moment. If we don’t come down to the river trail for a couple of weeks, we hardly recognize the place next time. All summer, layer upon layer of grasses and flowering plants keep coming up, replacing the previous layer, each a little higher than the last, reaching for the intense sunshine which often gives way to evening thunder clouds. In the early summer, wild roses were blooming under the giant cottonwoods. Later they had dried up and purple thistle had risen 5 to 6 feet tall, bright and stately. You might think them renegade weeds in your garden, but out here, they’re royalty. Clouds of foamy yellow flower heads grow here and there, and every shade of foliage.
Bird songs abound! I recognize the sounds of killdeer, red-winged blackbirds, and others. I see the orchard oriole that was here last time, and the bullock’s oriole, the eastern kingbird, and many others. A rabbit hops near the river’s edge. Farmers are irrigating today, obviously, because the wet river banks and shallow water indicate most of the river’s flow here has been diverted to the canals. I watch several huge river-bottom fish, and their backs often rise above the water’s surface and I can see the golden eye high on their foreheads. They glisten in the sunshine and are too big for the six snowy egrets nearby to tackle. But if a bald eagle happened by, they’d be easy prey, so visible in the shallow waters. In a clearing on the other side I see prairie dogs with their young. They stand up straight above their holes and suckle their little ones who then lick their mothers faces. They’re cute. And they supply food for the many hawks and owls around here.
In the shady places under the heavy cottonwoods, myriads of butterflies float and flutter. I see one group that fly this way and that and round and round in sync as if propelled by a little twister wind. How do they synchronize their flight in milliseconds like that? The hot sun intensifies the scents of grasses mingled with damp river smells. Several cyclists ride by me, calling out “on your left.” Two lark sparrows perch on the fence and stay there watching me, showing off their harlequin faces, feathers glowing like polished bronze in the sun.
I’m thankful for this day, and this place, and God’s glory all around.
Back at my car, I give thanks to God. As I walk into the house, a CD is playing and I hear the words of a gospel song, “Morning by morning new mercies I see….Great is thy faithfulness.” Tears smart my eyes. I “seize the moment” and find joy in it, and in knowing God is in it!
In November I’m reminded of nature’s cycles of dormancy and productivity. Here in Colorado, many trees have lost their leaves. Grass is gradually going dormant and turning brown.
Trees and shrubs have produced seed pods and cones; flower heads have released seeds that may sprout and surprise us in the garden next spring. Pumpkins have been cut open and seeds scooped out and roasted.
Author / scientist Carol O’Casey unwraps the wonder of seeds—using biology, literature, personal experience, and scripture—and applies this to the believer’s life of faith. In her book, Unwrapping Wonder, she writes, “Often times, in order for us to blossom into the abundant life God has in store for us, we must accept our own spiritual brokenness—just as germination requires the seed coat to be broken.”
Don’t settle into dormancy and stay there.
“Are you lacking the life-giving water necessary to initiate the germination process? Do you long for an abundant, seed-coat-busting life? Abandon your dry and routine life to [God]. Risk heat. Risk exposure. Risk growth. And take heart. Jesus tells us, ‘Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds’ (John 12:24).
Even during the dormant season of winter, life is waiting in the seeds. Some plants will sprout surprisingly early, as soon as daylight hours start increasing. Meanwhile, wait in hope and expectancy.
“Allow God to unleash his power in your life. Dream big. Grow great.” Be ready to “sprout where you are planted. And live. Abundantly.”¹
1. The quotations above are taken from the book, Unwrapping Wonder: Finding Hope in the Gift of Nature by Carol O’Casey.
Many pets were found with burnt feet and singed whiskers like this kitty.
Watching reports of the disastrous Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, California (our old hometown), last week, our first thoughts were for the people and their homes. Then I began to wonder about the pets, livestock, and wildlife of the area.
My sister went to bed unsuspecting, then a few hours later woke with a neighbor pounding on her door and yelling “fire.” The neighbor later told her they had pounded and yelled a long time. Her dog’s barking finally woke her. She hadn’t heard the police earlier who drove through the neighborhood with a bull horn telling everyone to get out now!
I thank God her dog barked and woke her up.
A friend was living alone in a house on the edge of the city. From her back bedroom, she didn’t hear the first responders ring her doorbell, and they assumed no one was home. What finally woke her was an annoying sound of scratching on the wood siding of the house outside her bedroom. She got up and looked out the window and saw racoons desperately trying to find shelter to get away from … fire! Fire just outside! The barn had already burned. She got out just in time but lost everything.
Did God encourage those raccoons to scratch there and wake her up?
Another friend lived high on a mountain road above Santa Rosa on a ranch where my son used to go exploring with friends when he was a boy. From his high vantage point this friend could see the fire moving closer. He chose to stay up there, alone, and worked hard through the night and day to save his home and some nearby structures as well. As he worked at the edge of the fire in the darkness, he says he felt wild animals brushing against him as they fled the burning areas. But he didn’t stop and neither did they.
The Forestry Department urged people, who lived near, but not in, the wildfire areas, to bring their domestic animals indoors at night and let the wild ones pass through. “Please put out buckets of water for them—they are scared, exhausted, and have also lost their homes—they need to refuel,” came the request.
Many people had to flee within minutes and had no time to find their cats. One woman said she was surprised that “leaving my cat was almost the thing that hit me the hardest.”
Some dogs panicked and ran and their owners had to evacuate and flee the flames without them. One report said someone tried to get their horses into a trailer but the frightened horses refused; so the people had to leave their horses.
Online, evacuees posted such announcements as: “We are looking for two donkeys that we had to leave. Do you know their whereabouts?” “Lost Dog: While her family was evacuating, she jumped out of their truck. They love this dog so much and are devastated.” “54 horses in dire need of transportation off a ranch.” “Cat found hiding under car. Whiskers burnt but she’s okay.” “Our husky slipped out of her collar while we were evacuating and ran off. Heartbroken.”
The re-uniting of people and animals brought mutual comfort and joy.
One person had left buckets of water out for the deer and birds that came by her front yard. When she was allowed to return briefly to her home she found a dozen turkey vultures and other birds resting on her lawn together. They didn’t even move when she went up to her door. They looked exhausted, she said.
All this reminds me of the stories of animals left behind in World War II Europe when Holocaust victims were forced from their homes. Jewish people had to leave behind beloved family pets to fend for themselves in hostile and harsh environments. Susan Bulanda collected many of the stories from men and women who were children during the Holocaust. The stories are told in the book Faithful Friends.
They tell how their dogs and cats suffered also, and how they provided comfort and courage, an emotional connection to happier times, and the encouragement to never give up hope.
Photos of furry creatures … videos of cute animal antics … stories and movies of animal adventures. These are popular because they evoke feelings of wonder, memories of beloved pets, the joy and excitement of wildlife sightings, the sensory experience of a trip to the farm.
Have you ever noticed how many book covers feature pictures of animals? Evidently, animal pictures on covers help sell books. We have a few books with animals on the covers, ourselves. I looked inside each of these books today for some clues as to why animals trigger such heart responses in us. Here is what I found:
1. Animals are our fellow creatures, loved by the Creator.
In God’s Creatures: A Biblical View of Animals, Susan Bulanda explains that God cares for his earthly creatures. He created them, blessed them, called them “good.” He saved the animals from the Flood, and he included “every living creature” in the covenant he made with us after the flood (see Genesis 9:9-17). Bulanda goes on to show that many Scriptures display God’s care for animals. Old Testament laws protected animals. Jesus’ parables affirmed and spotlighted them. Then, Bulanda asks:
“Is it possible that God has put the desire to care for all animals in the hearts of many people … God’s love for his creation showing through humans?”
“Could there be subtle lessons of love God gives us through our pets?”
2. Animals can provide companionship, inspiration, and comfort.
Walking In Trust
In Walking In Trust : Lessons Learned with my Blind Dog, Gayle M. Irwin describes an afternoon of companionship with her dog:
“Snow falls in large flakes outside my door this afternoon and a warm Sunday fire blazes in the wood stove inside the house. Sage has found a way to wedge herself into the over-stuffed chair. At first she lies quietly stretched out beside me. Then, as if she has an itch, she suddenly rises, turns herself around and lays her head on my chest. I pause from my reading to softly stroke her black and white fur. She sighs deeply and tries to snuggle closer. I pet her long muzzle and then scratch behind her ears, a favorite spot of hers. As I minister these gentle strokes, I tell her what a wonderful, loving dog she is. Sage closes her eyes, relishing the experience. I, too, bask in the tender moment. My hand rests lightly on her shoulder and we sit like this for hours—protected from the frigid cold outside—in comfortable, companionable silence inside our cozy house.” … “I learned more from Sage than she did from me: lessons about trust, courage, loyalty, contentment, and perseverance.” … “Sage’s visits and her life story encouraged many children to persevere in spite of the hardships and challenges they face. Through the life of a blind Springer Spaniel, I have learned more fully what it means to walk by faith and not by sight.” (p. 145 and 9)
3. Animals teach us about the Creator and how to relate to him.
All We Like Sheep
In All We Like Sheep: Lessons from the Sheepfold, shepherdess Marilyn Bay Wentz writes:
“I continued cutting out the weeds, but the burdensome task was balanced with the delight I felt watching my flock. I knew the serenity of the scene could be broken at any time. Movement as mundane as a startled Cottontail rabbit jumping from behind a bush to hop across the pasture could send the flock running for the protection of the pen. … In that moment, the joy of the Lord, expressed by the psalmist when he said ‘We are his people, the sheep of his pasture,’ made perfect sense to me. God compares his delight in me and you to a flock of peacefully-grazing sheep. He could have compared his delight to another animal in his creation. Why not say we are his people, the horses of his stable? Horses (which I am partial to) are beautiful, strong and fast. Surely, the Lord delights in seeing the horses he created. Or, why not compare his delight in us to that of seeing a lion? Male or female, a lion is a powerful and awe-inspiring animal. Or, surely the Lord is delighted to see the soaring eagles he created. They are simultaneously fierce and beautiful. They can soar high and dive powerfully. Their outstretched wings are a wonder to behold. But, he says I am as pleasing to him as the sheep of his pasture. To please him we don’t need to be fast and athletic like a horse, powerful like a lion, or beautiful and awe-inspiring like an eagle. What pleases him is when we, like the skittish sheep, run to him for everything we need, trusting his sufficiency to supply all our needs.” (pp. 156-157)
4. Animals provide metaphors of our lives.
Dangerous Journey of Sherman the Sheep
In his allegorical fiction, The Dangerous Journey of Sherman the Sheep, Dean Davis describes the Shepherd taking his flock to the “high country”:
“Their destination was a lonely valley deep in the hills and an ancient sheepfold with four high walls of stone. This became their home away from home, the place where all their journeys began and ended. Early in the year, when grass was plentiful, their travels were short, hardly more than outings. At dawn the Shepherd would open the gate of the fold, whistle for the sheep, and lead His flock to a nearby meadow with a pool of fresh spring water to drink. Then at dusk they would all return to the safety of the fold’s strong walls. But as spring gave way to summer, and summer to fall, the journeys grew longer and more difficult. They’d be gone for many days, camping beneath the stars or in caves. The meadows grew fewer and the water more scarce—and to find these, the flock had often to follow their Shepherd through dark, narrow canyons, where wolves or lions might be lurking in the shadows. … Yes, this was the dangerous time of year, a time when sheep could get hungry, thirsty, or even hurt. Needless to say, the Shepherd took such dangers very seriously. But as for the sheep, they simply trusted in their Master’s care. They knew that sooner or later He would give them rest, just as He always had. (And as for Sherman—well, for him danger was just another word for adventure; and adventure was the one thing Sherman loved best)!” (pp. 8-10)
5. Animals represent elements of Mystery.
Gadly Plain: A Novel
In Gadly Plain: A Novel, J. Michael Dew uses the literary device of a talking donkey who has lived since the Garden of Eden. This donkey represents the victory of life over death, of God’s overarching purpose in human history. This same donkey had gone up the mountain with Abraham and Isaac, had talked to the prophet Balaam, joined the other animals in Noah’s Ark, carried Mary to Bethlehem and witnessed the birth of Jesus. Toward the end of the book, the donkey, who is named Amen, is on the Isle of Patmos with John the Apostle. Amen and John share this conversation:
“Amen,” John says one day. “I have a story to share, a new one as fresh as a spring blossom.”
“My ears, friend, are big,” says Amen.
“I have seen the end and the beginning, the omega and the alpha. I have written it on a scroll. There is something you should hear.”
Amen swallows what he has in his mouth.
Then John goes on, “He showed me. His voice was like the sound of rushing water. The end is terrible and good. The fibber will have his due.”
“I don’t like the fibber,” says Amen. “He is the enemy of hope.”
John says, “It will be a great and awful reckoning.”
“When?” asks Amen.
John just smiles. “Amen, you have been faithful.”
“I have tried to be led well.”
“It is better to be led than pushed,” says John. “You will be led some more, good donkey.” And John laughs so hard, he cries and tries to catch his breath.
Amen just takes another bite and swishes his tail to swish away a fly.
Finally, John scratches Amen behind the ears. “Amen, do you know why, of all the other animals, you were given the ability to speak to man?”
Amen says no.
“I’ll tell you,” says John. “As a donkey, you are well-suited to carry heavy loads. The load you carry now is a story: words strung together since the beginning, invisible cargo on the back of a humble beast. I have seen the end of this story. I have only seen glimpses of the next.”
“I am a storyteller?” asks Amen.
“Yes, and a guardian, too.”
Amen shakes his head hard at that.
“How am I well suited to be a guardian?”
“You are stubborn. You won’t forget. You won’t give in to time. You haven’t yet.”
Amen thinks about that for a minute, and then he asks, “But to whom? I have learned a lot about man. He can be a cruel master. There were times when I kept my words to myself. Some men only hear their own stories. And worse, some men only hear lies. I know a story that can free them from their torments. Who can hear it, though, with the fibber taking them for long walks in the desert?”
John rubs Amen’s withers, and it feels good. “Yes, yes,” he starts gently. “The fibber is persistent. But what is his persistence next to the truth you carry?”
“I know the strength of his tug.”
“You have also felt his release, unwilling though it was.”
“Yes, and praise.”
Amen he-haws, because whatever he thinks to say, it doesn’t work.
“My brothers and I aren’t the only ones charged with relaying the good news.”
“I am a donkey. I talk. You say it is to tell a story—one I’ve lived, one I carry.”
“Yes,” says John. “You have been entrusted.” “Please tell me then: Who will listen?” “Those who can.” “Those who can?” “Those who wouldn’t think it that strange or that impossible to hear a donkey speak.”