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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Simple

"“I hope you've found something special that's worth sitting on the ground for." The voice broke my concentration, and my perfectly aligned camera lens shifted a fraction of an inch.

The inquiry was perfectly natural. There I was in the middle of a State Park, flat on my belly, with my camera pointed at a few dead leaves.

"Oh, I've found something worth crawling on my belly for," I responded, half focused on the conversation, half focused on the object of my attention.

"What's that?" the curious woman asked, straining to catch a glimpse of the thing that totally engulfed my vision.

Highly experienced in the fine art of pointing out small insects, I slowly stood, and then positioned the shadow of my finger so that it pointed directly at the desired object.


There on the soft Cape May sand was an American Copper; an insect so magnificent it has earned a place in my heart as my favorite butterfly. But what it possesses in charm it lacks in size, being about the same size as my thumbnail.

The intruder into my serene moment look bewildered, noticeably giving off the impression that she didn't see the attraction.

"Here, take a look-see on my camera," I said, displaying the picture I had taken before she had come along.

"Wow," she blurted, spurred on by the simple elegance of this small creature.

Why do I hold the American Copper in such high regard? A fair question: do I admire it because of its vibrant colors? Probably not, as a Copper among a group of sub-tropical butterflies would surely fade into the background.

Do I appreciate this critter due to its hardiness? For the most part, a butterfly's life is as transient as a summer cloud.

Its predatory skills? No.

Its ability to fly long distances? Maybe.

Its adroitness at balancing budgets? He could be worse...

But as I ruminate upon the Copper's existence, I begin to feel a certain respect for its simplicity. Humanity today has little room for the simple. The woman at the park was an exception to the majority who would much rather walk by the extravagantly simplistic things of life. The less of the elemental the world has to deal with, the better.

But as for me, the simple pleasures hold charms that keep calling me back. A bike ride through a small town; watching a mama bird feed her young; listening to the sound of people laughing, these are the moments that continually grasp for my attention.

I often wonder how many small blessings I pass by as I look ahead for those loud, large gifts I expect on the horizon any day. It's alarming to contemplate the sweet memories that I have run by on the road to the bigger, brighter things that I feel God owes me. How often have I missed gifts at my feet when my eyes are fixed straight ahead, wondering what's next?

My impromptu companion and I stood silent, each finding something different in this marvelous creature to revere.


"Good thing you were here, or I'd have missed it," the Copper's fresh admirer admitted.

"Simple, isn't it?” I smiled, and then got back on the ground to admire the beauty of the basic once again.

I am sharing on Simple Pleasures Thursdays.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Saints and Salt Marsh

In all my years as a tour guide, I have never failed to see a look of wonder cross the faces of my patrons as they gaze upon the beauty of the Atlantic Coastal Salt Marsh.

The salt marsh eco-system is a vitally important piece of our natural landscape. If you live in New Jersey and have ever driven down the Garden State Parkway, those wide open plains that resemble prairie lands, those are salt marshes.


The salt marsh performs a number of crucial services for the well-being of wildlife and humans alike. These waving acres of grass are the "nurseries" for most of the major fish species that we find on our dinner tables. That striped bass you enjoyed for dinner last night most likely entered the universe via one of our local salt marshes.

Though these areas can appear calm at times, a violent circle of life is revolving just below the surface. To begin with, the grasses of the salt marsh are very important for certain types of fish. Every time a tide recedes, it brings with it nutrients collected from the grasses. These microscopic meals are then gobbled up by the numerous varieties of filter feeding fish that call the salt marsh home. As soon as those on the bottom of the food chain are satisfied, the bigger fish then feast on them, only to find themselves eaten by those hungry birds that hunt the salt marsh. The circle of life is red in tooth and claw.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of these unique areas is the way they expand. These salt marshes are dominated by the annual grass Spartina Alternaflora; a plant that dies back each winter, and then decomposes. As the roots start their slow recycling process, gradually a new layer of sediment will be formed. And this is no muddy, silty foundation; this is firm, solid ground that you could drive a car over. And trust me, I've had my car in it, and it's heavy duty stuff. (Though I'm not paying for your tow truck if you try it with a MAC truck.)


Death making all things solid...

When I think on the composition of this favorite habitat of mine, my mind wanders to the Martyrs of the Christian faith. What courage it must take to face the final enemy in the name of your ultimate friend. What heights of faith, what depths of love must be required to die for what you believe.

I think of Stephen, the faithful one who set the precedent for the acceptance of martyrdom. I think of Peter, hanging upside down, of John being boiled in oil.

Fast forwarding through time, I think of the great European theologians who chose to die to themselves, so that we might have a true understanding of what God's Word says. Wycliffe, Luther, Zwingli, great men all who suffered persecution, who died to themselves, just so I could have the firm foundation of the Word of God to stand on.

The story of the true Church has not been a peaceful one; it is a saga drenched in the blood of those who chose to emulate their Master.

When I look at a salt marsh now, a parallel portion of my brain kicks into gear, ruminating on the Christian life. I see life everywhere; activity is the common denominator, a constant undercurrent, whether in a marsh or a body of believers.

But I also look on in a somber reverence, fully aware that we are called to leave a solid foundation for the feet of future believers to stand firmly on.

Fully aware that it may take dying to keep the legacy alive.

I am sharing this on Spiritual Sundays.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cape May Point State Park

John Denver once said he loved to "share the joy that he found in living." I suppose if that's the only thing the preacher can say about me at my funeral, it will be sufficient. And so, let me introduce you to a wonderful area known as Cape May Point State Park; an awe-inspiring marshland abutting the Atlantic Ocean, an area rife with joy. This past Tuesday (Summer Solstice) I found myself wandering through the marshes and dunes of this diverse habitat, simply observing. Simply shrinking away from the madding crowd and getting close to the dust from which I was made.

What did I see? I'll let that speak for itself...


This Great Egret was hunting Bunker Pond with all diligence. Great Egrets tend to be quite languid in their pursuit of fish and frogs and such. But when they strike, those sharp bills can do some damage.


Here's the Great Egret's "little cousin": the Snowy Egret. He's much more frantic when foraging than his relative, and is a lot of fun to watch as a result. He has bright yellow feet, which he often uses to imitate worms, luring unsuspecting prey to the surface.


A side view of a snag (dead tree) occupied by young Barn Swallows. These guys were anxiously expecting Mama to come with a fresh bug, alerting me to her presence with much excited chatter.


And a frontal view of the same birds.


This little beauty is my all time favorite butterfly: the American Copper. The coppers like to lay their eggs in certain types of grasses, and can be found in abundance in localized areas. I had a friend count over 200 individuals in one field! The more the merrier I say.


Here's the same bug with his underside showing. I made sure he was fined for indecent exposure.


This is a Little Wood-Satyr butterfly. His cryptic colors come in very handy against the hungry avian occupants of the park.


Here's one of the Bluette Damselflies. Damselflies are similar to Dragonflies, but are generally much smaller, with their wings closed behind their backs. This little fellow was only slightly thicker than a pin.




But for all the beauty in the world, there must be bullies. Here are two Fish Crows, which are a nuisance because they've developed an appetite for the endangered Piping Plover that nest on the beach at the park. They should really stick to Cicadas.


The most elegant, but also the most problematic, bird I saw this Tuesday, would have to be the Mute Swan. Mute Swans are non-natives, having been introduced for aesthetic purposes about 200 years ago. They are aggressive, often killing the other inhabitants of the ponds they frequent. They are destructive, pulling up the vegetation by the roots, instead of clipping it, a feeding style that will eventually sterilize an area. And perhaps most importantly, they're dangerous, having been known to break the legs of unwary passer-by's.


Lastly, here's my friend the Red-winged Blackbird inviting you back.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pitfalls

"This was worth the hike," I managed to wheeze out once we'd reached the apex.

Before us was a intriguingly mysterious habitat; a chunk of natural wonder I'd never experienced before....


"Boreal Bog," said my hiking comrade, James. "A change from the saltmarsh, eh?"

Though I will never lose my passion for those waving acres of grass found along the Delaware Bayshore, I found myself strangely fixed on this foreign terrain.

"Looks like we're on another planet," I finally interjected, after a bit of searching for the right words.

The term boreal refers to the high northern reaches of the globe. The Canadian portion of this pristine habitat reaches it's southern edge in our northern states, making for an invaluable addition to the diverse tapestry of the North American landscape.


I ran my eyes over this alien area, searching high and low for new discoveries to catch my attention. Upon finishing my visual survey, I looked down at my feet, only to find my greatest discovery yet: Pitcher Plant!




"James, LOOK, LOOK! PITCHER PLANT!" My incessant exclamations and directional pointer finger left no doubt as to the vicinity of my glorious find.

My travelling partner couldn't hide the look of confusion on his face; I had just traveled ten hours to be most enthralled by a plant I could have found five minutes away from my house.

No matter where you find this distinctive plant, the surprise and wonder never cease. Pitcher Plants are carnivorous plants, wanting nothing more than to feast on unsuspecting flies. Combining their colors with the false promise of nectar, these deadly beauties tend to catch insects off guard. Once the potential victim has inspected his potential feeding trough, he takes a final leap into certain doom. For once inside the lowest part of the plant, the part with the nectar, fine hairs prevent the bug from ever going up again, entrapping him in a gooey mess.

These juices then procede to absorb the insect's body, until the plant has digested the entire meal, ready to dine on the next poor traveller hoping for a bite to eat.

"Amazing things, eh?" my friend unemotionally intoned. "No wonder why they're called 'Pitfall Traps.'

Pitfall...Pitfall...Pitfall My mind sounded like a broken record, mulling over this crucial noun in the Christian's vocabulary.

"And to think, this bog is just full of them," James finished up, taking another survey of the extensive bog.

And he was right. The clumps of pitcher plants weren't obvious; but on closer inspection, the bog was littered with those deadly beauties.

"I sometimes feel like those flies crossing this bog," I muttered, fixing my eyes on a particularly large clumps of plants.

"How so?" James asked, lifting an eyebrow in curiosity.

"I feel like my voyage through life is full of pitfalls. As soon as I think I'm past a particular problem in my relationship to God, I walk a little further, look a little closer, and there's the pitfall again! And most of the time, I hardly know they're coming."

James sat for a little, contemplating something: whether it was the bog, my speech, or peace in the middle east, I couldn't say. I usually gravitate toward friends who are deep into their well; James was no exception.

I continued: "Take for instance pride. I thought my problems with pride were things of the past, in the rear-view mirror. But then, I suddenly find myself entertaining haughty thoughts, things that seem to run straight against the will of God."

A contemplative "hmmm" was all the response I got. I went on: "I feel like those flies because I seem to be sucked dry of all that spiritual strength I once enjoyed; just like those poor insects who have no way of escape."

I sat, winded from my speech, staring at my stoic mentor. Eventually, he turned, and with all the common sense in the world, blurted, "Stop it."

"Excuse me?" I asked, suddenly on the defensive.

"If you're dealing with pride, stop the thought in your mind. Tell yourself to 'stop it' as soon as the idea forms in your head."

"I don't understand..." I stammered, a bit taken back by the frankness of my companion.

"If you don't inspect the flower, you can't fall in the juices. You've got to nip the problem in the bud, (no pun intended)." And with this final admonition, James fell back to contemplating the Boreal Bog, and all the other secrets it held.

I sat stunned: those spiritual traps I grieved over so often could've been avoided had I "stopped it." In all those black times when I felt my soul being eaten away by spiritual acids, I've always had a Father standing by saying: "When you've stopped, why not ask for my Spirit to fill the empty space in your thought-life?"

To be sure, I'm thoroughly equipped to lead a vitorious Christian life; all I have to do is unite God's plan with my will, and I'm prepared for every fiery dart that comes my way. Surrendering my will to God is a crucial step toward victory.

"I have overwhelming victory through Christ;" just another natural message from the Creator. Just another silent corner of creation with a message so loud it could destroy the gates of Hell.

"Well," I said, after chewing the instructions over in my mind, "ready for breakfast? I've made fly sausage!"

A smile spread across the stoic countenace of my friend. With that, we started down the mountain, leaving a bog full of pitfalls well behind.
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