I’ve always believed that I have a great capacity for fascination…until a few days ago when I began to read Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood.  She has it in spades, and has always had it, in a way that makes me feel distracted and dull by comparison.  Here’s an excerpt from that memoir:

“Our parents and grandparents, and all their friends, seemed insensible to their own prominent defect, their limp, coarse skin.

“We children had, for instance, proper hands; our fluid, pliant fingers joined their skin.  Adults had misshapen, knuckly hands loose in their skin like bones in bags; it was a wonder they could open jars.  There were loose in their skins all over, except at the wrists and ankles, like rabbits.

“We were whole, we were pleasing to ourselves.  Our crystalline eyes shone from firm, smooth sockets; we spoke in pure, piping voices through dark, tidy lips.  Adults were coming apart, but they neither noticed nor minded.  My revulsion was rude, so I hid it.  Besides, we could never rise to the absolute figural splendor they alone could on occasion achieve.  Our beauty was a mere absence of decrepitude; their beauty, when they had it, was not passive but earned; it was grandeur; it was a party to power, and to artifice, even, and to knowledge.  Our beauty was, in the long run, merely elfin.  We could not, finally, discount the fact that in some sense they owned us, and they owned the world.

“Mother let me play with one of her hands.  She laid it flat on a living-room end table beside her chair.  I picked up a transverse pinch of skin over the knuckle of her index finger and let it drop.  The pinch didn’t snap back; it lay dead across her knuckle in a yellowish ridge.  I poked it; it slid over intact.  I left it there as an experiment and shifted to another finger.  Mother was reading Time magazine.

“Carefully, lifting it by the tip, I raised her middle finger an inch and released it.  It snapped back to the tabletop.  Her insides, at least, were alive.  I tried all the fingers.  They all worked.  Some I could lift higher that others.

“That’s getting boring.”  “Sorry, Mama.”

“I refashioned the ridge on her index-finger knuckle; I made the ridge as long as I could, using both my hands.  Moving quickly, I made parallel ridges on her other fingers — a real mountain chain, the Alleghenies; Indians crept along just below the ridgetops, eyeing the frozen lakes below them through the trees.”

What rare child in this century, surrounded by electronic stimulators of all descriptions, would spend a half an hour fascinated by her mother’s hand, I wonder?  I had the chance to meet 56 kindergarteners at the Wehr Nature Center this morning.   This is what we brought out to fascinate them:


Now that’s an ancient face I could stare at for hours!  Meet Boxy, the ornate box turtle.  Her species is found primarily in southwestern Wisconsin, where there are sandy prairies and is currently endangered and protected.  She came to the nature center about 25 years ago; she may be about 10 years older than that.  How do I know to call Boxy ‘she’?  Brown eyes.  Male box turtles have red eyes.  Also, Boxy laid some eggs a few years after she came to the center (not that she had been with a male while she was there).  Occasionally, Boxy has her beak trimmed.  It can get overgrown because she’s not in the wild digging and wearing it down.  I wonder if the vet has ‘styled’ her expression…she looks sad to me.  She was quite chipper this morning, though.  It’s noticeably warm for this time of year.  She and the other reptiles were moving rapidly and eagerly in their cages.  We put Boxy down in the middle of the circle of children, and she set out at a brisk pace to examine the perimeter, craning her neck up at the faces around her.  She is a bit of a celebrity, as she meets about 10,000 kids every year.  She may live to be as many as 70 years old.  I wonder if the Nature Center will still be around or if she’ll live out her last days somewhere else.

Boxy has her own beauty, her own fascinating skin.  ” The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood….Standing on the bare ground, –my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eye-ball.  I am nothing.  I see all.  The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.”  (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

What uncontained and immortal beauty will you discover to love today?


Unbelievable, Unseasonal

So, here it is, the last day of January in Wisconsin, and the temperature is….53 degrees Fahrenheit?!

Global warming is no hoax.

One of my Nature in the Parks programs for tomorrow was postponed because parents felt that the first of February would be too cold to send their darling children outside for a field trip.  They re-scheduled for the 29th of February.  What do you want to bet that tomorrow will be about 20 degrees warmer than the temperature by the end of the month?  Of course, you never know.  But don’t you think kids are resilient enough to be allowed to go outside every day of the year?  They pull on their snow pants, and they’re as protected as if they were wearing bubble wrap!  And they love it!  They dive headlong into any accumulated snow just so that they can bounce back!

Today’s group at the Wehr Nature Center didn’t go outside because they were doing the Skylab unit under the big inflated planetarium dome.  But I went out on the trails.  Here are some shots:

Mirror, mirror, on the lake


Sky Jellies


Grandmother Willow


Snow Boardwalk

I’ve been on the phone and on the computer for about three hours now, doing some “business”.  It’s time to go back outside, before the sun sets!



The Power of Concepts

Steve and I have been talking about concepts lately.  We humans think conceptually, like it or not.  Words, thoughts, concepts and the associations they suggest invariably bring with them emotional reactions and suffering.  Trying to leave concepts behind, or to do without them somehow, is what “enlightenment” points to…I think.  Maybe it’s not so much trying to eradicate them as it is to acknowledge their fabrication and refrain from investing them with a lot of meaning or credence.

The most troubling concept for me is death or mortality.  I have huge emotional associations with that concept that do tend to exert a lot of influence on me.  And yes, this causes suffering.  I suppose I can say that I come by this honestly, having had both my sister and my husband die at my side during my lifetime.  Consequently, I often feel the weight of a burden hanging around my head and shoulders, casting a shadow over my footsteps, causing me to be slow and rather plodding instead of eager and light on my feet.  You might call this a certain level of pervasive depression.  I find that, as I get older, I am more circumspect, less enthusiastic, and can easily convince myself out of an adventure.  I can never dismiss the danger of death with a casual “Oh, that’ll never happen to me!”  Instead, I tend to think: Why bother?  What’s the point?  Why start anything now, with the end so near in sight?  That kind of thing.

Let me direct your attention to Exhibit A:  Stephen Hawking.

As many of you know, Dr. Hawking celebrated his 70th birthday today.  When he was 21, and shortly before his first marriage, he was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and told that his life expectancy was about 2-3 years.  “Why start anything now?” was a question that occupied his thoughts to some extent as he wrestled with the idea of starting his doctorate.  Wikipedia reports that the turning point came with his marriage. “When his wife, Jane, was asked why she decided to marry a man with a three-year life expectancy, she responded, ‘Those were the days of atomic gloom and doom, so we all had a rather short life expectancy.”‘

We all still have a rather short life expectancy.  None of us has a guarantee on the next minute.  What do you do with that concept?  “Refrain from investing (it) with a lot of meaning or credence.”  What do you invest in?  Your passion.  Your bliss.  That’s what Stephen Hawking did.  The speech he would have delivered today in person included this admonition: “Remember to look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

I took a walk along the Ice Age Trail at dusk.  Driving home, I asked Steve to pull over at a cornfield so that I could look up.  Here’s what I saw:

And this is just with my own myopic vision through some vari-focal glasses and a point and shoot digital camera.  I am curious about my experiences.  I am curious about how I think about them.  In the end, though, I think I want to concentrate mostly on being aware of being alive.

Space in 3D

I went back to school today at the Wehr Nature Center for volunteer teacher training, and I finally figured out how the moon’s phases and eclipses are produced.  It took a hands-on experiment with a classroom of adults to finally get the concept across.  There was a bare light-bulb illuminated on a stand.  We all stood around in a circle, facing it.  Then we were each handed a four-inch Styrofoam ball on a stick.  This represented the moon.  We were the earth.  Placing the ball in front of us at arm’s length to block out the light from the bulb, we got the concept of a solar eclipse.  Moving the ball slightly so that the shadow no longer fell on our faces symbolizes the new moon.  Taking the “mooncicle” in an orbit to our left, we watched the crescent of light appear and grow larger until it reached the quarter moon position at a 90 degree angle.  Then, we circled it around until we were between the “moon” and the “sun”.  Our shadow cast on the moon is a lunar eclipse.  Eclipses don’t happen every month, because the moon’s orbit isn’t in synch like that.  Crescent on the left is waxing, crescent on the right is waning .  Got it.  Then our naturalist asked us, “Does the moon rotate?”  Um.  Well, there’s a dark side of the moon that we never see, so….no?  Wrong.  If the moon didn’t rotate, we’d see the dark side eventually.  Because the moon rotates just once every month, we always see its face.  Huh?  It wasn’t until two volunteers did a “do-Si-doe” maneuver and then an earth-facing cycle that I realized that the moon rotates in order to always face the earth.  Ah, the light dawns!!

Then we did an experiment that proved to me that learning about astronomy from a 2-dimensional textbook was not helpful!  We partnered up.  One person got a 4-inch ball for the earth.  One got a pom-pom sized ball for the moon.  We were asked to hold those objects at the distance we figured would represent a scale model of the actual distance the moon is away from the earth.  I eye-balled it at about 12 inches.  That’s what I remember from illustrations and posters.  We were then handed a piece of string that had been measure to the real scale.  I took my end and began walking.  I ended up 10 feet away.  In order to put that scale into a textbook, the dot for the moon would be too small for most kids to see.

Waxing Crescent

Here’s another little blip of information that I discovered.  During the month of August, my birth month, the predominant constellation visible in the southern sky is called Aquila.  Aquila means “eagle” and according to mythology, he was a pet of Jupiter and did many tasks for him (like continually attacking Prometheus while he was bound to a mountain side).  There is also a character in the Bible named Aquila.  He was the husband of Priscilla.  I wonder if my parents were aware of this ancient coincidence when they named their August girl Priscilla?

I could barely wait to get home and tell Steve what I learned.  I love school!


‘Tis A Season

When I was a kid, I always had an Advent calendar to count down the days from the first of December until Christmas Eve.  I had the same tradition with my own kids.  The secrets hidden behind each door were often Scripture verses.  It was important to tell the story of Jesus’ birth and make sure my kids knew that was “the reason for the season”.   There are other little treasures we could open each day, though.  When my son was taking German in high school, they sold Advent calendars with chocolates in them.   My father used to make us calendars out of magazine pictures and various old rotogravures with fortune cookie strips for the daily message.  We made our own calendars for each other, too, with simple crayon symbols behind the cut out doors.   The season has multiple images in my mind, and now I’m trying to figure out what it means to me at this point in my life.

I will always have respect for Jesus and the Christian story.  They were supremely important in my life for many years.  My spirituality was formed around them.  I think it is good to examine and re-examine beliefs, though, and strive for genuine and authentic expressions of experience.  My experience is expanding as I age, and I want to include more of those experiences in my belief system.  I want to include respect for other cultures, other religions, other parts of the planet and the universe.  I have a sister who is Sikh, a son who identifies with Buddhism and Native American spirit stories and a father who once taught science.  There is a lot going on all over the world in this season.  What do I want to acknowledge or celebrate?

My youngest daughter has always loved this season.  She used to go to the local Hallmark store in the middle of the summer to look at the Christmas village set up there.  What was that about?  Sparkly, pretty, cozy, homey, yummy expectations of treats?  Possibly.  Peace, love, joy?  Possibly.  Emotions?  Definitely.  Why not focus on pleasurable human senses and emotions?  Up in the northern hemisphere, we are spinning away from the sun and plunging into a cold, dark time.  Light becomes more precious, warmth becomes holy, food is life itself.  Why not celebrate that dependence?  We are sustained by the sun and the producers of this planet that make food from its energy.  Evergreen trees remind us of that.  Gifts remind us that we receive from the producers; we are consumers.  Gratitude is the attitude of the season.  Giving is the action that sustains us.

I sent a text message to each of my kids this morning saying that the gift for Day #1 this season is sunshine.  The sun is shining here, showering us with Vitamin D and all kinds of other goodies we need to be healthy and happy.   We are blessed, saved, sustained, given life in this universe by an amazing set of circumstances that we did not originate.   However you acknowledge that and whoever taught you to acknowledge that deserves attention.  May you be happy as you think and act in awareness of this.


Mixing It Up

“Politics and science don’t mix.”  “Religion and science don’t mix.”

These are comments posted on an article about a skeptical physicist who researched global warming under a grant provided by the Charles Koch foundation and found that land temperatures are indeed rising.  I read this article not long after reading an MSNBC article entitled “Do Science and Politics Mix?”.  It focuses on some comments made by Mitt Romney and their interpretation by Lawrence Otto, author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.  He says that today’s political framework is based on “values” rather than facts.  In other words, politicians are dogmatic about certain positions that they figure will stand them firmly in the good graces of their constituents and tend to dismiss scientific challenges.

Well, hell, what is science for if not to inform your decisions and opinions about politics and religion and education and health and economics and…everything?  I mean, why bother to make observations at all if you’re going to ignore them?  Why not just walk around blindfolded?  And the same goes for science itself.  Let your political and religious and educational and economic observations inform your decisions and opinions about science.  It doesn’t make sense to be dogmatic in any of these areas.

Isn’t our world an interconnected web of infinite variables?  There will always be more data to gather and look at, and there will always be vast areas where we have no data at all or no conclusive data.  Mystery still abounds.  But the point is, keep your eyes and ears and mind open.  Make your decisions and form your opinions with as much humility and flexibility as you can muster.  Always be willing to entertain and embrace new information and ideas.

What would you call that posture?

Squirrels are like fiddlers on the roof: light on their feet

Well, the media calls it “flip-flopping” or “waffling”.  The media seems to like dogma and dislike progressives.  People are fed up with the status quo and call for change, but those who embrace change are mistrusted and “hog-tied” by various conflicting structures.  So we get nowhere new.  What a pity.  What a waste.

Have you ever heard the Zen koan, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”?

If you believe you have the correct image of what it means to be Enlightened, you’re wrong.  Throw it out and keep practicing and meditating.  As applied to our political situation: if you believe you have the correct platform to reform America, you’re wrong.  Throw it out and keep listening to the people, keep observing the environment in the cities and the farms, keep choosing and deciding and recording consequences. Keep moving forward.  Even if something seems to work, things will change.  Review and renew.  Be light on your feet.

Now, who’s got the courage to do that?