The Ice Bear: A Beast for the Ages – Guest Blog by Michael Engelhard

I met Michael Engelhard in the Grand Canyon in 2012, when as one of our superb river guides he steered us capably through one massive rapid after another. In calmer waters our conversations took us through philosophy, anthropology, nature writing, and the importance of the wild. Michael’s naturalist expertise and characteristic deep thinking led me to want to stay in touch. He has recently published the marvelous book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, which I highly recommend: it is beautifully written and illustrated, and engagingly conveys our complex relationship with this astounding creature, the Polar Bear, gorgeous and powerful. The following guest post, in honor of World Polar Bear Day on February 27, is by Michael, whose website is at this link.

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Fig. 1. Study of a sleeping polar bear, by the English sculptor and painter John Macallan Swan, 1903. (Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

These days, no animal except perhaps the wolf divides opinions as strongly as does the polar bear, top predator and sentinel species of the Arctic. But while wolf protests are largely a North American and European phenomenon, polar bears unite conservationists—and their detractors—worldwide.

In 2008, in preparation for the presidential election, the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate, the governor of Alaska, ventured to my then hometown, Fairbanks, to rally the troops. Outside the building in which she was scheduled to speak, a small mob of Democrats, radicals, tree-huggers, anti-lobbyists, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other “misfits” had assembled in a demonstration vastly outnumbered by the governor’s supporters. As governor, the “pro-life” vice-presidential candidate and self-styled “Mama grizzly” had just announced that the state of Alaska would legally challenge the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Listing it would block development and thereby endanger jobs, the worn argument went.

Regularly guiding wilderness trips in Alaska’s Arctic and feeling that my livelihood as well as my sanity depended upon the continued existence of the White Bears and their home ground, I, who normally shun crowds, had shown up with a crude homemade sign: Polar Bears want babies, too. Stop our addiction to oil! I was protesting recurring attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the area with the highest concentration of polar bear dens in Alaska, to drilling. From the top of my sign a plush polar bear toy dangled, as if in effigy. Though wary of anthropomorphizing animals, I was not above playing that card.

'Arctic Rising' in London

Fig. 2. Greenpeace activist at London’s Horse Guards. The bear’s shape and behavior make it particularly suited for impersonations as part of political “theater.” (Courtesy of Elizabeth Dalziel/Greenpeace.)

As we were marching and chanting, I checked the responses of passersby. A rattletrap truck driving down Airport Way caught my eye. The driver, a stereotypical crusty Alaskan, showed me the finger. Unbeknownst to him, his passenger—a curly haired, grandmotherly Native woman, perhaps his spouse—gave me a big, cheery thumbs-up.

The incident framed opposing worldviews within a single snapshot but did not surprise me. My home state has long been contested ground, and the bear a cartoonish, incendiary character. Already in 1867, when Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska from Russia, the Republican press mocked the new territory as “[President] Johnson’s polar bear garden”—where little else grows.

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Fig. 3. This cartoon from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper lampooned the purchase of Alaska 150 years ago. The sign reads “A present to [Secretary of the Interior] Bill Seward & Co. by the inhabitants of Walrussia,” and polar bears carry an ice bloc to cool the congressional majority that ratified the treaty.

The White Bear looms large in human history and not just because of its size. In part, our fascination with it springs from the charisma all large predators share: their quickness, intensity, and acuity, magnified by their strength. It is the idea of their unfettered existence, their calm in the crucial moments, that attract us. We see ourselves in them. “Their courage is in their breast, their resolution in their head,” the anonymous scribe of the thirteenth-century Aberdeen Liber de bestiarum natura explained. “They are called ‘beasts’ from the force with which they rage . . . They are called ‘wild’ because they enjoy their natural liberty and are borne along by their desires. They are free of will, and wander here and there, and where their instinct takes them, there they are borne.” Unlike us, polar bears are not very gregarious. Neither am I, and that, as well as their nomadism partly explains why they so appeal to me.

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Fig. 4. Nomad of the sea ice and tundra. Norwegian postcard, 1915. (Collection of Michael Engelhard.)

Deeply held preconceptions keep us from seeing the true nature of some animals. The polar bear is a prime example. Over the past eight thousand years, we have regarded it as food, toy, pet, trophy, status symbol, commodity, man-eating monster, spirit familiar, circus act, zoo superstar, and political cause célèbre. We have feared, venerated, locked up, coveted, butchered, sold, pitied, and emulated this large carnivore. It has left few emotions unstirred. Where the bears’ negative image prevailed, as so often, a perceived competition for resources or a threat to our dominion were the cause.

Bears, and in particular polar bears, might not dwell in our neighborhoods but they do live in the collective consciousness. I have turned to this creature as other, in the words of ecologist-philosopher Paul Shepard, “in a world where otherness of all kinds is in danger, and in which otherness is essential to the discovery of the true self.”

Far from being intertwined exclusively with its Arctic indigenous neighbors, the polar bear has lately assumed iconic status in the dominant culture. With the wholesale domestication or destruction of wildness that marks industrial civilization, the polar bear has become a focus of our self-awareness, contentious as no other animal is. Its ascent from food to coveted curiosity to pampered celebrity may seem incremental, inconsequential even, but it speaks volumes about our relations with nature. Transferring polar bears—or their body parts or representations—into highly charged cultural contexts, we share in their essence and employ them for our own purposes.

In the wake of its first importation into Europe, the bear triggered scientific curiosity and inspired artworks and nationalistic myth building; it enlivened heraldic devices and Shakespeare’s plays; in naval paintings, it defined the self-image of a nation. On the eve of industrial revolution, Britain turned bear slaying into a symbol of manhood and expansionist drives. With the waning of Arctic exploration, the bear’s economic and even symbolic importance diminished. It was relegated to advertising, trophy hunting, or popular culture until, starting in the 1980s, conservationists promoted it as both an indicator of environmental degradation and also a symbol of hope. (Ironically, oil companies co-funded some of that period’s polar bear research, fulfilling government stipulations.) Where wildness is threatened the bear has been elevated. Its revived economic clout boosts films, fundraising campaigns, eco-merchandise sales, and high-end wildlife tourism.

My biggest surprise in my research has been the longevity of attitudes involving the polar bear, which is particularly striking in fast-changing countries such as ours. The bear is sometimes still a sexual predator or a “stud;” it still is protector, is killer, is idol; it can still serve as the embodiment of a nation, as figurehead for a group of people.

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Fig. 5. Greenland’s coat of arms, showing the bear with its left forepaw raised, as it is thought to be left-handed, according to Eskimo lore. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

In gathering the stories and myths, the ideas and perceptions of many societies—including our own—I’ve sought to highlight the interplay of external and internal landscapes and the bear’s place in both. For the lore and awe it inspires, for the diversity and the sheer life force it adds to the world, I hope that the Great White Bear will continue to prowl both our internal and external landscapes for millennia to come.

 

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

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Field Notes: Jewel Worlds in Teaser Season

Every year in late January or early February, we seem to get a week or so of lovely weather: sunny skies, temperatures in the 50’s that lure us out into the forest or onto the beach. And every year I succumb to the hope that spring is really on its way early this year, that the abiding gray will give way to blue, that the scent of moist air will get its floral infusion in February instead of April. Continue reading

A Scientist is Surprised By a Tool Long Known to Artists

Maybe it’s my training as a scientist, with its requirements for precision and accuracy, but it’s always felt like my most natural fine-art form is photorealistic drawing:

Portrait of Agnes Adámy

Portrait of Agnes Adámy

I drew all through childhood (didn’t we all, in those pre-electronic days!), and in my teen years found the pure joy of doing portraits. The human face—expressive, alluring, textured, with character in curves, stories in wrinkles, soul in eyes—

Portrait of Arthur Wheeler

Portrait of Arthur Wheeler

—it’s unendingly interesting, no matter whose it is. It is a deeply sensuous pleasure to shape the curves of someone’s face or body with your hand, sketching in shading to bring out their infinite depth and character, a caress in carbon.

I didn’t really start experimenting with watercolors until I was an adult. Water in all its forms takes you with it on its fluid journeys, washes you out of your mold, pours itself into your rigid ideas and softens them, blurs and diffuses your boundaries. Watercolors have a life of their own, and I was drawn to them because I couldn’t control them as I could my pencils. And since you pretty much can’t erase with watercolors, being in relationship with them requires you to commit to their serendipity, to be open to new directions you hadn’t anticipated. I knew I needed that.

The watercolors I’ve been happiest with were those where I stopped in time rather than overworking them, but these have been few and far between:

Galapagos Tortoise (I think)

Galapagos Tortoise

Generally I just get frustrated because I keep trying to get it just right, with all the lines in the perfect place just like they are in reality, and all the colors exactly right with the precisely correct shape. I either overwork the piece until it seems ruined (remember, no erasing), or give up in frustration over the details before it feels finished. That’s what happened with this sketch, which I began while sitting on a bench in a Lincoln Park clearing that I’ve nicknamed “Dragonfly Field.”

"Dragonfly Field," Lincoln Park, West Seattle (unfinished)

“Dragonfly Field,” Lincoln Park, West Seattle (unfinished)

So many branches, so many leaves! It was just too hard.

Trying to get a grasp of this literally-ungraspable art medium, I took a watercolor course recently with marvelous artist and teacher Ruthie V, who teaches at South Seattle Community College. She really gets watercolor.

“Look, aim at just the big patches of color. Don’t worry about all the little bits,” Ruthie suggested as I struggled to portray every single leaf in view in the SSCC Arboretum. But I just couldn’t un-see the details, and once I noticed them I couldn’t not try to get them right.

* * * * *

Getting the details right is a big part of the scientist’s job description—and not only that, but a thrill as well. A continuing-education biology instructor who started out as a geologist once told me with great pride, “There’s not much about ultramafics[1] that I don’t know.” As a grad student, I loved knowing tons of details about crystals, their architecture, how the atoms fit together and influenced each other, how a crystal sings and dances.

Of course, that’s not all you need to be a good scientist. You also have to be able to find patterns, preferably ones that are both interesting and significant. As with art, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. I remember when I finally got my first big data set from my grad-school research and was faced with All Those Numbers: yikes! Now what?

I managed to find some interesting-enough patterns in those data. But how to do that in art? Especially when I’m not in my 20’s or 30’s anymore, but my 50’s —late 50’s at that—when my brain doesn’t function at quite the speed (that I seem to remember…) it did back in school?

* * * * *

I’ve had poor vision since fourth grade. In fact, I remember the exact day when the big blue numbers on Miss Stein’s classroom calendar looked different. She was teaching some lesson, finished up, and asked if we had any questions. I raised my hand and said, “Why does the calendar look fuzzy?” (She annoyedly clarified that she had meant questions about the lesson she’d just given. Oh. Sorry.)

I used to love lying under the Christmas tree and taking off my glasses, enjoying the wonderful soft haloes of colored light above me, our tree transformed into an arboreal fairyland by the hovering glowing light-balls. (I still do that now…don’t tell.) I think part of the joy I’ve always felt swimming might be partly because, wearing no glasses, I can’t see when I’m wet: a freedom from tracking what’s happening, freedom to trust to the sensation of wet and coolness on my body rather than the information from my eyes.

* * * * *

Right after I wake up every morning, I have a daily write-of-passage: three pages in my journal that take me from dreamland into reality, my treasured liminal time. And it was in that liminality yesterday, for no apparent reason, that I had a sudden insight into my art conundrum.

Because of my gift of poor vision, I can choose how well to see! What a wonderful tool in my artist box: to be able to simply take off my glasses and paint what my 20/450 vision sees: large fuzzy blots of color and hazy shapes. Take that, perfectionist tendencies!

This morning I went back to Dragonfly Field, sat on the same bench as before, took off my glasses, and iPad-painted what I saw.[2]

Dragonfly Field sans glasses (Used iPad app called Art Set)

Dragonfly Field sans glasses
(Used iPad app called Art Set)

It’s a scene, a whole scene, how about that? No tiny leaves to worry about, a few big shapes of shadows and shrubs and grass; can you make them out? The splotches of color seem to define a space, a place, in a way my thin lines couldn’t. It’s almost like having a whole new medium to explore.

Funny how at this point in life, occasionally the things you’ve been thinking all along are your weaknesses suddenly flip over and become resources. A tendency to move slowly, formerly known as laziness, starts to look like contemplativeness. Having no ability to deal with shopping malls (a sore disappointment to my mother) gets transformed from “hypersensitivity” to an affinity for the earth. Insecurity about having something valuable to say becomes a desire to listen more deeply. Bad vision can sometimes help you to see a little better.

Artists have long known to take off their glasses, and I’ve just discovered this tool. So maybe that’s another bounty of aging: delight at newly encountering the old wisdom of others. Here’s to many more such surprises.


[1] An igneous rock type sort of like basalt, but more so.

[2] (Unfortunately, not seeing well also meant that I inadvertently painted on a tiny little portion of my canvas, ending up with a teensy and highly pixelated image, but I can fix that next time. Live and learn.)

Arachnitecture: Season of Spiders

Oscar has once again made her summer home in a corner of my bathroom.[1]

Oscar in our bathroom. Discarded debris from his meals is below his web.

Oscar in our bathroom.
Discarded debris from her meals is below her web.

The season of spiders began here a couple of months ago, with the appearance of the first obvious webs in dark corners. Then I began having to dodge webs strung across my favorite forest paths. Now they’re all over, indoors and out, helping their owners make a living extracting bugs from their territories.

My grandmother called all spiders “Oscar” and allocated them an honored status in her home on Dauphin Island, Alabama. Oscars ate the mosquitoes and gnats that plagued us kids on our spring-break visits to her dockside ranch house. So although some of my best friends are arachnophobes, I’ve always enjoyed having spiders around.

This Oscar’s dining room is a tangle-web, an extravagantly three-dimensional array of strands that’s particularly difficult for the unfortunate prey to find its way out of. Maybe that explains why Oscar’s so healthily chubby. (My cleaning habits have nothing—nothing, I sayto do with that.)

Some of my forest spider friends, the Cross Spiders, build those familiar iridescent orb webs that catch the light so beautifully.

Cross spider's orb web Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Cross spider’s orb web
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

By autumn, they’ll drape the forest as spiders grow larger and need more prey.

Forest air filled with webs; look closely to see them at all levels

Forest air filled with webs; look closely to see them at all levels.
Click on the photo to enlarge.

Here’s the exquisite builder of those shimmering dreamcatchers:

Cross Spider Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Cross Spider
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

But my current favorite is the Sierra Dome Spider, who builds this wonderful Buckminster-Fullerish type of web, about four to seven feet off the ground, specially designed to capture bugs rising from the vegetation below: an angel’s tiara accidentally left behind in the forest.

Sierra Dome Spider's web Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Sierra Dome Spider’s web
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Such a stunning home also draws romance.[2] Male Sierra Dome Spiders, dreaming of love, are attracted to females with their striking dome nests—and see how beautiful she is! That lovely orange thorax, those delightfully translucent blue legs!

Sierra Dome Spider

Sierra Dome Spider

But after their romantic encounter, he’ll then destroy her nest by rolling all those carefully placed threads into a ball, to keep other males from sniffing around. She has to rebuild the whole thing, strand by strand, in order to feed herself.[3]

Tangle-webs, orb webs, dome webs: three different architectures, each tailored for what its builder needs. But there are a few essential functions they all have to fulfill. They have to be able to trap prey and hold it long enough for the spider to get there. They have to hold the weight of the spider. They have to be able to stay basically intact under the influence of a struggling bug, and as the spider wraps and removes her prey. And they have to be strong enough to withstand wind and rain.

Cross Spider with wrapped prey

Cross Spider with wrapped prey

Look at her web after she’s trapped and removed prey. It’s full of gaps where strands have been broken.

Cross Spider's orb web showing prey damage

Cross Spider’s orb web showing prey damage

Yet removing one thread, or even many, doesn’t cause the whole thing to collapse.[4] Spiders have developed the ability to produce different kinds of silks to serve the various functions of different parts of their web.

For instance, consider the strands that are sticky to capture bugs. Most solid materials break more easily if there’s already a surface rupture. To keep such initial cracks from developing, spiders coat their capture threads with a watery coat that lets those strands absorb vibrations more easily, giving them more elasticity. That means they can hold the prey longer, giving the spider time to get there.

Spiders’ strands also have a strange but really useful three-part response to being tugged. The whole web of threads shimmies with the prey’s wiggling (alerting the spider to its presence), holding together, but as the bug’s struggling puts more stress on the threads near it, they suddenly get very pliant, taking the stress off of more distant threads—which can then continue to hold up the web. Finally, under lots of stress, the buggy silk once again gets stiff, meaning it will break at the stress point, leaving the rest of the web intact.

On the other hand, when wind puts equal stress on the whole web (as opposed to a bug stressing mainly one thread), the whole thing stays strong. Amazingly strong, in fact: your neighborhood spider’s web can stand up to hurricane-force winds.

These architectural marvels are everywhere during this season of spiders. Even though “you’re never more than three feet from a spider” is probably one of those spider myths, there’s probably one closer than you think.[5] Thank Oscar for his excellent work next time you see her.

Sierra Dome Spider, waiting

Sierra Dome Spider, waiting



[1] I have left in embarrassing details about the state of our bathroom to show how helpful he’s being in cleaning it up for us. [back]

[2]  Apparently it works for some humans too; a realtor friend once told me back in my single days that if I were to succeed in buying that adorable quirky little cottage tucked into a Seattle greenbelt, I wouldn’t remain single for long. Although I did not buy that particular quirky cottage, I did later buy another. I did not remain single for long. [back]

[3] My companion has not yet destroyed my home, although he is planning some extensive remodeling. [back]

[4] Unlike a major bridge in my state. [back]

[5] Sorry, arachnophobe friends. [back]

Blockwatch

Taking a break from working on a writing deadline, I loaded up my binoculars and camera and headed down my street toward the park. I didn’t make it farther than the end of the block.

Atop the light pole on the corner was a Northern Flicker, calling loudly to an unseen companion (who joined him later).

Northern Flicker with mate

Northern Flicker with mate

Then he made his way vertically down the pole, investigating various holes tiny and large.

Northern Flicker examining hole

Northern Flicker examining hole

Northern Flicker examining second hole

Northern Flicker exploring hole #3

Northern Flicker exploring hole #3

Let’s look at that last photo a little more closely:

Northern Flicker extends tongue into cavity

Northern Flicker extends tongue into cavity

Woodpecker tongues are really amazing. The structure supporting them wraps all the way around their heads, in some cases looping around their eyes.

https://i0.wp.com/www.sloshtheory.com/Anatomy/files/collage_lb_image_page4_0_1.png

Woodpecker bone and tongue structure. Click on link for source.

This gives most woodpeckers lots of tongue with which to explore tree cavities—and that means they have to spend less energy on excavation. Then when they encounter delicious bugs, their elegant barbed tongue is sticky enough to grab the bug and bring it back to where the woodpecker can enjoy his meal.

Tongue of Hairy Woodpecker. From "The Woodpeckers," by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (1901)

Tongue of Hairy Woodpecker. From “The Woodpeckers,” by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (1901)

But that’s not all we can learn by observing what’s happening on our block! Let’s go back to the flicker’s exploration of the second hole. Did you notice anyone else?

Black-capped Chickadees monitoring flicker

Black-capped Chickadees monitoring flicker

These two Black-capped Chickadees flew in together, at first scolding the flicker and then remaining silent as they watched him poke around in their prospective nest holes. They waited until he left, then went back in — maybe to assess what damage he might have done with that huge beak and strange-looking tongue?

Black-capped Chickadee checking out hole post-flicker

Black-capped Chickadee checks out possible nest hole after visit by flicker

Black-capped Chickadee explores possible nest hole after visit by flicker

Black-capped Chickadee explores second possible nest hole after visit by flicker

I haven’t seen the chickadees at these holes for the past couple of days; maybe they’ve decided to search for nest cavities on a less popular tree trunk.

*   *   *

This afternoon, lured by irresistible sunshine during this extraordinarily wet April, I headed back out towards the forest. Nope.

I’d heard frantic robin cheeping, so I figured a hawk was somewhere nearby. Another drama in our little corner of the city? Yes – but with different players. As I walked out the door, I turned away from the forest, toward the robin calls…just in time to see a crow fly off with a lovely blue egg in its beak.

Hope and tragedy, all in a few short days on one short city block.

What’s happening on your street?

P.S. – There’s a sequel to this story! Check the next post, “Blockwatch Success,” to see what happened.

Male American Robin

Male American Robin

New Lincoln Park bird list available

With the help of several other local birders, I’ve compiled a list of all the birds we’ve personally confirmed at or close to Lincoln Park. There are over 100 species in our little corner of paradise!

Please click here to go to the bird list page. (You can also use the pulldown menu under “Lincoln Park Info” at the top of each page.) There you’ll find a list of birds, some of which have links to photographs and other species information. I’ll be regularly adding photos and information to that list. There’s also a one-page printable version of the list that you can take with you as you go exploring the avian life in our back yard.

 

Anna's Hummingbird at salmonberry flower

Anna’s Hummingbird at salmonberry flower

Have fun exploring Lincoln Park’s amazing bird life!

Natural History Renaissance: Opportunities Near and Far

Natural history—the ancient tradition of close, thoughtful attention to the natural world in situ and over time—is experiencing a contemporary revitalization as we realize not only the critical information, but the deep wisdom that can be born through the naturalist’s practice.

Rain lifting over the Kitsap Peninsula

Rain lifting over the Kitsap Peninsula

Programs, workshops, publications all indicate our rising interest in reconnecting with nature though contemplative observation, critical thinking, and creative arts. I thought you, dear Natural Presence readers, might be interested in knowing of such events, so I’m adding a sidebar (look to your left) where you can find more information about them.

Please feel free to let me know if you have items to suggest that are either of local (if you live in the Pacific Northwest) or broad interest (if you live elsewhere). I’ll update the list regularly, and every so often will post a discussion of some of these interesting opportunities. We want to find what’s precious and grab it when we can!

Gull with clam, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Gull with clam, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Nearest on the horizon is the Celebration of Lincoln Park Nature. The first part of the celebration, the evening of April 23, will feature local speakers about the park’s history, present state, and future prospects. And I’m even more excited about the field day on Saturday, April 27, with nature walks led by local naturalists (including yours truly) and workshops with nature artists/writers such as Lyanda Haupt, Denise Dahn, and Cass Nevada. Find out who lives in the forest and near the beach, and how you can respond artistically to our astonishing natural neighbors.

Also coming up soon is the Burke Museum’s workshop called Environmental Writing: Inspire, Observe, Inhabit (May 5). Three award-winning writers—David Montgomery, David George Gordon, and Brenda Guiberson—will integrate classroom work and field exercises to help you hone your awareness and your skills.

We could all use a little support as we develop our Natural Presence. Let’s help each other better find nature’s beauty, intelligence, and wisdom.

Eagle angling through a stiff breeze, carrying prey to its mate

Eagle angling through a stiff breeze, carrying prey to its mate

Things that for some unknown reason threaten to breach the soft earthen dam of your heart within a half-hour space on a late autumn late afternoon

Pacific Dogwood berry clusters

Sunlight on fir needles after a soaking rain

Curling madrone bark dancing in the wind

Snowberries — tiny lamps in the dark forest

The gnarled base of an old camellia…

…arching tenderly over its three-year-old child.

Vertical moss garden, ecstatic after recent rains

Bigleaf Maple leaf ready to fall, having conscientiously done its duty…

…waiting to join its companions below, in their final glory.

Amen.

Spain in crèche season

After six buses, three airplanes, several long hikes through and between terminals, and one rental car, we’ve arrived in Toledo at the height of crèche season. According to Rob, in some countries, there’s quite a competition this time of year in constructing the most elaborate and impressive crèche scene. I can’t yet tell whether Spain is one of those countries, but last night in our jet-lagged ramble around the marvelous warren-like alleyways of Toledo, we happened on an exquisite crèche.

It was an entire miniature villlage, with workers alongside wise men on laden camels, pilgrims and peasants. And my favorite part: actual live plants, bean sprouts and wheat grass, being tended by a tiny farmer. Of course! Why not incorporate living nature into this sculpted story of new birth, new aliveness, new turning toward the light?

Years ago I was working at a conference on religion and ecology, held on my campus. Our stunning new chapel had recently been completed: a place of awe and simple, profound beauty evocative of the caves where the first Christians had worshipped in secret. I loved the interior of the chapel from my first encounter. But one of the conference participants asked, where are the plants? Where is the living beauty of the earth in this sacred space?

Here in Toledo, in the littlest village.

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Eclipse

Between Christmas and New Year’s many years ago I was hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, descending through geologic time past tan, brown, red, and gray layers, pages in the book of Earth’s history—but reading it backwards, starting at the end and working my way to the beginning.

All through our hike, I’d been kind of dreading the descent into the Inner Gorge, because the rocks looked so dark and foreboding, unlike the lighter-toned sedimentary layers we were passing through. The Inner Gorge is walled by igneous rocks and gnarly twisted metamorphic remains of much more ancient sediments over a billion years old.

We finally reached the lip of the Inner Gorge, where the hard crystalline rocks have been etched into steep cliffs by the turbulent Colorado River below. And the scary dark gorge was filled with light! The huge crystals of mica and feldspar bounced sunlight at every different angle and I was immersed in shimmering beauty for two glorious days, basking in the warmth along the rushing brown river.

We finally had to leave the world of sparkling ancient rocks and climb back out of the canyon to fly back home, ascending back into the present both in geologic time and in our lives. It was a long haul, a vertical mile in just two days, and the temperature dropped rapidly as we climbed back up towards the plateau.

The last day, New Year’s Day, we rose before dawn. My partner lured me into keeping going with the promise that if we reached the rim by 11:00, we’d have time for a sumptuous champagne breakfast before we had to pile our stuff into the rental car to drive to the Phoenix airport. So I was hustling much faster than my normal pace, along the icy trail.

An hour or so before reaching the top, I saw a spotlight appear at the horizon. What concessionaire would have the gall to shine such a glaring light down into the natural dark and quiet?

As I ascended, so did the light. Finally I realized that it wasn’t a spotlight, but Venus, rising brilliantly over the horizon into the utter dark of the wilderness, the light of the goddess of feminine beauty perfectly complementing the shining dark liquid of the Inner Gorge.

That was one delicious champagne breakfast.

Before dawn this morning, I watched the moon grow darkeningly redder over the sparking lights of the Puget Sound shore during our total lunar eclipse: a rare part of its cycle, probably frightening to our ancient ancestors, now a source of wonder. Where do young women these days, eyes and minds glued to electronic screens large and small, find the feminine in nature?

Eclipsing moon over Puget Sound