A Walk With Naturalists

Eye on Us

On Friday they told me they saw a beaver. They said it was on the shore right next to the trail where they stood. The skeptic in me thought, “maybe.” It was full day light, the beaver is nocturnal. My plan-stick with maybe. Their enthusiasm did not sway my opinion.
On Saturday my will weakened. “Could we go for a walk to see if the beaver is there?” was my request. It please me greatly when they said yes. All three of them showed eagerness both to go and to have me along. My skepticism vanished. You see the location of the beaver was in a backwater of a river. Yes, backwater, in a city park, in the capitol of North Dakota. The river was not any river, it was the longest river in the United States, the 2,300-mile-long Missouri.
A second incentive for this walk to the river was my motivation to observe how they would lead me across a busy city street and through blocks of a residential area before the park and the river.

Two sets of eyes

In bright sunshine, the 4 of us started out. We cut westward through a coulee with water flowing through it. They spotted a pair of Mallard Drakes long before my eyes picked them out. Walking through a small grove of trees on the west edge of the coulee we heard a rooster pheasant crow. The 12-year-old boy conversations stopped. With delight, my eyes witnessed all three of them go into stealth mode. Again, my wise naturalist skills were eclipsed, one of the boys pointed out a pheasant slinking away. They spotted it first. These boys were good.
They led me directly to a pedestrian bridge that crossed the traffic filled street. The rest of the way they used cross walks and the sidewalk. It felt safe and comfortable. They did the same on the return trip. The boys were responsible. Sometimes three boys can think of unsafe things or become silly. There was none of that going or coming. We had not even come to the river and the walk with these three boys was remarkably pleasurable.

He Watches

At the backwater, more joy came. My great privilege that morning was the company of three 12-year-old naturalists. They were interested in everything. They wanted me to get good photos. Tracks intrigued them. They listened when other pheasants crowed. They questioned what animals had made the tracks we observed. Then one of them did something few kids or adults would ever think of, he stepped over a track rather than destroy it with his foot. We witnessed Western Grebes fishing.

Water off a Grebe’s Back

There were numerous reasons for happiness that morning. The maturity and responsibility of these three boys was one. The absolute thrill of seeing the respect and true interest in nature the three possessed another. Having conversations with three others who found everything on this sandbar of the Missouri river, fascinating. They were right about the beaver too. We didn’t see it this time. But two piles of fresh beaver scat and many chewed branches were clear evidence.

The boys and I got something else. We witnessed the power of God. We observed His divine nature in the beauty of the crowing pheasant calls and the dives of the grebes. They’d seen a fish in the water the day before. The mystery of fish in water exhilarated them. The four of us relaxed, stress fell away, our health strengthened.
Should we be surprised at the health-giving qualities available to everyone who goes outside? Why is the earth beautiful? Why do our eyes see color, our ears hear sounds equal to 10 musical octaves? Our three other senses add greater depth to any outside time. A man named David was both shepherd and king in his life. As shepherd he learned of the power and divine nature of God in creation. He wrote, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Psalm 24:1 God put health in nature.
Take a walk. Better yet, take some kids with you. Why is the earth so beautiful, so full of stimulating mystery which captives the minds of three boys and a grandpa? Because God made the earth for us. He made it out of love. He designed all of it for us. It is one of his gifts to us. His greatest gift is Jesus Christ and the eternal life His death on the cross provides. Could Jesus really overcome all our sins? He is powerful enough to make a world filled with beauty and mystery. We see it best when we go outside.


Across the Frozen Lake

Across the Frozen Lake
Boone liked mornings. He liked adventure. It was morning. He’d been thinking about this adventure since yesterday. He would cross the lake. He would do it walking-on ice. He knew experts called ice a film on water. But he had been watching the lake. Ice had covered its surface three weeks earlier. It had never opened since. He would be careful. He told his dad. He told his mom. He knew what they would say, both did, “be careful, I love you.”

Across the frozen lake was where he anticipated adventure. He’d walked on ice-covered water before. He knew ice could be unsafe, he would be safe and walk around the very edge. The water was not over his head there. He knew his first adventure would be on the ice. That would make two adventures in one. Even better. These quests would happen this morning.
It was cold. One of Boone’s daily habits was to check the family’s digital thermometer each morning when he got out of bed. This morning it read 12 degrees F. He would leave after breakfast. In his young life he had been faithfully taught by both parents and grandparents that the Bible is God’s word. Before breakfast and before final preparation to start these adventures, he picked up his Bible. This morning he read from Psalm 33 these words, “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere him. For he spoke, and it came to be…” Boone could not fully understand how God could just speak and things came to be. This morning he would walk among the things God spoke into being.cropped-dsc_0031_888sig1.jpg
He was becoming more and more eager to be on his way. He took time to eat a fine breakfast. He even ate a banana. That’s when his mom reminded him explorers brush their teeth before great expeditions. Sometimes he debated his mother about brushing. This morning he was keen on getting started. He brushed.
Before his dad left the house, he reminded Boone about dressing in layers. It was on his mind as he put his toothbrush away. When he walked through the kitchen his mom said, “the thermometer reads 15 degrees Boone, remember to layer up.” He knew if his grandpa were there, he would hear the same thing. His first layer was a one-piece suit of long underwear. It was old, but it was lightweight; and warm. He added a thermal turtle neck and pulled on two pair of socks, one wool. Over his cargo pants he added an outer layer of waterproof wind pants. For his arms and chest, he added a fleece vest and a lightweight parka with a hood. Once his insulated, waterproof boots were on, he would step outside. He did not plan to bring the survival bag his grandfather helped him assemble after his first solo trip. He was close to home. He would rely on his cell phone. He’d checked the charge on the battery. As he stepped out the door he reached for the willow walking stick his grandfather had made for him last Christmas. Boone felt his grandfather was near when the stick was in hand. Grandpa’s signature, burned in the wood near the top confirmed it.
He’d stepped into the crisp early winter air when he remembered. How many times had he heard is dad and grandfather say never head onto early ice without your ice picks. He’d left the two palm size cylinders of wood with nails firmly fastened to the end in the drawer in the laundry. The nylon cord attached to the other end of each cylinder went around his neck. If he accidentally broke through the ice he could use the ice picks to pull himself back to safety. He knew his dad would ask. His trip across the frozen lake would wait 5 minutes. Since he did not see his mom anywhere, he left his boots on to walk into the laundry. Boone thought to himself, they are clean yet.
Finally, he was ready and standing outside. Though he was 11 Boone had already developed the habits of someone used to being outside. He stopped and gazed around him. The first minute outside he always stood still and just watched. He was never disappointed.cropped-dsc_0091e2d.jpg
Boone was pleased his family lived two quick blocks from the lake. He would be there in five minutes. He decided to take big steps. He thought about how the lake had looked unfrozen. Then he thought about those first steps on the ice. He had completely forgotten the math homework due Monday. His drums and practicing them would have to wait. Adventure first and the first part of the adventure would be across the frozen lake. (to be continued)DSC_0059_1035sig

No Tears, No Sickness or Pain, No Death

DSC_0011_543sigI spent 30 minutes in another world today. The world was in my backyard. Since it was in my backyard, this world contained earth residents. Once in this world, my feet never moved. Here my eyes found the Cup Plant ( Silphium perfoliatum) Most were over 10 feet tall with deep green leaves and brilliant yellow composite flowers. They made a world of their own. Their nectar and pollen drew other earth residents too. Just watching and listening, I saw a Two Spotted Bumblebee, a Long-Eared Bee, A large Yellow-jacket Wasp, Syrphid Flies and multiple Painted Lady Butterflies. A small white insect landed on my camera lens. In this miniature prairie planted by my own hands were multiple other life forms I never saw. Most were invertebrate. All were present because the little backyard prairie met their habitat needs. The bees and butterflies were there for food: nectar and pollen.

DSC_0017_544sigThis world was quiet. It was peaceful. Bees shared the same flowers with other bees and the butterflies. There was enough for all. I witnessed the same flowers visited over and over. The nectar continued to flow. There was no fighting, rather a visible harmony existed.

My heart was calmed. Peace settled on my own mind and soul. This happened steps from my backdoor.DSC_0056_548sig

This quiet place reminds me of another real place: heaven. There is peace and harmony there. No sickness or death ever occur in heaven. There will never be mourning, tears or pain. The peace of God is always there.  God’s peace passes understanding. We can spend eternity there-not just 30 minutes. Jesus paid the price of admission.DSC_0070_551sig

Painted Lady Irruption

Suddenly there were thousands of them. It was, in biologists’ terms, an irruption, a sudden sharp increase in the relative numbers of a population. My grandpa’s eyes had never witnessed such a dramatic increase. Unusual things like these a naturalist remembers and records. My experience has recorded nothing of this magnitude before. It may be a lepidopterist’s dream come true.

You ask what “irrupted”? You may be questioning the use of the word. The word irruption is not a mistake, the term is not “erupted”. An eruption is for volcanoes, and rashes. Our subject is an irruption of butterflies. The sudden appearance of thousands and thousands of Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) to be specific.

As this holiday weekend began we had the privilege of traveling with 4 grandchildren across half the state of North Dakota to connect them with their cousins for a time with family. It is nearly 200 land miles, or 3 hours of driving time. On the outbound trip, there were thousands of painted ladies crossing the road headed south, likewise on the return trip. Even more astonishing, the return trip was 3 days later. How many butterflies flew southward during the time we were with family? When we returned there were still thousands flying. All were southbound. Arriving home last evening, we found dozens on the flowers of our postage stamp sized prairie. Today my 11 AM estimate was 40 butterflies. Most years there are 3 or 4. The large number is highly unusual, but within normal for the painted lady butterfly. From season to season, this butterfly has noticeable population increases and declines. The current irruption is massive and impressive, the largest in memory!DSC_0086 (2)sig

During these times of irruption, thousands to millions of individuals can be seen. Since they migrate close to the ground, just 6-12 feet above the surface, they are easily noticed. Most of the world’s population has had opportunity to see painted Lady butterflies since they are found on every continent in the world except Australia and Antarctica. Many painted ladies migrate from the south in spring before the more well-known migrator, the monarch butterfly arrives. Perhaps one reason painted ladies are found in almost all parts of the world is their ability to feed on many different types of plants. Few other butterflies will forage on such a wide range of flowering plants. Over 100 have been recorded. The painted lady butterflies in the photos were feeding on Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) flowers. Possibly a second reason there are so many painted ladies in our prairie garden is the great abundance of cup plants growing there. Painted Lady butterflies prefer composite flowers that are tall. Cup plant grows tall. The plants in the prairie garden tower more than 10 feet in height. Go ahead try to imagine dozens of painted ladies on tall yellow flowers. They too are pollinators, while they seek food for life, the plants they feed on are able to develop seed from the mix of pollen moved by butterfly feet, proboscis, and even wings.DSC_0029 (2)sig

From egg to prickly caterpillar, to chrysalis and on to adult, the painted lady really lives a life of mystery. There have been thousands of words written, hundreds of websites produced and thousands of school children studying the painted lady. Yet, it lives its life largely away from human attention. Most humans are unaware of the wildlife that lives just outside their homes. The coming change of season will move the painted lady butterflies to their winter places. It is why they are moving now. In spring the mystery is continued. It is reversed, painted lady butterflies will move northward.DSC_0024 (2)sig

The greatest naturalist the world has ever known was King Solomon. He spoke about plant and animal life to the kings of the world at the time. Solomon also reminded us that there is a God directed time for everything. He said, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…”

This is the season of the painted lady.DSC_0114 (2)sigDSC_0023 (2)sig


To Become Wise

It happened in an early summer thunderstorm with wind. The top of the red oak was broken. Not simply a limb, the entire top of the tree fell to earth.

It was my pleasure to clean it up for my neighbor today. While working from the top down, small limbs to the main trunk, the reason this oak snapped off became clear: ants

Precisely stated, the carpenter ant felled this mighty red oak. Based on its size, it easily weighed 5 tons from earth (we are not counting the roots!) to tip of the out most branches. Felled by ants.DSC_0094_518sig

The Red Oak tree will grow across most of eastern even southern United States. In fall its leaves are usually a brilliant burgundy. The acorns of the tree are highly desired by wildlife from squirrels to black bears. It is a majestic, beautiful tree. It is cold and winter resistant. It survives winter temperatures as extreme as -35 F.

This tree grew where temperatures regularly reach -20 to -30 F.  At its base the trunk is about 30 inches in diameter, its large. Yet this large tree did not survive the onslaught of carpenter ants. From the point where the wind broke the trunk, carpenter ants had colonized the inside of the tree for a vertical distance of at least 12 feet. At the break only two inches of solid oak remained on the trunk. It did not take a severe wind-just a gust, and crack, the entire sizeable top came down.

While carpenter ants can be destructive in the wood of our homes, they play a vital role in the food chain of a forest where they are native. They break down wood. They do not eat it. While this tree was severely weakened to the point of breaking, carpenter ants hollow other trees creating nesting places for woodpeckers, ducks and mammals like squirrels, and raccoons. While the ants inside the trunk of this tree were safe from predators, wood peckers had been exploring what would have become a major banquet for a strong bird such as a pileated woodpecker if the tree had remained standing.

There were possibly 10 thousand individual ants in this colony. Likely there are nearly 10,000 more in the still standing and large trunk. Since they emerge from their colony after sunset, they escape daylight predators. They use chemicals to scent their trail back to the nest. Colonies may use the same trails for years. Worker carpenter ants come in 5 different castes. Only 10-15% of the workers are outside at any time searching for food including human food and of course insects. Inside workers are creating new nest space, caring for the larva, pupa and queen. Different sizes mean ability to do different things. Amazed yet? 10,000 individuals all with the same goal: a healthy colony. Does any ant stop its work and take a different task? Never, workers work whether inside the colony or outside.DSC_0091_515

How can a colony of 10,000 individuals consistently work together with an unchanging mission? Have we considered how 10,000 humans are able to work together?  How do they-every individual-know what to do? How do we explain this always balanced work? Amazed is not strong enough-stunned is better. Finally, have we considered how these worker carpenter ants are able to chew through OAK-with insect mandibles?

The wisest man in the world, Solomon, an ancient king of Israel applied his God granted wisdom to explaining how things in nature worked. The Bible tells us he spoke 3000 proverbs. In one of them, Proverbs 6:6, Solomon reflects on the mind-blowing industry of ants. He said, “Take a lesson from the ants, you lazy bones. Learn from their ways and become wise .”

We can learn a great deal from the ants. They are plainly stamped with the initials of their Creator: God.DSC_0093_517sig

Unchangeable-Always Good

George Washington Carver (1864-1943)

My day began with thoughts about this man. George Washington Carver has long been one of my never met heroes. Of course, meeting him would be impossible, my birth came after his death. Regardless, he remains a man to look up to.

He was called the “plant doctor” from the time he was a young boy. It could be argued, that his understanding of plants has never been equaled by another human. He once said no book went into his laboratory with him and that “God alone drew aside the curtain” to reveal truth about the plants he was studying. He was a genius with plants, and he always gave God credit.

What continues to bring me to reflect on this man-even today-is his love for and trust in his eternal Heavenly Father. It would have been an honor to listen to George W. Carver speak, to speak with him and learn from him. Yet, today, you as you read, and I as I write, we can learn from Carver the truth that God revealed to him.

Reflect on Dr. Carver’s words as you begin your day, or as you conclude it and prepare for a night’s rest. “Our creator is the same and never changes despite the names given Him by people here and in all parts of the world. Even if we gave Him no name at all, He would still be there, within us, waiting to give us good on this earth.”

Carver knew of the eternal constant of God, that He is unchanged from eternity before to eternity after. Carver also knew that whether we claim there is no God, or attempt to say He does not exist; that God is always present, always God, always loving each one of us with perfect love. We cannot easily dismiss Carver’s words as trite.  These words came from a man who had studied creation in detailed ways few humans ever have. Carver knew God was Creator, he learned from God’s plants.

The writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us of this truth with these words: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) We can believe Carver’s words about God, He “waits to give you good” today.george-washington-carver-393757__480[1]