Thursday, August 27, 2009

Our Father's World

Some accounts of my personal campaign against NDD--nature deficit disorder--the subject of our last post, are worth sharing. As a college freshman, I was privileged to have poet John Ciardi for my professor in English composition at Rutgers University. One bit of advice I recall from him was “Get the ‘For instance’ habit.” So, in the spirit of that advice, I’ll discuss examples of the many outdoor teachable moments I’ve shared with my pre-school grandchildren during their visits to our northwest Illinois home. All of these experiences were within easy walking distance of our home. Most of them, in fact, were in our yard. None of these activities or observations, individually or collectively, consists of proof for the existence of God. The evidence tilting one person toward a theistic belief system may not operate the same way for someone else. Individual human will functions regardless of evidence. Therefore, evidence is not the sole factor molding our beliefs and worldview. But the evidence which points to God from the world of nature is startling.

I have referred to our neighborhood as “bird heaven.” Each grandchild has observed dozens of different birds and their behaviors. A few of the most notable ones were bluebirds with their ebullient liquid warble, the catbirds’ incessant chatter, pileated woodpeckers’ far-reaching “cuk-cuk-cuk” call, or a great horned owl’s somber, early evening mantra. On one journey to our clearing in the woods, a female turkey took umbrage at our presence, approaching us threateningly, no doubt to divert our attention from her well-hidden young. The hummingbird, opposite on the spectrum of size, will approach to arm’s length if we stand motionless next to the flowers of interest to him. And our mulberry tree doubles as a natural bird feeder just outside the dining room window.

Seemingly endless differences in the behaviors and characteristics of our neighborhood’s living creatures contribute to endless fascination as we study them. These differences are easy to observe, even for pre-school children. Their uniqueness and complexity bespeak divine creativity, a far more credible origins scenario than evolutionary randomness or chance. Sometimes we’ve spoken of the great ideas God had when he designed living things.

Plants have also offered multiple opportunities to enhance our wonder. We watched the bare winter branches of our black walnut tree awaken to bud, bloom, and full leaf-out. Then, over time, we observed tiny nuts slowly develop into fully formed fruit exceeding golf-ball size. Digging up several baby walnut trees growing from squirrel-buried nuts this spring was a lesson in itself (the nut was still intact). This autumn we are on track to harvest over 1000 nuts from our front yard tree. Later, we’ll continue our long-established walnut-cracking sessions and consume the fruits of our labors.

As if four-stage metamorphosis of monarch butterflies, including the collection of milkweeds which supply nourishment for the caterpillar stage, offered insufficient fascination, I also harvested some milkweed pods last fall. After drying the pods over winter, this spring we launched the milkweed down parachutes bearing seeds into the wind, combining seed “planting” with just plain fun. One fall each child shelled kernels from a corncob. Then one warm December day they planted some of the kernels in the mulch under the walnut tree. After that winter’s record snowfall, the seeds unexpectedly sprouted the next spring. The potted transplants reached 18” high over the summer. We’ve also shelled soybeans, an important agricultural product of this area, pulled weeds to examine their water-absorbing roots, and picked a large variety of wildflowers for Grandma’s bouquets.

Insects are a never-ending fascination for young children. Our grandkids were impressed by ants, digger wasps, centipedes, bumble bees, daddy-long-legs, pill bugs, and butterflies, especially when one of the latter alighted on a sleeve. Magnifying glasses made the world of the tiny more visible and real; binoculars brought the distant world close. One evening we sat on our driveway to watch Jupiter and Venus slowly set like the sun. We even saw the Milky Way after dark--not an easy achievement on most nights. The steep driveway offered lessons on the reality of gravity and its effects. “Watch out! Gravity will get you!”

These events involved asking What? When? How? and Why? We noticed beauty, design, and function and informally discovered the meaning of cause and effect. Parents and educational church personnel should become more aware of nature’s potential for faith strengthening for our young people and adults. The activities I described were merely natural outgrowths of going outdoors. They did not demand the development of systematic lesson plans. They do, however, demand a modicum of planning, generous amounts of motivation, and a sense of mission.

In the sense that nature speaks of the glory of God, we may assign an additional meaning to Deut. 11:18-19: “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds…Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up.”