Tag Archive: nature


an austere beauty

skyscraper

Photo Credit: Vera Kratochvil; Licence: Public Domain

Nature has the power to humble us. As much as the ravages of natural disasters are tragic, they also remind us that we do not own this planet, we will never overcome it, and our abuses will never go unpunished.  But there is also something astounding in the ingenuity of human achievement.  The universe gives us gravity; humanity responds with bridges, towering skyscrapers, and planes.  Process the concept of taking an 85 metric tonne hunk of metal and getting it to lift off the ground and fly it at speeds over 500 mph at 30,000-40,000 ft. If that doesn’t take your breath away, few things will.

I love nature and, if my life ambitions can be boiled down to a select few, moving further away from cities would be high on the list.  But I love the culture one finds it cities too and so I am drawn to them as well.  Let me find a place to live surrounded with trees and lakes and rivers, with mesmerizing sunrises and sunsets, with immense mountains and enchanted vistas, but let me be close enough to the city to see the marvels that one finds there.

While attending a conference for work this past weekend, I was simultaneously appalled at the dearth of green space and in awe of the vast network of towering monuments to human achievement.  It is not that I think skyscrapers and overlapping overpasses are the greatest testament to what humanity has accomplished.  The growth of compassion and philanthropy would be more valuable evidence.  But, regardless of your personal beliefs, humans were in some sense delivered into the world innocent, ignorant, and naive.  With observation they learned, with creativity they explained, with tenacity they tested, and with ingenuity they created.  They created the wheel, and bridges, and buildings, and music, and medicine, and trains, and cars, and planes, and transistors, and microchips, and… and then they took it a step further.  They didn’t just build something practical: they created art.  Engineers fought physics, architects made it aesthetic; scientists produced technology, designers made it alluring.  There is a beauty in that.  Sometimes it is an austere, cold beauty, but it is a beauty nevertheless.

Today, I am thankful for human ingenuity.  It has sometimes led to terrible outcomes, but overall our world is an incredible place to live simply because of the power of the human mind to evolve the most fantastical idea into reality.

famous painter

A cherished Canadian Thanksgiving family tradition is to go apple picking at a local orchard.  This year, a severe spring frost damaged any hope for a quality yield in a number of apple varieties.  On Saturday, we visited an orchard which has quickly come to be our favourite for the range of apple varieties it offers, and for the on-site bakery and store where we can purchase pies, streudels, cider, and other marvelous apple products, either to eat there (warm) or to take home.  We were able to come home without empty hands, but with none of the mutsu or empire varieties I love to use  in pies.

Sunday, we went to greater lengths to find an orchard with my wife’s family.  We were wholly unsuccessful.  But the weekend was not wasted.  We had the opportunity to take in the beauty of autumn’s palette.

autumn foliage

Photo Credit: Fg2; Licence: Public Domain

Having young children, my wife and I have limited opportunities to get away, so we have to use our anniversary as a basis for doing any activity we want to do without our children.  This year, though our anniversary is in July, my wife and I decided to forego our standard weekend of unbridled vanity in favour a simpler trip in late September to Ontario’s Muskoka region to relish in the splendour of autumn foliage.  For a number of reasons, that plan withered, so our local foliage would have to do.  It might be less breathtaking than the vistas of more northern climes, but it’s still breathtaking.

It’s difficult to get one’s children to share appreciation for important things.  During those drives this weekend, there was a good amount of complaining from the back seat about how I wouldn’t let my 9-year-old watch a movie or play video games.  On Saturday, I finally said in exasperation: “Outside your window is the most beautiful picture ever painted. It was painted by a famous painter you might have heard about: God.  So look out your window and keep quiet.”

Then I smirked at the silly things parents say… except, it was true.  In my travels, I have seen a plethora of really stunning works of art, but never anything so beautiful or brilliant or phenomenal as the one we get to see every autumn.

Today, I am thankful for autumn.  The science of the changing of the leaves is exceedingly simple; the visual result is magnificent.

intangible pleasures

Coffee Cream

Photo Credit: Krishna; Licence: Public Domain

On Monday, I wrote about my youngest son’s inexhaustible fascination with throwing leaves into the river rapids.  On Tuesday, I talked about the simple delight of flowers.

Writing about these things got me thinking about simple but intangible pleasures in my life: impalpable experiences that give me a brief burst of delight, but which might go unnoticed.  So, today, I started compiling a list. It’s only 3-long so far but I hope to add to it over time.  There is no intrinsic reason why these things should bring me pleasure.  They just do. I don’t even want to analyze it.  Here’s the list:

  1. cream in my coffee: I love watching cream as it is poured into coffee. The way the cream folds into the rich, dark liquid, sinking first to the bottom, and then funneling up the sides in an upside-down mushroom shape.
  2. warmth in the centre of frigidity: have you ever been stuck outside in the dead of winter, with a frigid breeze sucking away all of your body’s warmth. Then suddenly the breeze dies down for a few seconds and it happens right when the sun is shining directly on you?  I love that.
  3. the secret chord: “I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord” — so goes the Leonard Cohen song.  Every once in a while, there is a progression in a musical piece to which I am listening that just blows my mind and fills my chest with excitement.

Today, I am thankful for intangible pleasures.

What are some of your intangible pleasures?  Tell me about them in the Comments.

sunflower

Our family travels a lot.  A lot.  Particularly in the summer.  And this summer we travelled even more than usual.  The vehicle we use for trips is a few hundred clicks away from the next oil change. Our third since the beginning of June.

Perhaps its a product of travelling more, or simply indicative of a change in my perceptions, or maybe they’re just becoming more popular, but everywhere I go, I see sunflowers.

I’m not complaining, of course.  Machismo be damned: I adore flowers.  I especially love wild flowers, and daisies are my favourite.  Look at a daisy and try to tell me you don’t feel happier.  I won’t believe you.  (Unless you have severe allergies, in which case I will most certainly believe you, but suggest that you try looking at the daisy while safely protected behind glass).  Sunflowers are just enormous daisies, so happiness can only be multiplied.

field of sunflowers

Photo Credit: Bruce Fritz; Licence: Public Domain

There is something almost fantastical about sunflowers.  Walking beside a flower that towers above me makes me feel as if I’ve climbed a magical bean stock and entered a land of giants, or climbed through a looking glass into a Carrollian dreamland.  Adventure must be only right around the corner.

Today, I am thankful for sunflowers, and flowers in general.  They are such a simple pleasure in our world: free to look at, free to enjoy.  Obviously, they serve a vital purpose in keeping the planet alive, but their beauty can be enjoyed by everyone without anything asked in return.  Next time I think of some material good I “need” to be happy, let me remember the sunflowers.

now

My parents rented a cabin last week and took our kids with them.  Situated near the Haliburton Highlands, a gorgeous stretch of lush forests and sapphire lakes, the cabin placed them at a jumping off point for a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities.  Hiking, swimming, canoeing, picnicking — the kids had a great and memorable time.

My wife and I visited on Friday to spend the weekend there, and we learned that one of our youngest’s favourite activities all week long had been to go down to the river running beside the cabin and throw leaves in the rapids.  These are the sort of simple pleasures never fully appreciated by anyone much older than about four.  There were untold delights in the sweep of leaves through the current, moving slow at first, then rushing through the tiny waterfalls and gliding out into the wide river, destination unknown.

On Saturday, we drove to Bonnechere Caves, a series of subterranean paths irresistible to anyone with a sense of adventure – young or old.  Right before we headed out, I was down at the river with Zachary and my father, me snapping photographs and my father keeping Zachary supplied with leaves.  When we told Zachary it was time to go, he protested, and he continued to do so even when we explained that we would be exploring caves and tried to tempt him with all the wonders that activity would surely hold.  It would certainly be much better than throwing leaves in the water.

No dice: the kid was immovable.

leaves in water

Photo Credit: Jon Sullivan; Licence: Public Domain

We ended up getting him into the car, and had a great day at the caves.  Later, it occurred to me that I was a bit envious of Zachary.   I spend about a third of my life sleeping, and probably spend about 98% of the remaining two thirds focused not on what I am doing in the moment, but instead preoccupied with what I hope to be doing later (whether 10 minutes or 10 years later), or dreading some unpleasant thing I know I’ll have to do later.  It is a rare occasion indeed when I am able to appreciate “the now.”

Today, I am thankful for now.  This very moment.  The sun is shining down in patches on my freckled hands through an original wrought iron window in our 120 year old home.  Zachary is playing with a water table in a corner of our foyer, getting most of the water on himself and on the floor, but enjoying himself immensely.  Gregory is watching a show on his computer, earbuds in his ears.  Sandra has disappeared to the basement.  The room is quiet except for the sound of Zachary pouring water, the hum of Gregory’s computer, and the click of my keyboard.

This moment — this specific moment — is pure and discrete.  It’s a very rare gift — no one in the world can experience it from my perspective; it has never happened before, and it will never happen again.  It’s the only moment like it in the whole universe.

cosmos

Of course, I always knew the universe was vast.  Infinitely vast.  But that is a concept difficult to conceive, even in my most rigorous and energetic attempts.  It wasn’t until early adulthood that I really came to understand even the periphery of its immensity.  I floated along through adolescence in an egocentric cloud.  Cognitively, yes, I understood that our planet was not the centre of the universe, but in youth it is difficult to see the complexities of a system that extend beyond one’s own nose, much less really appreciate the immeasurable and boundless cosmos.  And, cognition aside, the practical result was that, even if our planet wasn’t the centre of the universe, might as well have been.

Then I began reading about the speed of light, the fastest known phenomenon in our universe.  I read that proxima centauri, the closest star to our solar system, is over 4 light years away from Earth.  That means it would take light 4 years to travel between our planet and the next star.  Our sun and that star are two of between 200 and 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone.  Our most sophisticated technology has observed 3000 galaxies in the observable universe, and it is estimated there are as many as 125 billion or more galaxies in the universe as a whole.

I began giggling uncontrollably, something I have found that I have done ever since childhood when I am trying to comprehend something which strains my mental capacity.

horsehead nebula

Photo Credit: NASA; Licence: Public Domain

While hiking along a trail at Algonquin Park a few weeks ago (see post nature), I fell to discussing the universe with my eldest.  (I’ve found nature trails are the ideal place to discuss esoteric miscellany with an 8-year-old).  I had read that our planet collects anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 tons of meteorite dust each year.  And, of course, the earth itself was forged billions of years ago from the dust and gas of a solar nebula.  I then went on to discuss in a Socratic manner that babies grow inside their mothers, and to do this, they need nutrients which the mother consumes.  Those nutrients come in some way from the earth, and contain minerals that might well be found in meteorites.

Each of us, then, is a product of this earth, a product of this universe.

“…we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.” – Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Today, I am thankful for the sheer magnitude and magnificence of the cosmos.  It has the power to humble me, but that I am part of it, and we are all part of it, is comforting. It brings me an overwhelming feeling of connectivity with those around me.

nature

Last week, we were camping in Algonquin Park, part of a vacation we take each year at the beginning of August.  Nestled in a transition zone between the rugged landscape characteristic of northern Ontario, and the more plateaued and agricultural south, it is an ideal spot to see many different ecosystems up close, working together in picturesque harmony (as nature has a knack for doing).

Algonquin Provincial Park

Photo Credit: (c) J. Matthew Lake

The park is known for its wealth of interpretive programs which educate visitors about the diversity of organisms that inhabit the area.  Zachary is a bit too young for some of it, but I love watching Gregory lap up the information, ask questions, learn.  One year, he developed a fascination for fungi.  While on trails, we had to stop every time we came upon a mushroom to look it up in our field guide.  Hikes took twice as long as usual, but I was delighted to see him take such an interest.

For me, the draw of Algonquin is in the opportunity to break away from the bustle and noise of populous cities and be in a place where the loudest sound one typically hears is the eerie howl of wolves in the moonlight, or the haunting, mournful call of a loon.  Within minutes of entering the park, I can feel tension disappear from my neck and shoulders, and my heart beats a little bit more slowly.

Alongside hikes, our favourite activity while visiting Algonquin is canoeing out into the rustic interior, a section of the park unsullied by vehicles or nearly any other vestige of civilization.  Time stops, the air is fragrant, and there is almost nothing to see but the illimitable wilderness before us.

Later, by night, far away from the light pollution of cities, the stars of the Algonquin sky are innumerable.

Today, I am thankful for nature, and for the sheer vastness of untouched wilderness in this spacious continent on which I live.

What is your experience of nature?  Share it with me in the comments.

listen

I have the good fortune of living just on the outskirts of a small city.  We are within walking distance of the city amenities, I have a two-minute drive to work, and a large city centre is only a 15 minute drive away.  But, while our house puts us close to city life, our home is also backdropped by an expansive ravine complete with winding river and forest.  The ravine isn’t part of our property, mind you, but we are close enough to a decent habitat for wildlife that we have some of the benefits of living in a more rural location.

When I was young, my grandparents lived along Halls Lake in Haliburton County, Ontario.  When visiting, I could look out their dining room window and see a variety of birds which were otherwise foreign to me in my city dwelling.  Most memorable were the hummingbirds.  I was fascinated by their mesmerizingly fast wings and their apparently effortless ability to hover in mid-air.  To some, the sight of a hummingbird might not be all that remarkable, but it was enough to help form in my mind a dream of living in a place where I could see nature up close.

hummingbird in flight

Photo Credit: Elaine R. Wilson; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Our goal is ultimately to live farther away from the city but, for now, where I live will do. Not long ago, as Sandra and I sat on our back deck, we were amazed to see a hummingbird appear.  We had no feeders to attract them — simply good old-fashioned wildflowers in the garden. I felt blessed, chosen. This small marvel had flown from who-knows-where and had chosen my yard to visit.  It seems silly, I know, but I couldn’t help but feel that something special was happening.

In a similar vein, a more frequent benefit of having a treed property closer to nature is that a number of birds have taken up residence close by.  I love waking in the morning to the sound of a light breeze blowing through the window, billowing the curtains, and the music of songbirds raising the morning from the depths of night.  There is so much variety in their song.  To some, this might not seem like such a great thing, but it brings me a sense of peace and timelessness.  Other times, sitting outside, I am pleased just to hear the wind blowing through the trees, rustling the leaves, and creaking the branches.  That happens when my children are not in proximity, their shouts and screams consuming whatever other sounds I might hear.  But, even when the kids are close, there can be pleasure in the sounds of their play — unfettered laughter chief among them.

Other times, when I am travelling in my car, it is rare for me not to have music playing, and I feel excitement at the ebbs and flows and highs and lows of an operatic aria or symphonic movement.  And when music or nature does not surround me, I am fortunate just to be able to hear others speak to me and to know what they are saying.

In every second of my life, I find benefit in sound — a phenomenon so much more meaningful than the simple displacement of air which forms its physical properties.  Today, I am thankful for the ability to hear, because it is not something to be taken for granted when there are so many people who cannot.

water

Every year, our family spends a few days at Niagara Falls. The gaudy lights, obnoxious noises, and tourist hoards are anathema, but the wide-eyed expressions on my children’s faces are sufficient motivation for me to swallow my distaste, and viewing the majesty of the Falls makes up for all of it.

Niagara Falls

Photograph of Niagara Falls, 2003

No matter how many times I visit, I am always made breathless by the sheer volume of water plummeting over the falls. It’s unfathomable that Lake Erie hasn’t drained completely.  I am blessed to live in a continent with a substantial bounty of fresh, potable water available for drinking, cooking, bathing, cooling off, washing our cars, sprinklering the grass, watering the vegetable and flowers gardens, washing away the things we don’t want. What isn’t visible above ground is hidden below. I turn on my bathroom faucet and water just pours out like magic. Who gives a second thought to running through the sprinkler or going to the water park to cool off in the hot days of summer?  Who questions filling a backyard pool?  Not one of us gives it a second thought until… the plumbing breaks down, or our water source becomes contaminated, or the municipality issues a water advisory saying we can’t use water the way we are used to using (and maybe abusing) it. Then, for a moment, we stop taking it for granted, but gripe about the inconvenience of its absence.

This blog is not about me climbing up to a pulpit and preaching. I would have no right to do that in any case because I, too, take water for granted. But, today, I am thankful for water, for the abundance of it, the easy availability of it, the deliciousness of it.  Water truly sustains life.

There is a dusty village in Africa where villagers go to the community well to draw buckets of water for basic survival, then carry them home, burdened by the weight.  That well is only available because a missionary group raised money to have it built. This little girl — I’ll name her Arjana — gives water to the few animals her family owns because the chicken needs it to lay the eggs the girl’s family will trade for cabbage or beans or some fabric to make clothes. And, maybe, if there is some water left over, the girl and her family will get a taste.  This village isn’t just one village, but a multitude of villages scattered throughout the world.

The Bible describes the agricultural abundance of Israel by saying that it is a land flowing with milk and honey.  The phrase has come to be associated with paradise, and I am always left with an image of milk and honey filling river beds up to the banks and flowing without end. I am satisfied (and gratified) to live in a land flowing with… water. That is paradise enough for me.

moment

Two days ago, I arrived home from a trip out of town around 11:00pm and parked the car in my dark driveway.  The next morning, I went out at 9:00am and got into the driver’s seat. There, directly at eye level, attached to the steering wheel and to the frame of the door, was a perfectly symmetrical spider web.  I felt an immense pang of guilt clearing the threads away with my hand, even though I had to in order to drive, and I was probably doing the spider a favour since it wasn’t likely to catch a lot of bugs there.  The guilt came not only from the feeling that I was destroying something at which the spider had laboured, but also from the sense that I was negating a moment.

Nearly a decade ago, I was attending a wedding near Mont Tremblant, Quebec, and, feeling a little overwhelmed by the noise and activity around me, I decided to take a walk down by the water in the cooler night breeze.  On my way back up the stairs built into the side of the mountain, I was startled to see a doe grazing on some of the long grasses gracing the slope.  The doe was not more than about 10 feet away from me.  Having spent my life living in cities, the sight of deer has always been something worth stopping to observe.  While I was doing so, a buck suddenly burst out from the bushes, jumping and alighting on a picnic table about 5 feet away from me. It might be an embellishment of my imagination, but I remember the moonlight seeming to shine down directly on the buck, regally crowned by his fantastic antlers.  He stood there majestically, elevated on the picnic table which itself was already positioned at my eye level on a plateau higher up the slope. I froze with fear and amazement. He was protecting the doe against a perceived threat, and it would take only the slightest movement on his part to trample me to death. We remained in a brief stand-off, until he and the doe disappeared into the brush.

Then, five years ago, in our first summer in this house, I went out at night and was inspired by the sight of hundreds of fireflies in our garden. I was alone and felt as if I were gazing upon some beautiful magic.

I am skeptic and a cynic.  I don’t feel that these moments have been anything special on a cosmic level and I am not one to believe in fate or signs.  I believe that we see what we want to see in the world and that any meaning we derive might have value for us, but no value beyond that which we assign it.  The above events are really quite commonplace, everyday occurrences.  But they nevertheless have the power of making me more circumspect.  I pause in these moments and feel as if I am experiencing something brief and important and that I need to pay attention.  I am left thinking that everything I have done in life must have been perfect because it brought me to this place, this moment.  For a little while, the experience washes away all of my regrets.

Today, I am thankful for moments.

Have you had any moments?  Please share them with me in the Comments.

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