Archives For Wildlife

It’s easy to write about what good stewardship of God’s earth looks like in the abstract. It’s another thing to live it out.

And it’s another thing altogether when you are trying to make a living off of the land, and your particular neighborhood happens to have grizzly bears.

That’s why it was inspiring to read this article by Kristine Johnson of the Food and Environmental Reporting Network. The article describes how ranchers in the Tom Miner Basin in Montana are raising cattle in ways that prevent predation on their cattle without killing the predators.

You’re probably inundated with information, articles, and books. Nevertheless, I urge you to take the time to read this article and ponder it. And if you can, do so before continuing below.

In the Tom Miner Basin in Montana ranchers are trying to live with grizzlies. (Photo used with kind permission of photographer Louise Johns – www.louisejohns.org)

Here are the traits of good stewardship of God’s earth that this story brings to the fore.

“They deserve to be here, too:” Fundamentally, this story of ranchers in Montana is about people who are living by the conviction that grizzlies are part of the fabric of that country. From their ethical perspective, it’s up to them to figure out how to make a living ranching while allowing the whole fabric to continue to thrive. And that means figuring out how to live with predators.

This parallels what we see in the Bible. In Psalm 50:11 we read: “I know every bird on the mountains, and all the animals of the field are mine.” Without doubt, predators are included in “all the animals.”

In Job 38:39-41 we read:

Do you hunt the prey for the lioness
And satisfy the hunger of the lions
When they crouch in their dens
or lie in wait in a thicket?
Who provides food for the raven
When its young cry out to God
And wander about for lack of food?

In Exodus 23:10-11, we read of the Sabbath concept of giving a parcel of farmland a rest every seventh year which enabled the poor and wildlife to be able to gather food from that land.

And we tend to forget that God made a covenant with both humanity and the rest of life. Wolves and grizzles were included in that covenant as well.

Acting within Creation’s framework: I was struck by the words in article of Whit Hibbard. A rancher and the editor of The Stockmanship Journal, Hibbard is an advocate for low-stress livestock handling. These are techniques that more peacefully and subtly direct the cattle to do what is needed. Knowing how to get your goals accomplished without being a tyrant is the most obvious sign of a good steward. For ranchers that can mean how you handle your cattle and how you interact with your predator neighbors. For all of us, no matter where we are, that means paying attention to how the ecosystems and the animals and plants around you interact and naturally behave and then trying to fit your place, your activities in those patterns.

Apply our creativity: Genesis tells us we are made in God’s image. I’m convinced that one of the primary elements of that image is creativity. We worship a Creator God, a God who is amazingly imaginative and who has endowed Creation with its own creativity. And we are, similarly, inventive beings. Using God’s earth for our needs while purposefully enabling God’s earth to thrive and even regenerate is one of the most important and most challenging puzzles we face as a species and as communities and individuals. This puzzle should bring out in us our best, most thoughtful,and wisest innovations.

It takes a little extra: Doing the right thing is rarely the easy thing. In comparison to the long-time ranching approach of letting the cattle out on the range for weeks on end with little human presence, having someone riding the range every day takes more time, energy, and money. Seeking out specific breeds of cattle that are better able to fight off predators also requires an investment of energy and research. In page three of the latest newsletter of People and Carnivores, you can read of ranchers learning how to put up special fences with fluttering flags attached (a practice called “fladry”) to scare off wolves without harming them. This is another example of thoughtfulness translated into action.

It reminds me of the parable of the good shepherd. In that parable, Jesus reminds us that an attentive shepherd puts his heart into his task and will search out one lost sheep. That’s neither the easy or simple thing. It might not make pure economic sense. Creation is God’s flock. Are we willing to be the kind of shepherds God wants us to be?

You and I cannot be judgmental spectators of the challenges ranchers face. We should be going to the extra effort of supporting farmers and ranchers like these by buying their products, even if it costs a little more. We should also be good stewards of our own land, even if that is just 20′ x 30′ backyard.

Living with loss: I don’t know how I would react to the killing and consumption of an animal of mine by a wolf or grizzly bear. I know it would be wrenching. This is what makes the stewardship ethic of the ranchers profiled in this article so powerful. They are moving forward even as they know there is danger of loss. Somehow, we must be able to be vulnerable enough to accept some level of hurt as we work to be good stewards.

Boundaries and solemn necessities: Any close relationship will have some friction and reasonable boundaries are needed. Some culling of the most aggressive individuals of predator species is a solemn necessity in places where people and nature live side by side, which is increasingly the future of conservation. Conversely, there must also be abundant preserves, reserves, and national parks where predators and other wildlife can thrive without pressure from humanity.

Right stewardship comes from the right heart: It is not stated directly in the article, but it’s clear from the words and actions of the ranchers that are profiled that everything starts from their hearts. Their actions are the fruits of what is in their hearts. Of course, I don’t know if many ranchers would feel comfortable using the language of “fruits of the hearts” to describe their motivations. Nevertheless, consider the qualities in Galatians 5:22-23 that describe the person in whom the Spirit of God has transformed:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

I believe these ranchers and their families, regardless of their faith convictions, are showing us what the fruits of the spirit look like when applied to how we live practically on God’s earth.

Experiences of the world in synch: I became very interested in learning more about what values and family cultures compelled these ranchers to adjust their way of life and to put their ranches’ future on the line in the way the article describes. So I made some inquiries and was eventually able to speak with Andrew Anderson. Andrew grew up on a ranch in Montana and works on the J Bar L Ranch, which uses many of the predator-protecting practices mentioned in the article. He said something very interesting towards the end of conversation:

“When I’m on a horse, working with cattle, knowing that predators are on the land around me, it feels great to feel that I’m part of this natural system and not working against it. I love horses. I love working with animals in nonstressful ways. I love being connected with the landscape. And I don’t have to choose. I can have it all. That’s where the real satisfaction comes from.”

This might be one of the better descriptions of shalom, the peace that the Bible speaks about, the peace that is not just the absence of conflict but is all the elements of the world and life in synch.

Committing ourselves to creative Creation stewardship doesn’t mean our hearts will always be in a state of bliss and harmony. Far from it. This is a challenging, difficult world.

Yet, when we respond to God’s call to tend God’s earth, we will have the kinds of moments that Andrew Anderson does.

As 2017 draws to a close, I want to thank each of you for the openness of your heart to God’s abiding concern for all of Creation. I pray that you will be moved to do what you can in your personal life and in your public life to protect and restore God’s earth. May you do so as part of your whole commitment to being a disciple of Jesus.

I pray, too, that you know your gifts and the meaning your life has in your particular circumstances. Tap those gifts! Pursue your meaning and your mission. I would welcome hearing from you what your meaning and mission are and how you are using your gifts.

And how does your personal meaning and mission intersect with God’s earth? Remember – the good news that God offers through Jesus is good news for the whole earth.

Finally, I hope the photo below brings a smile. Earlier this year, which has been a challenging one, our family adopted two kittens – Gus and Maui – from a local shelter. These siblings had been rescued from the house of a hoarder where they were neglected. As a result, they’ve had some ongoing intestinal issues. I’m happy to say, however, that thanks to my wife’s attentive care, they seem to be getting better. (Who knew that pumpkin puree was so healthy for animals and that they would enjoy eating it?)

Both cats have revealed a talent for climbing. Maui in particular has had a habit of climbing up our Christmas tree through the interior. She has then played with ornaments or just observed life in the house. In this photo you see Maui enjoying a nativity moment. Perhaps she hears heaven and nature singing?

I pray that you will both be blessed and be a blessing in 2018.

Black cat perched in Christmas tree with nativity scene ornament in the foreground.

Five or six years ago, I planted two New Jersey Tea shrubs in two separate areas of our yard devoted to indigenous prairie, savanna, and woodland plants. By adding New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) I hoped to add even more diversity to the plantings we already had.

New Jersey Tea isn’t one of the more well recognized native plants of the Midwest today. Early settlers knew it, however, and knew that its leaves could be used for making tea. This tea was particulary popular during the Revolutionary War as an alternative to those teas being imported into the colonies.

The challenge in using this relatively low-growing shrub in the home landscape is that rabbits love to eat it. “Love” is an understatement. One of the two disappeared within a year of being planted and was never seen again, presumably lost to the horde of hares in our neighborhood.

After a year in which it had bloomed, the remaining New Jersey Tea appeared to have met the same fate as the first as I couldn’t find it the following spring. When it reappeared last year in the midst of the other native flowers and grasses, I protected it with wire mesh fencing. But when I couldn’t find it this spring in a cursory look, I came to the conclusion that, despite my efforts, it had not survived. The temptation to devise elaborate and deadly schemes for dealing once and for all with the rabbits of the area was very strong.

But lo and behold, this past weekend as I did some weeding in the area I noticed unusual flowers and decided to look closer. Sure enough – the New Jersey Tea was blooming modestly as you can see in the photo below. (Lest you think I was completely daft in not being able to see such an obvious plant before, I should mention that I took this photo very close up. The leaves and blooms are actually fairly small and unobtrusive.)

The resilient New Jersey Tea shrub in our garden just after a rain.

Have you considered replacing portions of the lawn of your yard or your church’s land with indigenous plants? There are many options in how you do so, from creating carefully designed beds to more natural sections of habitat.

It’s worth the effort. Doing so honors our Creator God. It is a life-affirming action that says something authentically and counterculturally Christian about your values and your church’s values.

Having native plants around your home and church also offer the chance to observe the varied and complex relationships between different elements of Creation. New Jersey Tea, for example, is not just a delectable source of sustenance for rabbits. It fixes life-giving nitrogen in the soil, and its small, white, fragrant flowers are of value to butterflies and a variety of other small pollinators. And where you have small creatures you tend to have the occasional larger creature that feeds on them. In this case, the “larger” creature is the hummingbird.

Yes, those tiny and graceful ornithological wonders we typically see sipping on the nectar of flowers and the sweetened water of feeders are also completely ready to scarf up protein packages in the form of tiny bees, wasps, flies, and beetles.

I’m looking forward to the day when my family and I will see a hummingbird doing just that. If only the hummingbirds could do something about the rabbits…

 

To see better photos of more mature New Jersey Tea shrubs and to learn more about this beautiful plant, especially the many pollinators that draw sustenance from it, check this useful website out.

I’ve noticed that several people I know who are all about making an impact in the world with their work have been thinking ahead to 2017 for some time. They’re meditating on what ways they want to do what they do better. They’re also thinking of how they can grow in their skills and knowledge.

Are you thinking that way?

Here’s a question I’m posing to myself: when I come to December 31, 2017, what would make me feel like I made the most of the year?

How would you answer that question? Can you create a top five or top ten list of those things? It would be well worth the effort.

When a year comes to an end as it is about to do in a few hours, it’s sad to see how the flow of daily and weekly chores and tasks and obligations have so consumed our attention that the change we wanted to make happen has not happened.

So what will you do for your family, at work, in your community, or just for yourself?

I urge you to write it down. Then, and this is the most important part, figure out how to make the steps necessary to make that change habits of your everyday life. Habits do indeed shape who you really are.

Along those lines, I wanted to share some rough ideas about what I would like to move forward in 2017 with my whole faith pursuit.

First, I want to continue to create two blog posts a month at minimum as a way to continue to explore my thinking about what a whole faith church  would look like with particular focus on the natural imperative to be as good as possible to God’s creation. I have a request for you in this regard. If there’s a related topic you’d like me to cover or address I would love to hear it.

Second, I plan to work on a simple, allegorical novel to explore those same things in a way that is integrated into art and life. This will necessitate simpler and more concise blog posts. I can hear the applause now. 🙂

Third, I have a plan to start a simple campaign with a very simple focus for Christians to begin applying their faith in their life in a way that will benefit people and God’s creation. Look for that in early 2017. I hope you’ll join me.

Fourth, I want to hold a gathering of Christians like yourself to worship, share, and commit to living out a whole Christian faith in how we treat God’s earth.  I don’t know exactly what this will look like nor what exactly I hope to see come out of it.  But I believe it’s something vital to make happen.

Finally, as the  year comes to a close I want to share a bit of good news regarding this earth we are called upon to keep and care for.

The latest issue of The Nature Conservancy’s magazine had an inspiring story (Unleashing Rivers) about the ongoing removal of dams in the Northeast. The Connecticut River, which runs through four states, is just an example of the challenge. It has more than 2,700 documented dams which translates into a dam every 10 miles. These dams prevent fish and other species of life from moving about. They are the ecological equivalent of putting multiple tourniquets on each of your arms and legs.

Non-profits, public agencies, and private landowners are working together to begin removing dams so that the Connecticut River and other waterways in New England can begin flowing freely again. Coordinated efforts to remove dams on the Penobscot River have already dramatically changed that river. Before the strategically focused dam removals began, fish migrating from the ocean to the river system to spawn could only go upstream about 30 miles before being blocked. Thanks to the removal of dams, fish can now access almost 2,000 miles of continuous waterways, including tributaries.

Ironically, the best video on dam removal I could find was not from New England but from Washington where National Geographic did this nice, brief story on the dismantling a huge dam on the Elwha River, the largest project of this type in the U.S.

This, I believe, is a metaphor for what humanity is called to do – to not only repent of the damage we’ve done to God’s earth, but to use all of our creativity and ingenuity to restore the earth’s vitality and beauty.

What rivers will you unleash in 2017? What impact will you make?

Ephesians 2:10 has a something urgent for us to think about: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

What are the good works waiting for you?

How will God fill your heart with a love so deep and pure that you will find yourself hungry to take imaginative steps, whether nearby or on a big scale, to help people and God’s earth?

May 2017 be a year of many blessings and rewarding work for you.

Saving Snakes

Nathan Aaberg —  April 30, 2016 — 2 Comments

This week the environmentally-oriented charter school my younger son attends held a fair at which eighth graders shared information about the culminating projects they had been required to complete before they could graduate.

My son and his classmate had an unusual project on which to report. They had built, with the substantial help of the local township open space district and a local herpetologist, a snake hibernaculum at a local nature preserve.

2015-12-09 12.46.51

Hibernaculum is a fancy scientific word for a snake den that allows snakes to safely survive the winter. To survive winter’s cold, snakes need to get to find places where the temperature stays above freezing. Some smaller snakes can use the holes of crayfish to get below the frost line. Some seek out animal burrows or even holes in the ground formed by rock formations and fallen trees whose roots have rotted away.

As we have filled up the landscape with buildings and roads, however, we’ve created smaller and smaller islands of habitat. Each small island is much less likely to have natural overwintering sites of its own. And because snakes can’t fly, the snakes will usually end up dead and flat if they try moving from their island to another in search of shelter from the winter.

In other words, snakes need help. Snakes need saving.

The basic concept of man-made structures to help nature out isn’t new. People have been doing this kind of thing with bluebird houses for many decades. Without man-made bluebird houses to provide the cavities bluebirds need for creating nests and without the monitoring needed to keep out violently aggressive European starlings and house sparrows, we’d have very few of those beautiful birds around.

The success of blue bird boxes tells us something profound. It tells us that we can have the will and the ability to be Good Samaritans for other members of God’s Creation.

But are we willing to do that for snakes?

For many of us, they fill us with unease or worse. In fact, snakes have been persecuted for far too long, far too festively, and far too often by Christians who should know better. But snakes have a beauty all their own (Proverbs 30:19) and ecological value, too.

Seeing Creation as God would have us see it rather than through the prism of human culture is one important way that Christians can truly be the salt of the earth. That means we should see value in birds that add bright flashes of blue to our landscape and in other creatures.

The hibernacula created by my son, his classmate, and the local township staff was an all-day affair that required heavy-duty equipment. By the afternoon, our arms were dead tired as we shoveled dirt back into the larger hole in which the main chamber of the hibernacula had been constructed with drain tile pipes, portions of PVC tubes, as well as large and small stones. We created small mounds of stones to camouflage and protect the two entryways as well.

2015-12-09 14.16.40

There was a certain tiredness and even doubt in my heart as well.

Was all of this work going to make a difference? Unlike the construction of bluebird boxes, we didn’t know at the end of the day whether the hibernaculum would ultimately be successful. The art and science of snake hibernaculum construction are still very young.

Yet, it felt good to do something. I was proud of my son and his friend for pushing this project through a number of obstacles to completion. And I was profoundly grateful to the staff ot the local township and to the herpetologist whom all responded so enthusiastically and helpfully when the boys contacted them.

As I’ve thought further about that day, I also believe we were answering a fundamental calling. We’re called to use all of the creativity and ingenuity we’ve been blessed with to care for and to mend our Father’s world. We’re all called to be good shepherds.

Even when it’s hard and challenging.

Even when there is no guarantee of success.

Even when snakes need the shepherding.

 

P.S. The local herpetologist who helped the boys shared with us the story of an unusual hibernaculum. Some years ago western fox snakes at a local natural area had begun using the hollow cinder block walls of the basement of a nearby home as a place to survive the winters. When the landlords of this rundown building contacted him, he was able to begin implanting little passive transponders in each one. This allowed him to monitor when each individual snake came into the basement during the fall and when it departed in the spring. At the peak, there were over one hundred snakes in the basement.

One of the tenants had been an elderly woman who lived there by herself. When the occasional fox snake, which is not a poisonous species, would find its way upstairs and even into her bathtub, she didn’t panic. Instead, she would call her son, and he would drive over and bring the snake safely back down into the basement.