Archives For Wildlife

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.

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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.

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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.




Psalms with Wings

Nathan Aaberg —  October 27, 2015 — Leave a comment

In a recent post I listed seven principles for churches to use in making their landscaping decisions. When I then used those principles to look at the message the typical lawn-dominated church landscape sense, I concluded that churches, whether they mean to or not, are communicating that fitting in with American lawn culture is more important to them than fidelity to a whole faith in God that includes a concern for God’s earth.

I’m following up on that post here by simply sharing two photographs of butterflies taken by my friend Joan Sayre and providing a bit of commentary.

Monarch butterfly on milkweed (by Joan Sayre)

Monarch butterfly on milkweed (by Joan Sayre)

Monarch butterflies are beautiful creatures with a complex, intergenerational migration cycle. This video tells the story of that migration cycle in a way that I’ve not seen before and that I urge you to watch. As the video mentions in an offhanded way, their long-term survival is in question as their numbers have been declining.

For monarchs to survive, they need milkweed plants for their caterpillars to eat, and they need other plants with nectar (these are primarily native plants) for the adults. People in North America, by displacing habitat and by how they landscape and by how they farm, have created a landscape that is largely void of milkweed and other native plants. Imagine shopping for food and discovering that the only grocery stores available are hundreds of miles apart and each is the size of your bathroom.

I’m happy to say that there are people around the country who are creating butterfly gardens and restoring natural areas. Check out this story about a church that recently created a butterfly garden on its ground that has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation.

This second photo is of a eastern tiger swallowtail on the yellow flower of a prairie dock, a native wildflower.

Eastern swallowtail (by Joan Sayre)

Eastern swallowtail (by Joan Sayre)

This kind of butterfly is more flexible in terms of the plants on which its caterpillars can feed but the core message is the same – for both the caterpillar and the adult stage, having access to native trees and wildflowers is a necessity. I’ve been delighted to see the eastern tiger swallowtail in our yard on the prairie blazing stars and other native wildflowers we’ve planted.

I share these photos for two reasons. One is simply for you and I to take a moment to be grateful for the sheer, extravagant beauty of life on God’s earth.

The other reason is to remind you and I of what is at stake in our landscaping choices for our churches, our home landscapes, and even our communities. The lawn does not sustain either of these creatures in any way at a time when the world is increasingly hostile to their ability to live. By deciding to give some of our landscapes over to native plants (and by supporting native habitat preservation and restoration in our communities), we can be good stewards for creatures like these and give them at least a better chance of survival.

Which kind of landscape will you and your church choose?

My youngest son and I recently canoed the Wisconsin River on a clear, sunny Sunday as a way to mark his 13th birthday. From streets, buildings, cars, trains, screens, and a man-made world in constant motion, we found ourselves experiencing a radical change in experience and surroundings.

We were on a broad, slow-moving river lined with tall trees and graced with the occasional sand bar and wooded island. Turtles sunning themselves. Kingfishers swooping low over the water. A bald eagle wheeling in the sky far off in the distance. Crows calling. Two sandhill cranes honking at us in indignation as they slowly gained altitude to fly further downstream.

Owen in front of canoe

One of our favorite moments of the trip was when we stopped at one of the islands and wandered about the sandy upstream section. The hot sand burned our feet so we moved quickly to the small, shallow channel that lay between the island and the nearby bank. This channel’s flow was far more clear than the main channel of the river, and in it we found a number of mussels. Several, thick and gnarly and trailing vegetative matter, appeared very old.

We could actually see a smaller mussel moving along the sandy bed, sometimes even positioned length-wise on end like a quarter on its edge. We could see its underwater trail in the sand, a faint and sinuous line across the sandy channel bed’s curvy lines of low dunes.

“Moving” is actually far too fast a word. Even “inching” is too fast.

You had to look carefully as its progress was so slow. But there it was.


It was slowly moving by extending its fleshy “foot” forward and then pulling itself forward.

Photo of mussel from Wisconsin River

The moving mussel.

My son, out of interest or politeness, listened as I told him about the mussel’s natural history. The male mussel releases its sperm into the water, and when a female mussel of the same species pulls in a quantity of stream water for filtering out of its food, the sperm have their opportunity to find the eggs within the female and fertilize them.

But we haven’t even gotten to the interesting part. The fertilized egg grows into a tiny larvae called a glochidia, which must attach itself to a fish if it is to continue its life cycle. So adult mussels often shape bunches of their glochidia into shapes that resemble the normal prey of the fish they need to attract. These shapes can be things like small fish swimming in a current, worms, and even crayfish.

When a fish investigates and then bites into the bunch (cue the Mission Impossible theme music), the individual glochidia have their chance to attach to the fish, usually on the gills. Eventually, the glochydia transitions into a juvenile mussel which drops off of the fish, descends to the stream bottom, and begins its independent life with little or no harm having been done to the fish. The beauty of this system is that the adult mussel’s progeny are able to hitch a ride to a distant location.

Just to reassure you, I should mention that I didn’t lecture him. And I didn’t share nearly the level of detail that you are reading here. I just shared the fundamentals of what I know of mussels and their lives and their value to the life of a river. Above all, I shared my own sense of wonder.

In retrospect, I wish I would have have talked with him in the same way about the Christian faith during the trip. Not in a lecture. Just the fundamentals as I know them in the language that is true to me. And with the mystery and heartfelt conviction of the faith’s underlying truth and values.

One of the fundamentals I would share is the reality that life, even a life of faith, will have struggles just like the westerly wind that made some of our paddling hard work.

Another fundamental would be this – humanity has indeed been given special capacities, and yet, simultaneously, we are in a sacred fellowship with the rest of creation. All of Creation matters to God. All of Creation should matter to us.

I would tell him, too, that beginning to gain an understanding of God and the life that God desires us to live is as complex an undertaking as understanding this world and its workings. But the effort to seek that understanding and to act on what we do know at each moment of our lives is what life is about and is worth the effort.

Ultimately, we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  We should renew Gods’ world even as we use it for our survival.

The mussel has something to teach us about that ethic. Mussels feed by sucking in water and filtering out food items like  like algae, bacteria, and detritus. The mussels then expel clear, clean water. When mussels occur in large beds, as they often did decades and centuries ago, the net effect was a purifying of the waters of the stream. Clear water allowed more light to reach algae and aquatic plants which supported more creatures that feed on the algae and plants. The result was a underwater world that was more full of more life

As I write this I am convicted. I must tell him all that. I will.

I hope and pray that he will eventually and of his own free seek out God and live out a God-fearing life all of his days. And as part of that life of faith, I hope and pray that his faith and life will possess a love for God’s world, in both its eye-catching and humble forms.

In other words, I hope and pray that the Gospel he follows will have mussels.

Does yours?