It has been a beautiful spring in Rhode Island (so far). After more than a week of consecutive sunny days in the fifties and sixties, followed by two or three days of the sort of showers that humans grumble about but flowers and grass love, all of the growing things in the yard were smiling when I left for campus this morning. This all reminds me of my first Minnesota spring four years ago as I entered my last few weeks of sabbatical.
Leave it to me to go on sabbatical to central Minnesota, arriving in the middle of January. But after many bone-chilling and ass-freezing weeks, spring finally arrived. Autumn has always been my favorite season and probably will remain so, but I must admit I’ve never really given spring a chance. Spring comes slowly and late to northern Vermont where I grew up (sort of like it does to Minnesota), accompanied by lots of mud. The real problem with spring, though, is that shortly after its arrival my allergies arrive. From late April to late May, basically the amount of time it takes all of the various trees to get with it and produce some leaves, my body has a fit. I remember some Vermont springs when my eyes reacted so violently to tree pollen that the inside lining of my eyelids began to peel away. Fortunately, there are allergy medicines available now that no one had even thought of fifty years ago, medicines that make it possible for me to function reasonably well during allergy season.
The arrival of Minnesota spring coincided with my finally pulling the trigger on a purchase Jeanne and I had talked about for a while—a digital camera. We are both the world’s worst picture takers. Well I guess we can’t both be the worst—let’s just say that we are the world’s worst picture-taking couple (although we are photogenic). It’s not that we take bad pictures. It’s that we don’t take any pictures at all. On many occasions we’ve at least remembered to throw a disposable camera into the car or my backpack (Jeanne doesn’t carry a purse), swearing to God that this time the trip, wedding, birthday celebration, whatever, is going to be memorialized forever with disposable camera pictures. And every time we return with the camera in the same place we originally put it, having forgotten that we had it with us. Fortunately neither of my sons has ever showed much interest in seeing pictures of what’s happened in the past twenty years, because judging from the amount of pictures recording those years, nothing happened.
Given that the St. John’s University campus where I was spending sabbatical as a supposed scholar is located in the middle of a wildlife refuge with miles of walking trails, I figured that perhaps this was a good time to finally purchase a digital camera. I went into Best Buy, headed for the digital camera section, and soon was joined by a very helpful young saleswoman. She offered to help me choose between the several camera specimens priced above $500, and I cut her off short. “You’ll never meet anyone more ignorant about digital cameras,” I confessed. “I need something $150 or under, preferably something that a trained monkey could take pictures with.” She smiled as she thought “I’ve heard this one before—you can’t be that ignorant about picture-taking,” but when I added “Here’s how behind the times I am with cameras; my wife and I have been using disposable cameras,” she looked at me as if I was either from Pluto or was a well-groomed Cro-Magnon man. I walked out of Best Buy in less than fifteen minutes having spent $171 (including tax) for a camera, carrying bag, and a super-duper memory card (she even had to explain to me what that is). I spent that evening at my ecumenical institute apartment charging the camera battery, reading a bit of the user’s manual, practicing taking pictures of the TV, my foot as I reclined in my chair, and a couple of accidental ones of the ceiling, and I was all set.
The next morning, and virtually every morning for my remaining Minnesota weeks, I walked for an hour or so on one of the many hiking trails through the swamps, prairie, and forests surrounding the university with my new purchase, just to see what I could see; I also was hoping that such walks would replace my daily torture session at the gym (they didn’t—I gained weight). And I still can’t believe what I saw, both in quantity and quality. The various living things in the area must have had a meeting and decided to have mercy on the stupid fifty-three year old guy armed with a real camera for the first time. “Let’s all go out and pose for him for a few days, just so he doesn’t get discouraged.” In no particular order, I saw and took excellent pictures of a bald eagle, loons, wood ducks, blue herons, brown herons, egrets, various deer who posed for me as if it was Oscars night, a red-winged blackbird, and all of my institute colleagues eating split-pea soup and drinking wine at an evening get together (just another bunch of wild animals) . One morning as I walked behind the Abbey after morning prayer, I took great pictures of Canadian geese honking in annoyance that I had discovered their secret pond, eight or nine turtles piled on top of each other on a log trying to get a tan, and a gray squirrel. I also took pictures of the large soaring birds that always were circling over the water tower close by the Abbey, and was bummed when a monk told me that they were turkey vultures. According to the picture organizing program that came with the camera, I downloaded over 250 pictures in the past week. For a few weeks, at least, I was a picture-taking fool.
Next Sunday’s Pentecost psalm is Psalm 104, a beautiful celebration of and tribute to the incredible, out-of-control exuberance expressed by the Creator through the various living things in our world. Wild asses, storks, rock badgers, lions, Leviathan—I didn’t see any of these in Minnesota, but I did see a lot of creatures the Psalmist doesn’t mention. The Psalmist raves about the earth “with its living things too many to number, creatures both small and great,” just what I’d been taking pictures of the past few days. As I read morning prayer this morning, the sun rose and cast its unique “Look at me, I just got up” dawn light on the back yard. The canticle for the morning, as it is for every morning prayer, was a setting of “The Song of Zechariah,” which concludes with “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break open us.” Yes, I know that Zechariah is referring to the Messiah for whom baby John the Baptist will prepare the way, but this morning I chose to take some textual license. One of the ways the Creator shows love and mercy for us is by creating over and over and over again, every morning, every season, every year, in the intricacies of all creatures small and great. And I don’t even care if my eyes are itching and my nose is running a bit.