Lessons From Ducks and Swans

IMG_0368.JPGEvery spring, there’s this short window of time, just before the ice goes out, in which there are little open areas of water around the edges of our lake.  All the waterfowl congregates in these puddles and pools to forage for food and paddle around in one great companionable waiting game for the lake to open.IMG_3397The ducks and geese seem to have a mutual agreement that it’s a nice little community event, too, and mingle quite nicely.

The swans, not so much.IMG_0356.JPGIMG_0328Such a fuss we had from them, of fiercely territorial wing-flapping, neck-bobbing and trumpet-blasting, particularly when another pair of swans would come in for a landing (on a multi-daily basis).  It was all very exciting, and we’re going to rather miss it now that the lake is open and the spring festival is over.

But I must say that I’ve learned something from watching this year’s waterfowl interactions before ice out.  Entertaining as it is for us to be the audience to this yearly stiff competition over swan nesting grounds, it’s not exactly peaceful.  For all their magnificent beauty, they are surprisingly selfish.  And, as God’s Word says, we’d all be much better off emulating the contented little puddle ducks than the regal but contentious swans.

“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.  Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:16-18)





Night Sounds

IMG_0152The night was bright with a million stars, each one pulsating distinct and three-dimensional against deep black velvet of the sky.  The aurora was dancing low but visible on the horizon.  Across the lake, a monkey owl laughed, and in the distant forest echoed the drum roll of a grouse.  Just above the treetops, a slender waxing crescent of reflected sunlight rimmed the lower curve of dark round moon.  It dangled, then dropped out of sight.  One meteorite fell, and then another.  It was a good night to go walking without a flashlight, and so we did.

Then, we heard an odd sound that we couldn’t identify.  It was like the sound of tinkling, shattering glass, with a sort of grunting and squeaking.  There was also splashing, which narrowed down the location to the lake.  But what sort of creature was busy on the lake at this time of the night—and what were they doing?

It remained a mystery, until morning, when daylight revealed the guilty culprits.IMG_0275-1IMG_0257-1.jpgThe otters had been playing not on but in the ice while the northern lights rippled softly green, enjoying the effects of the steadily aging and honeycombing lake ice.  I didn’t realize how rotten the ice was until I stood on the shore and watched their game for a good hour.  They were literally running all over the lake breaking holes in all the thin places and diving in and out of them, which explained the mysterious tinkling and shattering sounds of the previous night.

And so the mysteries of the darkness were made evident by the light and things that were unknown became known—just as it always must be, even in the case of much deeper things.

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that not will be made known. (Luke 12:2)

“Therefore judge nothing before the proper time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” (1 Cor. 4:5)


Ice Skating

IMG_9956One of my favorite things about living on a lake in the winter is having unlimited ice skating access.  Getting to walk straight out your door right onto your own private skating rink?  To a girl who had to hike a good half mile for such a privilege when she was growing up, this is a luxury I don’t take for granted.  That is, except for when the weather doesn’t cooperate, like this year, and it freezes and snows at the same time, effectively ruining the ice for the rest of the winter.  What a disappointment!

When I was growing up, my siblings and I would solve this fairly common problem by clearing a giant, hockey-worthy rink by hand with the big snow scoop we dragged that long half mile down the road.  Then, we’d drill a hole with an auger, from which we pumped lake water to flood the rough surface and make it smooth again when it froze.  And did we ever have fun on the finished product!

These days, though, I’m the only ice skater in our young family, so all rink-creating ambitions have been shelved until the upcoming generation I’m helping to raise is old enough to join me in the effort of shoveling for the joy of skating. Thus, when the lake froze rough during a November snowstorm, I just figured skating was out for me this winter and turned my attention to other recreational pleasures of the season.

But I was wrong.IMG_9952February had a change of heart and decided to surprise everyone with an uncharacteristic thaw.  That thaw lasted long enough to melt the snow cover and create some pretty massive puddles of water on top of the ice.  Then, the thermometer plunged and it all froze solid again.  Then, the wind drove tiny particles of ice and snow across it for several days straight like a giant sand blaster, smoothing rough spots, scouring it largely clean of snow.  And when the sun blazed up out of the east one morning, I saw a glassy surface shining beneath it—and all my skating dreams buried since the beginning of winter rose up and wooed me out the door.

My oldest daughter, curious to see what I was going to do with those white boots on shiny silver blades, begged to come along to watch.  When we got down to the edge of the lake shore, though, she wouldn’t come any further.  “I’ll just watch you from here, Mommy,” she said.

So I picked my way out to the edge of the frozen grasses and weeds by myself, where I began the process of standing on one leg while wedging my sock-encrusted foot into a snug skate with the other.  Because, of course, in my hurry to get out there I had neglected to bring anything along to sit on.  How do blue herons do it, anyway?  In my defense, having to put something on the foot while holding it up does complicate the matter.  IMG_9884“Are you going to fall in, Mommy?” I heard the little voice call from the pink-jacketed figure perched on the bank, concerned.

“Nope,”—grunt—“I’m not going to fall in, honey.”  But I might fall over, I thought wryly to myself.  I had gone a little overboard on the warm sock layers.

But I was determined.  Stamp, stamp.  Loosen the ties again with numbing fingers in the subzero windchill.  Stamp, stamp, thump.  There.  Loop the laces, tie them tight.  One down, one to go.

“Are you sure you’re not going to fall in?” I noted that the concerned little voice in the pink jacket was closer and observed that she had moved from high on the bank down to the very edge of the lake.

“Yep”–grunt, grunt, stamp, stamp, thump.  “I’m sure, honey.” 

And I was off.  My little girl cheered.

Back and forth I went for a while, round and round, my audience of one as riveted to my performance as any Olympic crowd .  “Can I come out to you, Mommy?” she finally asked.  What she really meant was, “I believe, but—help thou mine unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

“Yes, come!” I said.She made her way out to the edge of the weeds, all the way to the very edge of that great, shiny sheet of ice—and then she stopped.IMG_9881IMG_9950.JPG“Can I touch it, Mommy?”

But this time there was wonder in her voice, and by now I had stopped my skating to come near and watch.  I had forgotten that she hadn’t been on a frozen lake before, at least that she remembered—and the innocent, wide-eyed first-time experiences of a child are some of the most beautiful things in the whole world to stand audience to.

“Yes, you can touch it,” I said with a smile.  And in faith and wonder, she stepped—and the sound of her laughter and joyous delight echoed from shore to shore.

IMG_9880Funny, how my delight over getting to ice skate this winter after all managed to pale next to her delight when she overcame her fears, believed, and walked on water.

“Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.  When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified… but, immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”  And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. (Matthew 14:25-29)

Thankfully, we didn’t attempt replaying the rest of that story.


First Ice

img_8327The ice is in.

We watched it form all day long yesterday as a snow storm whirled, the stretch of open water slowly but steadily narrowing throughout the day.  The otters were out having a Last-Day-Of-Open-Water party along the slushy edges and the swans trumpeted restlessly through the night, clustered to the creek outlet on the south end, instinctively knowing it would be the last spot to solidify.

img_8320Today, all was still and silent.

The swans are gone, probably to the river, and will likely not be seen here again until spring.  The otters are hidden away somewhere in a cozy den.  And so winter has placed its last seal on the landscape—and then in a brief, glorious five minutes before it set, the sun blazed out from behind a cloak of heavy clouds and kissed it with fire.

And there I was, standing on the shore, breathless with wonder that I was in the right place at the right time to see it.

“Out of the south comes the storm, and out of the north the cold.  From the breath of God ice is made, and the expanse of the waters is frozen.” (Job 37:9-10)


Trumpet of the Swan

IMG_2925I must say that reading E.B. White’s whimsical classic, “The Trumpet of the Swan”, as a young girl did little to prepare me for hearing the real trumpet of a swan for the first time.  Up until I got married, I had barely even seen a swan in the wild, let alone heard one.  I thought it would be something like the honking of the Canadian geese that always flew over my childhood home in the spring and fall.  I had no idea.IMG_2932Then, I got married and moved here—and the swans suddenly became an integral part of our lives.  The first spring, we watched them perform their spectacular mating dances on the river outside of the front windows of the little resort cabin we called a temporary home.  They showed up at our next home, too, where they nested on the lake our neighbors had access to.  We never actually saw them, but the sound of their great beating wings and calls echoed over to us tantalizingly all summer long.  And then we moved to our current home, and soon learned, to our great delight, that the little lake our farm bordered was the valiantly defended private nesting grounds of yet another pair of swans.

Now, their arrival every spring has become something to look forward to, something to mark the advent of the season by, and their trumpeting (which, it turns out, is nothing like to the honking of geese—that’s sort of like comparing the sound of a French horn to a car horn) is something we’ve learned to miss when ice locks the lake waters fast and they depart for the winter.

This year they’re back earlier than ever.  I first glimpsed them three weeks ago, while it was still February, doing a fly over.  Within a few days, I realized that they were coming here daily, camping out on the ice, apparently staking out their territory for the season.  They’d leave in the evening, presumably to feed and join other swans on the open water of the river nearby, then return in the morning.  At first they were silent, and it was pure chance that I even noticed the two lumps of white far out on the ice, heads tucked under their wings.  Then, this weekend, a few other swans decided to come visiting—and I knew it from all the way inside the house, because the deep trumpeting was echoing far and wide across the lake and over the fields and through the trees.  IMG_2942IMG_2924I stopped what I was doing and just listened for a few minutes, thrilling to the sound.  The silence of winter was over; the trumpeting prelude to the grand symphony of spring had officially begun.  It was glorious!

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth!  Make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise!…With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King!”  (Psalm 98:4,6)



New Eyes

IMG_2610If you’ve ever tried photographing wildlife, you will understand what I mean when I say that unless your goal is to capture the animal as part of a larger scene, it’s pretty much a waste of time without a telephoto lens. Without one, animals usually scare off before you can get close enough to compose a decent shot.  And that’s why I’ve felt sorely crippled photographically ever since my telephoto lens quit working two years ago.

I remember the moment distinctly.  The sun was setting over the Gulf of Mexico and we were standing at the end of a long rocky pier with the warm salt breeze in our faces.  A pod of dolphins suddenly appeared a distance out, leaping and dancing in the last remnants of golden light sparkling across the waves.  Thrilled, I lifted my camera for what I was sure would be an unusually rare and beautiful photograph—only to hear an unfamiliar clicking sound as I attempted in vain to zoom and bring the lens into focus.  A camera repair shop later pronounced it irreparable.

Remembering that,  I suppose it’s rather ironic that my replacement lens made it’s debut overlooking another view of sun-kissed waves.  Only this was a pretty far cry from the Gulf of Mexico.

The car thermometer declared it to be eleven below zero as I drove down to the bridge near our house.  Faint wisps of steam rose from the swathe of open water as the frigid air met the warmer temperatures of the moving river.  A friend living up on one of the nearby riverbanks had called to tell me that the lone trumpeter swan they’d occasionally seen feeding in the open water was back.  If I came right away, she thought I could get an easy shot of it from the clear vantage point of the bridge.  I spotted it as I drove over the bridge, a lumpy huddle of white effectively camouflaged against it’s snowy perch, head tucked under it’s wing.

I peeked over at my new lens lying in the seat next to me, an early Valentine gift from my dear husband, trying to contain my excitement.  I could hardly wait to see how it performed.  IMG_2613I clicked the lens into place before I got out of the car, and checked my camera settings, trying to guess accurately.  Past experience with swans has taught me to be ready to snap quickly; they tend to be pretty wary of humans.  I didn’t think this one would be flying away (it seems that an injured wing prevented it from leaving with the rest of it’s group in the fall), but I still didn’t want it to go paddling off in alarm and leave the great lighting and position it was currently in.

My breath froze white as I stepped out of the car.  I shut the car door gently and walked as quietly as I could towards the bridge, wishing the snow wouldn’t crunch quite so loudly beneath my boots.

A few minutes later, as the beautiful white bird lifted his head to eye me warily, I lifted my camera.  The zoom slid out smooth as silk.  The focus sharpened, crystal clear.  I framed the portrait and pushed the shutter button.IMG_2621IMG_2598It felt like I had been given new eyes.

There is a beautiful prayer we sing sometimes at church.  I found it running through my mind as I crunched around on the snowy bridge and riverbank, looking through world with stunningly clear and magnified vision:

“Open my eyes, that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free.

Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready my God, Thy will to see,
Open my eyes, illumine me,
Spirit divine!”—Clara H. Scott

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”  (Psalm 119:18)

Along the Winter Shore

IMG_2077 editIf you’ve ever stood on the shore of Lake Superior on a summer day, you know the feeling. Waves crashing on the rocks at your feet, sending spray high into the air, vast expanse of water stretching to meet the sky on the horizon.  It’s big; you’re small.  It’s a magnificent feeling.

The great lake in the winter is no different, I discovered recently.

Colder, yes.

Very differently framed in a muted palette of ice and snow that somehow manages to shift the highlights on the waves from gold to silver.

But certainly no less breathtaking.

While our husbands were skiing the mountains one afternoon, my friend and I took advantage of the grandmas willing to babysit our little people and went down to a lakeside resort to pick up cross-country ski passes and get information on trail conditions.  The moody gray sweep of the lake was just outside the big windows lining the front of the lodge, and when we stepped outside after obtaining what we had come for, we looked at each other and agreed.  The water was calling; we couldn’t leave without getting closer.

IMG_2053The trail was very icy, so we didn’t go far.  Instead we went along cautiously until we found a spot with a good view, and then stood still to take in the magnificence of it all.  I couldn’t help thinking of Psalm 93 as I watched to the blue-gray waves crash on the rocks below us.

“The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty and armed with strength;

indeed, the world is established, firm and secure.  

Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity..IMG_2063 edit…The seas have lifted up, LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves…IMG_2058 edit.jpgMightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea– the LORD on high is mighty.  Your statutes, LORD, stand firm; holiness adorns your house for endless days.”  (Psalm 93)