Navajo Holiday Traditions

We were invited to travel south to the Navajo reservation for a Navajo Christmas.

We’re not planning on going down, but we were curious just what a Navajo Christmas might be like. So we asked.

Well, everyone’s going to dress up. … And it turns out, the Golden Corral is open on Christmas Day in Holbrook, so Christmas lunch for the whole clan will be there.

Sort of weirdly reminiscent of James McMurtry’s Choctaw Bingo. Not acquainted with this Americana classic? Here’s all eight and a half minutes of this bit of Oklahoma strangeness on Youtube. Maybe northeast Arizona isn’t that different from eastern Oklahoma. If the Golden Corral has WiFi, this can be your Christmas lunch entertainment.

Church, Culture, and Incarnation link

There’s an ongoing conversation in which I find myself involved. It’s ongoing because my Orthodox friends find my opinion so outrageous, they remain busy trying to change my mind. My error is I’m not convinced that Christians who are not Orthodox should necessarily convert to the Orthodox Church. Because my argument against Orthodoxy is multifaceted, my detractors tend to latch on to a single idea rather than considering it as a whole. And this is not necessarily their fault. In the heat of discussion, it’s difficult to present a complete argument rather than getting bogged down in the details.

On the other hand, some non-Orthodox who have asked me to help sort out their doubts about Orthodoxy understand the main thrust of my argument immediately. It frames their doubts in a manner that explain several things which individually seem trifling but taken as a whole are unsettling.

The core of my argument is that both the Eastern Church (that is, Orthodoxy) and the Western Church have abandoned the incarnation, but in very different ways. As a result, “the true church” (as we Orthodox like to think of ourselves) has run off the rails because it has messed with the core principle of “God with us” (that is, incarnation) and that profoundly affects “us with God” (that is, salvation).

There is a question I don’t address in this essay. History would strongly indicate the flaw is fatal within Protestantism. The Protestant communions will stagger and stumble to an eventual oblivion because of their abandonment of the core of Christianity. I don’t think the flaw is fatal within Orthodoxy and it will likely recover its theological center. But, the problem is that at the moment it steadfastly refuses to repent of her sin. In spite of the fatal flaw within Protestantism, is becoming a part of an unrepentant church a real solution? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. As is often the case with persistent and flagrant sin, there are no easy answers to this dilemma.

This is a long essay, entitled “Church, Culture, and Incarnation,” and will probably not interest a lot of people. I’ve therefore limited the blog post to this introduction with links to the essay. It can be found in two formats.

The HTML (web page) format, found at http://justanotherjim.com/ortho3/church-culture-incarnation.php, is over at my old, archived web site and therefore has the appearance of the old JAJ, roosters and all.

I’ve also provided a PDF file at http://justanotherjim.com/ortho3/church-culture-incarnation.pdf. I know some of my readers don’t like reading longer essays on the computer screen. The six page PDF is in standard page format and is printable.

Tired of Empty and Meaningless Thanksgiving Greetings in your Inbox? Here’s a post about beer.

We made a quick trip to Montana in order to take care of some family business. While there I discovered a plethora (maybe even a surfeit) of locally brewed beers. I’m no beer connoisseur, but I do like the uniqueness of a locally brewed beer, and I’m always in search of a good porter, because porters are so hard to find in the United States.  (… turns out that there’s at least a dozen different porters brewed in Montana.) So I went back to the motel and did a bit of research. According to the Beer Me! web site, there are thirty-two different breweries in Montana.

I’ve developed a relationship with the front desk clerk, who is quite knowledgeable about both Husker football and Malta Mustang basketball. Being from Townsend he has suffered many a defeat at the hands of the once Mighty Malta Mustangs. I don’t think they’re as good as they were back in the day of the “3M Company,” but evidently they’re still a force to be reckoned with in Montana basketball.

When we got back from our big birthday bash on Wednesday night, the clerk asked where we ate (the Montana Ale Works) and that led to a discussion of regional beers. The Montana Ale Works features 40 regional beers on tap on a rotating basis. (Since there are quite a lot more than 40 good regional beers available by the keg, they rotate.). Quite frankly, this astounds me. Who knew (other than Montanans) that Montana was such a Mecca for microbreweries? How come a state as sparsely populated as Montana has so many breweries? You’d think it was the Milwaukee suburbs or something. So I made this very comment to my new best friend, the motel front desk clerk.

And it turns out that my new best friend, the front desk clerk is also very wise, for lo!, he had an answer to my question.

Montana is where they grow wheat, barley, hops, and have fabulous tasting spring water polluted only by golden aspen leaves, brown trout, and may fly larvae (and Exxon brand crude oil, if you happen to live along the Yellowstone River below Laurel, but that’s another story altogether). In other words, resources are local, of excellent quality, and abundant, and therefore cheap. Thus it makes perfectly good sense that Montana should be the home of 32 different breweries.

(But is Wolf Point, Montana, smack dab in the middle of the rez, really the best place to locate a brewery? Some of the reservations in South Dakota and Iowa strictly prohibit – and vigorously attempt to enforce – both alcohol sales and possession. But the Assiniboines of Fort Peck aren’t the Brule Lakota nor the Winnebagos nor Omahas. Each nation makes their own rules. I suppose it’s no different than six breweries in Missoula, smack dab in the middle of a university. I do find it very amusing that the first successful concoction of the Missouri Breaks Brewery, located in the middle of the Fort Peck Rez, was India Pale Ale. That must confuse the local school children: Are those real Indians?)

Oh, and by the way, after trying four of the local brews (one can only do so much “research” on a very short trip) my favorite so far is Cold Smoke Scotch Ale brewed by the Kettlehouse Brewery of Missoula: Dark, rich, with more than a hint of blackstrap and it actually is quite smoky. I also had a sip of a very fine Oatmeal Stout that was so smooth and rich it was almost decadent, but maybe a bit too sweet. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who brewed that one.

And, by the way … Happy Thanksgiving. May your sage dressing be moist, your cranberry sauce be abundant, your ecumenical worship service not be overly heretical in its attempt to be inclusive and cooperative; and may your garage remain intact after the younger generation incinerates the hedge and basketball hoop in a foolish attempt to deep-fry the bird just like Guy Fieri did it on t.v.

In His Steps? I Think There’s a Better Path

I just finished a book that ends with a rather silly notion. But it’s a pervasive notion in our contemporary world, so it’s worth a comment. The book is Philip Yancey’s, The Jesus I Never Knew. In this study Yancey follows the venerable tradition of Romantic writers who consider the implications of the historical Jesus on life today.

I’m sure the tradition is as old as  Christianity itself, but I am familiar with it from the perspective of what might be called modern liberal man. The first, and probably most famous, work that invented the genre for Protestants was Hermann Samuel Reimarus. (To my knowledge, his book on the life of Jesus is only available in German.)

This desire to uncover the real Jesus took two distinct paths after Reimarus. On the one hand there were attempts by Charles Sheldon (In His Steps) and the more contemporary revival of Sheldon in the “What Would Jesus Do” movement, to apply Jesus’ earthly life to our modern earthly life. Yancey’s book fits quite neatly into this sort of perspective.

The more notorious offspring of Reimarus’ Romanticism is the Quest for the Historical Jesus. The venerable old Germans, such as Wrede, Schweitzer, Bultmann, and Kasemann are certainly the most vilified, but we cannot leave off of that list Montana’s own Robert Funk nor the member of the Seminar whom I met and worked with a tiny little bit, Alan Culpepper, a Southern Baptist who taught at Southern Seminary (across the street from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where I went to school — We LPTS’ers were proud to point out that while LPTS had a couple of world class biblical scholars as faculty, we didn’t suffer the ignominy of having anyone from our school as part of the Jesus Seminar, like the Southern Baptists across the street.) In fairness to Culpepper, he eventually resigned, do to procedural differences.

But back to the topic at hand: Philip Yancey, Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today and author of a myriad of books, among which is The Jesus I Never Knew. He begins the last chapter with this rather shocking (from an Orthodox perspective) and naive contention:

Icons of the Orthodox Church, stained-glass windows in European cathedrals, and Sunday school art in low-church America all depict on flat planes a placid, “tame” Jesus, yet the Jesus I met in the Gospels was anything by tame. (p. 258)

Yancey demonstrates in this book (and in previous works) that he is quite ignorant of Orthodox life and theology. This is not a knock on Yancey. He doesn’t claim to have knowledge of Orthodoxy and this is not a book that concerns Orthodoxy — it’s only orbit is Protestantism and a particularly Protestant reading of the Bible. I mention it, rather, to point out that when he claims Orthodox icons depict a placid and tame Jesus, he has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. He’s out of his depth on that one.

What Orthodox icons do portray is the world that is both “within” and “beyond” the world. When Jesus tells Pilate that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and when he tells the disciples that the kingdom is “within” (or “beyond”) them (that word is deliciously vague and suggestive), Jesus is expressing the same spiritual nature of the Kingdom of God which icons seek to portray and illuminate.

So, while it is true that Orthodox icons appear not quite realistic by Western artistic standards, and the people portrayed have an uncanny “not quite of this world” look, etc., the effect, for those who have eyes to see the icon, is to reveal that utterly awesome and mind-boggling world that exists here and now, but is just beyond our conceptual reach. There is nothing tame about a well conceived and expertly painted icon. Rather, they are deeply unsettling; and because of their unsettling nature, they are equally comforting.

Yancey’s book, on the other hand, offers up an utterly tame Jesus who is completely predictable by the values of the early 21st century. Yancey explicitly says he is exploring the life of Jesus “from below” rather than “from above.” And the problem with that is that the Kingdom of God is never from below. It is something that tears at the fabric of reality and breaks in. It is something (like new wine) which bubble from within until it explodes all conceptions of what God might be. Considering the human life of Jesus (as the human life of Jesus) simply cannot take seriously this characteristic of Creator-creature relationship. All such attempts to consider the life of Jesus from this perspective (including Yancey’s most recent attempt) fail miserably to address the real issues of the kingdom.

Yancey says, “I certainly have not succeeded in taming him, for myself, let alone for anyone else. I now have a built-in suspicion against all attempts to categorize Jesus, to box him in.” (p. 258) Unfortunately, Yancey’s book was every bit as predictable as a James Lee Burke novel. In other words, it was a thoroughly boxed in and Protestant-ly categorized Jesus which wandered the pages of the book. In other words, just as Reimarus’ Jesus looked suspiciously like a bourgeois 19th century German, so Yancey’s Jesus looks suspiciously like the “out-of-the-box” Evangelicals who are busy developing “a new paradigm” for Christianity in America. (At least that’s what they were doing the week Yancey wrote this book; I have a hard time keeping up, and they might be doing something different this season.)

So what’s the point of this rant? History — both the history of Jesus and the history of the church from Moses the Lawgiver to martyrdom of the faithful during the embarrassingly misnamed “Arab Spring” — is not there to show us how we’re supposed to live today, it’s there to show us unequivocally that “the hidden God” is present, striding through his creation as Lord and King, ultimately in control, but never coercive. God is always entering into this world and through that, always transforming both this world and those people who are able to say, through faith, “may it be to me according to your word.” Of course, while it’s happening, the transformation is almost completely impossible to see. The Arab Spring, from my perspective reading this month’s news, looks like a death knell for the church along the southern and eastern Mediterranean. But from the perspective of history it will be recognized as God prevailing against the nations that rage and plot a vain thing. How do I know this? Because history has told me so over and over again.

God doesn’t want us to do what Jesus did. God doesn’t want us to do what Paul, or Pope Gregory, or John Calvin, or Martin Luther King, or Fr Nikolai Velimirovich did. God wants us to do what he has called us to do. If we get distracted from that very specific and personal divine calling by following in others’ footsteps, if we speculate about WWJD?, we end up getting caught in trivialities and therefore missing the presence of Jesus Christ here and now, whom we are to serve every day.

The problem is not “the Jesus I never knew,” the problem is that as much as I get to know my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I never know him; and if I ever dare get comfortable with what I’m supposed to do because I think I know what Jesus would do, I will end up getting the surprise of my life when I start paying attention again.

New Trick for an Old Dog

My browser of choice for years has been Firefox. I originally used it because IE Explorer was so famously insecure. Explorer has caught up and possibly even surpassed Firefox on that front, but Firefox has add-ons and doodads that aren’t available on the other browsers, or if they are, tend to be clunky.

But Firefox’s latest security update has been a disaster. When I first loaded it, it crashed every few minutes. If I disable all the doodads, I can keep it stable and running for most of a day before it crashes.

There are two websites that I use all the time that only work with Explorer. (It’s a Java script issue which the web developers are aware of — I’ve visited with them — but simply don’t care about.) So I have Explorer set to handle the weirdness of those two web sites; and this makes it inconvenient to use for my everyday browsing.

I have therefore finally opened up Chrome for the very first time on this computer. Programs such as Robo-form are not compatible with Chrome and it simply lacks some of my favorite features of the other browsers, all in the name of minimalist elegance. But it’s not a bad browser if you want to step away from the Firefox swag.

Hopefully, the Mozilla folks will get their act together and fix Firefox. In the mean time, this post is being done from within the Chrome browser.

Shoot, now that I’ve sold out and gone utterly corporate by using the browser that is part of the great financial-industrial complex which is Google, maybe the next thing to happen will be that I’ll start drinking Starbucks and create a Facebook account. After all, one can’t be more financially-industrially corporate than social networking on Facebook from the comfort of a Starbucks chair.

Yeah, like that’s going to happen this week. One new trick at a time.

Tracing My Way Through Loess

Once again last weekend I was struck by how similar the central United States is moving north to south. Here, at the Iowa-Nebraska border, the Missouri River passes through the largest deposit of loess (a glacial soil) on this side of the globe. The only comparable loess deposit is in China. But this is not to say that there isn’t loess elsewhere: Port Gibson, Mississippi, for instance (where I spent a semester teaching history). As the Mississippi River nears the Gulf of Mexico it also passes by a large loess deposit on the Mississippi side of the river.

Chamberlain-Hunt (where I taught) owned a tract of loess hills just to the south of the campus. They called it “The Wilderness.” It is where the cadets did their military field training (and for those who couldn’t play well with others, served their in-school suspensions). There was a two-track road that ran the perimeter of the Wilderness and the school also maintained mowed trails through the hills.

My first hike of the day last Saturday was at Mile Hill Lake Park, in Glenwood Township Iowa, along the Wabash Trace (which is part of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway, and named for the eponymous – and defunct – railroad company, not the river). Maybe it was simply the word “Trace,” which is indelibly associated, in my mind, with Port Gibson, but the Mile Hill Lake trail, a mown track through the Loess Hills, put me right back in the Wilderness of Chamberlain-Hunt.

Mowed trail above Mile Hill Lake

The flora is subtly different. The southern trees and underbrush are more lush and vines predominate farther south. But in spite of the specific differences, these Iowa trails mostly looked and smelled the same as the Wilderness. Even though Mississippi has slightly different varieties of oaks, the oak leaves crunched the same on the trail. And of course, that sticky loess soil (which was wet from recent rains) stuck tightly on the tennis shoes in the same manner. Coincidently, I was wearing the same black athletic shoes which were issued to me by Chamberlain-Hunt as part of my uniform. So scraping the loess-mud from my shoes, before I got back into the car, was exactly like scraping the loess-mud from my shoes before I went back into the house in Port Gibson.

Of course we’re too far north to have kudzu in Iowa or Nebraska, but we do have vines and creepers. Just as Mile Hill Lake reminded me of The Wilderness, so this hillside in the Indian Caves State Park reminded me of kudzu covered hillsides in Mississippi.

The Natchez Trace passes directly through Port Gibson on its way from Natchez to Nashville. I have always thought of the word “trace” as a specifically southern term. One of the greatest driving roads I have ever been on is the narrow and curvy CR 462 (locally known as the Raymond Road), which runs (with a name change or two) from Grand Gulf to Raymond, MS (which is basically, Port Gibson to Jackson). According local historical buff, Michael Herrin (Presbyterian pastor), that road follows the original Natchez Trace almost exactly.

I spent quite a bit of my free time poking around the Trace, finding places where you could get on to portions of the original trail, such as this spot where the original trail cuts deeply through a loess mound.

The original Natchez Trace

But as we prepared for our trip to Nebraska City, I discovered the “Steamboat Trace,” a 22 mile bike and walking path that runs south along the river from near Nebraska City to Brownville. I had seriously considered taking my bike down to ride the Steamboat Trace on Saturday, but a forecast of 45 mph winds and a high in the 50s disabused me of the notion. Instead I decided to drive the southern half of the Loess Hills Scenic Route, and en route discovered the Wabash Trace just south of Council Bluffs.

Of course there’s a big difference between the historic Natchez Trace and the recreational traces along the Missouri River. These recreational trails, built on the beds of abandoned railroad tracks, are wonderful places to get away from the rush of the city, but they don’t go anywhere. These two Missouri river traces are all about the journey. The Natchez Trace was all about the destination – getting back to the Appalachians after a successful delivery (by boat) of farm goods, furs, or whatever else those Kaintucks had to sell to the traders near the Gulf Coast.

But that’s conceptually (and geographically) a long way from where I was. I was wandering around Iowa and musing about how similar these hills were to Mississippi hills …

… and northwest Arkansas Ozarks.

My mom and dad used to own a place out in the woods, overlooking a tree-filled wash on the edge of Bella Vista, Arkansas. Again, the similarity between the Loess Hills of Iowa/Nebraska, the bluffs and hills of western Mississippi, and the western edge of the Ozarks was uncanny. Of the three the Ozarks were probably the most unique because of the abundance of hickory trees, which give the woods a different character than the oak forests of Mississippi and Iowa. In spite of the differences, we have been on back roads in all three places and simultaneously commented about how similar the scene is to something we’ve driven through in the other two places.

This is not to say they’re the same. Far from it. But sometimes it’s good to ponder our similarities rather than our differences.

House on a hill

Quiz time: Is this a photo of Iowa, Arkansas, or Mississippi?

The Flood Plain

Since we were already in southeastern Nebraska last weekend, we decided to head a few miles farther south to Indian Caves State Park, near Brownsville. We purchased a 2011 state park pass, so we have tried to visit as many state parks as possible in order to take advantage of the pass.

Like Ponca State Park (the state park closest to Sioux City), Indian Caves is situated along the Missouri River. So we were not surprised to see the flood damage to trees, roads, and facilities as the road wound down from the top of the bluffs to the river plain. There was a hiking trail from the river’s edge to the top of the bluff (which turned out to be brutally steep); it led to an overlook of the river plain that was spectacular and gave a good sense of the summer flooding.

The sandy area to the right of the river used to be corn and bean fields. It is now a sand pile several feet thick, a mile wide, and several miles long.

In grade school I learned that flooding creates fertile soil by bringing nutrients to the soil from upriver. I therefore assumed that this summer’s floods, while disastrous for this year’s crop, would be good for the fields located in the flood plain.

But just the other day I was listening to a conversation between a farmer and a local agri-businessman. The farmer’s land was in the flood plain, but didn’t get flooded. They were talking about neighbors who may have permanently lost half or more of their farms. In many areas (and the above picture is a perfect example) there are five or six feet of sand sitting on top of the fertile soil. What the river brought in was not fertile soil, but lifeless sand. The land owners have to decide whether to bring in earth moving equipment to remove several feet of sand in order to uncover the soil. According to the conversation I overheard, for tens of thousands of acres of formerly fertile farm land, it is simply not cost effective. The farm land will probably be abandoned as farm land for the foreseeable future, and in some cases, the farmers will simply declare bankruptcy and walk away.

Of course, consider the source. I’m reporting a conversation I overheard. But these were people who were in a position to know from firsthand experience.  It’s a dimension of the disaster that I had certainly never considered.

Are You a Birder?

When we went to Nebraska City last weekend, I didn’t just run away and have fun while Brenda was in class. (See previous post.) There was an early morning class on birding taught by an ornithologist and a biologist and it involved going out into the field to look at birds. I decided to participate in that class. Immediately after sitting down at the table, the woman across from me – who looked like she belonged in a comedy about the odd people who watch birds, complete with a 60s style blond flip hairdo, funky glasses, and a stocking cap with big pompoms hanging from it – asked me if I was a birder.

It was a hard question to answer. Compared to what? I like birds, but I’m not an avid field person. I gave her some lame answer about enjoying birding but being a layman.

After a half hour lecture (which was actually pretty interesting) we headed out to our first stop, the hazelnut grove, to look for birds. We found all the usual suspects: juncos, cardinals, blue jays, and sparrows.

Sparrows …

… that’s where I discovered I’m a mere poser when it comes to birding.

Sparrow sitting in a hazelnut bush

See the white spot on it's neck and the epaulets on it's wings? This means it's either one of about four species of sparrow or an Airman First Class in the Air Force. A real birder can probably tell you which.

We spent a half hour, maybe forty minutes staring at sparrows sitting in the conference center’s hazelnut grove with our binoculars. It turns out there were a half dozen woodland species of sparrows common in the area. (And that doesn’t include the grassland sparrows nor the invasive sparrows.) Some of them had white spots on their throats. Some had epaulets on their wings. Some had crowns of different colors, which were mostly brown at the moment because they were in their migration plumage rather than their mating plumage. (“See that bird with a brown stripe on its head? A few months ago it was yellow.” Wow! That was a helpful piece of identifying information!)

I tried to stay close to the retired ornithologist. He now lives in Nebraska City, and as we walked through the woods he rambled on about the history of the area, the geology of the stream, etc., etc. He was a fascinating old guy and his stories made the morning well worth it, even though I never managed to become an expert birder.

Eastern Bluebird

This is not only a bluebird, it's an Eastern Bluebird sitting in a Jonathon Apple tree. (I'm not only a budding birder, I'm a budding appler!

When we emerged from the woods, we were beside a new apple orchard that had been planted just this spring. The ornithologist had put up bluebird cages throughout the orchard and we spent another half hour looking at bluebirds. That really was interesting (for about 10 minutes, then us non-birders began getting restless).

I must confess that I spent much of my time watching the birders instead of the birds. They were an interesting and sometimes eccentric lot.

The Unabirder

My wife, Brenda. She's not only a birder, she's the Unabirder.

Later that day, after the event was over, Brenda and I drove south to Indian Caves State Park to poke around. (More about that in another post.) While we were there I was thrilled to see a flock of snow geese taking off. Snow geese are among my favorite birds. They are, in my humble opinion, far more fun to watch than Sand Hill Cranes. On a few occasions I have seen them fly overhead in the dead of night, their white wings twinkling in the moonlight and the haunting call floating down to earth. It is one of the great bird sights of all time. And today I got to see them in broad daylight.

But then I got home and studied my photographs. To my chagrin my beloved snow geese weren’t geese at all, unless they happened to be the very rare long-billed, Barbra Streisand subspecies.

Pelicans on migration

A flock of white water birds with black-tipped wings ... must be snow geese!

Pelicans in flight

Some people call the "long-billed barbra" subspecies of snow geese, "white pelicans."

So, if I may once again answer the question with which this essay started: Yes, I enjoy looking at birds, but I’m obviously no birder.

November Soliloquy

Saturday, while Brenda was in class at the Arbor Day Farm complex in Nebraska City, I toured the southern half of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway across the river in Iowa, from Council Bluffs to Hamburg. It had been extremely windy the last couple of days, so the air was hazy with harvest dander and river dust. The sun was obscured by high thin clouds, and the combined effect was a washed-out day with faded color and dull light.

Of course, by November, the autumn colors have also dulled to deadish ambers and umbers.  While not common, it would not be abnormal to have had a bit of snow by this time. But this year there wasn’t even the desperate white of early snow to add variety to the scene.  The hills were grim with the season.

Loess Hills and Missouri River Valley

The Loess Hills overlooking the Missouri River Valley at Waubonsie State Park

This is not to say it was a depressing day (in spite of the wind, which I do tend to find depressing). There is a big difference between resignation and determination and the hills expressed a determined grimness that comes with this particular change of seasons. Late September and October can be carefree weeks. The brutal heat of late summer is gone; the leaves blaze in glorious oranges and yellows; the ice and snow are still far enough in the future to not be of real concern. The height of autumn beckons us to pause and enjoy the glorious respite.

At this latitude, November, while not yet a winter month, is different than October. Winter is increasingly plausible with each storm that blows out of the northwest. The vibrant colors, which call for carefree enjoyment, have faded to the background, as if nature herself is bracing for the frigid blasts to come.

Red Oak Leaf

Red Oaks tend to hold their leaves through winter. Throughout the season, the leaves fade from fiery red to dull brown.

November’s tone is set by the month-end harvest festival. And in this context I am loathe to call it “Thanksgiving,” although it is certainly a day of thanks. That word, “Thanksgiving,” implies the carefree autumn of late September and October. But this is not October; this is November. It is the season of necessity – of harvesting corn, of picking apples (before the changing season steals them from us), of cutting firewood in order to stay stone-hearth warm on a blizzard cold day, and filling the freezer with venison, and turkey, or pheasant so that there might be something to eat during the lean days between solstice and equinox.

Squirrel eating a frozen apple.

This apple, frozen before it could be picked, is now only good for squirrels and deer.

This is the grimness of November. There’s no sense of despair, but rather of necessary preparation as long as this season of preparation lingers. Neither is there a sense of celebration as long as corn remains standing in the field or the wood pile remains too small to stand against the bitter arctic blasts of January, February, and even into March. But if this necessary work is completed, the grim necessity of November leads to the satisfied celebration of a harvest festival complete with the bounty that comes from the work of spring planting, summer tending, and finally, autumn harvest.

Christmas, coming at the mysterious darkness of solstice and adorned by the magical twinkle of fresh snow, is otherworldly, hopeful, and quietly transformative. Christmas is the hope of a new beginning in the midst of rock hard dormancy. But November looks backward rather than forward. November is the termination of that which was begun eight or nine months before. It is the difficult (but satisfying) final effort to bring to a proper end a season or cycle of bounty. Like a marathoner in the final miles or a student during finals, November is grim and determined in the most glorious sense of those words. It as grey and faded – and every bit as functional – as a pair of well-worn work jeans and thinning flannel shirt.  It is a comfortable determination that is best reflected in umbers set against grays and the yellow sunshine and blue sky subdued by high, thin clouds spurring us on to finish the task at hand with diligence.

Yellow and bare trees under clouds and sky.

 

People Watching

Brenda’s doing continuing education at a conference this weekend at the Leid Lodge Conference Center in Nebraska City. Mary Kay and an agricultural feed company are also having conferences. We were watching guests come in trying to decide whether they were Mary Kayers or feed company reps. Way too much perfume, with makeup that would make Mimi (from the Drew Carey Show) proud. It’s obvious which conference she’s attending.

… then again, with the outrageous hat, I suppose she could be in the business of selling horse feed to the Kentucky Derby crowd.