Friday, April 26, 2013

My yard is full of birds -- and the Phoebes are safely back!

When I went outside this morning, the sun was out and the yard was full of birdsong.  I heard blue jays, robins, juncos, starlings, finches, pheasants, a drumming grouse and some geese overhead.  I also spotted a thrush in the bushes.  And best of all, the phoebe who nests in the open garage each year is back!  So glad they all survived the storm.

Of course, I'm not 100% sure the phoebe is the same bird -- maybe a descendant? -- but we have had phoebes nesting in the rafters of that building for years.  We've also had them nesting under the eaves of the chicken coop -- a good choice of location, since there are always lots of flies around there.  In 2009 I was lucky enough to get this picture of the coop family, which I made into a postcard:

I called it "Phoebe Fledglings Ready to Fly" -- and they certainly were.  The next day they were gone.  (You can buy a copy of this postcard online in my eBay store, The Happy Rooster.)

Now it's warming up into the 70s this weekend (it's 61 as I wrote this) and the snow is melting off fast.  A walk around the yard showed me bulbs starting to pop up and buds swelling.  I better get out the hummingbird feeders, because those little jewels will be arriving soon, too.  Since the flowers are very late this year, they  will be hungry!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Earth Day: "Interfaith Power and Light" connecting faith and ecology

A religious ecology group called Interfaith Power and Light recently sponsored a nationwide "preach-in," focusing on global warming and climate change, and our religious responsibility as stewards of God's Creation. A very nice segment about this group aired on PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly in connection with Earth Day this past weekend, called Religion and the Environment. Featured are members of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations that are focusing on this issue.

Extended interviews with some of the people in the episode are also available online at PBS:

Jewish: Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb,  leader of Adath Shalom synagogue in Washington D.C., a congregation that has become a model for green energy initiatives.

Christian: Reverend Sally Bingham, founder of Interfaith Power and Light.

Muslim: Sarah Jawaid  director of Green Muslims, a relatively new organization seeking to re-connect with Islamic teachings about caring for the environment.

Also mentioned in the PBS segment (to give both sides of the issue) is an anti-ecology video called Resisting the Green Dragon, put out by a  bunch of extreme right-wing Christian fundamentalists.  I link to them here only because I think we need to know our enemy. "Know what to answer the unbeliever," says the Talmud.  In this case, the "unbelief" is outright denial that climate change exists or that we are responsible for taking care of God's Creation.  The group also claims that developing green energy is oppressive to the poor -- a stance that I find absurd.  Their full video is not free to view online, but believe me, the 12-minute preview is all you need to get the gist.  UGH!!!  (See comments area below for  instructions on how to access it.)

Chinese Jade Dragon carving
I also find it really strange (or shall we say ignorant?) that they would call ecology a "Green Dragon," given that dragons, especially jade dragons, are a positive symbol of wisdom, health and happiness in Chinese philosophy -- very different from the nasty dragons of Christian mythology that were slain by medieval knights.  One does not kill a Chinese dragon.  In fact, Chinese dragons were once believed to control the weather, and offending a dragon could result in droughts, floods, and famines -- definitely issues connected to global warming.

Now granted, that's just mythology, but such symbolism can be powerful.  So I have no problem with being labeled a Green Dragon -- let's turn the pejorative into a compliment!  And maybe this right-wing group should be called Green Ostriches, since they are putting their heads in the sand about a threat to our planet that affects everyone and everything living on it.

Unfortunately, right-wing Christians are not the only ones with their heads in the sand.  I have run across a lot of climate change denial in the Jewish community as well, especially among the Orthodox, who tend to lean to the Right politically.  I have more than once been told by fellow Hasidim that global warming is a hoax invented by Al Gore.  One of the reasons I founded this blog was to reach out to my fellow religious Jews and say, "Learning Torah includes ecology, too -- if 'the Earth is the Lord's' (Psalm 24:1), then we are offending God by polluting and destroying it."

And so, for my part in Earth Day today, here is the link to my short video "Saving Our Imperiled Planet: Part 1, Earth and Torah,  which deals with why Jews today are often so disconnected from nature and the environment, and my own journey toward reconnecting with the Earth. (although this video is more about animals than global warming per se,  feedlots and factory farms do contribute a lot of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.)   There are both historical and spiritual reasons for this disconnect from nature in the Jewish community, as well as the very practical reason that most Orthodox Jews nowadays live in urban environments where there is little contact with the outdoors.

I encourage you to check out all these links, and give some serious thought today as to how you are relating to nature within your own spiritual practice.  Let's make every day Earth Day!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Happy Spring in Minnesota -- Ha Ha Ha!

It's like a really late April Fool's Day joke -- one that doesn't seem very funny anymore.  Just when buds were beginning to swell and I thought "Spring at last!" we get this --  knee-deep snow in my yard, with more on the way - and that was on top of the other storm we got last week!   Minneapolis got 9 inches at the airport this time around, breaking the 1984 record for snowfall on that date and making this the 4th snowiest April on record in the metro area.  St. Cloud, MN, officially got 12 inches, Duluth got 18.  Hard to say what I got, because it is still drifting  all over the place, but it is at least a foot deep in flatter areas.

Enough is enough -- I'm sick of shoveling snow!

Here is a view of my chicken coop, taken from the back porch around 7:30 this morning (To see more detail in any of these shots, click the pic to enlarge):

Needless to say, the chickens and geese will not be going outside today.  I'm not looking forward to slogging down there to feed them, either.   This is a good day for everybody to stay cooped up inside.   Since the plow has not come down my back road yet, and probably won't be here for a long while, I can't go anywhere anyway.  This certainly is not the "1-4 inches" originally predicted!

Here's a picture of my sukkah frame in the front yard.  (A sukkah is a special booth for a Jewish harvest festival.)   A couple seasons ago, I left the covering and top of the sukkah up too long, and the snow collapsed the whole thing.  (Read that story  and see a pic).  This time around, I was smart enough to remove everything down to the bare frame in the fall.  All the snow you see on top is clinging to nothing but the 2-inch diameter support poles.  Which just goes to show how very wet and sticky this stuff really is.  If it melts off too fast, there could be flooding, although since we are on a hill, we are reasonably safe from that.  But rivers are already rising in places like Iowa and Illinois, where this came down as rain.

My dog Jasmine was not too happy about the deep snow, either -- her disgust is very clear in this photo.  No way we could go for a walk today -- I just put her out on the chain to do her stuff.  She slogged out to her usual spot by the edge of the trees, then came  right back in, to flop on her bed in the mud room.

My other big dog, Gypsy, stayed out longer, but she wasn't too thrilled with deep snow, either.   She just pooped by the steps, barked in answer to the dogs down the road, then called it done.  Sherlock, our mini-schnauzer, usually goes out the front sliding door off-leash, but today he refused until I cleared the snow off the porch and shoveled an area for him at the bottom of the steps.  I can't blame him -- the snowdrifts are way over his head.

Willow tree at the edge
of my dirt road.
In spite of this late storm, there are still some visible signs of spring.  One of the first we see around here is the greening of the bark on the willow trees -- which you can see here, in spite of the blowing snow swirling past it.  While I was taking this picture I also saw pussy willows in bloom.  Normally I'd be cutting some of those to bring inside as a spring bouquet, but today I was not about to slog down there into the ditch to get them -- especially since things were starting to melt before this storm, so it could be swampy under all that snow.

The buds on this black maple are in my yard are beginning to swell.  The wind was shaking the branches so hard, the picture came out a bit blurry, but you can clearly see the reddish buds through the coating of snow.

This kind of storm does produce some really nice shots, because it sticks to everything, creating a sort of fantasyland.  Shoveling it, on the other hand, is another story.  It is heavy and sticky, clogging up the snowblowers and creating a lot of business for local chiropractors.  But since the snow is still blowing around and the plow has not been down our road yet, there's no point in clearing the driveway yet.  We're  going to just hunker down and get ready for the Sabbath this evening -- wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom, Peace and blessings!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Robins are back - I hope they survive this late winter storm

Three days ago I was listening to robins singing in my yard, watching a flock of juncos passing through on their way to Canada, and hearing flocks of geese overhead, honking their way back north.  Today we are getting buried in snow again -- at the same time Washington D.C. is having record breaking 90s -- in April!  Talk about global weirding.

Jet Stream, April 11, 2013
(Map courtesy of 
The instability of the Jet Stream is a big contributor to all this strange weather.  I can remember when it pretty much stayed put up in there Canada, circling the arctic and dipping occasionally into Minnesota but no further south.  Now, as you can see from this map, it has gone crazy.  And with it comes all this weird  weather.  That huge dip is pulling cold air south, where it meets warm air from the Gulf and produces severe storms, including early tornadoes along the front.   It also traps warm air on the East Coast, resulting in those record-breaking 90s yesterday. (For more on how the Jet Stream is causing more severe weather lately, read this article on Climate Central.)

Last year's crab apples provide
food for spring birds
Meanwhile, birds on migration are getting caught in the storms.  The winds have been very strong today, so I suspect we will have a major bird drop around here (which is different from a bird dropping!)  A bird drop is when migrating birds come down to wait out the bad weather.  Sometimes you get to see some unusual species when the weather clears -- if the birds survive.

I find myself wondering what those robins on my land are eating today.  The Juncos can find seeds on tall grass stalks and the harrier hawk who returned a few days ago will no doubt find a rodent or two around the chicken coop.  But the ground is still too frozen for those robins to find any worms.  In the past I have seen them picking on frozen crab apples still on the trees.  So maybe that will help.

Minnesota drought map 4/11/2013
(Click pic to enlarge)
In spite of this snowstorm, we are still in the midst of a serious drought here.  Today's drought map shows my county, Pine, in the "severe" category.   (For more on the drought, click here.)

Last year it was so dry in late summer-fall that we headed into winter about 7 inches below normal in precipitation.  With the ground still frozen, all that this snow will do is run off -- which helps the wetlands downhill from my place, but won't do much for the garden.  In fact, it is so dry that, for the second year in a row, I decided not to tap my trees for maple syrup.  They grow along the edge of seasonal woodland wetlands that normally provides them with plenty of spring moisture during the melt-off, but this year it is bone dry.  I saw on the news that some syrup producers are getting a decent run -- guess it depends on where you are.  But for everybody it is very late, because of the abnormally cold spring.  In the past, syrup production would begin in mid-March and be over by now.

All of which goes to show that the climate is indeed changing.  Better get used to the new normal -- whatever that turns out to be...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

New book tells inspiring story of Jake Barnett, autistic boy genius

The Spark (cover image)
As I have written before on this blog, I am an adult on the autism spectrum (Asperger's).  Last year, in a previous article, I looked at some of the social pressures we autistic people face, and suggested that parents, therapists, and employers should focus on what we can do, not what we can't.

A case in point is the true story of Jake Barnett in a new book out this month entitled The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius by Kristine Barnett.   Not only is this an inspiring story of a mother's struggle with "experts" on behalf of her gifted autistic son, it is also a general formula for success.  Instead of struggling to get autistic children to give eye contact or play patty-cake, Barnett focuses on what they like to do and builds from that.

Jake Barnett is a genius, but if his mother had accepted the advice of the special ed people, his brilliant mind would have been lost to the world.  At age 2, she was told he would never learn to read or even tie his shoes -- in spite of his obsession with alphabet cards.  All the tests focused on things he was either unable to do or -- and this later proved to be the case -- too bored to do.  While his mind was studying light and shapes and geometric patterns -- things the teachers saw as mere useless distractions -- he had no interest in sitting in a circle with other children or playing with puppets, the usual kinds of expectations for toddlers.  And so he was mislabeled as hopeless.

Kristine Barnett refused to accept a "ceiling" for her son and decided to give him all the alphabet cards he wanted, as well as whatever other activities he found interesting, and work with him from there.  This was completely against all the professional advice -- even her husband Michael was skeptical at first -- but eventually it worked.  As long as Jake could focus on the things he loved -- astronomy, math, history, physics -- he was willing to work on the more mundane socialization skills. As he grew older, he did begin to communicate and socialize with other kids, but he was so far ahead of his age group in academics that by third grade he was dying of boredom and starting to regress back into his own world again.

The solution?  Get him into a special college program, and eventually into college itself.  At age 12, he became a paid researcher in quantum physics -- and solved an open ended problem nobody else had ever solved before.  In 2012 he was featured on 60 Minutes.

Now granted, not every autistic child is a genius.  My own IQ, as high as it is, pales in comparison to Jake Barnett.  But, as I read this story, I could not help comparing it with my own life. I saw some striking parallels, as well as many (sometimes sad) differences.  For one thing, I am 65 years old.  Back in the 1950s when I was in grade school, autism was not so well understood, and Asperger's wasn't even on the charts.  Because I had speech (I was talking at 9 months and could read a newspaper before I got to kindergarten), I was seen as just a bright problem kid who "does not work and play well with others."  But the signs were all there.

Like Jake and several other children in the book, I also retreated into myself between age two and three -- so much so, that I do not remember the names of any of my classmates, and only one teacher -- the one who locked me out in the hall when I had a meltdown.  By high school I was so bored (and so badly bullied) that I almost flunked out.  And I can remember none of my high school teachers or classmates either, nor did I bother to go to my graduation ceremony.  The only reason I got into college was because of my very high SAT scores.  Not until college did I begin to come out of my shell.

I also did not have such a kind, understanding mother as Jake does, either.  When Kristine Barnett talks about mothers of autistic children who "no longer even look at their child," she is describing my mother, may she rest in peace.  My mother had definite ideas of what she wanted her children to be, and I wasn't it.  My early obsession was with insects, which my mother found disgusting and tried to discourage.  Nice Jewish boys don't run around with butterfly nets.  By the time my sister was born, my mother had already given up on me.  She abandoned me emotionally and focused on her "normal" child instead.  An all-too-common story.  Today I wonder if we ever bonded at all.  My father used to call me "oblivious," and accused me of "not caring about anybody but myself."

So I ended up fumbling my way through life.  I sometimes wonder what I might have achieved if my family had nurtured my genius more, instead of lamenting that I never went to parties or the prom. (I did eventually find love and marry at age 33.  My wife and I are still together.)

I share my story, not to complain or badmouth my family, but to reinforce what Kristine Barnett wrote in her book: "...I believe that autistic kids hear their parents talking about patty-cake or asking for a hug, but they're just not interested in those things.  Have you ever been trapped at a party with someone talking about something you don't particularly care about -- sports maybe, or politics or classic cars?  Certainly people with autism are in our world.  They're just not thinking about the things we want them to think about."

I can relate to that.  Sports are so boring to me, I never bothered to learn the rules.  And fighting over a ball seems so utterly pointless.  I never have understood what all the excitement was about.  But show me a bug, and I can tell you all you ever wanted to know about it -- and then some.  The same is true of Jake's mathematics, which for him are not work, but a form of genuine fun.  (How many times have people told me that I "need to learn how to play"?  But I am playing, I just don't do it with balls and bats.  Academics are FUN to me!)

Jake long ago surpassed his mother's ability to understand his equations but, unlike my mother, she nurtured his genius and, at the same time, continued to be mom and surround him with love. She has what my mother did not: a philosophy that says every child is a unique gift of God and should not be crammed into a prefab mold.

Barnett's tells a wonderful story about a girl named Katy (p.148), who is severely autistic and does not speak, but loves to bake and decorate cakes.  Under Barnett's guidance, she got so good at it that she eventually found a job as a cake decorator.  A job that does not required much social interaction, where she can work alone in the back room to create her masterpieces.  Is this not better than wasting time trying to get her to give good eye contact and chat around the water cooler?

So I do hope that a lot of people read Jake's story and take it to heart.  This is not to say that we should never seek professional help.  But those professionals are not gods, they don't know everything, they make mistakes.  And maybe it is time for them to reevaluate their testing methods before we lose any more fine minds that are not willing to respond to patty-cake but who, like Jake, might be working on some revolutionary new idea.  After all, if (autistic) Bill Gates had not come up with the idea of a pre-recorded, loadable operating system (instead of programming each computer separately), you might not be reading this review online.  Think about that as we head, once again, into Autism Awareness Month.
See a slide show of Jake and read an interview with his mother

*  *  *  

UPDATE:  People keep asking me if Jake Barnett is Jewish, and that keeps showing up in the searches that got people to my blog.  He is not Jewish.  According to the book, his family are from a liberal branch of Mennonites.  His story is not here because I am Jewish.  It is here because I am autistic.