Nest Observation

When Natural History continues deep into the winter, a nest observation is a good exercise.  My students read selections from John James Audubon's Birds of North America (available for free here; note the wonderful description of the wood thrush!).  I collected a dozen different nests and we tried to identify them using Audubon's descriptions.  This was great for helping us dig deep into his text, as well as for training powers of observation.  And--it really is amazing how different nests can be, and that birds can make nests at all. 

Robin's nest at top--mud being the dead giveaway.  The lower one I can't identify . . .  any guesses?

Maple Syruping

We had a good snow the day we boiled the sap down for maple syrup.  The spring of 2012 was the first time I ever embarked on Maple Syruping.  What a lot of work, but what fun!  A good friend put me on to this starter kit from Maple Madness.  I got the Expansion Pack because all I wanted was the plastic tubing to be split into however many lengths you wanted (I did five equal pieces) and six plastic taps.  At Tractor Supply I got five 5-gallon buckets.  I also bought some cheesecloth and a candy thermometer there.

Here's what we did.  We followed directions more or less like these.  A few notes.  We tapped the trees in February when the sap was starting to run, i.e. when the daytime temperature was above freezing but the night-time temperature was below freezing.

We set out buckets on the ground and fed the tubing from the spout to the bucket through a little slit in the lid of the bucket.

The buckets had to be checked and emptied into the sap reservoir at varying rates.  Once a day or every other day is good.

For the New Year


Christ speaks: "Many love Mary as if she were their Mother . . . I want you to realize that Mary is your true Mother in the supernatural order . . . Mary has given you life--the most real life. She gave it to you at Nazareth, on Calvary, and in your Baptism. At Nazareth she conceived you, in conceiving Me. . . . By consenting to give Me life, she also consented to give it to you. In becoming My Mother, she became yours. . . . 

I was the Head and you were a member. Mary bore us both; though in different ways, in her maternal womb; for the members and the Head have not a separate existence."

--Fr. Emil Neubert, My Ideal: Jesus, Son of Mary

Mapping your Country Round

He loved maps, and in his hall there hung a large one of the Country Round with all his favorite walks marked on it in red ink. - The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Mapping a favorite walk in your area is a great exercise for building powers of observation.  Furthermore, it's almost bound to strengthen the love you bear your home country.  I made some maps recently by hand for some friends of their home towns and the local roads, rivers, lakes, and paths nearby.  I wasn't even from that area, but drawing out the little woods and streams made me love this land more.  To map, I used paper, pencil, magic marker, and mostly Google.maps.  But there were some other helpful sites:  www.terraserver.com is fine, but I wish I could get these topographical maps at Trail.com! And a post over at the Forest Rat reminded me of the USGS free topographical maps.  You also ought to walk these areas, of course. This makes a good gift, too, but maybe next year!

Merry Christmas 2016


Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,
and usher in the morning;

O shepherds, shrink not with affright,
but hear the angel’s warning.

This child, now weak in infancy,
our confidence and joy shall be,

the power of Satan breaking,
our peace eternal making.

Merry Christmas!

The Benefits of Writing Stories


I recently came across this article concerning a study about the mental and physical benefits of writing about personal experiences in a way which involves emotions. James W. Pennebaker and James D. Seagal presented research on this in "Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative," Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55, no. 10 (1999): 1243–1254. You can find a good bibliography of the extensive research in this area before 1999 at the end of the article.

This reminds me somewhat of Victor Frankl's thesis in Man's Search for Meaning, that is, that human beings have a need to understand the meaning of events. Understanding can be more important than merely ending the negative aspects of events, even terrible events. Other themes from MacIntyre, Bettelheim, etc. come to mind, too.

Gifts for my Students

For my students I found a poem that (I hoped) spoke to each particular student.  I printed each poem out and made it into one of these origami cranes.  The origami was easy; finding a poem that spoke to what was best and singular to a particular human soul, and finding poems equally good--that was hard! 

Helping Students Gain from Finals Week

It is important to attempt and succeed in arduous things.  And that's why I think it a good idea to take a finals week as seriously as an epic contest.  One can synthesize and learn so much from a finals week properly carried out.  But, of course, worry can ruin this week!  When I was a student I really appreciated how some teachers came in and cooked us breakfast for dinner.  This stamped the week as something important.

So one year I ran three-hour study sessions for the courses I was teaching.  During the finals I gave, I made coffee for the students and put out bottled water and juice.  I doled out donuts, chocolate, and vacation reading lists (because they should keep reading, even if that's the last thing they want to do!  I wanted them to recognize study for the luxury and pleasure it really is).  For the whole student body, I ran a free espresso bar in the mornings and set out a spread on the penultimate night of finals week--trail mix, popcorn, and two huge coolers full of delicious juices and seltzer water.  (Give them protein and Vitamin C!  I always caught a cold during the finals week of my student days.)  On the wall near all this good stuff, I posted giant quotations that the students would recognize and love--

From the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V:  " . . . He who sheds his blood with me today . . ."
From Joan of Arc:  "God will find me a way.  I was born for this."
and finally, from El Cid, the morning of the great and terrible battle:  "What a good day this is going to be!"

One Person at a Time

I recently learned a great piece of advice from someone with a very busy schedule.  In the course of his day, it was pretty normal to have at least two of the following occurring at the same time:  someone in his office wanting to talk, someone on the telephone, and he in the middle of an email or writing a letter.  When I met him, he seemed one of the most relaxed persons I had ever met.  He told me that he used to try to multi-task all these communications--you know, talk on the phone at the same time he was writing an email or filing something, etc.  It was so easy; it made him feel like he could get everything done.  "But it actually made everything take longer," he said. "Because I couldn't really give my attention to everyone.  So now I stop what I'm doing and listen to one person at a time."

I thought this amazing advice.  No wonder he seems so relaxed.  He always gives his undivided attention to a person and his needs.  He says this actually makes it easier to help people and to help them more quickly!  What are we doing if we don't have five minutes of undivided attention for a human being?  This seems like real engagement with reality, and the only real way to build community.  This reminds me of Simone Weil's essay "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies" which I posted about here.     

The Catholic Cave

The Catholic Cave is a fantastic radio conversation airing on Catholic Radio Indy every Saturday and Sunday at 11 AM (EST). Join Marc Tuttle and Timothy O'Donnell, with their host, Kent Blandford, discussing all things philosophy, including culture, education, beauty, bioethics, faith and science, and all in a way which is both thought-provoking, entertaining, and refreshing. I was reminded of how John Senior and friends used to teach by having a conversation. The conversation of friends, so praised by thinkers from Plato to John Paul II, and so needed in the virtuous life, needs to be modeled. Tuttle and O'Donnell do that well. They also do a great job of going deep without being pedantic or too heavy for a weekend morning.  Think "Car Talk" meets philosophy!

A good way to wrap your mind around the mission of the show is to listen to their episode "Cave 101: Back to Basics." Listen live to Catholic Radio Indy by clicking here. Or enjoy podcasts from past episodes of The Catholic Cave by clicking here.

Tuttle and O'Donnell also bring in guests sometimes such as Dr. James Eberl, Dr. Kevin Vost, Dr. David Deavel, James Kalb, and many others. I had the pleasure of doing a show with these guys on The Catholic Cave. The show airs this weekend (November 26-27) and will be available later as a podcast. We discussed parishes, education, learning through experience, Hilaire Belloc, being a Millenial, and a lot more.

Thanksgiving Traditions

One Thanksgiving, I was working at an institution where we hosted a banquet for all the staff and students. We played jazz and voyageur music.  We ate a lot of turkey.  We had door prizes and contests. We posted pictures of Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, Miguel Pro, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Bl. Marie of the Incarnation, Fr. Damien, John de Brebeuf, and many others. And then we all went outside to whack a pinata I had made in the shape of a piggy bank.

The stick had been christened "Bob Queequeg," a nice Herman Melville tribute.  I didn't realize that one can buy pinatas quite cheap at party stores.  Still, making this pinata was great fun.  I joined two punching bag balloons (one slightly less inflated), and covered them with five layers of glue/water/newspaper strips.  Then I popped the balloons, filled this guard-like shape with candy, harnessed it to some clothesline, and covered the whole thing with pink tissue paper.  The legs and snout are paper cups taped on and covered with pink tissue paper.  The ears are triangles of cardboard taped on and covered with pink tissue paper.  The curly tail was made with wrapping paper ribbon zipped across a scissors.  It was WAY TOO STURDY!  After each kid got two swipes, and it still hadn't busted, we called every staff, faculty, spouse, chaplain, cook, proctor, senior, and student to have a whack at it!  And finally the Dean had to cut it open with a pocket knife so I could toss the candy to the younger attendees.  Such a good time!  Here is the beloved chaplain taking a whack.

Stay Put

Tomorrow is the Feast of Christ the  King, which I will celebrate in my home parish.

Part of my research at Maryvale Institute involved reading about the Benedictine vow of stability--what that means and how it has been interpreted over the years.  What good could be gained by promising to stick close to one's community or location?  Or does it just mean perseverance in the pursuit of Christ?  My interest was to see how much stability can be interpreted as geographic stability--commitment to these people in this place.  This research afforded me some profound reading about the reasons one would stay put for the Kingdom of God.  Here are quotations from two of the best articles I've read, one from Michael Casey's "The Value of Stability," Cistercian Studies Quarterly 31 (1996), 287-301 and Augustin Roberts, “The Meaning of the Vow of Stability,” Cistercian Studies 7 (1972), 256-269.
The vow “discourages us from deferring love until we find a community worthy of it.  The barriers to love are within ourselves.  Until we dismantle them, no community will meet our standards.  Meanwhile progress ceases.  And because we fail to recognize how much we contribute to our own unhappiness, we project blame onto the community.  Stability is really a matter of learning to love.  And this process means staying around long enough" (Casey, “The Value of Stability,” 295).  This text, I think, is the same as that included in Casey's longer work An Unexciting Life.   

“It must be recognized that one of the principal reasons of the vow of stability is to guard against the temptation to seek a greater good in another place or community . . . Stability is directed against the possibility of an evil disguised as a spiritual good.  In itself, the vow makes it impossible for a monk to change his community; but the purpose of the vow is to make him realize that stability itself is an immense good, and that in the vast majority of cases it constitutes a much greater good than that which might be attained by a change to another community or Order.  If a monk maintains stability, he will be able to effect the great change which alone is important:  change within himself, transformation into Christ, full openness to the Holy Spirit.  If we seek satisfaction somewhere else, we are not going to work to attain the good which can be ours here and now. 

Eric Sloane

Eric Sloane's detailed illustrations and informative texts are a delight, especially Look at the Sky and Tell the Weather or A Reverence for Wood. Sloane (1905-1980) has a biography here. This man mined a wealth of knowledge which is rapidly being lost and chronicled it in beautifully illustrated  . . . journals? . . . fieldguides?  . . . handbooks?  I'm not sure what to call his books.  But once you start, you'll be hooked.

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