Posts Tagged ‘nature’

To Boldly Go …

Posted: July 15, 2011 by Jim Killam in history, nature
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Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my boyhood was dominated by news about space. America was making good on John F. Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the moon by the end of the ’60s.  I remember watching the live TV broadcast July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong hopped down that last ladder rung from the Lunar Module to the dusty moon surface. His historic line: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The moon landing was Apollo 11, and that’s the one everyone remembers. But it was the Apollo 8 mission, in December 1968, that blazed the trail. Astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders became the first humans ever to leave earth’s orbit.

And as they came into orbit around the moon, they were the first humans to witness and photograph an Earthrise: the entire globe coming into view, from the vantage point of a completely other world. Think about the significance of that moment.

No one has seen an Earthrise since December 1972, the final Apollo moon mission. It’s been almost 39 years since anyone left Earth’s orbit. Cost concerns and the Vietnam War ended Apollo several missions earlier than planned. And now, with the postponement of a Mars mission, it’s going to be an awfully long time before anyone does it again.

It’s hard to believe that, in an 11-year stretch from 1961 to 1972, men reached space, then reached the moon … and then just stopped going where no man had gone before.

In one sense, the 1960s space race was about the Cold War and beating the Russians. But, in a broader sense, it was about the basic human desire to explore the unknown.

As the final space shuttle launched last week, signaling the beginning of a long break in America’s space ambitions, a lot of us felt a little sad. A few of our astronauts will still hop rides on Russian rockets to the International Space Station, but it’s not the same. Space exploration has become space commuting. It’s like an ocean liner never leaving site of shore.

Avoidance of risk and avoidance of adventure, because they cost a lot (and I’m not talking just about money), is a way of life that snags too many people, Christians included. In “Dare to Desire,” John Eldredge wrote:

“God has rigged the world so that it only works when we embrace risk as the theme of our lives. … All attempts to find a safer life, to live by the expectations of others, just kill the soul in the end. That’s not how we find life.”

Here’s hoping that we go back to space and that we reach Mars and beyond. God has wired us for exploration and adventure. Those slogan writers for The North Face apparel company get it: We’ve lost something as a human race, spiritually, when we stop exploring.


Wild Kingdom

Posted: October 11, 2010 by Jim Killam in books, nature
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My wife and I just spent a long weekend in Rocky Mountain National Park and the adjacent town of Estes Park, Colo. Those two entities represent quite a study in contrasts. The park, even on a crowded weekend like this, is vast wilderness where solitude is in great supply. It’s not a remote wilderness on the order of Yellowstone or Glacier, but it’s still pretty good. In the spectacular-but-brief autumn, the aspen leaves turn a dazzling gold and the park’s elk herds come down to the meadows for rut, or mating season.

Estes Park is where everyone stays when they visit the park, and it’s everything you’d expect in a tourist trap. The brochures say 3 million people visit Estes Park every year. They were all downtown on Saturday buying T-shirts and fudge. It was the annual Elk Fest, one of the busiest weekends of the year.  By early afternoon, thousands of tourists had already done the perfunctory drive through the eastern side of the park, and now they were back to the familiar noise of cars, cell phones and throngs of people. There were so many people in some of the shops, you literally could not take a step.

This was anything but peaceful, and soon we escaped back to the park. The rest of that day and Sunday, we enjoyed the overwhelming quiet of the vast Rocky Mountain wilderness. During the last two hours of daylight Sunday, we sat along a roadside and watched a drama quietly play out about 100 yards away, in a meadow with Long’s Peak as a backdrop. It was more of a chess match, really, between a young bull elk and an older, larger bull. The young bull – let’s call him Steve – showed up in the meadow with a harem of 10 cows (female elk). Soon, the older bull – we’ll call him Larry – showed up on the same meadow to graze with 14 of his own cows. Among sex-crazed bulls, the name of the game is intimidation. Larry slowly walked just close enough to Steve for Steve to know not to mess with him. Then Larry gradually herded 4 of Steve’s cows away and into his harem.

Larry sends Steve on his way, alone and defeated.

If you’re keeping score at home, that makes it Larry 18, Steve 6. Steve and his remaining cows wandered close to the road, where about 20 people and their cars had now gathered to quietly (almost reverently) watch. This is where Steve, if he were smart, would have known when to fold ’em, and been on his way with his 6 cows.

But no. Steve gathered his harem about 75 yards from Larry’s. Then 50 yards. The older, stronger bull turned, annoyed, and sounded a short bugle blast. Steve got the message, and retreated to a back corner of the meadow. And slowly, over the next 30 minutes, Larry herded away Steve’s remaining 6 cows. Larry 24, Steve 0. Checkmate. Old, strong and patient had just schooled young and impulsive. Steve retreated even farther back into the meadow, sat in the grass alone and sulked.

As this had slowly played out, a few people had stopped their cars, taken a few pictures and left again. They might have gotten a nice photo, but they missed the story. Watching this drama play out, live, was better than any National Geographic program.

God feels very close in these kinds of moments, and I feel very small – like his creation is quietly and confidently declaring its wildness and its majesty. I understand the importance of community … but it’s good to strike a balance between that and quiet solitude. We need one to appreciate the other. And we need both, to better understand God’s character and creativity.

Philip Yancey writes of a similar experience in his book, “Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?” Frustrated at his lack of quality prayer during a silent retreat, he hiked into a Rocky Mountain meadow and suddenly found himself in the company of 147 elk.

“After a while the very placidity of the scene began to affect me. The elk had not noticed my presence and I simply became part of their environment, taking on their own rhythms. … An elk does not have to work at having a quiet mind; it feels content standing in a field all day with its fellow elk, chewing grass. A lover does not have to work at attending to the beloved. I prayed for, and in a few fleeting moments received, that kind of absorbed attention to God. …

“I became more convinced than ever that God finds ways to communicate to those who truly seek him, especially when we lower the volume of the surrounding static.”