Why we are here:

Our signature Bible passage, the prologue to John's Gospel, tells us that Jesus (the Logos) is God and Creator and that He came in the flesh (sarx) to redeem His fallen, sin-cursed creation—and especially those He chose to believe in Him.

Here in Bios & Logos we have some fun examining small corners of the creation to show how great a Creator Jesus is—and our need for Him as Redeemer. Soli Deo Gloria.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Merry Christmas to All!

Christmas Holly’s thorny leaves and blood-red fruit—a hint of the true reason for the incarnation

She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. Matthew 1:21 (English Standard Version)

The Birth of Jesus Christ
1In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels
8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"
15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." 16And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
21And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Luke 2(English Standard Version)
Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hamamelis Yes--Hobgoblins No!

Well, it’s here, again—Halloween. Big orange pepos (specialized berries with tough rinds) are everywhere; and the little (and not so little) hobgoblins and probably quite a few “balloon boy flying saucers”, Sarah Palins and Obamas will be hitting up the neighbors for unhealthy treats.

You can probably tell by that lead that I am not thrilled about Halloween. It’s the devil’s holiday and I don’t like giving him any undeserved attention. So the closest I’ll come to recognizing the day is to offer the above photographs of a lovable but rather odd native tree. It’s called Witch-hazel, wherein lies the stupid Halloween joke.

Hamamelis virginiana is a small understory tree, usually less than 20 feet in height. It is straggly, usually with several trunks. In fact, some would even call it a shrub, rather than a tree. Nevertheless, it’s one of my favorite woody plants. It’s easy to identify and has so many unusual features that it’s just fun to look at during all seasons.

Everything about Witch-hazel seems irregular, like it should be found on the dented cans table at Stop & Shop. Take the leaves (the pictured ones were the only ones left on the tree in late October). Does that look like any other tree leaf, nicely symmetrical and pointy, with smooth or evenly toothed margins? Look at the base of the leaf—the two sides don’t match. And the edges of the leaf—all wavy and irregular, like they were cut out by a Kindergartner with plastic scissors.

Even more unusual are the flowers. What respectable tree blooms in October, after it has shed its leaves? And look at those flowers—yes, those stringy things are flower petals. You call those petals? I don’t know how those flowers get pollinated, but I suppose there are some insect visitors around to do the job, laughing all the while.

But it's the weirdness that makes Witch-hazel so fascinating and lovable.

Of course, when we think of Witch-hazel, we are likely to think first about a certain aroma and a cool feeling, back when barbers routinely splashed Witch-hazel lotion on your neck after your haircut. It’s been a long time since any barber has given me that treat. I wonder why they don’t do it any more. On my next visit to the tonsorial parlor, I must ask for, or maybe even demand a cooling splash.

What is that lotion anyway? For one thing, it’s evidence of the exquisite complexity of plants and their talents as biochemists. The extract from the leaves and twigs of Witch-hazel contain a virtual cornucopia of complex organics:
tannin, gallic acid, catechins, proanthocyanins, flavonoids (kaempferol, quercetin), essential oil (carvacrol, eugenol, hexenol), choline, saponins, and bitters. (You can click on each of those fancy names to discover more about them.) The drug store/barbershop solution contains some alcohol as well. Because it is an astringent, it shrinks tissues (seals any leaks that a razor nick may produce) and is used to treat various other skin-related problems.

But just think of the genetic instructions that are necessary to code for all those molecules, as well as the cellular mechanisms needed to manufacture them! We just have no excuse for claiming that plants are “simple” in any way. Just because they don’t jump around or do other things that your dog does, doesn’t mean that they are any less complex. It also means that we have no excuse for thinking they could have evolved from anything else by some mindless chance process. (Periodically, why not check the Creation/Evolution Headlines site in the "Links to good stuff" on your right? Dr. Coppedge and crew have a remarkable talent for uncovering logical falacies in supposedly legitimate scientific sources.)

I know, I know. We are supposed to be doing special things this year in honor of Mr. Darwin, just because it’s his 200th birthday. But the facts are these: he’s dead and his theory is hanging on by a thread—not in the minds of his sycophants but in the eyes of real experimental science. Every day, it seems, science reveals some new molecular machine in living cells that absolutely precludes life having originated by chance or that it can increase in complexity by mutations and natural selection.

Just a peek at one small, scraggly tree has me reflecting on the greatness of our Creator God. So why should I dress up and give one little bit of honor to the devil or paganism--or a 200 year-old dead man with a failed theory?

But if, just if, I were to backslide, what would I be this Halloween? I know—I would dress up as a witch—a pungently scented witch called Hazel.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A Prolonged Summer Blog Hiatus

TV shows, as a matter of course, take their summer hiatuses and force us to watch re-runs. Well, Bios & Logos has taken a prolonged hiatus, not in imitation of the entertainment industry, but just... because! But soon the juices will flow and fresh material will come with that flow. Check back often--perhaps even later this week--and be surprised. Meanwhile, if you are not a regular reader, just scroll down this page or even click to previous years in the archives. You may find some enjoyable and useful old stuff.
Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dazzling bracts

When it comes to botanical structures, bracts are the ones we probably think of least often. In fact, I’ll venture a guess that the great bulk of humanity hasn’t given them even a single thought—or even knows what one is. Actually, until dogwood season this year, my bractish meditations had languished—ever since last year’s dogwood season.

Bract (n). a modified leaf associated with a flower or inflorescence of flowers.
Oh, that’s helpful—not! But a picture is always worth a thousand hackneyed expressions, so a glance at our dogwood photographs will give you the opportunity of seeing hundreds of colorful specimens.

Now tell me the truth. Aren’t you muttering, “You mean those pink things aren’t petals?” Don’t feel bad—we’re all guilty of falling into that botanical sin.

Going back to the definition, if the pink things are bracts, where are the “flowers or inflorescences of flowers”? Right in the middle, where, if the whole ensemble were a flower, we would expect to see stamens and pistils, the reproductive parts of a flower.

Now that we’re oriented, we see that each flower—whoops, inflorescence of a dozen or more flowers—is surrounded by four colorful bracts. The flowers themselves, as you can see, are greenish-yellowish and minimalist, each with four petals and in various stages of opening.

Why big, colorful bracts—or big colorful flower petals, for that matter? Billboards, of course, to attract pollinators. They must work. Otherwise, why would dogwoods go to the trouble of investing a tremendous amount of energy to construct them? Just imagine the number of energy-sapping mitotic cell divisions it takes to produce that display--and the biochemical pathways necessary to produce the red pigment molecules.

Actually, wild dogwood, Cornus florida, usually has white, non-pigmented bracts. But, according to my favorite botany teacher, there was a mutation to a tree near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania that somehow produced the pink color. And all pink dogwoods are offspring of that tree. I have often wondered how a mutation could produce a complex red pigment where there was none before, since mutations always destroy information rather than adding to it. But who am I to disagree with Dr. Kuhnen? Nobody messes with Dr. Kuhnen. But then again, maybe she has rethought the matter by now. And dogwoods do know how to make red pigments for their fruit. So I’ll just keep cogitating on the matter.

At any rate, breeders, since then, have produced nearly twenty different cultivars from the wild types. I’m guessing our pictured specimens are “Amerika Touch-o-Pink.” Some wise nurseryman will no doubt show me up.

Now we should deal seriously with stories you will find all around the internet (do a Google search and you will find them—look for “The Legend of the Dogwood” or such) about how the rough notches in the dogwood bracts, often tinged with brown, represent the nail holes in Christ’s cross—and that Jesus was crucified on a cross made from a dogwood—and that dogwood trees were once the size of oaks—and that since then, dogwoods, out of deference to Christ’s sacrifice, have become only small understory trees….

Now hold on there. I enjoy a fable or good story as much as anyone. They’ve been around almost forever. Old Aesop wrote a ton of enjoyable ones (although most of them seem to have been
real downers. )

But when it comes to the Cross of Christ, fables and legends are out. That Cross and the event that took place on it are real history—momentous history! The Cross, and the subsequent resurrection, represent the turning point of human history (look at the calendar). Any attempt to fictionalize the Crucifixion, during which the Sinless Son of God took upon Himself the sins of His elect people, is so horridly blasphemous as to be unthinkable. The Crucifixion was not a pretty event and should not be turned into a pretty story. But the good news of substitutionary atonement is pretty—very pretty!
(II Cor. 5:21).

Christ may not have died on a dogwood—but He did create the dogwood—bracts and all. Think about THAT!
(John 1:3)

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, May 25, 2009

About alien mustards and other cruciferous oddities

After more than a month without a bloggy condiment from the bioman, it’s about time I snatched the Gulden’s from the fridge and spread the word about the Brassicas or Crucifers—the mustard family, that is. It’s also called the cabbage family. Take your pick. Either is correct, because botanical taxonomists are a fickle lot—keep changing their minds and the names of plant families. So technically, it’s either Cruciferae or Brassicaceae.

We can’t do justice to all the members of the family. After all, they include a whole range of your favorite—or not—veggies, not just cabbage, but broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, beets, radish, wasabi, and of course, mustard. We eat their flowers, stems, roots, leaves, seeds—raw, boiled, steamed, slawed, mashed, ground—whatever.

But wait—that’s not what this piece started out to be about. As you can see by the photos, it is supposed to be about a couple of pestiferous members of the family—invasive aliens that can ruin things for our native wildflowers.

The most infamous is of course the white-flowered one, Alliaria officinalis, the dreaded and deadly Garlic Mustard, which has virtually taken over many wooded areas and crowded out and poisoned out many native wildflowers. Once it grabs hold, it is almost impossible to eliminate, try as we may, by pulling or cutting, as witnessed by the photo of the hapless soul wading in a sea of the stuff (Sorry, Jim—didn’t make it to the last pulling session.)

The yellow-flowered species is another alien, one that prefers sunnier fields and meadows instead of shady woodlands. It’s called Winter Cress or Rocket. No one seems to get exercised by its appearance, perhaps because it’s prettier and doesn’t transform its environment into a weedy mess, as does its white-flowered relative. Its massive displays of sunny yellow brighten the early spring scene, so we usually don’t get xenophobic about it. Probably the worst thing it can do is to crowd out other aliens.

These mustards are masters at conquering the landscape because they are fast. They sprout fast; they bloom fast; they set seed fast, in stringy pods called siliques. So if you don’t get rid of them fast—before they go to seed—they will foil any attempts to eliminate them for years to come.

Their fastness also makes some mustard species valuable research plants. In fact, a University of Wisconsin geneticist has bred a really fast version of the common mustard, Brassica rapa. The plants bloom fourteen days after planting, so students can study their complete life cycle conveniently in the classroom. Appropriately, they are called Wisconsin Fast Plants®. Read about them

There is another Crucifer that has made its (really long) name in the science lab, a tiny weed called
Arabidopsis thaliana. Because of its short life cycle and convenience for laboratory culture, it has become what biologists call a model organism—one that has been studied extensively in hundreds of labs and has taught us more than almost any other about the genetics, embryology, growth and reproduction of the flowering plants.

One final Brassica-related fact, one that may disappoint or even distress you, is that there is no such thing as a canola. If you use canola oil in your kitchen (and I wish you wouldn’t—but that’s another story), I’ll bet you have wondered where it came from. I’m sorry to inform you that it came from Rapeseed, Brassica napus. Rapeseed oil is valuable as a lubricant—but it tastes awful and can be poisonous because of its high concentration of erucic acid. But some Canadian growers bred a low-acid version whose oil is suitable (some say) for human consumption and named it Canola—short for Canadian Oil Low Acid. My advice is to stick with olive oil, even though it’s not a Crucifer. It’s an honest oil, one that has nothing to hide.

We have wandered far in field, forest, laboratory and kitchen here. But now it is time to give thanks to the Creator for His gift of the Brassicas, alien or not, pestiferous or not, edible or not, for their contributions to nutrition, research and natural beauty. They are master architects and biochemical engineers, whose unimaginable complexity we are just beginning to recognize. Even Charles Darwin acknowledged their imagined evolutionary origin (along with all flowering plants) to be an “abominable mystery.”

And I will be thankful for getting through this piece without using the expression, “cut the mustard,” whose etymology I recently read about, but the details of which I promptly forgot. Maybe eating more cruciferous vegetables would help my memory.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A lily is never quite enough!

In 1919, a World War I soldier brought a suitcase full of big flower bulbs home to Oregon and passed them out to his friends. They grew them. They liked the sweet smelling, pure white lilies and started cultivating them. The climate of the Oregon coast proved ideal for growing Lilium longiflorum, and by 1945 there were more than a thousand Easter lily growers up and down the west coast.

But it takes a lot of work and patience to grow the bulbs—three years of planting, culling, separating, fertilizing, replanting—not to mention forcing them to bloom at just the right time of year. So now, only about ten commercial growers produce most of the lilies that pop up in stores and nurseries for sale at Easter time.

These lilies have become almost synonymous with Easter, along with bunnies and eggs. While those symbols are of pagan origin, as is the name Easter (we should be calling it Resurrection Day), the pure white lily can at least offer some imperfect analogies to the meaning of Passion Week, the turning point in human history.

Let’s begin with the color—pure white. The lily’s whiteness comes from the refraction of light within its cells, which act as miniature lenses. But notice, from our photographs, that without the proper lighting, the blossom may appear dingy and brownish. In fact, nothing can compare with Christ’s pure, holy whiteness. As Christians, we are robed in the white robes of Christ’s righteousness, not our own; and the dinginess of our old fallen human nature lurks within until, by His grace, we are transformed into His likeness.

How about the flower’s three-part structure? As a monocot, the lily has its parts in threes or multiples of three. I suppose we can make an analogy to the mystery of the Trinity—but again, it would be an pitifully imperfect one. Any little illustration of the Trinity falls miserably short. We use little diagrams and comparisons, simply because our puny human minds cannot embrace the concept of Holy God, one in being and essence, three in persons—let alone the hypostatic union: Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man, one in person. We believe in God on the high order of Trinity because His Word teaches it in so many ways.

As I write, here in my “man cave”, the fragrance of the Easter lily wafts in from the living room. The flowers are pumping out complex volatile molecules called terpenoids, their odor now diffusing throughout space. It’s a pleasant perfume, but one plant is quite enough for my home. Too many of these flowers in a closed space can produce so much of the stuff that the atmosphere can become oppressive and sickening. We can make a pretty good analogy here to the Gospel, the true Gospel (not the weak, inoffensive substitute preached in so many churches today) of the birth, death, burial and resurrection of Christ, as it is spread throughout the world. As the Apostle Paul said in II Corinthians 2: 15-16, “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life.” The true Gospel is heavenly sweetness to the ears of the believer, but an offense to those who refuse its message.

Easter lilies do not naturally bloom at Easter. They must be induced to bloom by artificially chilling the bulbs and altering day/night cycles. But Easter is perfectly timed. Of our Christian holidays, Easter is the one that is celebrated at the right time of year, coinciding as it does with Passover. Christ is our Passover. The first communion meal was a Passover meal. All aspects of the Passion Week were perfectly timed. All the actors in the original “Passion Play” did exactly what they were supposed to do, when they were foreordained to do it. There was no adlibbing. There were no accidents. Jesus’ death was not a fortuitous accident. It was all an integral part of God’s magnificent plan of the salvation of His people.

We said that it takes a lot of work to grow Easter lilies. Think of how much work by how many people must be involved from the time of the original planting of bulbs to the delivery of the blooming plants to nursery or store. But the work of salvation is by One and One alone! God did the work in the person of Christ—alone! Christians work because they are saved—not to achieve salvation. Sadly, all other religions, including some that claim to be Christian, insist that we must cooperate with God to achieve salvation. They present Easter lily gospels—hard work to produce short-lived plants that must be planted and worked for, year after year. Christ died once—only once—a sacrifice that propitiated God’s holy wrath—perfectly—for those who would believe.

In addition to the one Easter lily on my coffee table, there are a few silk flower arrangements here and there, mainly because I am too lazy to take care of real houseplants. So the substitutes provide some labor-free color around the place. But it would be an insult to use these dust collectors as an analogy of our True Substitute, the Lord Jesus Christ. Substitutionary Atonement is a big, fancy term, but it is one of the most important ones going! Christ died, not as a mere example for us to follow and not as an example of suffering, but in the place of—instead of—those who would believe. He is the true substitute! We sinners deserve nothing but death and eternal misery. By pure grace, because of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice, we have life instead!

And finally, let’s reflect on resurrection—what Easter is all about. The Easter lily may provide us with an imperfect analogy. After all, a really dead looking lily bulb is buried and in due time comes to life. But of course, the bulb wasn’t really dead at all, but merely in a dormant state. The sinless Son of God, Jesus, having been crucified, was dead—really dead, the consequence of His taking our sin—all of it—upon Himself on the cross. And any earthly analogy to that truth is so inadequate that it becomes idolatrous—even blasphemous—to think such a thing. His was not a mere temporary resuscitation. It was resurrection from death to everlasting life. He is risen. He is risen indeed!

So let us take the Easter lily for what it is, a fantastically complex creation, given to us as a tiny reminder of God’s unfathomable grace—but totally inadequate (as is this puny essay) as a representation of the Gospel.

I am posting this near the end of Resurrection Day (in the eastern United States) so that we may reflect on all that we did and didn’t do to honor Him on this, the commemoration of the most important weekend in human history. Most certainly we didn’t—nor could we ever—do enough. That’s why we need The Savior!

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, April 04, 2009

An Early Spring Salmagundi

Sorry, but you’ll have to bypass the primary definition of salmagundi—no fancy salad platters here—but today’s photos surely do represent a heterogeneous mixture of the good, bad and ugly. A couple of visits to Campgaw Reservation and the Celery Farm in the first weeks of spring yielded a bit of each.

Somewhere along the line, the American Beech lost the instructions for making very good abscission layers—those thin layers of cells that get dissolved by enzymes come fall, causing the petioles to separate from the twigs and the leaves to utter that familiar phrase, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” That’s fine with me, as the sprinkle of café au lait softens the blacks, grays and darker browns of the winter and early spring woodland. And the fact that the dead leaves tend to droop and curl probably reduces their surface area and prevents the buildup of snow, one of the several reasons that most deciduous trees like to get rid of their old leaves. It’s just one more reason that the American Beech is one of my favorite trees. Pin oaks like to hang on to their leaves, too. So I guess I had better add them to my favorites list as well.

As long as I am breaking my promise to lay off the fungi for a while, I might as well do it with something particularly disgusting. You will agree, I’m sure, that there is nothing even mildly attractive about Black Knot. Several reference books I looked at described it in scatological terms. I won’t go that far, but it does look like something on a stick. It’s a nasty parasite that can wreak havoc in a cherry orchard as well as with Wild Black Cherry trees. This ugly fungus kills young branches and whole trees if given the opportunity. Don’t cherry trees have enough to endure with tent caterpillars?

Euonymus alata (Cork Bush, Winged Euonymus or Burning Bush) is an absolute pest when it invades our woodlands, since it often displaces our native plants. But don’t blame it on the plant—blame it on the people who import it for ornamental use. This shrub has ways of escaping from yards into the woods, especially since birds have a yen for its bright orange seeds. Nevertheless, it’s a classy bush in its own right, if only for its unique twig design. Just try to imagine the amount of genetic information and precise engineering that goes into growing those pure cork, razor-edged wings out of a green twig. Nothing random about it! I wouldn’t have a negative thought about this Burning Bush if it didn’t often displace our native Burning Bush, an eponymous Euonymus (E. atropurpureus), also called Eastern Wahoo.

I refuse to get into a discussion here about bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers and their distinctions. Such conversations can get quite contentious and ugly. What we need right now is a true harbinger of spring. And the appearance of crocuses is certainly that. There are about eighty species of Crocus, thirty or more of which are cultivated. The most commercially valuable species is Crocus sativus, the stigmas of which yield the spice saffron, a very expensive way to make food yellow. There are fall crocuses too, but they aren’t harbingers. Fall doesn’t have harbingers. Only spring has harbingers. By the way, crocuses grow from corms, but I’ll leave it to you to look up the definition.

These brief springtime treks have once again reminded me of the importance of the biblical worldview in appreciating and understanding the significance of our environment. The good, the bad and the ugly aspects seen in our salmagundi have reminded me again of the framed motto on my desk: “If you don’t understand Genesis 3, you really don’t understand anything.” The very good world of the original Creation was wounded terribly by the entrance of sin. It is still God’s good Creation, but it and we personally desperately need to be bought back from the ravages of sin. It is our hope (assurance) that it will happen soon. Genesis 3:17-19 and Romans 8:18-24 are the passages to reflect on today. To read them in context ("Text without context is pretext") pop open the old-fashioned paper version--always more satisfying!

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fungi have to eat too, you know!

I’m sure you have caught up with the news that a honey mushroom fungus is consuming a forest in eastern Oregon. After all, it’s been doing it for over 2000 years.

Yes, genetic tests have pretty well confirmed that the 2300-acre fungus must have originated from one spore, and so is considered to be a single organism—the world’s largest, at an estimated 605 tons.

Consuming a forest, you say? Of course! Fungi, after all, are consumers (as are we), meaning simply that they and we can’t make organic compounds out of carbon dioxide and water like green plants can—so we have to consume ready-made food.

Unlike those clever lichen fungi in the last post, who partnered up with photosynthetic algae, most fungi must attack living or dead things with their digestive enzymes and absorb their victuals in liquefied form.

In the case of our honey mushroom, the food source is living Douglas Fir and other trees. And that makes this fungus a nasty parasite. It starts at the roots, grows up under the bark and eats the sapwood. And it sends ugly black “shoestrings” from tree to tree, thus spreading the destruction.

Doesn’t sound like a mushroom to me. Well, by now you realize that a fungus is always more than meets the eye. The bulk of our humongous fungus’s 600-ton mass consists of the mycelium, that mass of fibers underground and under the tree bark—eating and growing and spreading…eating and growing and spreading….eating and growing and spreading….

But once in a while, a portion of that mycelium gets happy, bunches together and grows upward, breaks the surface—and becomes a ‘shroom, the purpose of which is to produce reproductive spores in order to spread the misery. And that is usually the only part of the organism we ever see, unless we go poking.

Where does that leave us? With the saprophytes, of course. They have to eat too, you know. And that’s a good thing. Saprophytic fungi are the folks that do the bulk of the decomposing and recycling by eating dead plants, dead animals, dead everything. Without their services, dead stuff would pile up, fast. Soil would be depleted of nutrients and food cycles would grind to a halt—and so would we.

What a magnificent plan the Creator has devised to maintain stability in His sin-cursed biosphere! It is simple in principle, yet so intricate in detail and vast in scope that it has kept ecologists busy for decades trying to figure out how the biosphere stays so balanced—and how we human sinners keep trying to throw it out of balance.

You will have to admit that fungi are different from the rest of us. It took biologists a long time to admit this—they kept wanting to call them plants. But finally they had to give in, given all the weirdness—no separate cells to speak of, just long tubes (hyphae) of cytoplasm; a different substance making up their cell walls and a host of other biochemical and metabolic oddities. So the taxonomists (the classification guys) finally assigned the fungi a new kingdom: Kingdom Fungi. Is that too logical or what?

Fungi are highly skilled biochemists, able to produce complex digestive enzymes for their food-getting operations—and a variety of organic compounds that will kill you if given the chance—or at least make you wish you were dead, by damaging various internal organs. In fact, I wouldn’t chance eating any of the beautiful specimens in the above photographs. Are their sophisticated chemical laboratories designed for defense, or just a part of the Edenic curse? I plan to ask the Creator when I see Him. And to avoid meeting Him before my assigned time, it’s supermarket mushrooms only for me.

Well, it’s spring now, and things are starting to sprout, bloom, migrate and generally get happy. So maybe I’ll be able to lay off the fungi after this post. But you never can tell. Just as I was writing this, up popped an email from Amazon.com advertising
this new arrival. Will I be able to resist?
Soli Deo Gloria

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Beatrix Potter's Favorite Pets

After scrolling through the photos, I trust you are as much in love with lichens as Beatrix Potter was. What, you didn’t know? You don’t mean the Peter Rabbit lady? Yes, that lady.

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) grew up loving dogs, her pet rabbits, Benjamin and Peter—and fungi. And she liked painting them. Lichens, especially, fascinated her. In fact, she was one of the first people to suggest that lichens were some sort of symbiotic organisms. But no one believed her because she was a female. No EEOC in Victorian England!

So Bea’s career as a professional lichenologist was over before it began.

Potter version 2.0: writer and illustrator of children’s stories—Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, et al—earning her a more handsome income than lichens would ever have afforded her.

Nevertheless, Ms. Potter’s early adventures with the crusty symbionts helped awaken science’s interest in one of creation’s most fascinating phenomena—no thanks to Darwin. You see, at the time, any suggestion that nature could involve cooperation, rather than bloody competition and survival of the fittest was, well—anti-Darwinian. Now we know better—than Charlie D., that is.

A lichen is not, after all, a single organism; it’s a marriage of two or even three totally different organisms living as one cooperative household and creating what amounts to a new and identifiable species—in fact thousands of species, depending on the combinations of single organisms involved. The symbiotic cooperation involves the fact that one partner, an alga, is autotrophic—green—photosynthetic—makes food, while the other, a fungus, is heterotrophic—needs an external food source—but is good at soaking up available water and dissolving rocks to get minerals.

The alga-fungus combination, therefore, can live where neither partner could comfortably live separately. As you can see by the photos, that means on rocks and tree trunks—or even on frozen tundra soil. It’s a great arrangement. The biologists are not nearly as cooperative with each other and keep quarreling about words like parasitism, commensalism and mutualism with regard to lichens. Guess what? The lichens couldn’t care less. They just do what lichens do—cooperate to survive.

And survive they do. Their biomass exceeds that of all the life in the oceans, not primarily due to the rather skimpy examples we have in New Jersey, but because of the extensive ground cover they provide in northern climes, like the arctic tundra—good reindeer food and good medicine for natives of the area.

We can learn a lot from the lichens, about cooperation, of course, but also about living on a rock. Not just about the mundane life on the “third rock from the Sun,” but about living on The Rock—The Son.

A little Bible meditation will give you a break from my pitiful prose and offer something of eternal value. (I’ve made it easy by providing a “click-on” version—but real men and women will also want to crack open the paper version to read the verses in their contexts.)

Let’s start with my life verses:
Psalm 40:1-3 (Actually, He waited—and grabbed me when He was ready—I usually don’t wait patiently for anything.) And by the way, salvation is one event in which there is no cooperative effort. God does it all. Man-made religions always want us to think that we can help. Biblical Christianity is the only non-“Hamburger Helper” faith.

And a few more to click on and mull over:
Matthew 7:24; 1 Corinthians 10:4; and most certainly Psalm 18:2;

Finally, as the name of our pioneer lichenologist should remind us, God is the ultimate Potter—we are clay in His hands. And He will mold us into vessels for His ultimate glory and honor—something certainly much more than a crusty patch on an inert boulder.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, March 16, 2009

Feeling musty

I opened the carton, peeled away several layers of bubble-wrap and shrink-wrap—and there it was—my copy of Edwin Way Teale’s Circle of the Seasons! What a blast from the past; what a flood of memories; what other clichés will I use to describe the experience? And what is that smell? It’s the smell of a fifty-six year-old book just released from airtight shrink-wrap after a two-week entrapment. Musty!

Musty or not, I was excited to receive this nearly pristine first edition copy of a long lost friend from the past—for six dollars plus shipping! That’s only two bucks more than its original retail price!

All the packaging, aromas and pricing aside, what was so special about receiving this old book? As mentioned in an earlier post,
Edwin Way Teale was the author who, more than almost any other, sparked my interest in nature and nature photography. The brief daily entries and full page, extremely sharp black and white photographs had me going back to the book time after time in appreciation of Teale’s descriptive and photographic skills.

Let’s see if it still sparks. A couple of samples should tell us.

How about the January 9th entry:

THE NOBLE RED MAN. The “Noble Red Man” never was and never is—it is not races but individuals that are noble or courageous or ignoble and craven or considerate or persistent or philosophical or reasonable. The race gets credit when the percentage of noble individuals is high.

Oh, my! I can almost hear the PC police knocking at the door. I don’t think we could get away with that one these days.

Let’s try January 13:

OPTIMISM. Optimism is more likely if we keep our eyes on the average, the general, rather than the exceptions, the individual. The bat caught on burdock burs—this is the exception, the tragic, the unusual event. It is best not to dwell too long on the exceptions. But what if we are exceptions?

Huh? Other than seeming to encourage mediocrity and fear of risk taking, I fail to see much “spark” in this one.

OK, we’ll give him one more chance. Maybe it gets better later in the year. Let’s go for July 22:

BATTLE BY BOUNCE. Two bluejays in the backyard are quarreling over food. As each rushes toward the other, it bounces high in the air. This is a battle by bounce. The birds seem buoyant, as though partly filled with helium.

This one is at least based on a personal observation of nature in action. So I’ll give it a C, or maybe an Incomplete for its lack of detail.

Oh, Eddie, the spark is gone!

To be fair, I chose these examples mainly for their brevity and for their lack of luster. Many of the longer pieces are more descriptive and are fine examples of old fashioned natural history writing. And many of Teale’s other books, such as North with the Spring and Grassroot Jungles, having a more narrative style and without the constraints of the daily snippet format, were better written, as I recall.

Why the disappointment with my renewed acquaintance with my old friend after a half century? In a word (a very long word), it’s Weltanschauung, that is, Worldview. In high school and even in college, when I first read Teale, I frankly didn’t have much of one. All was naturalism and pragmatism—whatever the teachers and professors threw at me and whatever it took to get through. It seemed exciting and useful enough at the time—but no more.

Looking at the world through the Creator’s eyes makes all the difference. Seeing nature for what it is—His creation, wonderfully engineered and intricately crafted—is what makes it sparkle. A naturalistic, evolutionary worldview, because it is dead wrong, kills the spark. And because it doesn’t give credit where all the credit is due, it is inherently idolatrous—worshiping the created, rather than the Creator
(Romans 1:25).

And nature writing without the spark of the biblical Weltanschauung turns out to be pretty musty—no matter how long it’s been out of the shrink-wrap.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Last Snow Hike?

Click on the images to enjoy them even snowier

After our recent snowfall, possibly the season’s last, I decided I had better get my boots on and head to some areas of photographic potential if I wanted to get any snowy scenes. After all, it’s March, and spring is nigh.

So on March fourth, I marched forth (sorry) into Campgaw Mountain County Reservation, not far from home, and hiked the lengths of Hemlock and Indian Trails, shutter-snapping as I trudged on already well-trodden paths.

It’s surprising what snow cover does to a landscape, besides the obvious whitening. The pristine blanket both adds and subtracts detail. Gone is the confusion of fallen twigs, branches, leaf litter and smaller scattered glacial boulders. Added are shadows, both stark and subtle, of tree trunks and in the gentle irregularities in the snowy surface. Larger boulders, in other seasons often unnoticed among the clutter, now show off their surface detail of cracks, nicks and scratches, evidence of the rough treatment they received during their glacial journey long ago.

The simplified landscape almost forces us to see those finer details—the great variety of color and texture of the crustose and foliose lichens decorating the boulders; the unmistakable curly bark of the yellow birch; the heavily lenticeled bark of the black birch, sprinkled with tiny brown fungi; a snow-capped log, showing signs both of decay and of its former life; the straight-laced, strictly parallel branch veins of a fallen beech leaf.

But while enjoying all that which is revealed by the snow, we can easily forget that snow itself is one of the most amazing phenomena, indeed one of the most unique substances in all of Creation. The idea that sparkling, intricately patterned hexagonal crystals of frozen water can fall from the sky in enough quantity to cover the earth, sometimes several feet deep, is amazing in itself. But the uniqueness of water as a substance is even more so.

The three-atom water molecule is polar, positive at the hydrogen end, negative at the oxygen end. That allows the molecules to cling to each other and gives water its unique properties—properties that allow life to exist on our planet. Water is harder to heat or cool, harder to freeze, melt or evaporate, than almost any other substance. Instead of continuing to contract as it nears the freezing point, it expands, making it less dense, so that ice floats instead of sinking. (Who wants to skate on the bottom of a pond?) And water can dissolve more substances than almost any other solvent.

Of course, the amazing water molecule is just one of hundreds of design features, both terrestrial and astronomical, that the Creator has put in place and precisely calibrated in order to make Earth a suitable home for life in all its tremendous variety, and especially for those made in His image.

Looking at our surroundings these days, we see a Creation somewhat out of kilter, poorly calibrated, even less than suitable, making life difficult or even miserable. The “very good” original Creation, cursed by the entrance of sin, awaits its redemption.
Snow is an apt example of the mixed messages sent by the good/not-so-good Creation. We love snow for its Currier and Ives Christmas card scenic beauty; we hate it when we have to shovel it or when it impedes our travel. Skiers love the invigorating recreation it provides, but they hate the injuries and even death it can cause.

My short snowy hike, perhaps the last of the season, was all Currier and Ives, with no bumps, bruises or casts to show for it. The resultant photographs certainly can’t match the images produced by those iconic lithographers—but enjoy them anyway, for what they’re worth.
p.s. Currier and Ives also illustrated disasters, like the burning of the Steamboat Lexington, but for obvious reasons, that scene was never used on a Christmas card. But it further supports the point that the very good Creation was horribly wounded by the occurrences recorded in Genesis 3.
Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, March 02, 2009

Bees get a town council meeting buzzing

A while back, I was invited to attend a local town council meeting at which honeybees were to be a topic for discussion. Excuse me? Let me explain.

It seems that a town resident wants to put a couple of hives in her yard as an educational hobby and to produce some honey. And a group of high school students with an ongoing project wants to establish a demonstration hive at their school. Problem: there is a town ordinance against raising honeybees. And the strange thing is that the ordinance lumps the prohibition of beehives with that of raising goats. Go figure. (Sorry, I just couldn’t avoid using that cliché—the situation is just so go-figure-ish).

Before considering the reason for the ordinance, the council heard from a representative of the student group, from the hive-desirous resident and from the state apiarist, all of whom gave eloquent arguments for bee keeping as a hobby and against the ordinance. The apiarist described the habits of honeybees and those of other bee, wasp and hornet species, asserting that honeybees are the safest to have around, as far as the danger from stings is concerned.

Council members asked probing questions and said they would take the matter under consideration, reminding the bee lovers that there are bee haters who are tax-paying citizens as well. And of course the council members pondered over how the ordinance lumped bees with goats. They concluded that it must have been a good idea at the time—a time long before the terms of any of the present members. One member quipped that the whole thing sounded like the plot of a B movie—and that pretty much killed the discussion.

Of course, I learned a lot from attending the session, about bees and apiculture, and about the operation of a suburban town council—and it got me reflecting about all the honeybees and other buzzing hymenopterans that I have annoyed with my camera’s macro lens—without ever being stung.

Today’s photos were taken during the summer of course, when the honeybees and others were busy nectaring the milkweeds and other meadow flowers and pollinating them in the process. Pictured are a honeybee, a carpenter bee (with the black abdomen), which we usually confuse with a bumblebee—and a real yellow bumblebee, which you won’t confuse with anything else, once you’ve seen one, the furry little bugger.

By the way, our domestic honeybee, Apis mellifera, is not native. It is an Old World species, as are all true honeybees. Our species was introduced into the Jamestown Colony in 1622 and has been here ever since. There is so much to know about this very important creature that the best thing I can do is to refer you to good old

Now one more thing, lest we ever forget. The various species and varieties of honeybees may have—in fact, almost certainly did—diversify from a common bee ancestor. That may be called natural selection or microevolution. But that is not the same as saying they evolved by random, unintelligent processes from “lower” forms. The fantastically complex bodies of insects are preeminent examples of intelligent design. A tremendous amount of information is programmed into their miniscule bodies. Precision flight, a brain that can interpret signals from multi-faceted compound eyes, the precise mechanism of master gene-controlled metamorphosis from larva to adult, not to mention hive-building skill and complex social structure—all reflect non-randomness and purposefulness to the nth degree.

Biblically speaking, believing that a honeybee is the product of anything but divine design—or even failing to give the Divine Designer full credit and honor—puts one in a precarious position, as described in
Romans 1:18-25. That position is, of course, under the wrath of God—not a good place to be.

I know, I’ve gotten harsh again, just as in my anti-booze rantings. But truth is truth and we must face it squarely even though it stings. (Ouch—I promised myself I was going to avoid using bee metaphors). Of course we don’t want to stop at the bad news of Romans 1. We must go on to see that the news gets even worse, placing us all under God’s wrath—until we get to the middle of Chapter 3—and then we keep going as the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ unfolds before us—the Good News of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone.

Well, they say that the key to good preaching is to be able to start from anywhere in the Universe and head straight for the Cross. So you will have to forgive me for starting at a small town council meeting and winding up at the Gospel. An elected council may be an effective way to govern a small town, and the honeybee may be a beautiful expression of God’s intelligent design, but the Gospel is the ultimate expression of His unfathomable grace and totally undeserved love for all who believe.
Soli Deo Gloria