Sunset In The Queen’s Garden

In what was an impressive track record for last minute booking, the husband booked a trip, that flew us into Las Vegas and from there onto the beautiful sights in Utah. In one week, we had been in 4 states: California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah.

Sitting in the car that bright morning as we drove past Zion national park into Bryce Canyon national park, I felt the familiar stirrings of wonder. Nature often has this effect on me. The magnificence, brilliance and grandeur of nature never fails to instill awe. Always partial to trees, rivers and mountains when it comes to scenery, I could not help thinking how nature had once again jostled me out of my familiar likes and dislikes and opened my mind to appreciate beauty so different and so breath taking.

As Johannes Kepler says in his book, Mysterium Cosmographicum

The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment. 

Buddha in Lotus?
Buddha in Lotus?

We had driven past Zion national park early enough in the morning to go on to Bryce Canyon National Park. We received the first glimpse of hoodoos in Dixie national forest. Set against the bright blue sky, they looked like statues from another world sent here to evoke an art that stuns and astonishes. We were listening to a Harry Potter audio book: a series that nudges even the most reluctant thinker into imagination, so it was no wonder that my mind buzzed with actors from another world setting the stage for the impressive hoodoo theatre.

“What should we do at Bryce?” asked the husband

“Well… the Queen’s Garden trail comes highly recommended, so that and a few other trails ought to do it.” I said vaguely, and continued musing.

Would the Queen’s Garden be as poetic as its name?  Would there be any hoodoos?  Little was I to know that Bryce Canyon hosted an entire amphitheater of them, and that we would be able to walk amidst them.

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One of the things I like best about road trips through the National Parks in the USA are the poetic names every point is given. Take for instance the Queen’s Garden. Instead of saying Rock Point or Hoodoo Lookout, the trail was given a mystifying  and satisfying name: Fairy Loop through the Queen’s Garden in the Amphitheater. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Apparently, one of the hoodoos resembled Queen Victoria in the setting sunlight’s shadow.

Could there really be a weird coincidence of having one’s silhouette set in stone that gives us a clue as to which human beings live on in name and fame? Or do we only assume likenesses to those already living on in name and fame?  Hoodoo musings are quixotic.

The day at Bryce Canyon was beautiful and as other-worldly as it is possible to get in so short a span of time.

Meandering through the park, we found ourselves washing up near the Queen’s Garden trail towards day’s end. The trail itself looped from Sunrise Point dipped via the Queen’s Garden and came back up near Sunset Point. If the point had not been named Sunset Point, would we have stopped to take in the grandeur of the sunset over the Amphitheater like setting of the valley? I am not sure. I do not think the sunset is any more spectacular here than at any other point in the Canyon, but simply by naming a point Sunset Point, we were encouraged to wait for the hues of the setting sun to unleash its marvelous palette of colors across the skies, thus bathing the amphitheater before us in surreal colors.

The setting sun took its time. It first peeked behind a hoodoo and then cast its fading light slowly upon the horizon.

As we stood there bundled up bracing for the sudden dip in Winter temperature after the sun sets, I could not help thinking of Ray Bradbury’s thought on the Happiness Machine in the book, Dandelion Wine: A Sunset is only beautiful because it doesn’t last forever.

While it lasted though, it was magical.

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“Doesn’t it make you feel poetic?”, I said gazing mesmerized at the hoodoos in the amphitheater before us.  “This Queen’s Garden hike reminds me of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole. This is a Wonderland. The gargantuan arches of orange and pink beauty beckon!”, I said theatrically, flourishing my hands wide and raising my face heaven-wards. It is imperative at moments of impetuousness such as this to ignore teenagers inserting the practical note into life.

“It is just erosion.”, said the daughter bringing me back to Earth in a thud, but I saw her smiling happily and taking in the horizon.

Without art, science would be as useless as a pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber. Without science, art would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional quackery. The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous. -Raymond Thornton Chandler (A friend posted this timely quote)

http://www.zionnational-park.com/bryce-canyon-trails.htm Quote below:

The Queen’s Garden Trail leads hikers past wonderful rock formations, including Gulliver’s Castle, the Queen’s Castle and many that are unnamed. Man-made bridges are scattered throughout the trail. At the end is Queen Elizabeth’s garden and the Queen herself, standing on a backward facing camel, calling out orders to the ships in the garden. The queen can also be seen from Sunrise Point.

Standing there under the rays of the setting sun, waiting to unleash another cold night, before rising again, the daughter and I imagined the place as it would have been millions of years ago, with underwater life teeming in its depths, crafting the very hoodoos for us to delight in today.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” — Lao Tzu

If only, we let Nature go on its course without hurrying to leave our indelible imprint on the canvas, I am sure something even more remarkable can be handed down to generations after us.

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Can Mammoths Stop Thawing Arctic Permafrost?

“Let’s not watch this – it is depressing, and some of that stuff makes my blood curl.”, I said as the daughter suggested some gothic fiction. It was the week-end before Halloween, and we were picking our Friday evening entertainment. Never an easy task.

“Fine! What do you want to watch?”

Cosmos” I said without flipping a heart beat. (Watch the you-tube video introducing Cosmos here)

To her eye-roll, I said “No really! You see, there are so many things in there that I wanted to understand as a student.  I plodded along to the library and I got to admit, the Physics books in there. “ I gave a shudder here, and I fully meant it. “I suggest you curl up with one of those tomes in our library looking jaundiced, pale, and excellent cures to Insomnia. I thought some of them needed vitamins, sunshine and exercise to regain what Doctors call a healthy glow. “

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So, we sat together and watched a Cosmos episode by Neil deGrasse Tyson on global warming. In his slow, sure voice, he rumbled like the volcanoes on Venus that set the poor planet into an irreversible green house cycle.

The World Set Free (Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey)

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/cosmos-a-spacetime-odyssey/episodes/the-world-set-free/

We have twenty years at the current rate to stop us from going into an irreversible state like Venus.

The daughter gave me a significant look .I gave her a more sig. look, and we sat there looking like stuffed frogs with s. looks etched on our faces digesting the info. “How could you think this was okay to watch, but that movie was too scary. This is the scariest thing I have ever seen. How do you think it will all end?” said the daughter sounding worried, and deeply stirred.

 

A few days later, I read out a passage from the book I was reading. Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures. (Related post: Mankind trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth by impregnating Asian elephants with mammoth genes.)

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Pleistocene park  – Using 160 square kilometers of Siberian Tundra given to him by the Russian government, Zimov’s goal was repopulating the area with modern equivalents of prehistoric animals that had adapted to Arctic conditions (moose, Yakutian horses, Finnish reindeer and even North American bison.) … To re-create the effects of the Woolly Mammoths on the land, he’d bought in a World War II tank …. Punching holes in the snow, … , using the tank treads to mimic the continual stomps of Mammoth feet, he’d worked the land, year after year. And along the way, he’d accumulated data that were staggering in their implications.

Within his 16- square kilometers refuge, he had lowered the permafrost temperature by an average of fifteen degrees. 

We change the world just be being. I remember watching a video by National Geographic in which they chronicle how 41 wolves introduced in the Yellowstone park, changed the ecology and even the physical structure of the park.

Introducing Wolves in YellowStone National Park – National Geographic Video

If that was the case with 41 wolves, what would introducing Mammoths do? Would it save us from the brink of extinction or introduce problems of the kind we hardly envisioned?

We never know the ramifications of our creations. I mean we are a species who has unintended consequences from a ‘Like’ button on Social Media.

The Physics Of Myth

“Which is your favorite tree?” asked the children one day.

I am often asked questions like this, especially by the elementary school going son. Your favorite color, your favorite food, your favorite flower and on and on till I shriek in agony, at which point he flips to – when was the first time you ate with a spoon, when was the first time you touched a frog, when did you first climb a tree?

I thought about the favorite tree one though: which one was my favorite tree? Is it the oak tree that I plonked my satchel under every day in school, or the flowering jacaranda trees under which we had steaming hot cups of tea with friends, or the tall eucalyptus tree that edged our street towering majestically against the skies signaling home was nearby, or the fir & pine trees that contributed to many an amateur flower arrangement lending beauty and joy to the surroundings, or the willow that made one want to relax just by its shape and allure, or the gingko tree that makes me smile on a evening walk, or the oleander trees that sag with flowers in the summer, or the fruit trees in my backyard that are so hospitable to squirrels ,or the redwood trees that urge me to be like them: strong, resilient and upright, or the curious, curvy bristlecone trees that remind me they are older than our oldest myths, or the pine tree with an elephant head that reminds me of the time the son as a toddler tried to fit his understanding of Physics into Myth?

 

It was a tough question and I told them so. The son scenting a ‘wild’ story from his childhood asked for the story, and I mock-sighed before telling him:

“One day a couple of years ago, when you were very much a toddler, and had just started attending a preschool, you picked up a book from the library about Lord Ganesha. You were thrilled with the find because Indian mythology is hardly found in the libraries in America, right? Lord Ganesha Curses The Moon – was the title. Appa and you settled down to read together at night.

Anyway, so, remember the story? It went something like this:

The moon used to beam as a full moon every night. One day, the moon laughed at Lord Ganesha when he tripped and fell in the forest.  Ganesha promptly got angry at the moon, and cursed it into oblivion.The whole world plunged into darkness (this was before electric lights remember?). At this, the book painted some gory pictures of the problems faced by the population because it was completely dark. People fell, people bumped into each other, people were robbed. Soon, everyone begged Ganesha to take back his curse. But he couldn’t. His word being law and all that. 

So.

An impasse was reached, and soon the king of Gods, Indra, came to him and asked him to do something about it. Ganesha thought and thought, and finally reached a compromise. He said the moon could grow from no moon to the full moon, and then shrink back again to no moon. That ought to teach him not to laugh at people. The moon agreed, and that is how it remains to this day.

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After the story, Appa asked you, “What do you think of the story? Do you really think that is what happened?”

You had that serious look on your face as you thought about it, and you said, “Yes, of course. That’s when the moon must have started going around the Earth, and the Earth started spinning, so the moon could grow bigger and smaller.”

“Appa told me what you said later, and ever since I think of that story and remember how you fit your understanding of Physics into that mythological story when I see that fir tree with an elephant head.”

“Did I really do that?” asked the son laughing heartily, and I smiled.

It was true of course. His response had us flabbergasted, for we hardly ever consciously think about how we continually shape our worldly views and understanding. We subtly and subconsciously incorporate the stories we hear, choosing to consider which ones to digest and which ones to leave.

“So, as you see, I cannot only name one favorite tree. I love them all. Just like…”

“We know…. we know! Just like you love us both!”, said the children, and I smiled my favorite smile.

Teapot Spirituality

Sheesh kababs! What is with Amma – is she tired and cleaning again?” said the daughter, when I acted like a teapot sliding off my tea spout.

I whistled my protest with as much dignity as a teapot sliding off the tea-sp. could when caught in the act. “There is nothing wrong with me. Merely that a lot of work needs to be done, and I cannot come and play a game of Life now. I have Life to deal with now.” The queenly dignity sounded overdone like these actresses who act for 10 dollars when paid 3. I waved my hands impressively at the surrounding environs.

It was true, at least in my mind. Pots and pans needed washing, the floors needed scrubbing, the ….

“You said you are tired at the end of the week, and it has been a tough week. You just said we escaped a fire, and we should just be thankful for Life huh? Get it. Get it? Come on now.”

teapot

I could not argue, and after a flimsy protest, waved down by the children who helped me get the kitchen to a state of relative cleanliness, we sat around playing the game of Life. There was a serendipitous beauty to it. The evening had made me nervous and jumpy, more conscious of the gift of Life, and as usual the children had led me to the calm instead of the frenzy, with their customary élan.

Northern California had been reeling from the effect of wild fires. After an unnaturally hot summer, calamity struck too close to home for comfort. This time, it was people we had lunches with, people we holler out to when we catch a glimpse of them in crowded places. People who will slowly extend that quizzical look into a slow, wide smile as they recognize you, these were the folks asked to evacuate.

Luckily the fires had been contained, and I felt like we could look forward to a quieting down. I had spoken too soon.  That evening, flames leaped higher than trees behind our home, and smoke billowed from nearby. The bags were packed in the car: documents, some cash, a change of clothes, laptops, water bottles, snack bars, and a few pictures. When it comes to it, that is all there is, isn’t there?  Nothing else matters.

That night, everything felt keener. The comfort of putting away the dishes, the joy of playing a board game, the delight of being ordinary, the familiarity of the mundane, the contentment of a bedtime story, the gratitude for the simple act of breathing.

“I just got twins Amma.” said the son after rolling his dice.

“There goes your quiet retirement!” said the daughter, and the children went into peels of laughter, and I joined in noticing how much better it felt to laugh with abandon. I felt the 17 facial muscles work as the laughter gripped me. I observed the act of laughing together as if I was perched atop the roof, looking at us having a good time. Is this what consciousness is?

I finished the piece on resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth using genetic samples obtained from the pristine Arctic Tundra, and impregnating an Asian elephant with the questions on consciousness, and whether or not there is a Soul. I love it when a work of fiction explores the questions posed by futuristic Science, and I finished the post by tying it up with Never Let Me Go, By Kazuo Ishiguro.

Everyone knows, teapots are far from spiritual, and my understanding could make a teapot sing. If you were to explain the concept of consciousness, conscience and soul, how would you do it?

 

The Concept of Conscious Conscience

“Appa got me the Cheetos”, said the daughter sounding gleeful over dinner.

Cheetos, I had explained to her that morning, was full of food coloring, and therefore not a good idea.

“You went and asked him for that after everything I explained to you this morning? Carcinogens. You know what? I think you should look up Mammoth DNA sequences and compare and contrast it with the genome of an Asian elephant.”

“That is the world’s worst punishment ever!” she said pulling an impressive teenage affront with ease. “I don’t think anyone has been given that.”

“Well..there are several reasons you are being given that, “, I said. “One: I am reading the book that is all about resurrecting the woolly mammoth by impregnating an Asian elephant with mammoth genes. Two: Did you know that the elephant, that large an animal as it is, does not suffer from cancer? Maybe there is something in it’s genetic makeup that prevents malfunctions during cell reproduction.” I said giving her my Idiot’s Guide to Genetics lecture.

It’s true. I had just finished reading the book called “Woolly – Bringing a woolly mammoth back to life” by Ben Mersich. For someone who does not know the first thing about genetics and genome sequencing and such, this is a good book to read. It is written like a fast paced novel, moving between the lives of reclusive scientists, Sergey and Nikita Zimov in the Russian Tundra and Jy Minh’s work in Hwang Woo-Suk’s Sooam Laboratories in South Korea to George Church’s lab work in Harvard. All these efforts are working towards resurrecting the woolly mammoth using DNA samples obtained from mammoths preserved in pristine conditions in the Arctic Tundra.

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If that feels like Jurassic Park, it is, though the book explains why it is not exactly like Jurassic park, but sort of. It is Pleistocene Park – a concept that beat Jurassic Park by 2 years in conception.

If you are looking for a scientific explanation of techniques, and theory, this isn’t the book. The book is to be made into a movie, and is written as such: I can imagine the scenes leaping off the pages. Following the Russian scientists on a quest to resurrect life in the Arctic life makes a thrilling tale. Combining that with the race by Korean scientists to engineer and reverse engineer life, and scenes from a research laboratory down in Harvard makes for brilliant movie scenes. Only as the book assures you, it is not fictional. It is true. You will pause and think of ramifications, of the evil that can be wrought when powers like this fall into wrong hands, of political leaders with no qualifications dictating the genome factory.

Life from life, Minh thought, as he moved past the implantation table. Still, he couldn’t shake the chills he felt as he thought of those 3 dogs, lying supine, tongues hanging to the side around the breathing tubes, as the surgeons did their work. He chided himself for his own backward thinking: of course, futuristic science always seemed unnatural – until it became routine.

The discussion that evening over supper bleated over to the world’s most famous sheep, Dolly, who had been cloned in 1995. Sheep, Mammoths and Dogs make good cloning subjects for they do not yet touch the uncomfortable topic of human cloning.

http://www.businessinsider.com/sooam-biotechs-is-bringing-back-the-mammoth-2015-9

Human cloning, however, is a topic you can rely on authors to explore.

The thought provoking work by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is worth a read in this context. The book talks of a future in which clones are generated from a master copy, and are raised separate from mainstream society, just so that they can function as ‘givers’ and ‘carers’ – a euphemism for organ donations. It is a heart rending read, as it centers around three young people, who have the same feelings of love, jealousy and friendship that ‘mainstream’ people do. Their art work is collected by a lady, who is trying to petition the state against this barbaric practice as Art shows the soul, and clearly the ‘spares’ have souls.

Never_Let_Me_Go
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15168925

Human beings are tinkerers – we always have been. What have we in store this time?

  • Is there a concept of the Soul that is separate from the engineered parts of cells, muscle, tissue and genes?
  • Is Consciousness something that can be engineered?
  • What role does our conscience play while tinkering consciously?

Related read: Of Dinosaurs, Genes & Aliens

Squirrels, Berries & Fringe Myths

We had been on a trip to Crater Lake over the summer. Among other things, we hiked a little bit around the lake, taking in the marvelous view. The lake is a mesmerizing sight sparkling in its deep, pristine blue. We indulged ourselves in small hikes that afforded us beautiful views of the lake and the surrounding Cascade mountains merging into the Sierra Nevadas in the South. It was one of those places where nature cures, nature soothes and all that. The son is my ardent nature companion, and the pair of us went looking for pinecones and acorns.  It was steep going.

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We stopped at one place to take a few breaths at a spectacular rock placed there for the purpose and we saw a little squirrel. We may have been nervous during the hike, but it did little to wrack the squirrel. Up close the son noticed that unlike the squirrels near where we live, these fellas were smaller and had stripes across their back. He said in his excited voice that these were the ones that had helped Rama build his bridge and nearly gave the poor squirrel heart failure with his excitement.

I peered closely, and so it was. Here were little squirrels that looked like the squirrels mentioned in the ancient myth of Ramayana. According to the story, the little squirrels were helping Lord Rama’s army build a bridge from India to Lanka so that he could save his kidnapped wife, Sita, from the clutches of the evil demon-king Ravana, in their own small way, with little rocks and acorns.  Lord Rama was so impressed with them, that he picked one of them up and stroked its back lovingly. The legend goes on to say that is why squirrels have stripes. The son had heard the story before, and  was understandably excited when he saw the stripes the squirrel’s back. I suppose the story must have sounded silly to him when it said, “That is why squirrels have stripes on their backs.” Because the ones he sees do not have stripes on their backs, and that is the sort of discrepancy that will keep the fellow puzzled and curious for days.

<Squirrels with stripes on their backs>

Chipmunks or Squirrels
Pic obtained via google search

I was reminded of that little story when I read the news items that Remains of the Day had won the Nobel Prize. Remains of the Day examines the concept of work, and why it is an important factor in man’s life. Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 10.08.53 AMHow often have we been asked our names, followed by a what-do-you-do? How does one attach a sense of importance to one’s work, and feel purposeful about it? Sometimes, it is by means of attaching ourselves to the goal of the entity you work for like the squirrels did. But maybe, it is to the concept of work that we need to attach our purpose to like the bees do.

This year Deepavali – the festival of lights came like the coat-tails of a comet after a string of tragic events – fires, shootings, floods: catastrophes both man-made and natural shook the populace. But now is a good time to throw our mind back to these oft forgotten little mythological tales, the fringe stories that provide food for thought. I must remember to tell them the hilarious tale of the old lady, Sabari, tasting the berries before giving them to Lord Rama.

I looked forward to the chat with the children while drawing up a rangoli outside the house using colored chalk. It is a beautiful feeling of light. The triumph of good over evil, a call to nurture our inner light and so much more.

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Mythology, fairy tales, and magic are all so beautifully interwoven in our magic of story-telling. Heroism and quests for the inner self are never jaded. Starting from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Avatars of Vishnu,  Ramayana & Mahabharatha,  Odyssey & Iliad, the Bible and right down to Harry Potter, it is a story line that always enthralls, and is ever relevant.

I’ve come to the conclusion that mythology is really a form of archaeological psychology. Mythology gives you a sense of what a people believes, what they fear. George Lucas

In all these millennia, it seems little has changed, and so much has.

Please share some of your favorite fringe tales – I would love to hear them.

The Nest

Summer had spread its warmth and happiness in myriad ways. It had browned the state of California, made children cherish a vacation spent in the warm company of cousins, friends and grandparents. It had also led us to discussing a pair of swallows or robins who had raised their family over a friend’s garage recently. The excitement over this last item was palpable, if second-hand. I have told the children lots of tales before of growing up amidst nature, and their favorites are the ones featuring fauna of various shapes and sizes. The time we ran from a mouse, the time the panther came, and so on.

Amma – have you really seen a nest before?”

“Yes. Of course.” I replied.

They had the look of expectancy about them, and I did not disappoint.

I told them that not only had I seen a bird’s nest before, but was so shocked at having seen it, that I almost toppled off the tree in fright. They guffawed at this, as though nothing amused them more than mothers falling off trees, and I mock-pursed my lips at this misplaced joy. But I had to admit, if I imagined my mother falling off a tree at their age, I would’ve guffawed too, and genetics cannot be helped and all that.

I cleared my throat and continued with the thrilling tale of the nest. They listened with rapture.

We were playing what loosely passes for badminton out in the rushing wind just to see how to play when the gusts of wind took the shuttle askew. One time, the shuttle caught in a tree, and we tried retrieving the thing with hockey sticks,  shouting (our sound waves generate sonic boom to dislodge shuttle – duh), and a myriad other techniques before placing a stool on a chair and hoisting me up to the nearest branch. It was then, I saw the dear home. It looked just like I liked it: haphazardly thrown together, a comfortable haven from a stormy world. Cozy, if a little messy. I stood there for a few seconds delighted at my find, and prudently did not holler the finding to my playmates below.

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I have always had a soft spot for babies, and there must have been some being raised there. I almost clambered down without the shuttle-cock in shock.  I kept the information quiet from some of the more cruel children, and expertly diverted our game elsewhere.

The children gave a wistful sigh, “Hmmm…..Wish we could see a nest!”

Every time we go to a wooded area, we look for a nest, but so far we have been unsuccessful in our quest.

A few days later, I was meandering around the lanes, when I spotted something on the floor. The pine trees in the lane had shed plenty of its pines, and the brown pine needles and the pine cones make an interesting scene partly because we are always on the lookout for lovely looking pinecones. It was then I spotted what was unmistakably a nest. There it was – perfectly shaped to house little birds (an ornithologist could probably look at the nest and tell you which birds planned to raise a family in them, but I could not) I picked it up and saw the nest must have fallen a good 10-15 feet even if it were on the lowest branch. Luckily, no eggs were in the vicinity, and I gingerly picked up the nest to show it to the children.

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After the initial excitement, I was told that I had been heartless in bringing the nest home. Why could I have not put back on the tree? While I admired the sentiment behind this, I felt that expecting me to scramble up that large a tree to put a nest back was a bit much. So, the nest was housed in an adjoining tree whose branch was accessible to my height, and we hoped some bird who had procrastinated nest building would be able to find and use it.

“How will any bird know to look for a nest?”, the children asked. I was doubtful too.

A few days later, I picked up the children’s book, A Nest Is Noisy. The dear book assured me that there were plenty of birds that look for built nests, and the nest I had picked up could one day become a home again.

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. John Burroughs