In to Africa

Hello friends.  Every so often you find yourself in a place or on an adventure that just smacks of "Godliness", that just sings of being the will of God, of being the absolute right thing to do.  Such is the case for me as I travel to Africa for the second time to visit the orphans at Nairobi's Baptist Children's Center. 

I am reminded daily of how imperfect I am as a Christian - my thoughts, my actions, my intentions, my words, my heart.  However, I have come to experience first-hand the fact that God neither expects nor needs us to be perfect.  We just have to be available.

Well, I have found myself available, so off I go.  I'll admit that I am, as is often the case, suffering from some self-doubt.   I wonder what I have to contribute, if I'll do any good, if I can make any sort of difference.  But I also realize that this is a moot concern.  Since I'm available, and sincerely desiring to be used...well, God will see to it that I'm used.  I don't necessarily know in what way, but I should be confident that God's ability to use me certainly outstrips any shortcoming I might bring to the table.

Hopefully I can get on the internet ("Steve", as I like to call it) and give a few updates as the trip proceeds.  Thank you for your prayers, and even your well-wishes if you aren't the praying type.  If you are the praying type, and assuming you might cast a prayer or two upwards in regards to this trip, I would ask that, above all else, you pray for the kids.  I truly love these children.  They are precious, kind, gentle and loving.  Although almost all of them have suffered from extreme poverty and the loss of both parents (most due to AIDS), they, for the most part, exhibit a certain serenity, a kind of humble innocence mixed with joy.  Certainly many of them are sad children.  How could they not be?  But even in their sadness these kids light up like no others I've seen.  If "deserve" ever comes into it, these kids deserve a better life.  Make that one of your prayers for them.


Pic of the Week: Power in a Name

Chukar in Capital reef NP

This good looking bird found me in Capital Reef National Park, Utah. Our paths crossed in a very remote part of the country, at the end of a gravel road in one of our countries more scenic National Parks (if you ever get the chance, go to Capital Reef).

Any-hoo, this little fellow certainly wasn't shy. He posed and preened on his (or her) rock for a good five minutes. As you can see, he certainly knew how to speak to the camera. However, despite my fondness for this bird, I really knew so little about him. Here's what I could discern at the time: This bird looked a bit fat; this bird had red legs, this bird had striking markings along his sides and face; this bird lived in a dry climate; this bird didn't seem to be eager to fly; this bird looked for food on the ground around bushes; this bird had a few of his friends around.

That's it. That's all I knew. Because I didn't know what this bird was, I was limited in what I could know of it. Well, this was intolerable to me for some reason. (OK, maybe not "intolerable", but I was curious.) So, when I returned from my trip, I sought out the wisest person I knew, the one person who I felt sure could answer my questions: Steve (also known as "the internet.")

Steve (the internet) slowly but inexorably began to yield results. After many seconds, possibly minutes, and with Steve's help, I had my answer. This bird was a "Chukar." Armed with this information, I then was able to found out all sorts of things about my friend, this bird called "Chukar." To wit:

This bird is the Kurdish national bird, of all things. This bird originated in eastern Europe but is now found in quite a few places in the world, including parts of the western US (like...Utah). This bird is considered to be a "Eurasion upland game bird." The Chukar is classified as a partridge (I always wondered who it was in that pear tree.) The Chukar typically eats seeds, grass and, occasionally, insects. What I call "striped sides" are actually referred to as "rufous-streaked flanks." The Chukar prefers to run, not fly, when in danger. The Chukar's main habitat range is in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Chukars are very adept at finding water in arid climates, and does not migrate from it's arid habitat. A Chukar usually produces a clutch of 10-21 eggs.

So, once I became armed with the name of the bird, I had (in a sense) some power over the bird. It is pretty common thinking to understand the there is power in naming; knowing or using the name of something gives a sort of power to the namer. For some time I have been intrigued by this idea, partly because I "intuit" it to be true, although I'm not always sure how it works. One example I often seem to think of is medicine. If a doctor is presented a patient who complains of severe side pains, abdominal tenderness, fever, nausea and vomiting, but is not able to put a name with the symptoms, the doctor is more or less helpless. However, if the doctor is able to evaluate the symptoms and conclude, "Aha! Appendicitis.", then the doctor has "power" over the affliction. The doctor now knows the path of treatment, expected outcomes, possible complications, and all sorts of other things. To name something is indeed to gain a sort of power.

I don't want to sound too extreme in my stance that naming something gives power. Even though I now know the name of Chukar, he (or she) is doing exactly what Chukars do. My possession of his name really doesn't affect him. But from my perspective, knowing that this bird was a "Chukar" certainly opens up a much larger world of knowledge than does "that kind of fat, striped bird in Utah."

Regardless, I'm glad Chukar and I met, and I hope he's having a good day.

A Shower of Leaves and Acorns

The other day as I was walking around the camp where I live and work, I experienced a moment of unadulterated serendipity.  That is, I stumbled into an unexpected circumstance of good fortune.  Here's how it went down:

As I said, I was cruising the grounds, taking delightful notice of the sweet breeze that was blowing around.  Nice breezes are a bit uncommon where I reside, so it did come to my attention.  (One of the greatest combinations on earth, by the way, is a sweet breeze plus big trees.  The concert of sound these two things put on, when combined, is tough to beat.)  As I walked about, enjoying the breeze and the trees, and the fall colors, something amazing happened.  I suddenly found myself amidst a veritable deluge of acorns and leaves!  As it is fall where I live (as it is for most places north of the equator), and as it so happens that there are many leaves where I live, and as it so happens that many of the trees that bear these leaves are Oak trees...well, you can see where this is going.  Somehow, someway, I serendipitied myself smack into the middle of a confluence of nature: trees, leaves, acorns and sweet breeze.  The breeze nudged the tree, the tree swayed in a most tree-like fashion, the leaves came loose, and the acorns fell.  And there I was, standing smack-dab in the right place at the right time.

It gets better.  Since the sweet breeze was still breezing, the leaves didn't just fall, as the acorns did.  They swirled.  They swirled around like a miniature leaf tornado, with me at the vortex.  So I stood there, enjoying my acorn shower and leaf tornado, thinking to myself, "This might be a top twenty moment."  Not only was the sensation of standing in the middle of such a leafy turbulence delightful, but the sound of it all!  The sound of the scores of acorns falling (some striking me directly on the noggin), the sounds of the leaves rustling by, the sound of the wind playing the tree like an instrument.  It was quite the show!

Like with most things exquisite and sublime, the end came too quickly.   The breeze blew elsewhere, the tree stopped swaying, the acorns quit falling and the leaves drifted down.  The show was over.  However, it is still with me.  Like the first time I saw a Cirque de Soleil show, I won't soon forget.

For me, enjoying nature is somewhat like enjoying golf.  In golf, I usually play pretty poorly.  Occasionally, however, I do something rare.  I hit a long, straight drive.  I hit a middle iron and put the ball mere inches (feet? yards?) from the hole.  I sink a looooong putt.  It is these moments of rare accomplishment which keep me interested in the game.  Likewise with nature.  Sometimes nature is all weeds and thorns and mud and itch.  However, she often shows her better side, particularly when we put ourselves in a position to observe.  My acorn shower will join the list alongside sunsets at the Grand Canyon, a mirror-smooth lake in British Columbia, sitting alone in the Yaak river in northwest Montana, the entire coast of Oregon, Emerald Lake outside of Crested Butte, watching the sun set over the edge of the ocean in the Cayman Islands, the fall colors happening right now just outside of my front door.

Last year I lived in an unspeakably dismal city.  Nature didn't exist in this city; it had been killed.  So it is with much thanksgiving and gratefulness that I find myself once again in a position to observe.  I don't worship nature.  But I do think it proper to use my adoration of nature as a means to better worship God, whom I believe is the causative agent of ALL things good, nature included.

Pic of the Week: The Red Tree

red tree plainHere is the Red Tree. Actually, this is one of many Red Trees. With one exception that I can think of, these Red Trees make their appearance every year at about this time. (There is some sort of Japanese tree on the grounds which turns deep, deep red only in the spring. It's kind of a rebel.)

This particular Red Tree can be found right outside the door of the office. I waited until the sun was getting a bit low in the afternoon so the effect of light coming through the tree would be maximized. Or, another theory might be that I just happened to think of taking this picture at a time which coincided with a sinking sun, thus lucking into the back-lit tree. Either way, the effect certainly adds to the image, I think.

I'm sure this is some sort of tree common to the area. I can find similar trees without too much difficulty. However, I especially like the fact that I can step outside my door and be looking at this tree literally within seconds. In fact...I just did such a thing right now. When I lived in "the city that shall not be named", I had few, if any, such opportunities. For those of us who appreciate Red Trees in the Fall, living in the boonies isn't always so bad.

Below is the same Red Tree, but I played around in Photoshop to create an effect. I'm not sure which image I prefer, but I am sure that I prefer living where I can step outside and see such a tree versus living where I can't see such trees.

red tree photoshopped

This Photoshopped tree to the right certainly looks less real than the other image. As it should. I applied a blur effect to all of the photo except the leaves and branches, along with a bit of "glow." I faded out the blur effect as I moved up the trunk of the tree. It's an interesting look, but I've decided I prefer the real deal.

Well, I hope you've enjoyed the Red Tree. He (or she) won't be around much longer. Perhaps in a month or so I'll post another photo of this particular tree, just for comparison. Or, if the tree gets even redder ("more red"?) I'll snap another photo. Either way, I think the Red Tree has been a fine way to start off the Picture of the Week (P.O.W.) gallery!

Waterfront At Night

waterfront at night.jpg

The photo above was taken around 10:15 pm, under the light of a nearly-full moon. I parked the camera on a tripod and left the shutter open for 30 seconds. Unlike a human eye, a camera can “store” light (either on film granules or light-sensitive receptors found in digital cameras), transforming low levels of light into much higher levels. All of the light in this photo is from the moon. (Well, technically the light is from the sun. The moon is only acting as a reflector.)

Since the camera was kept still (being perched on a tripod), motion during the time of exposure - otherwise known as "blurring" - was kept to a minimum. You CAN see some blurring in the photo by looking at the surface of the water or the nearest blob. There was a slight breeze on this night and the water and blob certainly moved over the span of 30 seconds.

Obviously, this photo looks very different than what would be seen with the eyes. As I mentioned, the human eye cannot “store” light. Light excites the photo-receptors in the eye (”rods” and “cones”), a nervous signal is produced, and the amount of light is perceived by the brain. What light is present at any given singular moment in time is all that will be perceived. In this respect, a camera (or other similar device, such as a CCD imager) beats the human eye. A well-known instance of this “light storing” capability being exploited is in astronomic photographs. Most of objects in space that are photographed are much too faint to be seen by human eyes, particularly in any detail. Our eyes just can’t “hold” enough of the faint light. A camera, however, can store the light - even if very faint - and bring the invisible to light (so to speak). My favorite example of this is a photograph called the “Hubble Ultra Deep Field”, a photograph created by pointing a very sensitive camera towards exactly the same spot in deep space over a long period of time. The resulting photo reveals light captured over 3 months time…talk about storing light! Almost everything visible in the HUDF photo is a distant galaxy, with the exception of a few “nearby” stars. These galaxies are so far away and so faint that it would be impossible for the human eye to detect them. However, by storing the miniscule amounts of light reaching Earth for over three months, the Hubble Telescope was able to resolve these objects. Furthermore, since these galaxies are so far away - some possibly billions of light years away - this photo is not only a look across huge distances, but also across huge spans of time. These galaxies appear to us as they looked millions, and possibly billions, of years ago.

However, let’s not despair. The human eye, despite it’s light-storing inadequancy, beats the pants off any camera in most other respects. For one thing, no camera (that I’m aware of) can handle contrast like the human eye. Here’s what I mean: Take a look at the two photos below. For a camera, these photos present an almost impossible challenge - properly exposing both dark (inside the gym) and bright (outside the gym) areas. It is possible that there are specialized cameras capable of doing this (probably by utilizing separately metered areas of exposure), but for the most part cameras just can’t handle this kind of contrast (very bright brights and very dark darks). In one photo, the inside of the gym is (almost) correctly exposed, but the outside is horribly over-exposed. In the other photo the situation is reversed: the outside is correctly exposed but the inside of the gym is very much under-exposed.

cwe gym2.jpg

cwe gym1.jpg

The human eye, however, can handle this type of contrast easily. When shooting photographs, any decent photographer will try to minimize extreme contrasts. Shadows across an otherwise brightly lit face, for example, almost always turn out bad for a photographer. The camera just can’t handle the contrast between light and dark. For our eye, though, we hardly even notice. Our eyes can simultaneously adjust for a multitude of contrasts. We would have no problem looking across this gym and seeing the basketball players AND the kids outside in flawless exposure.

The other way in which our eyes triumph over the “eyes” of a camera is obvious. We never stop seeing. As long as our eyes are open, they are receiving and processing all that is around us. Our eyes are capable of processing a continuous and never-ending stream of information: light intensity, color, contrast, motion, shading…our eyes never miss a beat (assuming they are healthy). A camera, on the other hand, only captures light from a single, narrowly defined space, and only over a short span of time. It really wouldn’t do to substitue our eyes for cameras, despite their great ability to store light!

I truly appreciate good photography. I am amazed by the technology of cameras which allows them to capture and manipulate and store light in a way that no human eye can approach. I am furthermore thankful for the fact that this feature of cameras can reveal to us the beauty, splendor and wonder of the heavens, of deep space. When viewing a photograph which displays the subtleties and nuances and hidden gems of deep space, I am almost always filled with a deep sense of the miraculous, of the Numinous, of God Himself. But I am also mindful that the real miracle lies within my own body, my eyes. What they can do and how they do it…how they link directly to the brain and allow me to not only see the world around me, in all its color and contrast and intensity, but to interpret what is around me…this is the true wonder of imaging. And it isn’t lost on me that I can use these two miracles of creation, my eyes, to observe the equally grand miracle of deep space, made possible by a smaller “miracle” of technology, a camera.
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