I took this picture on one of my nature outings. Nearly every day I take pictures in the woods and wetlands behind my house in the Pacific Northwest. I’m certainly no John James Audubon or Bindi the Jungle Girl, but I am slowly learning to identify flora and fauna that I see on a regular basis.

Of great help to me are a couple of apps: Merlin Bird ID and PictureThis. Google Lens also can be helpful, except for that time when it identified a blurry raccoon as a New Guinean long-nosed bandicoot.

When I saw this bird, I didn’t know what it was. It looked a bit like the juvenile European starlings I’d seen. In other words, brown. That’s pretty much all I could tell. When I got home, I uploaded the picture to the Merlin Bird ID app, and the result came back: American robin.

Say what? Robins are orange! That was my initial reaction, and that’s why I missed the identification on my own. I’ve seen a million robins, but I was off track in thinking that robins are orange. More accurately, robins’ breasts are orange and their heads and backs are brown. All I could see of this bird was its head and back. All I could see was brown. As soon as the app identified the bird as a robin, I noticed the tiny bit of orange breast that can be seen in the photo. I also noticed (yet again) that my critical thinking skills have room to grow.

I love it when this sort of thing happens. It reminds me that my thinking can be distorted by perspective and a bias for familiarity. I missed the ID because of my perspective; I could see only brown. I missed the ID because it looked a bit like another bird in my miniscule bird repertoire.

Too bad this distorted thinking isn’t limited to wildlife identification (although even then it can be lamentable if we mistake a grizzly for a Great Dane). We do it more often than we realize. The good news is that we can train our brains to think more effectively, to sharpen our critical thinking skills. Being aware of our perspectives and biases moves us in the right direction. Listening to the perspectives of others takes us even further.

Let’s train ourselves to think more effectively. Let’s remember that the robin isn’t just orange.

It’s a popular belief that miracles are violations of the laws of nature. Furthermore, the belief goes, because the laws of nature can’t actually be broken, miracles aren’t real.

A campfire will go out when the fuel is burned up. However, if I throw another log on the fire, it will keep going. By doing so, am I violating a law of nature?

Laws of nature describe what nature does on its own. However, anyone can interact with nature and make it do something other than it would do on its own.

When God interacts with nature, we call it a miracle. We call it a miracle because it’s rare and because we don’t see God; we see only the effects of God’s interaction.

A miracle does not violate the laws of nature; it’s simply God interacting with nature.

Tiny frog unseen
until leaping
from the bright leaf

I love the challenge of haiku. Reading it and writing it. Haiku in English, that is. I’m not quite up for the challenge of real Japanese haiku! Still, English haiku has its demands that make it a beautiful process and product.

SYLLABLES • That sensational syllabic structure that made haiku famous! Three lines of up to 17 syllables (typically 10 to 14). If this is the only demand you make on your haiku, you’re missing out.

SEASON • The kigo takes the poem to another level. A kigo is a season word. It’s meant to refer — subtly — to a season of the year. The majority of kigo are drawn from the natural world.

CUT • Ready for the next level of challenge and beauty? The third element of haiku is a cut (kire) — indicated by a real or a verbal punctuation mark — to compare two images or ideas implicitly. The essence of haiku is ‘cutting’ (kiru). Sometimes this is done by juxtaposing two images or ideas with a kireji (‘cutting word’) between them.

Young rabbit
Sanctuary
The edge of the wood

A handful of syllables. A subtle reference to season. A juxtaposition of images or ideas.

One of the many aspects of haiku that I love is that it’s simple. It doesn’t try to do and be everything. It typically captures a fleeting moment in time. Haiku shuns excess.

“The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.” (Matsuo Bashō)

I love haiku for what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t tell; it shows. It doesn’t explain; it suggests. It doesn’t expose; it hints.

Taller-than-yesterday grass
cools
warmed-by-the-noontime-sun toes

Yesterday morning I saw what I believed was a bald eagle in my pajamas. (I know what you’re thinking: What was a bald eagle doing in my pajamas?)

After calculating the laziness factor of birdwatching from bed, I sprung into action, grabbed my camera, and got a few shots. Then I strapped on my snowshoes and headed toward the tree where I saw the bird. (I know what you’re thinking: What was I doing in a tree?)

When I got close, I was excited to see that the bird was still there. It was a bit like what Francis Scott Key must have felt when he saw that the flag was still there. (Okay, it wasn’t anywhere near that exciting much less meaningful, but you get my drift.)

I took more photos. The bird appeared to be dark all over, so I dismissed the bald eagle hypothesis (always something I’m loathe to do).

I trudged back home and took a look at the pictures I had taken. This is a photo I took from my bedroom window:

Keep in mind that the bird was a looooong way off, my camera has its limitations, and my window could use a wash. Still, it looks like a bald eagle, right? Huge. White head and tail. Bright yellow beak. “America the Beautiful” playing in the background. Why did I see an all-dark bird when I got closer to the tree?

Then I got to the second set of bird photos (separated by a few shots of snow and then more snow).

Excusez-moi? Who are you, and what did you do with my bald eagle? Apparently I missed the changing of the guard.

I entered the photos into my Merlin Bird ID app to get some insight into what was going on. I was especially looking for confirmation of the bald eagle ID! I uploaded that photo to the app. Drum roll, please …

American crow. Or black-backed woodpecker. Or great horned owl.

Huh? I uploaded it a second time.

Brown-headed cowbird. Or dark-eyed junco.

I know it’s a crummy photo, but please try harder.

American crow. Or green heron.

I give up. Let’s try the photo of the second bird.

Red-tailed hawk. Or red-shouldered hawk.

That’s more like it. I’ll buy that.

So, what am I to think about the first bird? According to the app, it’s a woodpecker or an owl or a heron or a walrus or a sheep or one of the Backstreet Boys. What should we do when we are trying to determine the truth and our go-to authority seems off?

First of all, we keep in mind that it’s possible that our go-to authority is off. Blind trust is risky. Humans and their inventions are fallible. Secondly, we look at the evidence.

Building evidence-based beliefs means that we consider all of the evidence and figure out the best explanation for that evidence. What is the evidence about this bird’s identification?

  • My app is fairly reliable, but it has been wrong before, especially when the photo is poor quality.
  • The bird is huge and appears to have a dark body, white head, white tail, and yellow beak. This description fits a bald eagle and no other bird that I’m aware of, at least in this area. Caveats: I am not familiar with all types of birds, and the image quality is so poor, I might not have an accurate description of it.
  • I shared the photo on Facebook and asked people what they thought it was. Six out of six people identified it as an eagle.
  • The Merlin Bird ID app includes bald eagles on the list of likely birds in Vancouver, Washington, today.
  • At least two bald eagles have been spotted in this immediate area in recent days.
  • I really want it to be a bald eagle.

Okay, okay. That last one isn’t evidence. We often allow our desires to influence our beliefs, but we’ve really got to stop that. So, let’s throw that one out. What are we left with? When we can’t be certain, we settle for possibilities and probabilities. Based on the evidence, I am comfortable at this point with believing that it is probably a bald eagle.

Notice that, above, I didn’t ask for the evidence that this is a bald eagle; I asked for evidence about the bird’s identification. On Facebook, I didn’t ask others whether they thought it was a bald eagle; I asked them what they thought it was. Starting out with a presumption or bias can steer us in the wrong direction.

I want to know the truth, whatever it is. So, I leave the door open for more evidence if it should ever come. In this case, I can invite more evidence by asking what y’all think. I’m interested to know what you think of the first photo, especially if you have experience with bird identification. Let me know in the comments below!

“Put it on the ground!”

The woman ahead of me on the hiking trail mildly admonished her small son, who was lagging behind her. I thought the child must have picked up a worm, or doggie doo, or a bad habit. As I got closer, though, I saw that the boy was holding a huge leaf. He was valiantly defying her order. Brave little soldier.

The boy ambled about, reluctant to shed himself of this forest treasure — and perhaps loath to get within range of a parent with confiscation on her mind. I totally empathized with the child. When I was a kid, I asked my dad to stop the car on the side of the road so I could collect giant pinecones that I spied as we drove along winding mountain roads.

The mother repeated the instruction: “Drop the leaf, Louie.” (The name has been changed to protect the innocent.) I passed the boy and then the mother and continued along the trail. I don’t know how it all turned out, but I hope that giant leaf made it home with Louie.

Now, I admit that I don’t know the whole story. Maybe there was a good reason why the mother didn’t want the boy to continue carrying the leaf. I’m quite sure it wasn’t poison oak or cannabis. Perhaps the leaf distracted the boy so that he wasn’t keeping up with the mother’s desired pace.

Undoubtedly, the child was in awe. The enormous leaf monopolized his attention. At least for this moment, it was his. He could twist it around in his little hands and marvel at its immensity and beauty. Maybe he was dreaming up what he might do with the leaf or what he could fashion it into. Perhaps he wondered what kind of tree could produce such a leaf and how big the tree could grow.

Live like Louie

As children, our natural instincts include awe, curiosity, imagination, and connection to nature. Too often, those instincts eventually get beaten out of us to a large degree. Many of us spend too much of our lives indoors, busy, distracted, and moving at a fast pace.

I admire Louie. He reminded me to be childlike, embracing traits that are vital to thoughtful living: awe, curiosity, imagination, and connection to nature. Let’s join Louie by getting outside more, slowing our pace, and finding things that render us awestruck and make our imaginations run wild.

Let’s hold on to that leaf.

Sunlight becomes
momentary diamonds
on the water.

I love the challenge of haiku. Reading it and writing it. Haiku in English, that is. I’m as equipped to write authentic Japanese haiku as I am to write actuarial valuation reports. I don’t even know what I just said. Still, English haiku has its demands that make it a beautiful process and product.

SYLLABLES • That sensational syllabic structure that made haiku famous! Three lines of up to 17 syllables (typically 10 to 14). If this is the only demand you make on your haiku, you’re missing out.

SEASON • The kigo takes the poem to another level. A kigo is a season word. It’s meant to refer — subtly — to a season of the year. The majority of kigo are drawn from the natural world.

CUT • Ready for the next level of challenge and beauty and Japanese vocabulary? The third element of haiku is a cut (kire) — indicated by a real or a verbal punctuation mark — to compare two images or ideas implicitly. The essence of haiku is ‘cutting’ (kiru). Sometimes this is done by juxtaposing two images or ideas with a kireji (‘cutting word’) between them.

A handful of syllables. A subtle reference to season. A juxtaposition of images or ideas.

One of the many aspects of haiku that I love is that it’s simple. It doesn’t try to do and be everything. It typically captures a fleeting moment in time. Haiku shuns excess like a hermit shuns Walmart on Saturdays.

“The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.” (Matsuo Bashō)

I love haiku for what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t tell; it shows. It doesn’t explain; it suggests. It doesn’t expose; it hints.

Almost endless blue
cut in two
by shifting white sails