Prairie View

Friday, February 26, 2016

Phenology and Tragedy

This time of year is optimal for cultivating an interest in phenology.  Doing so now will enhance your observation skills and enjoyment of this season for the rest of your life.  For practical purposes, in this season of the year, you can think of phenology as noting and recording signs of spring.

Several of the underlying assumptions in a study of phenology are these (off the top of my head):

1.  Natural events usually happen in the same order, but not necessarily on the same date every year.
2.  Noting one event makes possible prediction of a later event, but its exact time of occurrence cannot be forecast.
3.  Observable events occur based on what has happened in the past, and cannot be used to predict what will happen in the future (except for the sequence prediction noted above).  I don't put any confidence, for example in predicting what kind of winter we'll have based on how caterpillars look or when the frost flowers bloom.
4.  Phenology is useful for knowing the proper timing for human-initiative events such as planting a garden.  If a certain stage on the common lilac plant corresponds with soil temperatures that are right for seed germination of certain garden crops, being able to discern the proper timing for garden tasks is as simple as keeping an eye on the lilac shrub (remember though that a late freeze might nip both the lilac buds and whatever is already growing in your garden).
5.  Aldo Leopold is known as the "Father" of the science of phenology.  He was a lifelong naturalist and a long-time teacher at the University of Wisconsin.  His most famous writing is found in A Sand County Almanac.
6.  Rural mail carriers created one of the first organized networks of phenological observers.  Daily routines maintained over long periods of time made possible systematic observations, which eventually provided significant data.
7.  Phenology is not to be confused with phrenology--a pseudo-science based on the shape of a person's head, etc.

This year, so far, in making phenology observations, I have noted that the maple tree visible from my "computer window" began to sport bright red buds on  February 6.  Three days ago, I spotted the first dandelion in bloom.  Two days ago, I noted that the lilac leaf buds are beginning to show a bit of green.  The garlic that has unaccountably been perpetuating itself around the now-dysfunctional hydrant  near the back door has begun to grow and is now about three inches tall.  My birdwatching nephews note the date of the first yearly sighting of migratory birds.

Anyone who would like help with organizing a phenology project (teachers/homeschoolers?) will find help at Project BudBurst at this site.  Another fun related project would be to collect sayings that reflect folk wisdom that express correlations between natural phenomena and human behavior.  I remember that we used to be allowed to go barefoot when the leaves on the hedge (Osage Orange) trees had just begun to enlarge (as big as a squirrel's ear?).

Paying attention to phenology is really as simple as paying attention to what is present in the natural world.  Mindfulness about what can be observed makes possible practical benefits from the observations.


A tragedy yesterday at Hesston, KS made world news.  The town is located in the county next to ours, and is home to a large Mennonite community and a two-year Mennonite college.  John, a young-married man from our church is in nursing school there.

A former employee at Excel returned to the mower factory employing over 1,000 people and opened fire with an assault rifle.  At least four people died and 17 were injured.  Some were injured earlier by the same shooter at one of three other sites.  When an officer showed up at Excel, the gunman aimed at the officer and fired.  The officer returned fire and killed the attacker.

Hiromi  read about it on Japan Yahoo this morning.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Amish Plant Scientist

I recently heard again about John Kempf, a young Amish man from Geauga County in NE Ohio, who has become well-known as a plant science consultant.  This time I wondered idly again whether he is a distant relative of mine.  My great grandmother was a Kempf.

News of Kempf's successes have been touted in the mainstream media, in The Atlantic, for example, in October of 2014.

Of greater interest to me is the process by which Kempf became who he is now.  To most of the world he is an enigma because of the deep knowledge he has of soils and natural plant processes, having acquired that knowledge with no more than an eighth grade formal education.  In the company in which Kempf is listed as the founder and vision builder, sixteen people from a variety of locations and backgrounds work together to connect John Kempf's insights and products with the people who need them.  The chairman of the company lives in Manhattan (New York).  A number of the people on staff have advanced degrees.

Hiromi heard me yesterday when I was puzzling out loud over the Kempf enigma.  I talked long enough to convince myself that the matter wasn't so very mysterious after all.  Here's how I see it:

1.  Kempf is obviously very intelligent--as are other Amish people I know.

2.  Kempf had a good basic education--as is true of many who learn in one or two-room Amish schools.

3.  Kempf learned how to learn and learned to take responsibility for his own learning.  I know other people like that--a few of whom have survived traditional education systems.

4.  Kempf was thoroughly immersed at a young age in the real world of making a living.  In his case, the family did produce farming.

5.  Kempf is an astute observer.  Careful observation in his father's fields, followed by asking questions and looking for answers launched him on the journey that brought him eventually to having extensive influence in far away places.

6.  Kempf is a voracious reader.  From a catalog he fished out of his uncle's trash bin, he began to order books on plants and soils.  From them he acquired the vocabulary of professionals in the field of plant science, and learned details about many of the processes involved in plant growth.

7.  In the ultimate test of the value of learning, Kempf began to apply what he learned to growing the crops in his family's fields.  Success there prompted queries from others who had the same problems and needed the same successes.

8.  In explaining to friends and neighbors what he was learning, Kempf honed his communication skills, making complex concepts accessible to people with little education.  In trying to help those who needed it, he tested his ideas further and expanded his frame of reference, establishing a reputation for trustworthiness with each success.

9.  Kempf eventually was spending so much time helping others that his father told him he either needs to quit doing it or start charging for it.  He started charging for his services.  I can't think of a more sure way to know that a business idea is viable than to have great demand for one's services, even when there must be a charge for those services.

10.  I know almost nothing of the story of how Kempf's business came to include the cast of characters who are present now.  I know that he opted to maintain the simple lifestyle of his Amish people, and suspect that he allowed others who were not Amish to develop and distribute his ideas and products.  I hope he is being fairly compensated.


I can't help evaluating Kempf's route to productivity alongside the traditional academic route.  Kempf may still have no idea how many pitfalls he avoided and how many opportunities he maximized by pursuing knowledge along lines of his own choosing, at his own pace.

If he had pursued a course of study in an academic institution, he would almost certainly have been burdened with courses offering information he had no need of, either because he already knew what was being taught, or because it was not relevant to his goal of solving plant problems.  At home with his books, he could go back and forth constantly between reading about things and trying them out.  That process pushed him into traveling mostly productive paths, rather than wasting time on irrelevant detours.

If his mind was orderly, he could keep track mentally of what worked and what didn't work as he went along, saving himself a great deal of time in creating a paper trail as would have been required in the academic world.

No one hovered over him with withering academic superiority, warning him away from novel ideas.  Some of those novel ideas turned out to be groundbreaking and very sound in practice.

He could race along the lines his thought and experience opened up, without waiting until the day a class lecture might touch on the subject he needed to learn about "right now."

He didn't have to wait on a corporate or government body or individual to approve his projects and provide funding.  He pursued whatever he chose and found a way to pay for what he needed.


One of the unique services Kempf's company offers is analysis of plant sap.  The testing is performed by a company in The Netherlands.  Kempf can make recommendations for correcting nutritional imbalances based on these test results.  Usually the remedy is found in adding specific minerals in the right quantity, in a readily bio-available form.  Doing this removes barriers that might otherwise inhibit natural processes in the soil and in the plant.

If these natural processes are unhindered, especially at "critical points of influence," a plant has the ability to reach its highest potential.  The farmer who sees himself as a "remover of barriers" is almost sure to have a more humble, respectful-of-the-process stance than the farmer who sees himself as a "booster of production" by the methods, tools, and substances he uses.


Last week Lowell, Dad, and Melvin H. N. heard Kempf speak in a meeting in Scott City.  He wore a homemade shirt and a hooks-and-eyes vest.  I've been listening to him on youtube and reading on his website and blog.  Online images of Kempf are scarce, as anyone who knows something of Amish values will understand.


Kempf is the product of an education process that gets almost no favorable press--very limited class time, lots of "down and dirty" work, working for years for his parents without pay. curriculum of the student's choice, learning accomplished at the student's chosen pace, being Amish, accepting the disciplines of a simple lifestyle, etc.  I'll leave it to others to promote the products Kempf's company sells.  I'd like to honor Kempf himself, and applaud the "system" of education that made his success possible.  I hope homeschoolers and "simple-schoolers" and the self-taught everywhere feel affirmed for their choices.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Hiromi's Life Story

This past Wednesday evening at church Leroy Hershberger interviewed Hiromi publicly in a "life story" feature.  You can listen to it here.  In the next few paragraphs I've copied what I sent to our family email list to explain further.

Several things that will help make the audio version more understandable--

1.  Throughout, Leroy used photos projected on a large screen as prompts for questions he asked Hiromi.  You'll have to imagine the photos.

2.  At the very beginning, Leroy said that when he first learned about Hiromi he heard that he was a tea master.  He asked Hiromi to explain what that was all about.  What Hiromi did not get around to saying is what a tea master is.  It is essentially one who is qualified to teach/lead tea ceremony events.  That designation comes during the fourth level of participation and training.  Two additional levels can be reached with more time and effort.

3.  Also, in the section where Leroy asked if Hiromi came from a musical family, he didn't get around to mentioning his mother, who played the "shah--mee-sen" (samisen).  The easy-to-learn instrument he mentioned is a koto.  Both of them are stringed instruments.  The samisen is a three-stringed instrument resembling a banjo.  The koto has a very skinny rectangular shape and is about six feet long.  It's placed on the floor for playing.  He owns the bamboo flute his father used to play, and a samisen.  He has some ability to play both.

4.  From the audience, in response to Leroy's question for me, I highlighted how young Hiromi was when he left home to join the Air Force training program--15.  After he left the Air Force and returned home--about 15 months later, his original class at school had advanced two years beyond him, and he had to join a class two years younger in order to graduate.  Being two years older than his classmates throughout most of high school quite naturally catapulted him into a leadership position--something I didn't mention last night.


Seeing Hiromi in action on Wed. and remembering many parts of his story (and our story) reminded  me why I was attracted to Hiromi more than 30 years ago and why I still love him.  Others noted that they see some of Hiromi's outstanding characteristics in our sons.

I learned at least one thing that I never knew before--the part about what happened after Hiromi's soldier-father recovered from the injury he suffered during World War II.

Many, many details, of course, were left unsaid--fortunately, since the account continued for a good hour as it was.  

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Good Things at Church

It's time to give a big happy shout out to the church trustees who have led out in the creation of a new church kitchen.  It's located in the space that used to be occupied by a school classroom--in the southwest corner of the addition.  One of the best things about this location is that it's on the main floor.  The many in our church who have limited mobility will no longer need to struggle up and down the stairs or have someone carry plates to them upstairs.  For more than 50 years we had only a small kitchen in the basement.  It was essentially a family-sized kitchen.

Two Marvins and two Josephs get most of the credit for wise planning--Mast and Yutzy, Yoder and Hershberger.  I'm sure their wives helped a lot behind the scenes.

To me the most outstanding thing about the project is the way those in charge did several things:

1.  They welcomed input, and altered the plan according to the input.

2.  They were forthright all along about financial matters--how much money was in hand, how much their proposal would cost, and how much was still needed.

3.  They did good research by visiting a number of other kitchens used for similar purposes as ours will be.  They talked to the people to whom the kitchens belonged and learned from them what worked well and what needed improvement.

4.  They solicited information from people who work on food committees, who cook at weddings, and who know what is called for in kitchens where food is prepared for sale to the public.  They worked into the plan the suggestions of these people.

5.  They communicated regularly and well with the church people--spreading out drawings and samples and inviting on-the-spot input.

Some of these sound repetitious, boiling down to the same thing:  Serving well, with humility.


Another thing I really like that has happened recently at church is the purchase of padded stackable chairs with armrests.  I never gave our utilitarian 50-year old metal folding chairs a second thought until I regularly took my frail mother to our Sunday School class and helped her into and out of those chairs. It was then that I realized how much armrests to grab onto would help her.  In the sanctuary, she could grab onto the pews in front of her for the same kind of help.  Not so in our circle of chairs for the Sunday School class .  My mother was only one of many who needed help.  Now people with old bones and muscles and people recovering from orthopedic surgery welcome the comfort of those padded seats.


The new kitchen and chairs are only part of what I like about our church.  Actually these few things wouldn't mean much if it weren't for other substantive things that are good and right.

In our church services I like good sermons, good congregational singing, and good opening meditations.  I think I'm overusing the "good" adjective.  By that I mean thought-provoking, worshipful, and inspiring (and yes, now I'm overusing adverbs).  In Sunday School classes I like using the Bible as the text and simply sharing around it.  I like segregated adult classes and love hearing from other women.

I like both an openness to change and appropriate caution about change.

I like involvement in the community, often via Hands of Christ and RISE Kids Church.  I like people serving in various stateside ministries.  I like involvement elsewhere in the world, with members on various continents.  I like the freedom to interact with others in the community on an individual basis, with no need for an official church organization to make it happen.

I like the diversity among our members.  I like having people of all ages in every service.

Church is a refuge where people can find help when life batters them.


For now I'm encouraged by thinking about what is good.  I could, of course, make other kinds of lists, and sometimes such lists are needful.  But not today.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Barbaric Practices

When a doctor says that he believes that someday we will regard our current cancer treatment protocols as barbaric, I take notice.  "Slash, burn, and poison" is the crude characterization I've heard elsewhere of standard cancer treatment.  Most of us feel that we can't do much personally to move matters to a better place.  When cancer hits close to home we usually grit our teeth and do what the experts tell us needs to be done.  Often it seems to work out fairly well.  But not always.

I see current cancer treatment and football as having this in common:  Some day we will regard both as barbaric.  In today's newspaper, George Will said virtually the same thing.  Because of the preponderance of evidence that engaging in the sport results in very high occurrences of catastrophic brain damage over a football player's life, even when no visible signs of concussions are observed,  Will suggests that the 50th Superbowl should be called the 50th Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Bowl.

Chronic Traumatic Enceophalopathy (CTE) can only be definitively diagnosed after death, so it's impossible to know how many people still living are suffering from this injury-caused disease.     CTE is degenerative, resulting eventually in brain shrinkage.  Deposits of tau proteins create dead zones, where no neurological functions can be carried on.  Symptoms show up over many years of time following the last instance of brain trauma and range from personality changes to physical disabilities and debilitating pain.  Dementia almost always develops unless death comes early from another cause.  This is a good explanation of CTE.

The columnist George Will is no wild-eyed writer.  Conservatives consider him one of theirs.  I consider him evenhanded.   You can read his column here.

I grinned several times yesterday when yet another friend shared on Facebook a picture of a Heidi-like carefree-looking young lady running across a green meadow.  The caption said, "This is me, not caring about the Superbowl."  Aside from the fact that the spritely thing in the picture did not look the slightest bit like me, I couldn't have honestly posted the picture myself.  I don't "not care" about the Superbowl.  I care so much that I think watching it would make me feel ill.  Witnessing the activity that results in the destruction of once healthy brains (to wild applause, no less) would have that effect.  For me, watching it would be an ethical violation as serious as standing by without protest when  little ones are being offered lead-laced drinking water.  Will says it like this:  It would be nice, but probably fanciful, to think that even 1 percent of the expected television audience of more than 110 million will have qualms about the ethics of their enjoyment.  

God bless George Will for his truth telling.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016


Note:  After posting only the first part initially, I added several paragraphs at the end.

In relation to politics, I find these statements from Christian people cringe-worthy:

1.  "Our party ______________ . . . ." No party is thoroughly Christian, either as defined by its platforms, its policies, its leaders, or its loyalists.  Christians should not adopt a wholesale party identity for this reason.  No party is fitting as "our party."

2.  "True conservatives are more Christian than false conservatives."  Christianity does not fit neatly under either a "liberal" or a "conservative" label--true or otherwise.  Christians should not adopt a wholesale conservative or liberal label because their Christian identity should not be subjected to such an overlay.  The Pharisees were the religious conservatives of their day and were rebuked in strong terms by Jesus Himself.

3.  "I like _______ because he will make America great again."  I take "great" in this context to mean rich, powerful, and righteous.  Only one of those is a fitting aim for a Christian.

4.  "I feel safer with an [anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic] immigration policy. " Wrong focus.  Jesus never put safety first in his practice or his teaching and we shouldn't do so either.

5.  "I like him because he's a successful businessman and is independently wealthy."  Wrong value.  Most direct Bible references to wealth are couched in warnings against its associated hazards--not commending its pursuit.

6.  "I'll be glad to support the nominee, whoever he is." This reveals blatant partisanship and is not evidence of thoughtful discernment.

7.  "That's typical of the liberal media [in reference to anything critical of conservatives]."  The media is made up of all kinds of contributors.  Some of them are rational, truthful, and interested in providing an unbiased, useful service.  They are so evenhanded in their writing that it takes a lot of reading and oftentimes some research to figure out what biases they might hold.  I love reading the writing of people like this.  Michael Gerson and Kathleen Parker come to mind as examples.  Others are terminally biased and can't admit a truth as big as a barn if it counters their own biases.  Reading such writers isn't worth my time, especially if media bashing is part of the message.  Christians should be evenhanded with their assessments and cognizant of their biases and happy to hear truth telling.

8.  "America has lost so much respect [among other countries of the world, because of not being militarily strong enough]."  These people must not know or are choosing to ignore how betrayed others in the world sometimes feel because of America's military interventions.  This "respect" narrative seems like an opinion in search of justification.  The truth is far more complicated.

Sometimes displays of military might actually elicit disdain from those looking on--not admiration or respect.  More than 15 years ago when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the US came to the rescue of Kuwait, and intervened militarily.  A relative who lived in another Middle Eastern country at the time noted that it seemed to be common knowledge there that America's intervention was all about protecting its oil interests rather than about heartfelt concern for the oppression  of the Kuwaiti people.

9.  "I've given up supporting [ ___________ (a presidential candidate)]."  This is cringe-worthy only in the sense that it implies earlier support for that candidate--unwarranted from the start, as I see it.  Placing great hope in any candidate is to invite disappointment.  Christians' eggs don't belong in politicians' baskets.

10.  "People who don't vote for . . . (the 'best' candidate) are promoting Satan's agenda."  This makes no sense whatsoever in my Christian universe--where the power of prayer is the first resort in all matters, where one vote is a puny thing, and where none of us is alone privy to the will of God or the knowledge of others' hearts.

I don't often respond immediately when I hear things that pain me on topics like these.  Sometimes I wait because I know I need to think of something kinder than the first thing that comes to mind.  At other times I just don't have enough energy to engage in debate.  Sometimes I'm not sure of what I think, and I need time to evaluate.

I am encouraged that some of the above statements have been retracted and even apologized for.

Obviously it's no big deal to anyone else what I cringe about, but if telling about them elicits careful consideration of one's own tendencies for others as it does for me, it's worth detailing them.

Do you have something to add to the list?  Do you wish to challenge or identify with mine?


After I published the above, I read a piece by Greg Boyd that stated positively much of what I believe about Christians and politics.  Boyd came to the historic Anabaptist position via a very circuitous route.  His father was an atheist.  Boyd was first a Catholic, then a Oneness Pentecostal.  Next he became an Orthodox Christian.  He studied at both Princeton and Yale, where he distinguished himself academically.  His 16-year stint as a professor at Bethel University ended with his resignation after a dispute with other professors there over open theism.  John Piper, another Bethel University professor and Baptist pastor, has actively resisted the influence of Boyd since then.  Boyd helped found and still pastors at the Woodland Hills church in Saint Paul, MN.

I thought I could share some excerpts from Boyd's piece to whet your appetite for reading it, but I gave up.  I wanted to quote the whole thing.  It's written as an answer to these questions:  "In your Anabaptist view, do you believe Christians should be involved in politics at all?  Should they even vote?"  We need people like Boyd to help us Anabaptists become "more like us" instead of more like other American Christians.  Here's the link.