Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

The Birds and I


House Sparrow > Photo Credit: Bing Images/

©2016 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: In the narrative below, I will be using masculine and feminine pronouns while referring to the birds I discuss, when actually I had no idea of what their genders were. I believe readers will understand my reason for assuming this literary license in preference to factual accuracy if they take the time to substitute with the neuter forms.
* * * * * *

¶Birds affect our imagination more than any other creatures because they seem to be the least bounded in their movements. They embody our concept of total freedom. The most famous of them — the eagle and the dove — have been assumed to be messengers from the gods; the raven and the owl supposedly are omens of catastrophe, or at least ill fortune. Almost any bird fills us with awe because of its beautiful plumage or melodious “song”.
¶My own experience of birds has been generally restricted to the commoner species: house sparrows, barn swallows, grackles, and jays. Less frequently have I observed the rarer robins, hummingbirds and mockingbirds, not to mention a few species I cannot name because I saw them only once and had not the remotest idea what they were. I am neither an ornithologist nor a bird watcher.
¶Nonetheless, just to touch a wild bird, of whatever variety, or to have one perceiving me as an aid or threat can be a revelation of sorts. I recall an episode during my elementary school years — I was nine or ten years old — when a sparrow managed to force his way into our house. He perched quietly upon my right shoulder as I was half-reclined on my bed, reading some magazine. He must have been there at least a minute before I realized it, because I had sensed his weight as he settled but was only half aware of what I assumed must be my collar slipping. Finally one of his movements broke in on my consciousness, and you can imagine the shock I felt upon looking around to discover a sparrow on my shoulder. I jumped up in such a fright that all my usual reverence for Nature evaporated. It was the bird’s turn to be terrified now as I chased him around the house, swatting at him with a broom. At last the harried creature found his exit through what must have been his entry, a broken loose corner of the front door screen.
¶In later years I occasionally wondered if that bird had previously been tamed by some human so that he believed it quite a normal behavior to alight on my shoulder. I regretted acting as I had toward the sparrow, but it was absurd to regret anything done while wrought up as I was then. If another sparrow were to perch on my shoulder now I would probably react in much the same way. Anyhow, he did manage to escape uninjured.
¶A year or two later, while I was visiting one of my uncles in the Rio Grande Valley, in deep South Texas, another sparrow stunned itself by flying against the living room’s large plate glass window. I heard her thump and went out on the porch to see whether she was still alive. The dazed bird was squatting there on the cement porch, huddled up much as though she were brooding over eggs. I picked the creature up and smoothed her feathers for a couple of minutes. Body-wise, she was unharmed, as far as I could tell, but she was so indifferent to me and to her environment generally that I got the idea she might have suffered brain damage. Maybe the collision had turned the bird into an idiot. I set the sparrow on the grassy lawn and went to fetch a saucer of water, hoping on the way that she would be gone when I returned. But she wasn’t; there she was, stupid in the sun, when I got back. I put the saucer down in front of the sparrow’s beak, and still she took no notice. By now I was getting frustrated; there were other things I wanted to do that day. I stood hovering over the little creature like a human Eiffel tower and tried my best to imitate a marine sergeant’s tone: “Fly! Go on! Fly away!” The sparrow didn’t move. Cruel out of desperation, I bent down, picked the bird up, and tossed her into the air. She went up before my thrust, dropped a foot or two, flapped madly a second, hovering, and then took off.
¶That should atone, I thought, for the earlier sparrow episode. For days afterwards I went about feeling warmly pantheistic. “Just don’t startle me, Mother Nature,” I mused, “and I’ll serve you, but you must expect a reaction if you surprise your devotee.”
¶Mother Nature must not have been placated by my vow or intimidated by my threat, because the next time I had direct contact with a bird it came swooping out of a scrub oak’s leafy canopy and made a dive bomber’s attack at my head. (That was when I was attending the university.) Perhaps some unintended provocation was apparent in that I was wearing a wide-brimmed panama with a brightly colored band. Everyone knows how some birds like to decorate their nests with bright colors. Also, this particular assailant was a mockingbird, a species known for its jealous sense of private domain. I had often seen some mockingbird careering over a squirrel’s or cat’s back, but I had never expected one to be audacious enough to attack a human, especially me.
¶But that was in no way the last such incident. A few years later, as I was opening the gate to my yard, I heard some loud squawks and caws at my feet as well as the same above and behind me. Startled to a stop, I glanced down and then up. On the flag stone walk below, a terrified young blue jay was running around in circles and screeching at the top of his voice. Above me, swooping, flapping and screeching in their turn, were two full-grown and very angry jays, presumably the youngster’s anxious parents. Apparently, I had intruded on his first training flight and scared him so much he couldn’t leave the ground. He must have been perched in one of the diamond-shaped vacancies of the chain-link fence when I pushed it open. Papa and Mama jay continued to make diving sorties at my head, forcing me to duck and rush to the steps of my apartment. After Junior had regained his wind and wits, his parents zoomed after him into the foliage of a nearby pecan tree. I thought I discerned derisive notes in their victorious cawing as they flew from one branch to another.


Southern Mockingbird > Photo Source: Bing Images/

¶Well, that brings me almost up to date; but I feel that this familiar essay won’t be complete unless I reprise briefly that episode of the day I had my first mystical experience, which involved a mockingbird. You can read the anecdote more fully by pulling up my post of March 30, 2015 titled “My Spiritual Journey (to date)”. I was deeply involved in Alcoholics Anonymous at the time and had finally come around to recognizing that possibly there really is a god, or “higher power” as the 12-Steppers prefer to call to him/her/it. I had been impressed by how, at every meeting, at least five out of 20-plus attendees would speak almost directly to my situation, and how those folks fervently believed that the “higher power” spoke to them through other people. I wondered if the only voices God used were those of humans: why not other creatures? One day, I left my apartment and was unlocking the door to my truck when I heard a mockingbird behind me, chirping his plagiarized songs. I turned around to see a young oak tree about seven feet tall that had been planted in a green space separating two parking areas. I couldn’t see the bird, but I was certain he was in that tree. I stood still several minutes trying to detect a message from God in that bird’s voice, but of course to no avail. Finally I said, “Sorry, God. Guess I’m just not there yet.” Then I got into my truck and drove away.
¶The next morning, a Sunday, lying in my bed and reading a New Yorker magazine, I perused the translation of a poem by Lars Gustafson and translated from the Swedish by Yvonne L. Sandstroem. The crux of the poem was about an 86-year-old Mexican woman who had recently died.  When the doctors examined her they discovered she had been carrying around a dead fetus in her womb for 60 years. Stuck right in the middle of the lengthy poem were the following lines about a bird who apparently had annoyingly caught the attention of the poet as he was trying to compose his poem. They are an interruption in the poem, yet a part of it:
….. Mockingbird, what do you want?
You have so many voices, and I don’t know which one of them to take seriously.
The scornful sometimes, the complaining sometimes —
then there’s a kind of clucking,
on certain days in early spring,
when dampness still clings to the moss on the oaks,
as if you didn’t quite want to speak out.
Mockingbird in the green oak tree!
What’s the secret you sit there trying to

¶That was the real beginning of my spiritual journey. Ever since that morning, whenever I hear a mockingbird I feel uplifted.


Bob’s Apology to the Children of the World

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

O little children, how I regret the need to write this letter to you. If we big people had done our duty for many years now, this apology would not have been necessary. You might not be able to read or comprehend by yourselves what I shall say here, so you perhaps should wait until you are a little older and have learned more and bigger words. (I will try to rein in my tendency to use complicated words, but that is very hard to do.) Or your parents might sit down with you and reduce the content to your level of understanding. I doubt that they will, because it could be too embarrassing for them.

I don’t have any children of my own, but there was a time when I deeply wanted a baby. However, I was already past the age when being a good daddy was practicable; and, anyway, I didn’t have a wife. A mommy is just as important in a child’s development as a daddy, usually more so. But my being childless is not really important: I am still just as responsible for our troubles as any parent.

But, let’s get on with the basic message I want to share with you.

The world is in a sad situation right now, both in an environmental way and in a social way. Perhaps the primary cause of that sad situation… (Let me introduce a new word to you here: dire. I would rather use that word than “sad” because, although it contains much the same meaning, it also means more. You see, a situation can be “sad” and yet limited; it might affect only one person or just a few people, and it might be just a temporary mood. “Dire”, however, adds more meaning — the element of threat. If something is a threat then it is neither tied to a mood nor likely to be temporary; it could mean the end of all life, even all things.)

One current threat is Climate Change. The Earth’s temperature is increasing; at least that is what about 300 of the world’s scientists have told us. And many things that we can see, if we look at them, appear to back up the scientists’ claims: the Arctic ice is melting, threatening the habitat of the polar bears and the Eskimos; the coral reefs, on which many sea creatures depend for food, is receding; the schedules and flight patterns of migratory birds are changing; and, perhaps the simplest test of all, the recording on temperature gauges is inching upward year by year. And those are just a few of the observable changes.

Now, a sizable minority of the world’s population refuses to acknowledge these changes or to attribute them to Man’s use of energy sources that come out of the earth, such as coal and oil. And other people, who might recognize Man’s guilt in all this mess, don’t have the political will to do anything about the problem. What hinders them is that to take the urgent actions needed to try and reverse, or at least moderate, disaster would require eliminating some industries, such as coal-mining and oil/gas-drilling, which have employed many people — perhaps your daddy or mommy — for a long time. You can understand, can’t you, why your parents, if they work in one of those industries, would fight to keep their jobs? They want to be able to feed and clothe you just as they have always done. And when the cost of a solution closely affects a person’s family his or her range of vision becomes severely narrowed.

Another threatening element in our world’s scene is tribalism. If you are Americans, you probably think that only the Native Americans (formerly known as “the Indians”) live in tribes. Actually, though, we are all members of tribes in that our facial features, skin colors, cultural attitudes, political arrangements, and even spiritual beliefs are shared by varying fractions of the world’s population. Throughout the centuries, tribes have often been in conflict with one another; this is very noticeably the current case in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. But it is also an issue in Europe and the United States, where mass migrations of peoples who are fleeing oppression and poverty in their homelands continue. Especially when a bunch of them move to any one country, they tend to congregate in the same area so that they can share themselves with others of their own culture and language; thus, we have neighborhoods that become known as “China Town” or “Little Mexico”. Large influxes of peoples bringing with them their traditions, religions and other cultural habits appear threatening to native peoples, who want to protect their own cultural norms from alterations. Now, some of the native people — particularly the farmers — often welcome the foreigners because those refugees are willing to do work that some natives do not want to do. That causes quarrels between the farmers and their urban neighbors.

There are also, naturally, more practical problems that come with mass migrations: how to house, feed, clothe, educate and medicate the foreigners. The governments in Europe, the United States and some African countries are wrestling with those problems right now. A subtle and dangerous aspect of this social turmoil is the element of racism and religious bigotry involved. Ethnic jealousy and political partisanship also are part of this poisonous mixture. Such a seemingly small matter as whether a Muslim woman should be allowed to wear her religion-prescribed head scarf in some places has engendered debates in parliaments and the media.

Religion itself is a major element in the world’s general conflict. In the Middle East, one branch of Islam attacks another branch over the question of who was the rightful successor of Mahomet as leader of their religion. In China, the government is again trying to extinguish Christianity. And here in the U.S., one political party is working hard to infuse the Christian religion more deeply into our political system; they want to establish Christianity as the official religion of the U. S.. In all our conflicts, a primary element is the “us versus them” mentality, and that is especially true of the religious divisions.

Then there is the question of how you children are going to earn a living when you grow up. Robotics and mechanization are already reducing the number of humans who are needed for many types of jobs. In Japan, I read recently, they are already using robots to work the reservation counters at airports. A batch of sociological studies all indicate that many more positions will be taken over by robots over the next 25 years, including those of lawyers, doctors, and news reporters. So, what will you do? How will you spend all your “free time”? How will your food and shelter be paid for? Don’t expect the owners of factories and other businesses or the political officials to care: they want to eliminate the need for human employees because doing so will save them money. Why should they spend that savings on your needs?

Now, I should give credit to those grown-ups who are trying to solve some of the problems I have too briefly described above. There are many individuals, companies and even governments who are altering their practices regarding gaseous emissions from factories and vehicles, which are a major cause of the Climate Change problem. There are also some statesmen who are trying to tamper down the social strife caused by religious and cultural differences.

And there are your parents, who had enough faith in humanity to bring you into the world. I feel some mental and emotional conflict within myself at this point because, on the one hand, I wonder at their wanting to bring children into a world full of direful and daunting difficulties; while, on the other hand, I admire them for their faith and for providing us with you. The solutions will require people — intelligent, energetic and loving people — to discover and put them into practice.

Thus I leave you, Children of the World, with my most heart-felt apology for the messes we have left for you to clean up, and with my earnest hope and encouragement for your success.

Bless you,

Bob Litton

Phobias Revisited

© 2013, 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Dear Readers:  Due to several current physical and financial stresses (might as well include “political” in that group), I haven’t the inclination to write up a fresh blog post right now. Yet it has been a week since my last one; and, lest you develop a panic, I thought of resurrecting one of my very early posts (from November 2013). And, since most of my current “followers” were not even reading this blog back then, I believe the piece can actually be seen as a “fresh refresher”.  Moreover, considering the heavy nature of some of my recent posts, it might even be a welcome relief in tone, because it is humorous…mostly. The original title was “A Cornucopia of Phobias”.
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In the small town (Pop. 5,972) where I reside, we have a senior center, where old folks like me can enjoy a generally well-balanced lunch five days a week — excepting federal holidays.

For a few months, a couple of ladies dressed as clowns came to the center’s lunch room once a month to hand out balloon sculptures and josh with the diners. After sitting through a couple of those experiences I quit going to the center on the day the clowns were scheduled to appear.

I stayed away for two reasons: one, I do not like to see elderly folks treated or spoken to as though they are the same as children; and, two, I have had, since early childhood, an aversion to clowns and to absurd appearances or speech in general. When I was six years old, I contracted measles and the small apartment where my mother and I resided was quarantined. Mother bought some 78rpm record albums to entertain me during my isolation. Most of them were very enjoyable, but one — a “Bozo the Clown” album — I could not stand; yet, I did not reveal my distaste to Mother because I knew she had meant only to amuse me.

At the time, naturally, my cognitive powers were not developed enough to connect my aversion to that album with a congenital aversion to clowns as a genus. As the years passed, however, and I showed a similar dislike of stories such as Alice in Wonderland, I began to suspect that my aversion practically amounted to a phobia. My recent emotional experience of clowns at the senior center caused me to face that reality in my psyche.

I characterized my reaction to clowns as “clownphobia” (the psychiatrists’ term for it is “Coulrophobia”); and I also realized that I have perhaps an excessive sensitivity to others touching me (Chiraptophobia, also Haphephobia), whether they are clowns or not: I have a very narrowly circumscribed “comfort zone”.

I wondered if everyone has at least one phobia, so I researched the matter. What I discovered was that the scientists prefer to restrict the term “phobia” and all its combined forms to perceptions that cause a disabling of the body, a paralysis; for the less affecting reactions, the scientists prefer the less clinical terms  “fear” and “aversion”. Also, I read where other persons had asked the same question about how universal phobias could be: the answer was that it is impossible to know absolutely because there are too many people in the world who live in inaccessible places, but that many people, if they do have phobias, do not admit as much. Do they really not have phobias, or do they suffer from fear of phobias (Phobophobia) and therefore deny any phobia’s presence?

Further into my research, I found that there are long lists of phobias, valid or not, on the Internet, and I was astounded at the extreme plenitude and variety of these reactions. I photocopied thirteen pages from one list so that I could study them easier. I did not try to count them, however, because one “phobia” could be denoted by more than one term; for instance, Domatophobia – fear of houses or of being in a house – is also referenced as Eicophobia and Oikophobia.

One of the most surprising aspects of the list I saw was that so many of the phobias related to such basic elements of civilization, Nature, and our own bodies that I could not imagine how people who suffered from them could continue through their daily lives. Consider, as examples, these: Agyrophobia – fear of streets or crossing the street;    Asymmetriphobia – fear of asymmetrical things; Bibliophobia – fear of books;  Chronophobia– fear of time; Dendrophobia– fear of trees; Eosophobia – fear of dawn or daylight; Epistemophobia (and Gnosiophobia) – fear of knowledge; Ergophobia – fear of work;  Heliophobia – fear of the sun; Kathisophobia– fear of sitting down; Lachanophobia – fear of vegetables; Microphobia – fear of small things; Noctiphobia – fear of the night;  Nomatophobia – fear of names; Ombrophobia – fear of rain or being rained on; Phronemophobia – fear of thinking; Euphobia – fear of good news;  Selenophobia – fear of the moon; Sitophobia (also, Cibophobia) – fear of food or eating; Somniphobia – fear of sleeping; Trichopathophobia (also, Chaetophobia, Hypertrichophobia) – fear of hair; Cardiophobia – fear of the heart; Geniophobia – fear of chins; Genuphobia – fear of knees; Ommetaphobia – fear of eyes; and Omphalophobia – fear of belly buttons.

There is a bunch more of those. However, let’s move on to phobias that I would not classify absolutely as “phobias” but, depending on the occasion, as justifiable fears or aversions. Under this heading, we can list: Arsonphobia – fear of fire; Atomosophobia – fear of atomic explosions; Ballistophobia – fear of missiles or bullets; Cnidophobia – fear of stings; Cynophobia –  fear of dogs or rabies; Herpetophobia – fear of reptiles or creepy, crawly things. Hoplophobia – fear of firearms; Iophobia – fear of poison; Lilapsophobia – fear of hurricanes and tornadoes; Acrophobia (also Altophobia) – fear of heights; and let’s not leave out Ephebiphobia – fear of teenagers; and Gynephobia (also Gynophobia) – fear of women.

A few phobias on the list puzzle me because I cannot fathom how anyone could comprehend them enough to feel threatened by them. In this category I include Amnesiphobia – fear of amnesia; Apeirophobia – fear of infinity; Astrophobia – fear of stars or celestial space; Barophobia – fear of gravity; Cometophobia – fear of comets; Dikephobia – fear of justice; Eleutherophobia – fear of freedom; and Kosmikophobia – fear of cosmic phenomena.

There is even a diagnostic for fear of everything: Panophobia (or Pantophobia). O Brother! If you suffered from that one, you’d want to dig a hole in the ground and have some friend cover you….But then you’d go berserk from Bathophobia (fear of depth) and Molysomophobia (fear of dirt) or from both together. That’s a “no win” situation. Let’s hope you don’t contract Panophobia.

Fortunately for me, it is not often that I encounter clowns, and they are usually easy enough to remain clear of. The Chiraptophobia (fear of touch by other people) is a bit more problematic; I don’t even like to shake hands. (Does anybody?) Many people think I am antisocial, which is not the case at all; I just have my “comfort zone” which I allow only adorable women to enter.

Adorable women. Of course.


The End of Autumn


I was concerned that some readers of my Nov. 13 post, “Beauty in Ordinary Things”, might suppose I was exaggerating about the symphony of colors played by a single non-bearing mulberry tree’s leaves. Above is proof of my assertion. O, how I enjoyed picking these off the sidewalk and drive; it was almost like gathering pecans. Of course there were many more, but their number just wouldn’t allow for a suitable fit on my desk top easel. The photos above and below are the sole reason for this blog post.







Beauty in Ordinary Things


One of the fleeting, annual days of beauty at my apartment complex. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ruggia.

© 2015 By Bob Litton

“You find the beauty in ordinary things. Do not lose this ability.”
                                                 — Note from a fortune cookie

I love serendipity. It has played such a prominent role in my adult life that I have granted it mystical powers, for the things I find while looking for something else have often spoken eloquently to my mind, my heart, my soul. Sometimes the messages have not been as positive as the epigraph above: sometimes they have been melancholy, but more often they have indeed been enlightening and even funny.

That cookie fortune, for instance, I came upon serendipitously just a few days ago while clearing my computer table of the mass of larger papers on it. Of course, I obtained the fortune months ago when I ate lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. I saved it for some reason I have forgotten; I would surmise, however, that I liked its assessment of me and the sentiment attending that assessment. Even the imperative sentence that follows is appreciable: it both exposes the fragility of the attuneness and enjoins me to nurture it. Not the sort of “fortune” I expect to find in such cookies; it does not predict anything.

So, how does that relate to the above photo of leaves? Well, the more obvious connection should not be difficult, dear reader, for you to perceive. Most people, I believe, look forward to the few weeks when the crisp air causes the leaves of the many trees to change from green to russet, gold, yellow, maroon, brown and even combinations of those colors within the same leaf. The last mentioned aspect is typical of the non-bearing mulberry trees on my apartment’s campus. I have been fascinated and amused by the color combinations in some of the leaves on the sidewalk and the driveway: one leaf, for instance, was a perfect imitation of a soldier’s camouflaged field jacket — tan and olive; another leaf was yellow with small brown dots, almost uniform in size and shape, that reminded me of a ladybug.  I picked up four of the leaves the other day and laid them on my computer desk, where I am admiring them now even as they curl with dryness.

I have always enjoyed the color changes of autumn, but it seems that only this year have they meant so much to me that I practically adore them. This sudden acuteness to the sight of leaves is akin, I believe, to the vividness that the sounds of the acorns falling and rolling down my roof revealed; remember that I wrote about the acorns a few blog posts ago (Oct. 3). All the senses participate in this miracle of perception.

You remember, don’t you, Karen Carpenter’s song “Where Do I go from here?”? The early lines are:

Autumn days lying on a bed of leaves
Watching clouds up through the trees
You said our love was more than time.
It’s colder now;
The trees are bare and nights are long;
I can’t get warm since you’ve been gone….

Well, without the evocative music — not to mention Karen’s voice — some of the point I wish to make loses some of its emphasis. Those words remind me of my youthful days in Dallas, during the early winter, when the skies were a solid gray, with sagging clouds promising snow. The darkness of such a day was paralleled by the stillness of it. Someone unattuned to the fall season might imagine that such a scene would be depressing, but it did not strike me that way; as long as there was not a strong, cold wind I felt comfort in that setting. Now that the seasons are vanishing, the romance has diminished also.

Another old song — from ancient days when lyricists actually said something worth paying attention to in their lines — is “Autumn Leaves”, one of Andy Williams’ first hits:

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold.
I see your lips, the summer kisses,
The sun-burned hands I used to hold.

Since you went away the nights grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song,
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall.

Now, I will concede that these two songs do reflect melancholy, but it is a melancholy of gentle love…of the yearning for coziness which only two bodies hugging each other can provide…which a fireplace cannot.

We also view the color-changing and falling leaves as symbolic of the transiency of Life itself. The curse in the fruit of Eden’s tree is not just new awareness of nakedness and fear; it also includes more momentously the anticipation of death. While fore-knowledge of death is not restricted to humans, we do seem to have a more lifelong curiosity and occasional fear of it; perhaps what sets our knowledge of death apart from that of other creatures is that we can visualize it, to an extent, as pre-existing within ourselves.

But then, after the leaves have been swept away and a few snowfalls have bonneted the bare limbs for a few months, the buds of new leaves appear. I wonder how many people, like me, are a bit disconcerted by this cycling from chartreuse and forest greens to a multitude of fiery tones. And then their disappearance. Yes, it is a topsy-turvy world where winter symbolizes our giving up the ghost, and then the spring interrupts our acceptance with a “Hey, hold on there! Don’t give up just yet! There is more to this show!”

And so, we start all over again…a bit surprised, a bit amused, a bit perplexed.


To add a little seasoning to the above essay, readers, you might want to check out the YouTube presentations of the two songs I mentioned. Try the URL’s below:

“Where Do I Go From Here?”  (Karen Carpenter)

“Autumn Leaves” (Andy Williams)


Acorns, etc.

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

 Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
 — Luke 2:19

The fairies’ berets

Well, it’s the first week of October, although you can’t tell it by the daytime temperatures around my town; it is already scoring 92 degrees today (10/01/15) at 3 p.m. I don’t recall it getting that warm in July and August, maybe last June, which for some reason I can’t fathom has the reputation of being our hottest month. I know the steering wheel in my truck told me on several June days that hell was nearby. But we have only ourselves to blame, what with our carbon emissions history since the Industrial Revolution started.

Still, we always expect October to be a kinder month, even a time when donning a windbreaker is ordinarily the normal thing to do. In spite of the broiling heat, though, there are a few signs by which Nature is letting us know that Fall is nigh, such as a slight hint that the leaves want to change color from green to yellow, scarlet and purple. In our case here, however, the most telltale sign, that I have noticed, is the drumming of the acorns on my back porch’s metal roof. I see those nuts on the grass and sidewalk when I leave each morning for the coffee shop: they seem unusually large this year. And why have their loud tumbles never drawn my attention in the past twelve years? Yes, they simply must be larger this time.

As a child, influenced by some illustrations in fairy tale books, I would wonder if there were any “little people” around wearing parts of acorns for their caps; I was entirely ignorant at the time that what I was looking at was called a “cupule”. That was way before the age of the Internet, and my curiosity was stifled by a sense of futility until today.  I also used to occasionally wonder why we don’t eat acorns as we do pecans, walnuts and other nut delicacies. I assumed that acorns must be different from other nuts by being poisonous, but somebody told me that, no, the acorn is just bitter to the taste.

I read in Wikipedia today, though, that the ancient Greeks ate them after pounding them into a grain and that the Native Americans and Koreans still do favor certain dishes prepared using acorns. The processes involved, however, look formidably complicated and time-consuming to me. For the rest of us, grains have superseded any comparable meal ingredient. One would have to be near starvation, I suppose, to gather acorns. Yet, some of our media sites are recommending that we consider munching on various insects for sustenance: a hardly subtle reference to the likelihood of famines if climate change develops to its greatest extent.

But we want to believe that Fall is imminent, even though there seem to be no “four seasons” any more, only Summer and Winter. Autumn, like Spring, is being squeezed down to a week. Why is Fall also called “Autumn”? I wonder.

Out of balance

A Methodist minister told me, when I was about sixteen, “Life is going to be hard on you, Bob, because you are mature beyond your years.” I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, and I have pondered his assessment often since then. I now do not believe he was saying that my IQ was above average or that my store of common-sense was abundant: both of those qualities would, I believe, be very useful coping skills, not stumbling blocks. No, I think his point must have been that I do not have much tolerance for ambiguity, ambivalence, and the smaller details in life. I expect the world to be much more plain and decipherable than it is. The pastor’s remark was uttered not many days after I had opined, during a meeting of our church’s governing board (of which I was an ex officio  member), that I believed we needed to do away with Santa Claus. I won’t expound on the Santa Claus issue here any further than to explain that the persona of Santa I perceived was that of a caricature of God — an image that I thought confuses children and might eventually lead them spiritually astray.

No, the issue I wish to dilate on is what personality characteristic my comment reflected. My intolerance for ambiguity and small fictions became, I think, an obsession within me, an obsession that cannot be contained now, if it ever could, even though I am aware of the discomfort it causes for me. When (at age 20) I started reading philosophy, particularly Bertrand Russell’s discussion of Zeno’s paradoxes, I sententiously declared it my ambition to resolve all paradoxes; I wasn’t going to leave any room for an ounce of doubt.

Of course, most of my readers will be aware of how naïve was my goal. As the years multiplied, so did the paradoxes and dilemmas. Even Bertrand Russell, I read later, retreated into symbolic logic to discuss rather basic matters because he saw the plain old vernacular as being the cause of many philosophical rabbit trails¹. I did not have the mathematical ability to follow his lead, so I simply gave up and tried to close my eyes and ears to insoluble problems.

But the questions attacked me anyway, very surreptitiously via my observations of Nature and the people I encountered — nay, viewed, even if I did not meet them. Why is that young man, for instance, wearing a ring in his nostril and two rings in his lower lip? Why do two people not get to know each other better before they get hitched into a relationship that leads to an acrimonious and expensive divorce? Why does a group scream, beat loudly on drums and guitars, set off explosions and claim they are making music? Why does a season of the year have two names: Fall and Autumn? All such questions invade my mind unbidden, and I don’t think I have enough life span left to research such matters. (I know, by the way, that “fall” and “autumn” are not usually capitalized, but I prefer to capitalize them for two reasons: (1) Since “fall” has two meanings, the capital “F” prevents confusion; and (2) since the words are names for seasons of the year, I consider the capitalization better etiquette.)

Subtle biases in our vocabulary

The turbulence in my brain, however, is not all perturbing; sometimes amusement results from the roiling. I often find in it fodder for my teasing humor. One evening, for instance, when I was a guest in the home of former friends — a college professor and his wife — I mentioned, almost as an aside, that I thought it peculiar there are no terms for a hectoring man (except of course “hectoring man”), while there are several for a hectoring woman: harridan, shrew, termagant, virago, harpy, vixen, and nag. Whew! I half-expected the wife to jump out of her chair and attack me, but she disappointingly remained calm, recognizing, I suppose, that I was simply being impish, not sardonic.

And then, returning my spotlight to Nature, it occurred to me this morning, as I was driving to the coffee shop just before the sun rose above Hancock Hill, when the sky was just beginning to glimmer, that we have only two words for the sun’s rising: “sunrise” and “dawn” (basically the same stage), but three for its different stages of setting: “dusk”, “sunset”, and “twilight”. There is something poetically disconcerting about that imbalance.

Many other odd imbalances have occurred to me over the past half century, but I don’t recall any of them right now, which is a good thing, because enough is enough, for the time being. It is time to say good night, dear readers.

Happy pondering.

¹”Rabbit trails go here, there, and everywhere, and pretty much tend to lead nowhere. (Have you ever watched a dog sniff out a rabbit trail? It wanders in small then wider circles, around and around, feverishly looking for the rabbit – literally, a meal and, figuratively, the point of one’s argument.) No one knows what’s at the end of a rabbit trail (the point of one’s argument). Is there even an end to it? It’s a confusing maze of pointless leads. In short, a rabbit trail leads (us) nowhere. It serves only to confuse the prey/the reader. It keeps them preoccupied and confused.”  (“Cassiopea” at
²Of course I recognize that “curmudgeon” can be used to describe a man, as can the colloquial “grumpus”, but they are not gender-specific, being applicable to a habitually complaining woman as well.


Family builds underground ‘Earth Ship’

©1996, 2011, 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: Okay, guys! Here’s another oldie but goodie from the remainder of my stack of feature articles and columns—this one from the Alpine Avalanche. It was a fun story for me to interview for and write about because it had so many unusual, fascinating elements in it, which you will discover as you read.

Of course, the events related are 19 years in the past now—ancient history. I have not had any subsequent contact with David and Rebecca Hart or their daughter Abby since the day I interviewed them. And I don’t recall where their home is (or was); nor are they listed in the phone book, naturally enough these days, since cell phones are ubiquitous now. However, I am preparing this post on January 31—a week before it is to be published—so perhaps I will find some way to reconnect with them before next Saturday and I can obtain a brief update. <<See comment at bottom of page.>>
— BL

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗

There’s a house being built southwest of Alpine that would warm the cockles of any diehard recycler’s heart.

Looking more like a metal lean-to/storage-shed from a distance, the home of David and Rebecca Hart is mostly underground — four feet below ground level — with only about three feet of structure above.  And it’s built almost entirely of old car tires and aluminum cans plastered with adobe.

“Michael Reynolds (a national expert on solar passive architecture) calls this type of structure an ‘Earth ship’,” says David. “It’s in tune with its surroundings and it takes advantage of the sun to heat the house and of the earth to keep it cool.”

David Hart grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and lived in Borger, Texas, about five years, where he earned his living first as an architectural draftsman and then doing drafting for the Department of Transportation.

On vacation once, the Harts visited Balmorhea “and just drove around” until they discovered Alpine. “We saved our money so we could come down and I could build the house,” David recalls.

After buying the four acres on which they wanted to build, the Harts returned to Borger wondering what kind of house they wanted.  “On the way back to Borger we picked up a Mother Earth News,” Rebecca adds, “and there it was in an article by Michael Reynolds, so we found it serendipitously.”

The couple moved with their daughter Abby, now nine years old, to Alpine in 1993, and David started working on the house while Rebecca got a job as teacher at the Alpine Montessori School.

Johnny White dug out the area for them with a front-end loader and a backhoe and then bought the dirt from them, so they broke even on the excavation, David says.

They managed to accumulate the tires —all 1,700 so far — and aluminum cans for free, too.  “Once you start with one size of tire, you want to stay with that size,” says David, “because, as you fill them with dirt they expand.”

As he got each tire placed, David used a sledge hammer to pound the dirt into its air space.  “Each tire weighs two hundred to three hundred pounds once it’s filled,” he points out. “We averaged about nine or ten tires a day.”


“Mostly just me, but occasionally a friend or my brother would come over.”  (And his two sisters and his father, all of whom came from Albuquerque to help David hammer dirt into old tires.)  “We did nothing but pound tires for about six months,” recalls David, “so it’s really labor-intensive.”

Also, some friends in Alpine poured the concrete slab floor, mixed with a dye to match the reddish-brown color of the adobe-plastered walls.

The aluminum cans were used to fill in the curved spaces between the tires and for short walls.  Holes and tabs were left facing outward.  “They were left outside so they can serve as a lath, like the metal mesh that’s put over walls before plastering,” David explains. “Also, the tires — if they have any tread — that acts as a lath, too.”

After the walls of a room are complete, the tires and cans are covered with the adobe plaster which comes right out of the Harts’ front yard.  Eventually, the house will consist of six rooms — counting the kitchen and living room — but the family moved into the existing two rooms a year ago.

The slanting metal roof will allow them to collect rainwater “if it ever rains” in a planned cistern as a supplement to their water well.

They have in fact figured ways of meeting two aspects of West Texas’ moody weather.  Besides the planned cistern to collect needed water, they have already built a 2-1/2-ft. dike around the house and dug a deep hole outside it where water can be pumped in case it rains too much.  “Friends have told us this place can get flooded,” David notes. “Normally this type of house is built on a south sloping hill, but we just have to make do with what we’ve got.”

The metal roof is still visible from inside the house.  “We don’t know what kind of ceiling we want yet,” says David. “Probably sotol or stalks of wood.”

Their more pressing need is a shower stall outside.  “The walls will be aluminum cans and mortar columns with sotol stalks to block the view and the wind,” he explains.

Rebecca lifts a black plastic bag that resembles a hot water bottle but is in fact a “solar shower bag” that can contain five gallons of water.  “You set it out in the sun to heat up,” she says, “and you press this lever to let out water, so you can soap up and then rinse it off (without needing a continuous spray as in conventional showers).”

The Harts’ home is hooked up to a natural gas source which powers their refrigerator and kitchen stove for about $10 a month, but their lights, television and VCR are powered by 12-volt batteries which receive their energy from photo-voltaic cells.

The solar-powered batteries are adequate most of the time.  “About Christmas we had seven cloudy days when we thought they might run low,” David recalls, “but we do have a generator for backup.”

The Harts have adapted to their two-room lifestyle well enough that they don’t feel any pressure to complete the house quickly (except for the shower stall). “Target dates have come and gone,” says David, smiling.

Alpine Avalanche, April 18, 1996

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