Saturday, May 30, 2009

Smoky the Squirrel

Last week a couple of friends of mine at work watched in amazement when a ground squirrel set our field on fire. In fact it did such a good job that the two of them, shovels in hand, had to scramble to keep the fire from getting out of control. At first they attempted digging a grass free perimeter down wind from the blaze. In the end, the fire department had to come and put it out. When I asked the fire captain if he’d ever seen anything like this before, he said, “no”. What was even more remarkable is that he said it with a straight face.

It all happened innocently enough. My friends were trying to bring the rodent population under control in our research farm where the small furry creatures were causing all kinds of problems. We had tried using baits but they were only partially effective, and to make matters worse, some of the barn owls that had recently taken up residence in our bird boxes, were dying from the poison-baited rodents. We had also tried killing the rodents with traps but these are quite time-consuming to set. So this time we decided we needed to go to the next level - using military methods. We decided to bomb them out.

The USDA bombs that we used are an impressive bit of pyrotechnic technology. Filled with sodium nitrate and charcoal, they can really light up. The cartridges themselves are cylindrical and come about the size of a toilet paper roll (with all the paper gone) with fuses that have to be assembled manually. The object is to place the bomb into the ground squirrel’s tunnel as far as you can and then light the fuse. Then you stamp the entrance closed with your boots or with a shovel to keep the smoke in. Since ground squirrel tunnels often have more than one entrance, you have to watch for escaping smoke from other openings.

This is where we were out-smarted by the squirrel. Actually it was a matter of being out-paced. My friends had no sooner lit the fuse then the irate rodent came charging through the tunnel to see what was going on. When it discovered my friends, it turned around and ran the other way - passing over the smoking bomb.

Now, somewhat amused, my friends closed off the entrance only to discover the wily animal emerging from a hole several yards away. The startling thing was that it was on fire. Its thick winter coat had not been completely shed and the poor creature looked like a veritable torch with legs.

Once it was free of the smoke in the tunnel, it ran across the field shedding flames everywhere before running down another hole. My friends were so stunned by the whole thing, and preoccupied with putting out the fire, that they didn’t have time to follow the arsonist. More than likely it’s still in a tunnel somewhere, half bald and planning its revenge.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Faith and the First Commandment

The first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The first commandment is to have no other gods before Him. The first has always been a call to trust in the Lord. The second has always been a warning against idolatry. Often overlooked is the less-than-obvious truth that the principle and the commandment are the same.

President Kimball pointed out this relationship in the June, 1976 Ensign.

…“we learn from the scriptures that because the exercise of faith has always appeared to be more difficult than relying on things more immediately at hand, carnal man has tended to transfer trust in God to material things. Therefore, in all ages when men have fallen under the power of Satan and lost the faith, they have put in its place a hope in the “arm of flesh” and in “gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know.” (First Presidency Message, The False Gods we Worship)

Trusting in material things - in the arm of flesh - is one of the defining characteristics of our modern world. Certainly, there have been other ages guilty of this sin, but not to the degree that we are. Technology rules in almost every aspect of our lives. From the moment we wake up in the morning (to the sound of the trusted alarm clock), to the food we eat (that is grown, processed, and usually prepared by machines), our transportation to and from work, our education (mostly in front off a computer), even to our personal interactions (mostly done by phone, email or texting) we are completely surrounded by the craftsmanship - if not the craftiness - of men. There is no way to deny our trust in the arm of flesh.

Of course this is not necessarily a bad thing. If I get sick, I trust that the doctor will know how to treat my ailment. If I need help growing grapes, I call the county extension office for advice. If I need a baby-sitter, I can call a trusted neighbor. Most of the things that we do every day require that we trust something or someone. The Lord knows this and doesn’t expect otherwise. The first commandment doesn’t tell us to not trust others. It tells us to trust the Lord first. Of course, these other things can all too frequently occupy our favor and our excessive focus. We have the testimony of Jesus’ true followers in all ages that trusting in anyone else but Him for the really important things is fatal.

Many years ago, when whooping cranes were more common than they are now, a young injured bird lost its parents and was rescued and cared for by a the Oliver family. The Olivers lived in what was then the Dakota Territory where there were a lot of open fields. In just a short period of time, they had become quite attached to the bird and named him Bill.

Bill was allowed to wander wherever he chose and often went exploring. At night, though, he preferred the security of the hen house. He liked the Oliver’s and their home so much, in fact, that when autumn came, he decided to stick around for the winter in stead of flying south.

Bill liked to go on walks with the family and would even dance occasionally with Mr. Oliver. Once when a few other whooping cranes flew by, Bill called to them and spent an entire day trying to coax them into the Oliver’s yard to meet the family. But in the end, they were too shy. They were not as trusting in humans as Bill was.

One day Bill flew away from home and approached a boy that did not know him. The boy, taking advantage of the bird’s unexpected proximity threw a rock that hit Bill in the head and nearly killed him. Bill escaped to the woods to recover but then walked up to another stranger, who promptly shot him.

Bill’s death was a sad thing for the Olivers. In hindsight it almost seemed inevitable, though. Bill had come to trust people - all people. He never did make the distinction between the Olivers, who cared for him, and everybody else that saw him only as a wild bird. Bill put his trust in the wrong place. (For the full story of Bill see J.K. Terres ed. The Audubon Book of True Nature Stories.)

At a very elementary level, idolatry can be nothing more than misplaced trust, or putting the wrong priorities on the things that we trust. The Lord wishes that our trust in Him be more important than these many other objects of trust. This goes a good deal beyond the way the first principle of the gospel and the first commandment are often understood.

To ask if we have faith in Christ is far too often answered easily with an, “of course I believe in God.” if a higher faith is understood to mean trusting in Christ, an honest response might be that, “of course I have trust that He can save me.”

This is all fine and good but it isn’t what the ancients understood to be the most important part of religion. Part of the blame for this dilution of the meaning of faith is to be placed on inadequate biblical translations.

Very often when the phrase “faith in Christ” is used, the preposition “in” is the word used to convey the meaning of the Greek “eis”. While it is true that both words overlap in meaning and that “in” is often a good near equivalent of “eis,” there is a great deal lost with respect to the doctrine of faith when used this way. The Greek “eis” also means “unto” and implies a transfer from one thing or person to another. In the case of faith it means moving our trust from wherever we may have put it, to Christ.

Benjamin Warfield put it this way (referring to the passages in the New Testament mentioning faith in (eis) Christ): “A glance over these passages will bring clearly out the pregnancy of the meaning conveyed … what these passages express is an absolute transference of trust from ourselves to another, a complete self-surrender to Christ.” (See The Biblical Doctrine of Faith, in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. II, Biblical Doctrines.)

Faith in Christ thus requires that we put Him first, that we have no other gods before Him. In this light, many scriptures begin to make more sense. Take for instance Mathew 18:6 where we learn that those who offend a little one (or someone with the faith of a little one) are better off having never been born - even to the extent that it would be better for a millstone to be placed around the neck of such faith destroyers and that they be drowned in the depths of the sea.

These are strong words - perhaps the strongest words that Jesus is known to have spoken about anyone. It certainly seems excessive if an offense can be nothing more than a changing of belief. If, however, a child of God ceases living a Christ-focused life and begins following other priorities, much more is at stake. In fact, this becomes an issue of salvation, and its seriousness is obvious. If we further understand that abiding faith is based on a love of God then Christ’s strong words become even more understandable (c.v. Faith Abides: The offender has caused a child of God to stop loving Him, and be lost.

And yet, we ask ourselves, how can we come to have such focused and sincere faith? How can our trust in Christ, in whom we have not seen, be greater than the trust we have in ourselves? This may sound at first, like an impossible problem, but it doesn’t have to be. We can have a great deal of trust in our abilities and still recognize that all we can do will ultimately not guarantee us the greatest gift of all - Eternal Life.

Maybe we have come to realize the insignificance of our own abilities because of life’s challenging circumstances. Maybe we have come to realize our own limitations because of a devoted perspective to God. Maybe we are one of the few that seem born with a built-in compass pointing unerringly to Christ. Or maybe we still trust ourselves more than we trust Christ. This doesn’t mean that we don’t believe in Him. We do. It just means that in our effort to climb the mountain of Life, we are stuck in the forest and haven’t fully understood the significance of who we are and what is really worth striving for. The majesty of celestial truths remains hidden to us as we think only of material comforts.

And in fairness, most of us live much of our lives without this higher perspective. Our weekly promise to always remember Christ is usually attempted in paltry moments, maybe one or two times a day. Until we can do better than this – until we really do live Christ-centered lives – we have nobody but ourselves to blame for our lack of faith.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Lady Bird Beetles

We have over 400 kinds of lady bird beetles in the United States. You may have grown up calling them ladybugs, which is just fine but also a bit confusing. They’re really not bugs at all – not true bugs, at least. True bugs have mouthparts somewhat like a hollow needle that they use like a straw. Lady bird beetles, like other beetles, have mandibles instead. Bugs also have characteristic wing covers that partially overlap unevenly when at rest on their back. Beetles have wing covers that come together in a straight line down their back.

At a more fundamental level, bugs grow up looking somewhat like their parents, only without wings. Beetles, on the other hand, grow up as grubs or worm-like creatures that sometimes look like a caterpillar. They look a lot different than their parents.

This difference in development is the reason for a lot of confusion among many lady beetle enthusiasts. Take for instance the excitement of a child discovering the twenty-spotted lady beetle (or one of its relatives). This beetle is colored a pale tan with several (often 10) black spots on each of its wing covers. It isn’t red, black or yellow like some of the lady beetles we’re used to, but it’s still obviously a lady beetle. It’s also less than half the size of other lady beetles.

“Look Mommy,” says the child, “a baby ladybug.”

“Yes Johnny, how nice,” is our reply, since we don’t know what else to say.

The only problem with this dialogue is that Johnny hasn’t really discovered a baby ladybug at all. He has discovered an adult, albeit a small one, of an interesting kind that feeds on fungus and not aphids. Of course this is an understandable mistake. We do have, after all, hundreds of kinds of lady beetles in our country. Some are even smaller that the twenty-spotted lady beetle (which is roughly the size of a pepper seed).

Beetles in the genus Scymnus, for example, are only half this big, and are usually all black. Some of them can actually eat aphids but often they prefer smaller animals like mites. Some even specialize in eating insect eggs.

Then there are the really big lady beetles in the genus Anatis. (Sorry to say they don’t even have a common name yet). These insects can get as big as a chocolate chip. They aren’t common in suburban gardens but can be found in more rural areas. These beetles are sometimes called “giant” ladybugs – and this is probably as good of a name as any, so long as Johnny doesn’t understand this to mean just an overgrown individual of a more common species.

The sad truth about lady beetle development is that most people have no idea what a “baby” looks like – hence our mistake with Johnny. They really are not all that uncommon. Most observant gardeners will have undoubtedly seen them and yet perhaps not known what they were. They look like little alligators and are normally black with orange or yellow markings. They have thin legs up front that stick out noticeably and their long abdomens often have jagged edges or spines projecting out in different directions. You usually find them in the same kinds of places that you find the adults – around aphids.

Lady beetle larvae can be voracious, and the bigger they get, the more they eat and the faster they crawl. Part of the reason, no doubt, is to get around better and find more aphids. But sometimes when aphids are available, they fail to be all that discriminating in what they eat. In fact lady beetles larvae are known to eat each other. This isn’t all that unusual among predatory insects where the mother lays many eggs. The first larvae to emerge are able to get a jump on life by eating their weaker siblings.

Lady beetle larvae often have no reservations about this kind of cannibalism. In fact they even go one step further and enjoy eating the larvae of other kinds of lady beetles too. Why go to the trouble of marking a territory when you can just eat your rival?

But you have to admit, eating your relatives is not what we normally expect from nature. Lions don’t hunt for leopards. You may think your neighbor’s Doberman Pinscher wants to eat you, but when it comes to other dogs, you expect him to just chase them away – even though he might be salivating as he goes.

Lady beetles, on the other hand, are notorious for their fratricidal feasts. And, in reality, this unusual habit has served them just fine for a very long time. Unfortunately, it’s getting them into a lot of trouble now though. Many of our native species are getting replaced (likely eaten-up) by natives from overseas. Sometimes these exotic lady beetles find their way to the Americas by hitchhiking. Sometimes, however, we bring them here on purpose; not as pets, mind you, but as ammunition.

We discovered many years ago that lady beetles and other beneficial insects could help us keep plants free of aphids and other soft-bodied insects. When pests started showing up from other places, and our own predators didn’t like to eat them, we brought in species from elsewhere that did.

One of the first examples of this occurred when the citrus industry was just getting started in California. A small snowy-white creature (somewhat like an aphid) had managed to hitch a ride from Australia to Southern California. It’s known as the cottony cushion scale and it likes to eat citrus leaves and branches. As it grows, the female develops a fluted waxy covering over its back to protect her eggs – whence the name.

By the mid 1880’s, the insect had become so bad that California was about to stop growing citrus altogether. In a last ditch effort, money was raised and a scientist named Albert Koebele was sent to Australia to see if he could find any natural enemies of the scale. Once there, he found a small parasitic fly and a small lady bird beetle predator (known as the vedalia beetle). Koebele’s boss got quite excited about the fly and only suggested, somewhat in passing, that the beetle would also be interesting.

Koebele seems to have understood the priority and proceeded to collect around 12,000 flies that were then sent to California. His first shipment of lady beetles amounted to 28 individuals. Notwithstanding the few insects, Koebele’s colleagues in California quickly released the beetles onto a scale-infested orange tree that had been surrounded by a tent. The beetles made short work of the pests. Soon other shipments arrived and the vedalia beetle was released into surrounding orchards.

It was so successful that growers started showing up with scale-infested orange branches. These were placed under trees with the lady beetles which quickly flew to the source of – shall we call it cotton candy? The beetles were then taken to their own struggling orchards.

It wasn’t long before the California citrus industry was saved and Koebele was recognized as a hero. In fact for many years, biological control of insect pests was called the Koebele Method in Germany (where Koebele was born).

A not-so-amusing situation developed a few years later in Florida. A grower who had heard about the success in California, wondered if the little Australian beetle might develop an appetite for Southern insects. He, accordingly, asked for some to be sent his way.

His California colleague, wanting to make sure the lady beetles arrived fat and happy, packaged them up with a branch full of cottony-cushion-scales. To his credit, the scales helped the beetles arrive safely. To his discredit, some of the scales arrived safely too, and soon began enjoying the Florida citrus trees as much as they had enjoyed the California ones.

To this day, the vedalia beetle serves as a useful way to keep cottony-cushion scales under control. Theirs is clearly a success story, and success likes to be imitated. Through the years there have been hundreds of attempts to bring exotic lady beetles into the US. Nobody thought much about it at first. How dangerous could the cute little insects be - at least to something other than a soft-bodied insect?

But things did go wrong. The first thing was that not all of the exotic lady beetles that were brought to the US had the desired effect. Some of them refused to eat the pests that they were supposed to eat. Some of them just flew away and settled somewhere else - far away from the scientists’ fields. Most of them survived by eating whatever they could find in their new country. Sadly, many of them have been able to out-compete native US lady beetles. (This is typical of exotic animals and plants that land on a distant shore away from the normal diseases and predators that keep their numbers down in their native land.) Some of them, as we have seen, actually eat them for dinner.

Take for instance the multi-colored Asian lady beetle. Some of you know it as the Halloween beetle or the harlequin ladybird. You may have recognized it in your garden as a new visitor in the mid-1990’s - when it started taking up residence in North America. It’s a bit bigger than most lady beetles and has a number of black spots on its otherwise orange back. There are other color patterns (with fewer spots or reddish wing covers - rarely black) but they are less common.

These are the beetles that like to congregate near human habitations in the fall. They are particularly fond of tall isolated structures (like your house) that happen to be white (when available). And they prefer the south side where it is warmer.

All of this might be fine except they’re quite willing to come indoors if given the chance. Even worse, they’re likely to leave little red or brown stains behind, if you disturb them (their way of getting even, I guess).

This happens because of a process called reflex bleeding - a habit that many lady beetles have. If you’ve ever picked one up and turned it over, you may have seen little orange or red droplets forming in a number of places. These droplets contain alkaloids and are very bitter. They are meant to convince predators to not eat them. It’s a nice strategy outside. Inside, however, it can be an ornery way to treat your host.

A lot of people would really like to get rid of the critters. In fairness, though, they are pretty good at eating aphids - especially the ones that like to eat soybeans and other crops. The fact that they like to get together into groups can’t be held against them. A lot of lady beetles do the same thing.

The first time I saw this behavior was on the back side of Mount Whitney in eastern California. I was traveling with a couple of aquatic entomologists looking for winter stoneflies. We were high enough in the Sierra that the snow was several inches deep on the pines but was melting on the ground near fallen logs and exposed boulders.

I had worked my way around a large conifer to a small stream when I saw something red in the matted grass. When I looked closer, I was surprised to see hundreds of ladybird beetles sound asleep on the vegetation and on top of each other. I picked up a handful and poured them like so many small marbles from hand to hand. I had never seen so many live beetles together in one place before in my life. When they started to wake up and crawl all over my coat, it felt like a great entomological moment.

A few years later I came upon a small bag of lady beetles in a hardware store. The bag was really just a secured netting to keep the live beetles from running or flying away. They were being advertised as a natural way to control aphids.

I knew immediately that somebody had discovered an over-wintering mass like I had. I wondered how many beetles they had found and how big their margin was. It isn’t often that the entomological mind turns entrepreneurial but it almost happened then. I almost bought a bag. Fortunately I was broke at the time.

I say fortunate because it very likely would have been a waste of money. Unless you release the beetles into a confined area - like a greenhouse - they won’t stick around to eat your aphids. In the mountains, where they are gathered by the thousands, they are prepared to fly off as soon as they wake up.

In the autumn when the weather turns, the beetles fly from the valley up into the hills for the winter. In the spring, when they wake up, they fly up into the air and back to the valley to eat and reproduce. Since the bagged bugs in the store have almost always been gathered, en masse, in the mountains, their first inclination, once they are released into your garden, is to fly up and away. No doubt, they do a fine job of finding and eating somebody’s aphids. Unfortunately, they probably won’t be yours.

This brings me to another interesting part of lady beetle biology – their feeding that is. Considering how well known lady beetles are, it seems odd that we’re still not sure how, exactly, they find their food. But such is indeed the case.

Most of the time, lady beetles are stationary. It does happen that we find them walking around occasionally. But try as you might, it’s next to impossible to figure out what they’re thinking. Even if you start with the assumption that they’re looking for food (probably correct) figuring out how they go about such a basic effort is not simple.

Sometimes they walk in a fairly straight line - as if they knew just where they wanted to go. But then they surprise you by walking right past a group of perfectly fat and happy aphids. Certainly, you reason, they must not be hungry. The aphids, after all, were in plain sight.

So then you decide to watch more closely to see what it is they are really up to, only to find them stumbling into an aphid somewhere else apparently by accident. No sooner does it find the insect then its mandibles close around the soft and savory body and then the whole insect is promptly devoured. By Golly you admit to yourself, it was hungry all along. Probably just a little near-sighted.

Now, if you manage to stay interested in the lunching behavior of lady beetles, you’ll soon discover something totally different. Our little cocinelle no longer walks so confidently. Instead it begins to wander around looking a bit tipsy, in random half circles. If there is one aphid around here, there must be more, or so it seems to be reasoning.

Not long ago a group of researchers in Canada discovered a way to ask the beetles how they actually do find aphids. No inverted megaphones were used to listen to the small animals. It was soon discovered that nobody knew their language anyway. Instead, the researchers fitted a beetle into a tube with an intersection - a culinary crossroads, you might say.

One branch of the tube led to a plant without aphids. The other tube led to a plant infested with aphids. They discovered that the lady beetles preferred walking down the tube containing aphids, even though they couldn’t see them. Somehow their little clubbed antennae could sense where they were.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. When the scientists replaced the aphid-infested plants with clean plants that had aphids added manually, things changed. the lady beetles got confused and just walked around randomly in the tubes. It was as if they couldn’t smell the aphids anymore.

What could have been the difference? Did the aphids smell different? It turns out that it wasn’t the smell of the aphids that interested the beetles. They were cued in to a smell from the plant - a smell that emanated from the aphid-pierced plant tissues. That’s a pretty sophisticated sense of smell. Not bad for a bug.

All this just goes to show just how little we really know about what makes these interesting creatures tick. They obviously live in a world quite different from the one we’re used to - even though we might share the same address. There is still a great deal to be learned about even our common species. What we actually know about the less common species is very little indeed. And this is a problem. It’s hard to understand why we’re losing so many species when we know so little about them.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Faith Abides

One of Soren Kierkgaard’s most remembered essays is “Love Abides” wherein he shows that individuals with truly loving natures can never cease loving, regardless of the behavior of others. They are, after all, committed to love itself. His title, of course, comes from Paul’s famous letter to the Corinthian saints about charity (in 1st Corinthians 13).

Often overlooked in Paul’s letter, however, is his statement that faith and hope also abide. Kierkgaard’s argument about love is remarkable, in part, because it isn’t intuitive. We all know of instances where love has ceased. (And Kierkgaard does not deny this.) But the case for an abiding faith is no more intuitive than abiding love. In some ways it is even less intuitive.

There are not many people that we have complete faith in; that is, people in whom we trust at all times and in all places - people in whom our faith abides. Certainly, there are those in whom we mostly trust. A teacher trusts that her top student will perform well on the next exam. A husband trusts that his wife will fix a fine dinner. A farmer trusts that his crop will produce a harvest.

But then there are many other students that won’t adequately study for the exam, spouses that cook poorly, crops that fail. In fact these later examples are so common that the concept of an abiding faith seems suspect, at least in these less-than-perfect situations.

Paul, however, was not arguing about imperfect objects of faith. Most of the time that he mentions faith in his other epistles it is obvious that Christ is the object. Christ, as the object of our faith, is trustworthy. In Him our faith can abide. But this is really not the question at all. Christ’s trustworthiness is certain. The question is if our faith in Him will abide.

But even this question is not an easy one. A woman who lost her husband and all of her children actually grew in faith from her trying circumstances (see Thomas S. Monson’s talk, Be of Good Cheer, in The Ensign, May, 2009); whereas many others have experienced lesser trials and have lost faith. A leading physicist can look at the laws of nature and affirm his faith in the Creator; whereas a high school biology teacher, relying on materialist explanations of the creation may lose faith instead. An individual having committed grave sins may repent, and, having truly repented, will grow mighty in faith; whereas a lazy neighbor, having committed no great sin, will slowly lose his faith to indifference.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the many apparent contradictory examples of faith? Part of the problem, I think, is that we understanding of faith as a continuum leading to knowledge. This makes sense, and many people have discussed the differences between the two for ages - with important findings. But when considering how faith abides, the situation is different. Here, faith is not completed by a gaining of knowledge. Paul, in 1st Corinthians, talks about knowledge as something we might see through, as a glass darkly. This is in the same chapter where he discusses the love and faith that abide. To him, our current levels of knowledge are things that will pass away. Faith and love, on the other hand, abide.

It might be true that faith can lead to knowledge. But it is also true that it can remain with us, independent of what our level of knowledge is. The Lectures on Faith make it clear that faith can continue even when knowledge is complete. In fact, God Himself continues to have faith. The seventh lecture indicates that, “…it is by faith that the deity works.” And in an earlier passage, the authors (primarily Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon) use the 11th chapter Hebrews to show that the creation was an act of faith. The 3rd verse actually reads: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God.” The significance of this verse is usually missed on us. A casual reading might suggest that the faith is with us whereas the entire chapter is about the faith of the ancients and is quite clear that it is the Creator that used faith.

So it is obvious that faith doesn’t just cease to exist - at least not the kind of faith that God has. Since it is true that God doesn’t have a rudimentary faith of things that He hopes someday to know for certain, we need to question the whole idea that knowledge is the culmination of faith. In fact, a faith that only completes itself in knowledge is hardly a sufficient faith to be counted on to abide. Knowledge is usually not that strong of a motivation.

So what kind of motivation would be strong enough to abide. I think the answer is charity. And in fact, it seems that Paul, in his discussion of abiding virtues, is telling us that for faith to abide, it must culminate in charity - or the love of Christ.

Now this is all nice but it might be frustrating as well. These abiding virtues may seem too difficult for us to attain. If they are God‘s virtues, how can they be our virtues too? Maybe the answer to this question is so obvious that it‘s easy to miss. If we have lost love and faith in others and yet continue to love and have faith - then maybe this should be evidence enough.

In the last chapter of Josephine Johnson’s novel, Now in November, we get a glimpse of how this might be. Marget and her family have been living on a farm in hard times. The threat of foreclosure hangs constantly over the family farm, even when the harvest is good. When a drought occurs, things go from bad to worse. Crops fail and the family loses their mother and a sister in death. For Marget things are particularly unbearable when Grant, the farm hand and her secret love, leaves and never returns.

Marget was left wih nothing to hope for. All was lost, or essentially lost. Her faith had gone undeveloped by organized religion, particularly since the family was embarrassed at church one Sunday because they were not members of the congregation. In spite of this, and in spite of her overpowering sense of loss, she discovers that a ray of hope still remains within her. It isn’t just the residuum of having hit rock bottom and having nowhere else to look but up. It is instead the spark of a faith that is only seen in contrast to utter darkness. It was always there, but no one could see it.

At this point, Marget admits that, “[L]ove and the old faith are gone. Faith gone with Mother. Grant gone. But there is the need and the desire left, and out of these hills they may come again. I cannot believe this is the end.”

Marget’s love and faith aren’t spectacular. In fact they are quite the opposite; but they remain. And it isn’t by accident that they remain together. The soul that cannot refrain from loving is almost always a soul where faith abides as well.