When we moved from downtown Chicago to the foothills of the Colorado Rockies in 1992, we left behind many things: superb restaurants, Starbucks every few blocks, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, jogging along Lake Michigan, the electric buzz of living in a great city.  One definite improvement, though, was wildlife.  If you discount the times I jogged through the Lincoln Park Zoo, most days I saw only pigeons and ugly city squirrels (rats with tails, as a friend calls them).  Yes, coyotes, deer, and even a mountain lion have been sighted in downtown Chicago, but these occurrences are so rare as to merit news coverage.

Now I see exotic wildlife almost every day. A three-compartment birdfeeder full of sunflower seeds hangs just outside my office window, attracting finches, chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks, crossbills, pine siskins, woodpeckers, and the like. If I turn a sprinkler on they line up on branches to get a shower from the spray.  Often I see hawks circling in the sky overhead, and twice I’ve watched as they dived down and plucked one of these unsuspecting guests from the feeder.  They swooped over to a nearby branch where they perched, eyes set in a fierce I-dare-you glare, as their talons squeezed the life out of the little bird.

The bird feeder hangs suspended between two trees on an elaborate wire-cable pulley system, my triumphant solution after years of trying to deter squirrels, raccoons, and bears.  It used to hang off a long iron bar attached to our deck, but a bear bent that one like a toothpick.  Last week a huge black bear climbed an adjacent tree, mentally calculated the geometry, and decided my Rube Goldberg contraption had indeed made the feeder inaccessible.  He settled for a civilized drink from the birdbath.

The bird feeder supports an entire ecosystem.  Almost every evening two different red foxes, one of which has a pronounced limp, stop by to sort through the shells for uncracked sunflower seeds. A bit later a gray fox, smaller and shyer, warily cleans up the leftovers.  Sometimes a skunk shambles by.  When the bear pays a visit, he doesn’t bother to sort and greedily scoops shells, seeds, and dirt into his large mouth.

One year a marmot took up residence in the culvert at the end of our dirt driveway, apparently unaware he’s supposed to be living at an altitude of 10,000 feet, not 7500.  Several times we’ve found fresh deer kill in our back yard, evidence of a resident mountain lion, but only twice have we actually seen the magnificent creature.  About the time we moved to Colorado a mountain lion attacked and killed a local high school athlete who was jogging near the school, and a bicycle bridge was later erected in his honor.  I used to jog nervously, my head swiveling back and forth like an owl’s, until I learned a foolproof method for preventing lion attacks.  Farmers and forestry workers in India discovered long ago that wearing a mask on the back of the head will confuse lions and tigers, who normally attack from the rear, grabbing a person’s neck in their jaws and breaking it with a powerful paw-blow to the head. For anyone who wants to jog on mountain trails at dusk, I recommend strapping on a Richard Nixon mask—no credible reports have ever surfaced of a lion attack on someone wearing a Richard Nixon mask on the back of his or her head.

We’ve also seen ferrets and badgers.  Deer and elk treat our yard as a salad bar, destroying anything we plant, and in the fall bull elk bugle and spar nearby.  Once a bobcat stopped by, a lovely creature the size of a large, lanky dog with a small, cat-like face.  Nothing can prepare you for the sight of a creature wearing a coat of such exquisite design wandering through your front yard.

Foxes are my favorite visitors, though.  Sometimes a bold red fox will climb the steps to our deck and sit quietly as we eat outdoors, no doubt hoping for a handout.  One year after a spring snow I followed a fox’s prints to its den and a few weeks later moved my workplace to a tree nearby.  I leaned cushions against the tree and typed on my laptop. Sure enough, three frisky young foxes soon emerged from the den and started playing with their pile of treasures collected from the neighborhood: a pine cone, a discarded work glove, a tennis ball.  After watching a while, I introduced myself by saying, “Hi.” You cannot imagine how high a fox kit can jump.  All three dove headfirst into the den and wouldn’t come out for days. Eventually, though, they got used to my presence and would follow me on walks through the woods.  I felt like the Pied Piper, but when I stopped to catch my breath they quickly hid behind the nearest bush.

Observing all these animals, I’ve learned a few lessons about nature:

Animals have no concept of grace. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and a fox-eat-squirrel and coyote-eat-fox and cougar-eat-coyote world as well.  With two exceptions, small animals live in a constant state of anxiety, twitching their ears at the slightest sound and whirling around to look for enemies.  (The two exceptions: porcupines and skunks, who have a built-in deterrence system.) Once I tossed an apple core to the ground and my three fox friends surrounded it, tails in the air, legs tensed for a final assault.  It occurred to me that they had never eaten a meal that did not involve hunting and killing.  They worked hard to survive, and knew nothing of gratuitous gifts.

It’s a tough world out there. In March of 2003 it snowed for three days straight, accumulating to a depth of seven feet.  I strapped on snowshoes and set off to climb a hill behind my home; even with snowshoes I sank thigh-deep in the soft powder and had to lunge forward to make progress.  We had no electricity and roads were impassible so there was no ambient noise, yet every few minutes I heard a loud crack like the report of a rifle: branches laden with snow were breaking free and falling to the ground.  I saw a family of deer trapped in snow.  Panting heavily, they would make a sudden leap and plunge a few feet forward, falling back into snow that covered their backs.  It took enormous energy for them to proceed a few feet.  Any food was buried well beyond reach.  I thought of the animals killed by sudden blizzards, cold snaps, lightning storms, droughts—not to mention by hungry predators.

Sometimes animals put human beings to shame.  We label deviant behavior animalistic or bestial, even though creatures governed by instinct live within boundaries often scorned by the “higher” animals. “Man alone has the power and freedom to center life inordinately in one impulse,” said Reinhold Niebuhr.  I think of my friends who struggle with addictions.  “You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel,” belts out the rock group Bloodhound Gang. Funnily enough, I see mammals “do it” all the time in my backyard, and sex for them has little in common with sex for humans.  Take elk as an example: in late September the bull elk suddenly starts fighting pretenders with smaller antlers, then greedily mates 50-70 cows in an exhausting orgy, and doesn’t give sex another thought until another September rolls around.  Yes, sex has power, but most of life centers in eating grass—except for those two weeks each September.  Similarly, with few exceptions animals kill for food, and know nothing of mass murder or genocide.

Beauty takes place whether anyone notices it or not.  Rick Bass writes of … “one of those secrets of nature that you glimpse only every so often—a north-flowing river, an anomaly of gravity, an albino elk—little things She shows you only so often, just to keep you in awe, or maybe just to reward you.”  Living in the midst of nature, I’ve been blessed to glimpse those secrets.  Mountain biking, I stirred a herd of elk and came across a baby elk still glistening from birth, eyes large with fear, motionless as a rock.  I sat for thirty minutes and watched a father woodpecker teaching its young how to drill a hole in a branch. I’ve seen a jet-black Abert squirrel doing somersaults in grass I had just wet down with a sprinkler.  I’ve watched adolescent elk splash and play in a mountain stream, then gallop across a golf course green to grab the flag on the ninth hole.  Hiking in the splendidly named Oh Be Joyful Valley I have lain down in a field of wildflowers with hummingbirds whistling around in a scene fresh and beautiful as the Garden of Eden.

Nature goes on, beauty goes on, whether or not anyone is there to observe it. I thank God that during two decades in Colorado, I’ve had that chance.  I echo the sentiments of George MacDonald, who wrote, “One of my greatest difficulties in consenting to think of religion was that I thought I should have to give up my beautiful thoughts and my love for the things God has made. But I find that the happiness springing from all things not in themselves sinful is much increased by religion.  God is the God of the Beautiful—Religion is the love of the Beautiful, and Heaven is the Home of the Beautiful—Nature is tenfold brighter in the Sun of Righteousness, and my love of Nature is more intense since I became a Christian—if indeed I am one. God has not given me such thoughts and forbidden me to enjoy them.”

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15 responses to “Mister Noah’s Neighborhood”

  1. lyn nielsen says:

    Philip,

    This morning I googled your name having just read your “Gift of Pain” story in the book Be Still, My Soul. What a great story, and you mention in the first line you never read a poem extolling the virtues of pain. I wrote one recently having been though sadness and pain in my life. There is a blessing in pain for everyone I believe.

    THE BLESSINGS OF TRAGEDY

    This tragedy I deal with, it seems more than I should bear.
    The unrelenting anger, bitterness, lies, and then the denial of it all,
    I’ve gotten more than my share.
    Repentance! would take this all away.
    But, the pride of self for the narcisst, is devil strong the pro’s say.
    A word for those who don’t believe this, and say this its not possible.
    Gods principles in the Bible are true,
    Refuse to love the truth, and God will delude you!

    So what about me? The reciever of this abuse.
    Maybe I just deserve it, maybe there’s just no excuse.
    I’m thankful I’ve learned to set some boundaries,
    Yet still be able to bend.
    Cause on and on and on it goes ,
    there seems to be no end.
    Maybe its so I know what suffering is, so to understand Jesus on the cross.
    Maybe I really needed to, suffer a great loss.
    Well its really been a blessing!
    It was good to be helpless, needy, and sad.
    I needed this to discover my own blindness,
    so this tradgedy of lies hasn’t been all bad.
    This discovery of God, overwhelmed me!
    And then He absorbed me and everything I called mine.
    And for the first time I knew Him,
    When I sought the God of all time.

    Lyn

    Thank you, Lyn. I’ve been re-reading the book of Job recently, struck again by the profound eloquence of that ancient book, while also aware of how the false comfort of Job’s friends has been repeated in various ways by well-meaning Christians. You’re well on the way. Job’s friends thought he “deserved it” too–and were flat-out wrong.
    Philip

  2. Malcolm Howell says:

    How richly you have fed me over the years. I feel so blessed to have touched your spirit in and through your books and now through your experiences outside your home in Colorado. I wrote to you several years ago, after reading the book on grace, and you wrote a personal letter and said, “I look forward to seeing you in heaven.” I also look forward to that joyful meeting. It must be a great source of joy knowing you have intimately touched millions of persons all over the world, people who also will joyfully rejoice in meeting you in heaven… May our Lord continue to bless and use you in His service. Malcolm

  3. richard perez says:

    i love jesus , and i stay away from churches because he said to,….the question…who shall lead the sheeps that needs teaching…without creating a following……church…..please explain. i no longer call myself a christan…follower of the word..jesus.

    Where did Jesus say to stay away from churches? That’s news to me.
    Philip

  4. Dani Nogueira says:

    Mr Yancey!! That’s new for me. Can you believe that I always visit your website, but never noticed that you have a blog?

    Brigth, like always. You can see the small things of God in everywhere that you go. I believe that is what I appreciate most about you.

    Now I gonna visit here all the time.

    Thank you for everything,

    Dani

  5. Tim Taylor says:

    Dear Philip,

    I’m a big fan of your writing, especially those that address adversity. I’m getting ready to try my hand at publishing a new site and weekly newsletter. It, too, is on surviving adversity. You book on disappointment with God was especially meaningful to me while I trudged through my valley of adversity. I’m no longer there and apparently you aren’t either. . . hard to find disappointment with God where you are waking up each morning.

    Our site is a panelist site and I would dearly love to re-publish some of your writings dealing with adversity and disappointment with God. Is there anyway I could correspond with you personally?

    Thankful for your journey in life and sharing it with us,
    TL

    Tim, I tried writing to you and the message was returned as undeliverable.
    Philip

  6. Pauline & Simon Swindells, Winchester UK says:

    Hi Philip
    We met you on your recent tour to the UK & you kindly suggested some churches to visit on our trip to Colorado. We visited the mega church of Cherry Creek, it was massive I was very envious of the creche facilities as I run our own church creche in a tiny room! However it was too big and as much as we enjoyed the service no one spoke to us! The following week we went to a small church in Moab where the different denominations had joined together in a united church.It was more traditional but very welcoming, it was good to fellowship with them. The 3rd Sunday we worshipped in Yellowstone Park with others staying there. It was awesome especially when Old Faithful errupted behind us!
    We know now why you live where you do – it is so beautiful! We really enjoyed the Rocky Mountain Park – just so wonderful!
    The holiday was amazing & we’ve love to return again one day to explore more.
    Awesome – was the word of the holiday! God’s creation is fantastic & He is good! All the time!

  7. Roland Verboon says:

    Hi Philip, for the first time I read one of your books. “Disappointment with God”
    I’m far away from church and all, after a 15 year period of dedication. Even after 5 years I don’t miss it. Your book is revealing. Matter of fact it asks the reader: “But what if you were in God’s shoes?!” Not a day goes by without mumbling a few little prayers upward. I think that’s good enough. Think I got your point: If God answered more of our prayers, even miraculously, it’s unlikely we’ll love him more.
    Greetings from Roland, Gouda, Holland, Europe.

  8. Chris Newbern says:

    Philip, Have you ever studied the ideas of Ultimate Reconciliation? That is for all mankind and of course, the natural world too.
    Chris
    Yes, I have studied them, though not extensively. That’s a very lively debate these days, with many writing on the subject. Philip

  9. Julia says:

    Thanks for your tip on hanging bird feeders on a wire between two trees to deter the squirrels – we tried it and sure enough, it works!
    Great post and photos!

  10. Pamela Wood says:

    As I sit this morning watching a rabbit cross our yard, a bluejay taking a drink from the birdbath, and various birds eating at the birdfeeders, I thank GOD for all the reminders of Himself He has provided. And I thank Him for you, for the talent He has placed within you, the hunger for answers to questions that have provided many hours of reading for me to lead me ever closer to Him, the ways that I have seen the world and the handiwork of a loving Father through your eyes, mind, and even your soul. Thank you.

  11. I live in the mountains in Oregon and I love it, but this makes me want to get a cabin in Colorado. When I was backpacking a lot I’d come into contact with wildlife constantly – I didn’t realize how much I miss that. Great post and fantastic photos.

  12. Betsy Henning says:

    My youngest son and his wife are moving to Colorado. A friend said, “Oh no. Don’t let them go to Colorado!” Why not? I wondered. “Because they don’t come back,” she said.

    Reading your blog…I fear she may be right.

    Regardless, it’s a beautiful post on so many levels! Big Fan.

  13. Lela says:

    Beautiful descriptions of God’s handiwork. I, too, enjoy my backyard visitors. However, I am often distressed when they act like humans–the bigger, healthier critters bullying their way to the head of the line; making the wounded eat last; male turkeys strutting around proudly–and those lovely little hummingbirds–they’re vicious little fighters. A lady once told me about a hummer at her feeder that wouldn’t let any other hummers eat. Her hubby put an additional feeder out–one in the front of the house, one in the back. They were puzzled that both feeders seemed to be monitored by the head hummer–then discovered him sitting on the weather vane on the peak of the roof where he could watch both feeders! Not necessarily about survival–more like greed–could their God be their stomach?

    Could the mean little hummingbirds be rufous? We have them come through about twice each summer, behaving just as you describe, scaring the wits out of the poor broadtails. I like your twist–the animals acting like humans! All too true.
    Philip

  14. Jennifer A Dennis says:

    Dear Mr. Yancey,
    Thank you for your writings. You have taught me so much about the grace, wonder and sweetness of Christ. I grew up in the southeast and witnessed many of the same frustrations and confusion that you write about in your books. I am so blessed by your unique gift of sorting through the difficult issues of faith while at the same time leading me to a closer walk with Christ.

    Blessings,
    Jennifer Dennis
    Houston, TX

  15. charyl :) says:

    Hi Philip! It’s been truly refreshing following you along in your blogs! 🙂 Your Colorado neighborhood makes me long for home, although we don’t have much coyotes, squirrels and other i-can’t-remember bird names here in the Philippines. hehehe.. I remember about what you wrote somewhere, of how your friend realized something of God’s “tameness” when you let him witness a fox in your same neighborhood. That thought helped me too, that God, as often reflected in His creations, is not within our demands and controls. He does what He does even if [I’m] there to approve of it or not. I guess I just have to remember, at all times, that He is love, and that there’s His love in all His doings for man. 🙂

    Yes, but you have beautiful tropical fish surrounding those islands! I looked up the passage you mention, and actually it’s God’s wildness I was describing. Here’s the quote:
    “On the hill behind my mountain home, each spring a pair of red foxes raises a litter of kits. The parents have grown quite accustomed to me roaming the hill with a weed-puller in my hand, and think it not at all strange that I stop in front of the den and whistle a greeting. Sometimes the young ones poke their faces out the crevice in the rock, sniffing the air and staring at me with alert, shiny eyes. Sometimes I hear them scrabbling around inside. Sometimes I hear nothing, and assume them asleep. Once, when a visitor from New Zealand stopped by, I took him to the den, warning him that he may see and hear nothing at all. ‘They are wild animals, you know,’ I said. ‘We’re not in charge. It’s up to them whether they make an appearance or not.’

    A bold young fox did poke his nose out of the den that day, thrilling my visitor, and a few weeks later I received a letter from him, now back home in New Zealand. As he reflected on it, oddly enough, my comment about foxes helped him understand God. He had just gone through a long season of depression. Sometimes God seemed as close as his wife or children. Sometimes he had no sense of God’s presence, no faith to lean on. ‘He is wild, you know,’ he wrote. ‘We’re not in charge.’
    Philip

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