Tag Archives: Nature

Backyard Fossils by Michael Ajax


It was a crisp spring morning when my son and I headed toward the pond in the woods behind our house. Heavy dew beaded on the thick grass and soaked our boots as we headed to the trailhead that attached to the yard. On both sides of the raised trail patches of soft muck awaited the unwary. Loads of deer traveled this narrow path daily, and their tiny hooves cut the fragile soil, making it especially soft and muddy.

Carrying a shovel, a cup, and a jar, we ducked under the curvy sassafras limbs and slogged forward. Our goal this morning was to capture some recently hatched tadpoles in the pond that formed each spring from the snowmelt and move them to a deep pond in the front yard. We hoped that a few of these frogs might choose to live there.

My son, about seven at the time, loved every excursion we made into the backwoods. A stand of aging shagbark hickories marked the front border of the woods and a pair of monstrous oaks stood at the far end near the creek that ran north and south. Every time we stepped out of the grassy yard, and onto the muddy path leading to the backwoods, it was like entering another world where nature made all the rules.

Since the backwoods had always been a low area, no farmers or developers ever disturbed it. Going there was truly like walking back in time to what Michigan might have been a thousand years ago—a wild and untamed thicket brimming with wildlife. Thick bushes and blossoming pussy willows blended with the wide cattails around the two acre water hole. Animal tracks, of various shapes and sizes, led us to the pond’s edge. Bending low, we spotted a few tadpoles swimming in the deeper water. As we expected, none were within reach. Not wanting to sink into mud up to our knees, we had a different plan. With the shovel, we would dig a small hole and make a tadpole swimming area at the edge so the tadpoles could swim to us. It seemed a perfect plan.

But as I began to dig, a few stones blocked the shovel. In truth, so many rocks were buried just below the soft surface that they threatened to foil my plan entirely. Not deterred, however, I dug even deeper. From below the murky water that rushed into the hole, a rock different than the others became visible. The first ones had been standard fare, mostly rounded field stones, dark in color, with bits of red or blue or brown in them. But this last rock was different. It was ivory white with long, sharp edges.

My son pulled the pale rock close and rubbed at the course, grimy surface with his fingers. Then his big eyes looked up at me. “What are all these tiny holes for?”

I couldn’t help but smile. “This is not just any rock. It’s sandstone.  All these tiny holes are the remains of an ancient sea sponge.”

“You mean this is a fossil? We saw some in science class, but they were tiny, not like this.”

“Fossils come in all shapes and sizes. At one point, ages ago, Michigan was under the ocean. Sponges and coral were some of the creatures that must’ve lived here.”

My son’s eyes gleamed. He knew this rock was special.

After cleaning more of the mud off the hardened sponge, we noticed that half a dozen tadpoles had entered the newly deepened section of the pond. Catching them with the cup was easy.

As we headed back to the house, I grabbed the shovel and cup. My son had his sponge fossil in one hand and the jar of tadpoles in the other. On his face he wore the biggest smile I had ever seen.

I knew this would not be the end of our fossil exploring, in fact, it was just the beginning.


About the Author

Michael Ajax is the father of two curious kids and the author of a novel about dinosaurs. He enjoys spending time with both his son and his daughter, telling them stories to challenge their imaginations—while also keeping them out of mischief. During one cross country vacation, Michael and his kids spotted a unique rock shop. They had to stop. With breathtaking fossils surrounding them, the topic of dinosaurs came up. The next few hours of their drive quickly passed as Michael told of a wondrous adventure that began in the Badlands. This story eventually became his novel.

Michael’s novel, Tomb of the Triceratops, follows three high school friends to the Badlands of Montana where they search for a paleontologist that claimed to have discovered a portal to another dimension were dinosaurs escaped to. What’s your favorite dinosaur?

Check out Michael’s website at www.michaelajax.com and get a look at his book on Amazon at http://tinyurl.com/tombtriceratops

Spinoza and Me by Kenneth Weene


It was Tuesday afternoons, two-fifteen almost every Tuesday for the school year—for my seventh grade school year. They would leave—dismissed early from school to attend religious instruction. Most, the vast majority of my classmates would leave to learn about God, to learn about faith, to learn about dogma. Almost universally they were Catholics. The city in which I grew up was almost entirely Catholic, half of Irish background and half of Italian, ­ but all Catholic and all scheduled for confirmation.

Off our classmates would go in mass exodus, and we, a small number, would huddle in our respective homerooms while being watched, as questionable minorities must be.

The remainder of the school day was designated a period for “guidance and moral education.” We were given neither guidance nor moral education. Instead, we huddled in our minority and did homework. My homeroom teacher taught English so we did English homework. Next door was a social studies teacher. His minority worked on geography and memorized facts about our city, Somerville, our county, Middlesex, and our commonwealth, Massachusetts. On the other side of our room was a math teacher; there fractions and equations held sway. Therein lay one of the basic moral lessons of my youth: free will may exist, but free choice does not.

So we, in our suspicious minority status, sat quietly and tried to appear compliant – to appear as a well-disciplined and obedient unity. There was only one problem: we were not a unity. For within our small number there was yet another division, another even smaller minority, a minority of one, of me, a Jew. The Catholics were gone; the Protestants—undifferentiated from the vantage point of the Vatican—had become the majority. I, I alone, was left to be different. “Hebe,” “Kike,” “Shylock”: I heard all those epithets and more while growing up; but the worst was “Jewww” pronounced with hash J and drawn-out W—pejorative in its correctness. Make no doubt about it; I was the hated “Jewww,” the killer of Christ, wearer of devils’ horns, killer of Christian children and consumer of their blood, ah, blood-libeled matzoth.

It was not easy being a Jew in that classroom, in that school, in that city. There had been a time when the numbers had been different. If Jews had never been the majority, they had once been a serious minority, but that had changed. Most had moved away, across Boston to Brookline and Newton a the other end of the transit system. Only the temple remained to let the world know that they, a number of them—us—had once lived there. It was a solid building of granite and cement, a building as substantial as one of the many churches that serviced the rest of the community.

But, inside, within the people, within what survived of the congregation, little substance remained. Commitment had gone with the members to those newer and wealthier communities. A few stragglers, a few professional men whose careers required them to stay, a few old people with neither the means nor the will to move: this was the congregation. And, it was led by a rabbi whose lack of standing was consistent with the temple’s ever diminishing stature.

Leo Shubow had nothing to recommend him. He wasn’t particularly learned, he lacked charisma, he spoke poorly, and, just to make things worse, he sprayed spittle with every sibilant. There were those who opined that Rabbi Shubow would not even had merited our small congregation were it not for his brother, a well-known and highly respected rabbi who not only led but also dominated one of the most important temples in all of Greater Boston. This successful rabbi had demanded a congregation for his inadequate sibling; presumably it had been decided that he could do the least harm in our already failed flock.

My father, one of those professional men who felt that they needed to stay in Somerville, insisted my brother and I attend some religious education. For their part neither of our parents ever went to the temple except for those rare but socially mandatory bar mitzvahs and weddings. Very few adults did go to temple. At most services the required minyan was a last minute miracle.

It was probably just as well that almost no adults attended services; Rabbi Shubow had only two topics on which he could comfortably sermonize:

The first was the need to support the just-born nation of Israel. He would particularly exhort us to give coins to plant trees there. Presumably he thought it would be too political to ask us to help buy weapons for the fledgling Israeli army. Nevertheless, underlying our understanding of the importance of those trees was our dread of the incomprehensible hatred that had become the irresistible tide of the holocaust. Even in our small community, each of us in some way was connected to the dead of Europe and to the precious saved—that minority who had survived the camps—and to those among them who were trying to make a new home—a refuge—for themselves in Eretz Israel.

His second topic had nothing discernible to do with Israel or Judaism. He was passionate about the threat of icebergs in the North Atlantic. I never learned if he had lost somebody to an iceberg-related sinking or had simply been traumatized as a very small boy by the end of the Titanic. Whatever the reason, he would speak at length, poorly, but at length, about the need for a better warning system to protect sailors.

His preoccupation seemed somewhat silly to those of us who bothered to think about those icebergs. The world was still reeling from the war. Oceans of blood had been spilled. Even if one were to think of death in the North Atlantic, it made more sense to focus on the torpedoes of the Nazis than on the icebergs breaking away from Greenland and Iceland.

I would probably have no adult thought of Leo Shubow were it not for a book that he suggested I read. That year, that year of confirmation, I read the book he had suggested. It wasn’t a very sophisticated book, but it did raise an interesting question. Could one be a bad Jew and still be a great Jew? Felix Mendelssohn, the great composer, was one example. Shabbetai Zvi, the false messiah, was another. But, the most important example was Baruch de Spinoza.

That book didn’t teach me much about Spinoza, the brilliant Sephardic Jew who had been expected to become an important rabbi but who, instead, was perceived by his community as doubting the very existence of God. Still trying to come to grips with the Inquisition that had driven them from Spain and that had killed so many of their fellow religionists, the Sephardic community in Holland was deeply religious, strongly observant, and extremely intellectual. Spinoza’s perceived apostasy was an outrage.

Ostracized and (very unusually for a Jew) excommunicated, he had made his living as a grinder of lenses, some of the best lenses available in Holland. He had also written brilliantly in his attempts to understand whatever he could of the essential nature of the world and to define mankind’s ethical obligations. Although he had remained outside the Jewish fold, Spinoza had become the spiritual father of the modern age. His simple abode was to become a place of pilgrimage for modern thinkers, perhaps most notably Einstein, who stopped there during his flight from Europe to America – his escape from the Nazis.

Spinoza ground lenses, at that time one of the purest mathematical activities. Using mathematical formulae, light could be forced into orderly behavior. Einstein went beyond that; he applied mathematics to the understanding of light and to the fundamental physical nature of the world. Shubow was not so brilliant. He could only worry about seeing the physical dangers in the natural world, but he, like Spinoza and Einstein, understood that the physical world could be known, that the dangers inherent in it could be understood and perhaps overcome.

Precision of mathematical and scientific thinking could give mankind control over nature. It was not necessary to invoke God, nor was it meaningful to think of God as intervening in that nature—given by Him or perhaps more properly synonymous with Him. To appreciate that order, to truly appreciate it, was to love God, to be, in Spinoza’s phrase, intoxicated with God.

But, mankind is often more intoxicated with itself than with God. It is our nature that we see threat in the mirror of existence and turn on our fellow humans over and over again. Human nature is not so predictable nor so beautiful. It turns us against minorities and thereby against ourselves. We may call it prejudice and hatred, for my part I call it Evil.

The Inquisition was rooted in Evil as was the Holocaust. There was Evil in that classroom, too. Sitting there on those Tuesday afternoons so acutely aware of being a minority within a minority I was at once both a victim of that Evil and a participant in it.

Rabbi Shubow had lived with enough Evil to appreciate the goal of goodness—to understand nature and use that knowledge to save man. Now I am older. I have lived with enough Evil to wonder if man is worth saving. And I have lived with enough of mankind to wonder if mankind can save itself. Perhaps it is enough to appreciate human nature, to study the psychological world, and to accept that our species may well reach its own self-doomed end.

There is creation, there is nature, and there is man. For all these there is order, that most divine of all possibilities. Order exists. I revel in that fact and I am too intoxicated with God to think of praying for heavenly intervention.


In addition to the great honor of being a member and editor of The Write Room Blog, Ken Weene writes short stories, poetry, and novels. You can learn more about his writing at http://www.kennethweene.com and you can listen to his ideas on It Matters Radio, which is proud to co-host at http://www.itmattersradio.com/ Ken would like to thank the wonderful Deb Harris of All Things That Matter Press for her editorial help with this piece.

A Woodsy Morning by Sharla Shults

Join me and let’s take a walk: A walk in the woods, a step back in time when I was adventurous and inquisitive. Picture this while opening your mind to discovery and reflection. . .

It is a cool, crisp early winter’s morning. Temperatures are just beginning to drop into the 60s during the day and low 40s at night. Soft rays of sunlight find their way into my bedroom, peeping from behind the heavily draped windows. Outside, shards of frost dust the remaining hints of color left over from autumn.

My brain comes alive with a tickling sensation as rich aromas of steaming coffee and freshly baked cinnamon rolls reach my nostrils. Mama is already busying herself in the kitchen, and I cannot wait to join in on the morning rituals. I bounce out of bed running in my sock feet toward the kitchen hoping to not arrive too late for one of my favorite times of the day: watching and listening to the ‘percolator song’. I giggle with excitement as I enter the room to the tune of the dark liquid pulsating up and down within its small glass bubble. Watching intently, my eyes never shift away until the last bloop has hissed.

Today is a special day because there is no school—something about the radiator not working which would mean no heat in the long halls and classrooms. The only bad thing about a ‘free’ day from school is that it will have to be made up later on in the year. Oh, well, today is today and no school means NO homework.

“Hey, Kitten,” Mama called. “How would you like to take a walk with me?”

“Where are we going, Mama? You’re not thinking about walking into town, are you?” I frown. This thought immediately comes to mind for just the day before Daddy put Mama’s car in the shop for repairs. She really needs a new car but the old ‘54 Ford will just have to do for now.

“Silly girl! No way we are going to walk the long distance into town. We are going to take a nature walk—a walk through the woods. I already know you have your special places you like to go so let’s take a walk together and talk about what you see and hear.”

Behind our house is nothing but woods. One selling feature when Daddy bought the house is the fact there aren’t any neighbors right next door and the backyard extends into a wooded area. There is plenty of yard in which to play and the woods often offers a place of solitude. Of course, I am not allowed to venture very far, just along the narrow trail to the little creek a short walk away. Sometimes I venture off the trail but it is not very long before I am right back where I started. The slightest unfamiliar sound sends me skedaddling like a cat chasing a squirrel!

“Grab your coat. It’s chilly out this morning. We don’t want you to catch a cold. Your mittens and scarf are over by the door. I’ll get mine and meet you outside.” Mama turns and walks toward her bedroom. I gather my coat, which still clumsily drapes across the kitchen chair where I left it the day before, put on my mittens and scarf, and walk out the door into the biting air.

The walk is surprisingly invigorating right from the very start. Deep breaths of cold air awaken my senses as I skip along the narrow wooded path. Tiny little clouds of fog are expelled with each breath. I spin around watching sunbeams glance off the dew-laden foliage as daybreak brings forth new sights, sounds and raw smells of the earth. The stillness of the night before is no more. The songs of the birds break through the silence and the crackle of dried leaves underfoot send tiny critters scurrying back into their woodsy safe haven.

We laugh, we talk, I ask questions, Mama provides answers. We pick a few wild blackberries being extra careful not to reach too far into the brambles. We forgot to bring a paper sack or bucket so we stuff our coat pockets until they can positively hold no more. As we walk on, I tell Mama about my secret place near the creek: The place I like to go just to be by myself (away from people, that is, for I never was ever really alone). I daydream of treasures and mystery even planning out my whole future, Prince Charming and all! Mama smiles the whole time knowing she has memories of similar experiences when she was a child. We pause to rest on a fallen tree trunk scaring a small rabbit nearby. Of course, it is debatable who really scared who!

A sense of sadness engulfs the scene when Mama says it’s time to walk back home. A walk among nature on that woodsy morning highlighted moments of fantasy within reality: dancing with the fairies and holding hands with Mother Nature.

What about you? Have you taken a walk lately? Better yet, have you taken your son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, niece, nephew, friend for a walk? Put away the iPad, TV and cell phone or whatever might be occupying your time at the moment. Tune the Internet out and the outside world on. Whether spring, summer, fall or winter, capture the moments: Observe life at its best, listen to life’s songs, embrace life’s bounties, breathe the breath of life and savor life to its fullest!

Moments Captured

’Tis hard to encapsulate a full day
From morning dew to midnight sky
For a nimiety of snapshots exist
Each caught in a blink of an eye

Above still dark trees and somber sky
Diffused light of early morn emerges
Beetles nibble on the dark-green foliage
As sensations of nature’s splendor surges

Morning glories stretch and yawn
Unfurling shades of fuchsia that glow
Bees fly toward the inner beacon
Extracting nectarines deep below

Atala butterflies hover in the wind
Blue-green incandescence on their wings
Red-orange abdomens expand in the sun
Exploiting new life that morning brings

An angel of light appears in the midst
Casting sunbeams that overcome the shadows
Ladybirds feed on the whitefly and aphids
Revealing beneath their wings moments captured

Sharla Lee Shults


Sharla Shults is a semi-retired educator whose classroom is now the online environment. Her expertise spans a broad spectrum from reading to ESOL training to mathematics. Truly unique are the instances when her former classroom students once again cross paths with her for they have become teachers themselves working toward additional certification endorsements.

Sharla’s passion for writing is poetry: Historical and inspirational. Become acquainted with her writing by visiting http://sharlashults.com/ where links are accessible to her books and blogs.