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Lightning in a Bottle: A Chronicle of Wonder

Entries by Todd Christopher (34)


The Stars (Still) Look Very Different Today

Four minutes and thirteen seconds into the blue-eyed soul of "Young Americans," just before its exuberant coda, the instrumentation abruptly falls away. For a couple of freely floating measures, all that remains is the pleading voice of David Bowie, slipping in and out of time and posing a question as though everything depended on the answer: "Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?"

It’s impossible to encapsulate an artist in a single album or song, much less in a single line. But on record, those seven seconds capture something close to the essence of Bowie. The voice: impeccably cool, yet on the verge of breaking. The words: immediate, impassioned and yearning.

To have been truly touched by Bowie’s music is to know that the answer to that question, timeless as it may be, really isn’t important—but that asking it means everything. Because at its heart, the great and enduring theme of his work, from "Space Oddity" to "Lazarus," was to explore and to feel the full extent of our humanness—however raw, messy, strange and beautiful it may be—and, ultimately and through it, to discover our humanity. Or, in his own words (from the title track of Station to Station): "Here are we, one magical moment—such is the stuff from where dreams are woven."

The outpouring in the wake of his passing made it perfectly clear: Through his music and his reinvention, Bowie had resonated with countless young people who sought nothing more than to connect and to feel connected amid the uncertainty of finding themselves and their place in this world. To lose him was to lose the wellspring of music that tempered our imperfection with the wonderful possibility of what we could become. And to accept that he was gone was cause to revisit the hopes and dreams of the younger selves he had inspired.

When David Bowie left this planet last January 10, we didn’t just lose a towering figure from the last half-century of popular music—we lost our last, great Romantic, a modern-day kindred spirit of Shelley, Keats, and Blake (who once even took on a persona named Screaming Lord Byron, for good measure).

Unlike his musical contemporaries who obsessively turned their attention inward or around them, Bowie alone, it seemed, looked upward—for inspiration, for confirmation, for absolution. He sang of starmen and spacemen, of angels and devils—yet created songs as rich as novels, populated by characters as detailed as they were universal, as alien and exotic as they were familiar. He enjoyed the riches of commercial success, but—ars longa, vita brevis—never at the expense of his art. And through all of his endeavors he reminded us that living life itself is—can be, should be—an artistic act, ultimately impermanent and flawed but full of grace, beauty, and truth.

These days, of course, we need all the grace, beauty and truth we can get. Fortunately, David Bowie left us enough to last a lifetime, if we listen closely. 


Striking Desert Gold

Will a wet winter bring a rare spring "super bloom" to Death Valley? I explore the possibilities in this recent piece for National Parks magazine:

Striking Desert Gold - National Parks magazine


Feeling Small Again: 5 Tips for Visiting National Parks with Kids

"Our national parks—from the wilderness parks that span millions of acres to the urban parks in the backyards of millions of Americans—are incomparable places for fostering and affirming the vital connection between kids and nature. Simply by remembering that children perceive the natural world on a different scale and explore it at a different pace, we can make their experiences more enjoyable and rewarding."

Read more on NPCA's Park Advocate blog:

Feeling Small Again: 5 Tips for Visiting National Parks with Kids


Batteries Not Included: Why Toys R Us Got It Wrong

Nature or plastic? In a recent piece for NPCA's Park Advocate, I take on the misguided ad campaign from retailer Toys R Us.

Cicadas, Part II

After much fanfare, the cicadas have come... and the cicadas have gone.

I actually miss them and their deafening racket -- in much the same way I missed the sound of vuvuzelas for months after the 2010 World Cup. So much so that I recently wrote an appreciation of these mysterious insects for NPCA's Park Advocate blog.

Oh, Brood II, we hardly knew ye. See you again in 17 years, fellas.


Thy Saturday Come, Thy Will Be Done

The shocking, heartbreaking news from Penn State had sunk in, but I still couldn't find the words to express what I was feeling — until I dug up my old column from the The Daily Collegian:


… In the Beginning, there was a brown, white-striped ellipsoid, carven from the flesh of a fatted swine. And God, in his infinite wisdom, did see and understand the need to house The Football, and he created the heavens and the earth.

And God said, let there be Saturdays, and there were. God saw that the Saturdays were good, and he separated the good from the darkness. God called the good "Bowl Bid" and the darkness he did call "fail to break the Top 20 and lose alumni support."

And God said, let there be an expanse between the waters. And God put the water above and the water below and he did make the expanse. The expanse he did call "sky," and he did colour it in splendour with blue and white.

Then God said, "Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land. Let there be Orange, and Rose, and Peach, and Sugar and Cotton, and let them be kept in Bowls, and let all strong-hearted men strive for their fruit." And there were, and they were good.

* * *

… So God created Man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, astigmatic he created him.

And God blessed him and said to him, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the Atlantic Coast Conference and subdue it. Rule thou over the Tide of the sea and Golden Eagles and Owls of the sky." And it was thus, and it was good.

* * *

Our Coach, who art on McKee Street, Joepa be thy name.

Thy Saturday come, thy will be done in Beaver as it is in Tempe.

Give us this day our daily beer, hot dogs and soft pretzels, and forgive us our illegal procedures as we forgive those who downfield-block-below-the-waist-from-behind against us.

And lead us not into man-to-man coverage, but deliver us from defeat. For yours is the arena of glory, power and lucrative television deals forever and ever. Amen.

So go thou in the name of the Lord, but beware, for the Lord thy Football God is a jealous God, and thou shall have no Gods before him. Thou shall remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, observing mass without fail, through gloom and fog and 40 days and nights of rain. And wonderest thou not why thine tuition goeth ever up, despite the kingdom of riches from the national championship, for it is the way of the Lord thy Football God. And it is good.

This is the word of the Lord. Amen.


Todd Christopher is the author of The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids.



Ten years later, this poem by Wendell Berry means more than ever:


The Peace of Wild Things

By Wendell Berry


When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


May we all find freedom. May we all know peace.




Through the Looking Glass

The rise of digital media consumption among young people has inspired no small amount of research, writing and hand-wringing of late. And with good cause—a growing body of research has rather conclusively tied its overuse to a host of negative outcomes for children and teens alike. Much of this research is summarized in the opening sections of The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids and is well worth a read.

But an editorial by Lawrence Downes in today's New York Times, which examines the growing use of e-books by kids, raises an interesting question: where do we draw the line between preserving the power of imagination and fostering cultural literacy in our children?

You might say that a clay tablet, a book and an iPad are very different media that serve the same essential function—each allows the user to read words on its surface. But we know intuitively that these tools couldn't be more different—and that we, in many ways, couldn't be more different when we use them. Why? Because our tools shape us as much as we shape them.

The devices themselves may be new, but the dilemma seems as old as modern civilization—how do we embrace enough of our past to preserve our spirit, and enough of the future not to be left behind?

For more, check out The Children's Book Comes to Life Electronically from the New York Times.



The Wilderness Next Door

Fifty years ago today, in what has come to be known as the “Wilderness Letter,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner drafted what might be the most famous — and possibly the most eloquent — defense of the natural world ever written.  And, unlike most nature writing which seems to focus, almost obsessively, on the tangible and the material, Stegner’s missive borders on the metaphysical.

The wilderness he conjures is Nature with a capital N, that abstract and virtuous promised land that resides somewhere between the edge of our memory and the pit of our belly.  It lives in the broad and sweeping landscapes of the West, against which we, as a nation, set our shoulders and pushed onward.  It endures in the rugged beauty reflected in iconic images, the saturated blacks and brilliant whites of Ansel Adams’ Half Dome, El Capitan, Lake Tenaya.

He writes:

“We need wilderness preserved — as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there — important, that is, simply as an idea.”

If the wilderness we preserve is the physical manifestation of the wildness within us, then its loss would forever change our very being. This is a real danger, and an insidious one, at that, for it would not come suddenly and calamitously; rather, we would barely mark its passing as we feel the quiet slipping away of our spirit and collectively give up the ghost.

One could argue that we already are.

We casually refer to nature as a balm for the woes of the modern life we have willfully fashioned for ourselves.  And it is.  But that implies a nature at arm’s length, altogether separate from us — something from which we have been removed and to which we must return if we wish to tend to the part of our spirit that is ailing. 

What if there is no balm in Gilead?

For as much as I believe in the letter and the spirit of Stegner’s words, I remain haunted by these dozen words: Even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.

One can’t help but wonder if we have, in our well-intentioned efforts to honor nature, over-romanticized it — relegating it to the realm of mythology and rendering it distant and unattainable.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t revere the natural world — we rightfully should.  And we should, as Stegner observes, take the measure of ourselves in it.  But I would suggest that such measure shouldn’t be reserved only for the occasional or the spectacular.  Rather, it should be taken every day, with whatever yardsticks are at hand.  The humble backyard maple — a festival of buds, leaves, twirling seeds and branches for climbing — can’t match the magnificence of a sequoia, but it certainly can capture a child’s imagination day in and day out, season after season.

But for much of the generation we are now raising, spending free time outside, exploring the natural world in their own backyards, has become an aberration — an accidental pursuit, if it’s undertaken at all. Theirs is an increasingly virtual world divorced from what had long been the landscape of childhood, where time in nature would nurture children — mind, body and spirit. (The Kaiser Family Foundation’s recent research puts the average daily media consumption of today’s youth at more than 7 ½ hours — into which they pack nearly 11 hours worth of media content — a full-time job.)

The front lines of the frontier have moved; they’re right outside the back door.

With apologies to e.e. cummings: Listen. There’s a hell of a good wilderness next door. Let’s go.

Todd Christopher is the author of The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids.



The Facts of Leaf

To the untrained eye, writing might look a lot like simply raking leaves. Then again, maybe they're one and the same.

Truth is, I spent a good part of this day doing a bit of both—whisking a motley carpet of leaves into piles, and then standing, leaning on the rake, and staring into the November sky. Rake. Think. Repeat.

The work itself is rewarding. It begins in chaos and ends in order and in between is nothing but near-silence broken only by the shuffling of the rake through the leaves. In other words, it stands in sharp contrast to the rest of my days.

And the leaves themselves are excellent companions. Tulip tree and maple, sassafras and sweet gum. Vivid bursts of yellow, red and orange after so many months of green—then always, ultimately, brown.

But here's the beauty part: Those glorious fall colors that rise and fall so quickly—too quickly—are not the result of some amazing transformation. Yes—the colors we see do change, of course. But the leaves are the same. It's not that an ordinary green leaf suddenly and spectacularly becomes a brilliant scarlet leaf. That scarlet leaf is inside all along, waiting for the cholorphyll to ebb in the chill and fading light of autumn—waiting for the green to recede and, at long last, let it shine.

I'd like to think that we're the same. We all start out tender and green and full of promise, yet our bodies will wither in the end. But maybe somewhere in between we, too, will have a glorious autumn—and I'll bet there's one hell of a beautiful leaf inside each of us, just waiting to be revealed.


A Fall Classic

I think that many of the best stories, at their heart, are about finding hidden treasure—so I already found this one fascinating. The fact that it's about baseball, especially at this time of year, made it doubly so. And the healthy dash of serendipity? Well, that certainly doesn't hurt.

But, to the point:

Tomorrow (as I write this), October 13, is the 50th anniversary of what was arguably the greatest home run in baseball history. In Game 7 of a hard-fought 1960 World Series, in the bottom of the 9th inning of a tumultuous, back-and-forth affair, Bill Mazeroski lifted the Pittsburgh Pirates to a wild and improbable victory over the New York Yankees, winners of seven of the previous eleven Series. It was the original "walk-off" home run, the drive that put a punctuation mark on what is still considered to be one of the best games ever played.

Like so much of the golden age, it was preserved only in bits and pieces, highlights on a grainy newsreel.

That is, until a kinescope of the entire original television broadcast was recently found, in pristine condition, in the wine cellar of Bing Crosby's California home.

The crooner, who died in 1977, was a part owner of that 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates team and had arranged for the broadcast to be recorded while he was out of the country.

Chalk it up to foresight or good fortune—for baseball fans, it's a bit of history come alive. Imagine a game unadorned, presented with minimal commentary, sponsorship and graphic eye candy.

And it's a piece of history worth holding on to. That shot over the left-field wall marked not only the end of a game and World Series, it may well have marked the end of an era.

The game itself saw big changes in 1961—with the advent of expansion teams and asterisks—and has followed the trajectory where, for better or for worse, the average ballplayer now outearns the average American several hundred times over.

Consider that, in 1960, both Ted Williams and Stan Musial, displeased with their performances from the previous season, actually asked for pay cuts.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio (and friends)?


For more on the discovery of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, check out In Bing Crosby’s Wine Cellar, Vintage Baseball from the New York Times.


Summer: An Apology

I'm fond of saying that fall, when it comes, apologizes for the summers around here. 

This summer, which did not go gently—the temperatures topped 90 degrees for the 90th time today—was one of the hottest in recent memory. Autumn is always welcome; this year, it may be even more so.

As I write this, the vernal equinox is just over an hour away, but a sultry harvest moon, full and round and pale yellow-orange, has long since risen to usher in the season—with Jupiter, closer to Earth and brighter in our skies than it has been for quite some time, to escort her. What an auspicious beginning!

So. Here's to the crisp, clear skies and cool nights ahead.

Breathe in, and hold it.