Nature Is Risen, She Is Risen Indeed

This past Sunday was Easter Sunday. It evoked in me many thoughts and feelings about Nature which I would like to share with you here.


All life on Earth, including human life, is tied to the environment in which it lives, and that environment is not static. Especially in the temperate regions—not too close to the Equator and also not too close to either of the poles—it cycles through the seasons with which we are all familiar: spring, summer, autumn, winter, spring, summer and so on, year after year. On Nature’s Depths, we have seen many examples of how the lives of both plants and animals are coordinated with these ever-changing seasons, whether it is the time of leaf opening, or of flowering, or of migration, or of protection against the freezing weather, or any of a host of other processes.

Human cultures, too, are interlocked with the planetary environment.  The arrival of key points in the cycle has been carefully monitored and celebrated at least since the later part of the Stone Age. The great stone circle at Stonehenge, for example, dated roughly to 3,000 to 2,000 B.C.E., was laid out to mark with astonishing precision the sunrise of the summer solstice and the sunset of the winter solstice, as well as events in between. This is just one example among many all around the world. (I took the photograph below in 1976, when it was still possible to wander among the stones freely. Now they are carefully protected.)


Scholars who have devoted themselves to the study of religions have often observed that major religious festivals are tied in one way or another to the natural world, and especially to its cycles. In the world of Christianity, for example, Christmas is celebrated close to the winter solstice, in the Northern Hemisphere the shortest day and longest night of the year. Easter is celebrated close to the Spring (Vernal) Equinox when the day and the night are equal in length. How close to these key days of the astronomical calendar are the religious celebrations?  The Winter Solstice is generally on December 21st; in most Christian traditions, Christmas Eve is on December 24th. The Vernal Equinox this year was on March 20th; Easter was on April 4th.

The celebrations themselves reflect what is happening in Nature. Think of Christmas. As the Winter Solstice (and with it Christmas) approaches, the days in the Northern Hemisphere get ever shorter and the nights longer. Darkness descends. Following the solstice, the increasing darkness of the previous months starts to give way to longer and longer days. Light comes once again.

How is the coming of the light celebrated at Christmastime? In many, many ways, from the lighting of candles during church services, to the prevalence of Christmas tree lights, to the crown of candles worn by St. Lucia who is so popular in the Scandinavian countries. And symbolically, many Christians think of Christ as being the Light that came to take away the darkness of the world.

Easter Sunday is, together with Christmas, the grandest and most joyous day of the Christian calendar. The Easter greeting among many of those who hold to Christian traditions is, “Christ is risen!” and the response is, “He is risen indeed!” Even the very words seem to carry joy with them, no matter in what language they are spoken! If Christmas marks the coming of the light, we can think of Easter as marking the rising of life after the quiescence of the cold, dark winter.

What are the most common symbols of Easter? Eggs, of course! And there are many others. During church services and processions, we sprinkle water, so essential to life. We delight in lambs and baby chicks and bunnies. In Central Europe, including in my original homeland of Slovakia, the branches of pussy willows with just opening buds are given a prominent place. There is so much that represents the renewal of life. Theologically, of course, Easter marks the rising of Christ from the dead—death didn’t have the final say, for life rose again; nor did evil have the final say, for good overcame it.

In both their timing and their rituals, Christmas and Easter, celebrated year after year, are closely tied to the cycling of Nature’s year. Let’s then focus on what Nature herself is doing at Eastertime. A few years ago, we looked at the buds that burst open in Spring and have such a powerful association with the renewal of life. Today, let’s consider a few conspicuous examples of another wonderful aspect of spring in Nature, the pairing of birds. Then we’ll return to a broader interpretation.


Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos, Family Anatidae; all of today’s birds belong to this family) start to pair up in the winter. They are monogamous and stay together for some months, so you often see them as pairs, both resting and feeding.

Mallard Pair

Mallard Pair Diving

Once a nest has been built, however, and the female starts to lay eggs, the male abandons her and may even try to find another female. Mama duck is now on her own, as we saw in the post New Life on Our Doorstep.

The same is true for many other species of ducks, such as the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus).

Hooded Merganser Pair

Hooded Merganser Pair

Here, too, the pair is monogamous and stays together for several months. They do not build a nest; rather, they are cavity nesters, the female seeking out a suitable hollow in a tree.  As in the case of mallards, once the female has laid her eggs, the male leaves her.

The situation is quite different in Canada geese (Branta canadensis). Canada geese are among the birds that pair for life and, despite migrations that can take them hundreds or even thousands of miles, they come back year after year to their favorite nesting areas.

In mallards and hooded mergansers, the males and the females are strikingly different. The males are the showy ones, and biologists believe that the ornamentation evolved to attract the attention of the females who exercise choice among potential partners. Male and female Canada geese, on the other hand, look virtually identical. When you see them, whether on the water or flying, you see them in pairs but you can’t tell which is the male and which the female.

Canada Goose Pair Swimming

Canada Goose Pair Descending


Let’s now turn to Nature specifically on Easter Sunday. The calculation of exactly which Sunday shall be Easter Sunday is complex and differs between Western Christian denominations and Eastern ones. The exact customs of the celebration also differ. But no matter the details, Easter Sunday celebrates Christ’s rising from the dead and the promise of a new life for those who choose to follow him. More broadly, this holiday celebrates the return of vibrant life after the quiescence that prevailed during the dark and cold days of winter. Many people take it more broadly still, as the celebration of personal transformation from a passive phase of life into one that responds to a call, to a new time of being guided by a clear sense of what is right and good.

For me personally, Easter Sunday of 2021 was unlike any other I have experienced. Let me tell you what happened.

Amaryllis. At Christmastime, our daughter Rachel had given me an amaryllis bulb. This was a custom she had developed over the years with my beloved wife Yvonne and now, following Yvonne’s death, she wanted to continue it with me. The bulb produced a flowering stalk that bloomed in the beginning of March. The flowers faded after a week or so and I thought that this marked the end of flowering. But I was wrong. When I cut off the spent flowers, I realized that the green structures emerging from the top of the bulb were not only leaves but also a fresh flowering stalk. After some time, the growth of this new stalk outpaced that of the leaves and soon it was shooting upwards at an almost visible rate. As Easter approached, I started asking—would it perhaps flower on Easter Sunday? On Easter Saturday, the bud was still closed. When I got up on Easter Sunday and went to look, the bud scales had started to pull apart and the edges of the red petals within had started to show, as you can see in the upper picture. My amaryllis, the Christmas gift from our daughter Rachel which Yvonne did not get to see, started to bloom early on Easter Sunday! The lower picture, taken on Tuesday, shows the process continuing.Amaryllis Easter SundayAmaryllis Easter Tuesday

Robin. For no special reason, I Iooked out the kitchen window and onto the front porch. Sitting on the railing was a robin (Turdus migratorius, Family Turdidae), looking around attentively but not seeming to be especially nervous. I was able to move gently, fetch my camera, find a way of maneuvering the lens between the slats of the Venetian blind, and try to take a few pictures. The window screen prevented the pictures from being any good, but the robin stayed through all my efforts as if nothing special were happening. Finally, it flew away. Like the amaryllis that had opened, the robin, I felt, had given me a blessing on this special day. The next day, I spotted a nest under construction above the front door. Is it being built by that same robin? Perhaps.

Mama Duck. Readers of Nature’s Depths may remember that in 2018 Mama Duck decided that the empty flower pot on our front porch would make an excellent nest (New Life on Our Doorstep ). Yvonne and I had always hoped that Mama Duck would come back again, but in succeeding years she chose first one and then the other of our immediate neighbors.

On Easter Sunday of this year, who should appear on the front porch again but Mama Duck!

Mama Duck Standing

Mama Duck Nesting

She experimented with the same flowerpot, which was mostly filled with planting mix. She scooped some out to make the space cozier. She went off for a while but returned, settling in for a brief rest. Then she left again. This may be because she has found a better spot, or she may still be surveying the territory and weighing her options. If so, she might come back after all. Nevertheless, Mama Duck—who had not been on our porch for three years—decided to check us out again, and she did it exactly on Easter Sunday!

Trumpeter swans. In the late morning of Easter Sunday, I went for my usual walk at the Eastman Nature Center. I stepped out onto a floating boardwalk that crosses a small lake, walking very gently because I saw something I had never seen there before—a pair of trumpeter swans.  Like Canada geese, trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) mate for life. And also like Canada geese, the males and females look essentially identical. On Easter Sunday there was a pair, swimming so leisurely and so close to the boardwalk that in order to get both swans in a single picture, I had to avoid using the longest setting on my zoom lens.

Trumpeter Swan Pair

Trumpeter Swan Pair

Trumpeter swans were once in danger of extinction. In 1933, only 70 were known to exist, but recovery efforts have been quite successful and their populations have rebounded into several tens of thousands. In Minnesota these swans are reasonably abundant. But I had been at Eastman virtually every day since Christmas and had never seen a swan there before Easter Sunday.

I returned very early on Monday to try to take some more pictures, but the swans weren’t there. On Sunday I had seen them in the late morning, so I came back a second time on Monday, just in case their daily schedule had taken them away temporarily. There were still no swans, but the chief naturalist was there with a gaggle of children, using small nets to scoop tiny organisms out of the lake water to see what had emerged. She told me that back in 2017 a pair of swans had nested along the far edge of the lake, but they had not been seen since. Four years with no swans, including 2021. A beautiful pair on Easter Sunday!

Turtles. Anchored some distance away from the floating boardwalk is a log that regularly serves as a sunning station for painted turtles (Chrysemis picta, Family Emydidae). They climb on it, cover it edge to edge and have no hesitation about piling on top of each other. In the winter, however, they retreat to the bottom of the lake or even into the mud where the temperature stays above freezing, rather than dropping into the far colder temperatures for which Minnesota is famous. Freezing, with the accompanying ice crystals, would kill them. Hence, once the cold weather sets in, turtles are nowhere to be seen. And when did they emerge for the first time this year, and find their favorite sunny spot? On Easter Sunday!

Painted Turtles


How did I interpret all the signs of life’s renewal that came my way on Easter Sunday? Was it all happenstance, a set of everyday occurrences that I paid special attention to simply because it was Easter? Or was there something underneath it all that I normally don’t recognize but that I suddenly could no longer ignore? Or what?

I believe, and emphatically so, that our understanding of the world, while in many ways profound, is nowhere near complete and probably never will be. I also increasingly believe that humanity’s great philosophical/spiritual/religious traditions are a reservoir of wisdom that complements the wisdom we derive from science as a way of knowing. Here is how these two perspectives came together for me.

Easter Sunday was especially warm. It is entirely possible that it was this warmth that prompted the turtles to finally seek out the sun. We are in the midst of spring. Plants and animals know this, primarily through the use of their internal biological clocks. Many species launch into reproduction at this time of year. Many birds are courting. Those who paired up earlier, like the ducks, geese and swans, are getting ready to lay eggs. This entails finding a place to build a home where the eggs will be protected. It’s entirely possible that this search is what brought Mama Duck and the robin to our front porch and the pair of swans to the Eastman Nature Center. If these visits had taken place not on the same day but a day or two apart, I would have ascribed no special significance to them. So yes, I believe that the causation of the events that affected me so deeply on Easter Sunday was entirely natural.

Being natural, however, does not imply being casual or meaningless. We humans are natural too. We have come into existence as components of Nature. We depend on the processes of Nature for our birth and for our lives. All of our food ultimately comes from plants, as does the very oxygen we need to breathe in order to sustain our lives. We can list a myriad ways in which we are a part of Nature and our lives continue to depend on Nature.

A list like this can seem true but abstract, heartless. However, we can equally take it as a prompt to cultivate our sense of gratitude. Gratitude for having been conceived—for the amazing fact that each one of us began as an egg that was so small as to be barely visible to the naked eye (and that was already present in immature form in one of our mother’s ovaries even while she herself was still an unborn baby) and a sperm cell far, far smaller still. Gratitude for that single fertilized egg cell having transformed into a whole baby. Gratitude for having been safely born and for still being alive after all these years. Gratitude for experiencing love and beauty and joy in our lives and for sharing those with others. We can pay close attention to the bursting forth of life all around us that is so palpable in the spring and take Easter Sunday as a special opportunity to say thank you for it, irrespective of whether or not we believe that there are divine ears to hear our thanks.

We can remember poems and songs that express this gratitude, like the great hymn Morning Has Broken, written by Eleanor Farjeon in 1931 when she was deeply inspired by a small English village. I first encountered this hymn at an interdenominational Easter service in which no one worried about how science gains its understandings or whether God exists the way the text of the hymn implies, but everyone sang out with gratitude for the Life of which we are all a part.

Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight
Mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning
God’s recreation of the new day

Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world

The more I comprehend about the natural world, about its history and about how it works, the more wondrous I find it, the more I feel a part of it, and the more grateful I feel for being alive and for having had sixty years of a shared life with Yvonne. From time to time, like this Easter Sunday, I experience it as holy.



Posted in: Rumination