Winter Birds at Sweetwater Wetlands (Gainesville, FL)

From a distance, there appeared to be a lot of dead vegetation in the marsh. It looked like scattered chunks of palm bark.

From a distance, what appears to be dead vegetation.

Then, in the water, I noticed a duck with a bright orange bill. I lifted my binoculars for a better look, and then realized that the woody shreds were moving. This wasn’t debris! Resting among the reeds was a flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

A Tricolored Heron joins a flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

I’d seen these showy birds in the guidebooks, but had never spotted one. But now, as I listened to the flock whistle, I realize I’d been in their presence many times.

As mentioned, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks have bright orange bills. They also have orange-pink legs. Their chests are mahogany or rust-colored; their bellies black; and from the crown of their heads to the base of their necks, they sport black Mohawks. As they move, their wings flash white.

There were large numbers of Great Blue Herons at Sweetwater Wetlands – one of my personal favorites, even though they are relatively common.

A Great Blue Heron camouflages itself among strands of Spanish Moss.

I noticed that the bird’s flowing feathers and gray coloration provide effective camouflage when a Great Blue rests among wispy strands of Spanish Moss.

A Little Blue Heron fishes in the marsh.

Little Blue Herons were also plentiful, and their white offspring mingled with Snowy Egrets and White Ibis.

Immature Little Blue Heron

Juvenile Little Blues can be differentiated from Snowies by their blue-gray bills and patch of blue skin between the base of the bill and the eye. Snowies, in contrast, have black bills and a yellow skin patch.

Tricolored Herons joined the other wading birds.

I spotted a Wood Stork moving along the water’s edge. Because it was moving quickly, I doubted my photos would come out. But it was a good time to practice moving my camera at the same speed as the animal, to reduce blur. I was pleasantly surprised at the clarity of the processed images.


American Coot

Through my 12×42 binoculars, I watched a pair of American Coots diving for salad. I had never seen these birds dive at close range before, and was to discover they leap straight up from the water, leaving the water’s surface before plunging headfirst. Small discoveries like this always renew my appreciation for the animals I meet.

I am always amazed by Red-winged Blackbirds. They fly in clouds, which suddenly vanish as the birds drop into the yellow marsh grass.

Double-crested Cormorant

Today I was especially lucky. I got a good picture of a Double-crested Cormorant, which tend to be a bit skittish.

Male Anhingas are black.

I also took a good, crisp picture of a male Anhinga. Anhingas can be photographically challenging for a number of reasons. They twitch a lot and tend to point their bills away from the camera and toward the water. Their wet wings can reflect the sun to become streaks of glare. Their small eyes must catch the light a bit; otherwise the eye’s red coloration becomes a black dot. A water backdrop adds further difficulty. When too much light is reflected on its water’s surface, the bird becomes a silhouette.

On my way out of the park, I spotted a second new-to-me bird, a pair of painted buntings! These birds are too small to photograph with my humble camera, and apparently others find them difficult to photograph as well. When I looked for images taken by other photographers, there were very few available. These birds are tiny and are covered with intense patches of red, green, and blue.

American Alligator

And, in Florida, wherever there are bodies of water edged by vegetation, there are alligators. The largest animals appeared to be lounging in the sun, but smaller gators were more active, suspiciously eyeing passers-by from algae-covered water.

Paper Towel Alternatives


Since the washing machine doesn’t care whether one washes ten hand towels or forty, it’s economical to replace paper towels with reusable bar mops and cloth napkins.

Bar mops are small, 100% cotton towels that are super-absorbent and typically inexpensive. I keep stacks of them in the kitchen and use them for drying my hands, wiping up spills, and blotting dry washed vegetables.

As for napkins, I prefer to use white, since I can then wash them with the bar mops, saving time and laundry detergent.

Once used, all bar mops and napkins are tossed into a separate laundry basket. When the basket is full, its contents are dumped into the washer. If the whites start  looking dull, I might add a small amount of bleach.

The lot folds quickly out of the drier. If the napkins have a few wrinkles, I don’t worry about it. After all, I’m managing a home rather than a resort, and my goal isn’t to increase my workload. Instead, it’s to help the environment and the household budget, in this case by replacing paper toweling with a reusable alternative.

Capo Tower at Guana River

Capo Tower, Guana River Wildlife Management Area

Yesterday, I returned to Capo Tower at Guana River Wildlife Management Area (Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida), which can be accessed by way of the Savannah Loop trail.

During my last visit in the fall of 2021, the path to the tower was blocked and under construction. The partial boardwalk was being extended all of the way to the tower’s  entrance.

The boardwalk now extends to the tower.

Prior to this new addition, one snaked through the marsh grass on muddy trails. The only mud I encountered today was a small amount at the mouth of the boardwalk – which should have alerted me to pay attention to my surroundings.

As I walked the boards, I found myself surrounded by swirling clumps of marsh grass. They’d been blown down by the day’s previous winds and combed by the tides, appearing to form a great lion’s mane.

Approaching the third level of Capo Tower.

Once at the tower, I climbed to the topmost level for views of the tidal marsh.

Although there is a bench at the top of the tower, I’ve never been able to use it. Even in dry sunny weather, it is often wet.

Although there is a bench
on the top level, it is always wet.

I spent 20-30 minutes peering through my binoculars and taking pictures, then decided it was time to move on. However, when I reached the end of the boardwalk, I discovered the tide had come in. The trail had joined the marsh!

The trail had joined the marsh.

I decided it was best to wade through, since the water was only a few inches (90 cm) deep, and I wasn’t sure how much deeper it might get. I imagined wading knee-deep through water and dodging gators.

Soon I hit dry trail again, but that didn’t last long.

Incoming tides flooded the trail
to and from Capo Tower.

My feet were quite wet by the time I returned to Savannah Loop and, for the rest of my hike, my shoes sounded like coots calling from the reeds.

A short section of Savannah Loop passes between two marshy areas. This portion is rich in wildlife and is hard to resist. However, I know the water can be deceptively deep and support gators, so I’m always watchful as I pass through.

A young gator hides in the marsh.

Today the water-marker read seven feet (2 meters) and I saw only one gator, which was between two and three feet in length (just under 1 meter). There were also splashing fish and many wading birds, including a flock of Glossy Ibis. On a previous visit, otters scampered across the path in front of me.

As I made my way back to the parking lot, I noticed something at the mouth of the orange trail (part of an adjoining park, Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve). Someone had discovered a fallen nest and shared their find by leaving it on an orange bench. The nest was still attached to the bark of a palm tree and contained a hatched egg.

A passing hiker shares a found treasure.

To reach the Guana River Wildlife Management Area, use the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve’s parking area (505 Guana River Road, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL). There is a moderate fee to use the lot.

As you enter from Highway A1A, drive straight back. You will cross two paved parking lots until you reach a dirt road. Weather and conditions permitting, continue down the dirt road, which leads to a smaller paved lot at the trailhead.

At the trailhead, there are restrooms and a picnic area.

Continue walking straight until you reach a junction where various trails meet, and then turn right. Then, walk the dirt road until you reach the Wildlife Management Area.

The Savannah Loop is 2.8 miles (4.5 km); roughly 3 miles (4.8 km) if you also visit Capo Tower. The trek from the restrooms to the Wildlife Management Area and back again may add an additional mile (1.6 km).

One thing to keep in mind is that there are scheduled hunts within the Wildlife Management Area. A schedule is posted as you leave the parking lot and cross onto the trailhead, but occasionally hunts are unscheduled or rescheduled. When the schedule has changed, you may not be alerted until you reach the Wildlife Management Area itself. When this happens, it’s safer to backtrack and visit the neighboring reserve, where hunting is not permitted.

Animals at the Jacksonville Zoo


Sometimes I just want a quick walkabout. When I only have an hour or two to spare, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is one of my favorite places to tromp.

Wild birds take advantage of the safe surroundings.
This wild Anhinga relaxes in the Asian garden.


Walkingstick Rescue

The two-striped walkingstick has a variety of color morphs.
In Florida, a black-and-white variety is found
only in the Ocala National Forest.

I’ve been partial toward stick insects since my husband and I hiked a Florida park, where sporadic high-pitched whines crossed the trail in waves. Sometimes the sound was nearly imperceptible, then slowly grew in volume. At its peak, the sound matched the whir of green aliens in outer space movies.

Late that afternoon, we noticed something among the palmetto fronds. A large swarm of black-and-white walkingsticks! Our jaws dropped in realization. They were mating, and they were everywhere!

But now we were living in Arkansas and, at our country home, I often “rescued” walkingsticks attracted to the porch light. At dawn, I’d gather the stragglers and return them to bushes and bramble.

One autumn morning, I noticed a dot on the bedroom wall. I leaned in for a closer look, then closer still. A tiny, translucent creature with six long legs. A nymphling walkingstick! I’d never seen one so tiny! It was less an a quarter-inch long.

I considered taking it outside, but heavy frost was expected. Maybe, I thought, I could keep it alive until spring.

I found a little container to put it in and tried to coax the little animal onto my fingernail. But it did something odd. Instead of probing my finger with its antennae or legs, it drew its front legs up and leaned back, as a cornered spider might do.

I counted the legs again. One, two, three, four, five, six. Insect, not arachnid.

But, in any case, my finger was scaring it. So I slipped a bit of paper beneath the nymph, and then placed the paper in the container.

With the youngster secured, I went to the pet store and bought a proper, see-through bug house. I lined the floor with a paper towel, and added some twigs. On a cardboard platter, I served lettuce and a chunk of apple.

Days went by, but my little walking stick showed no interest in climbing the twigs or eating the leaves. However, it pushed its face into the apple and stayed like this for an hour or more. Later, when I removed the apple, the fruit appeared untouched; no damage to its surface.

More days. More rejected greens. More apple sucking.

After 10 days, only apple was served. I watched the tiny creature as it went from one slice to another.

Yet, for all of its slurping, it failed to grow. Two months later, it was essentially unchanged.

Maybe it wasn’t a walking stick. I started browsing the internet, looking for pictures that resembled my pet. And there it was! But these were baby… assassin bugs?

My insect was a killer? A carnivore?

I didn’t want to believe it; but there was one way to know for sure.

I went back to the pet store and bought six baby crickets.

“Sorry guys, but I have to know.” I dumped them into the cage and immediately baby stick alerted; turned toward them.

As one cricket made its way across the paper towel, baby stick scrambled after it; Pounced and violently wrestled the intruder, then jumped away.

The cricket fumbled; collapsed; twitched; became still in seconds.

Stick scrambled forward; plunged its tube face into its kill. Sucked the intruder dry in surprisingly short time.

Once sated, it joined the other insects. Showed no interest in eating more. Seemed to rejoice in the companionship.

A misread on my part, since assassin bugs are ambush predators. They sit quietly, usually in an active location, until something passes within arm’s reach.

Two days later the weather warmed. Baby assassin and four surviving crickets were released.

I was relieved to be rid of the violence, yet amazed at the resilience of this tiny nymph. It had survived in isolation and sustained itself on sugar water until something more suitable became available.

And understanding often leads to appreciation. Now, in addition to stick insects, I have an affinity for assassin bugs.

Ranging from 1-1.25 inches (2.5-3.2 cm), the Wheel Bug
is the largest assassin bug in North America.

REFERENCES

Twostriped walkingstick: Anisomorpha buprestoides. University of Florida, Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Wheel bugs and other assassin bugs. Texas A&M, Agrilife Extension, Insects in the City.

Beauveria bassiana – An insect-eating fungus

Cicada or grasshopper suffering from muscardine disease
(covered by Beauveria bassiana)

I noticed something along the trail – a 1 cm, white gob hanging from the underside of a palmetto frond. It looked like a small bird dropping, except that it was alone and on the wrong side of the leaf. Something about the curvature of the spot suggested an insect. I’d read that some caterpillars and pupal cases mimic bird feces, so I pulled out my camera to take a picture.

I didn’t expect the shot to come out well. The sky was overcast and the lighting subdued, and my point-and-shoot camera struggles with objects less than an inch in length. At the same time, it couldn’t hurt to try.

In my office, I opened the pics in my editing software. Three were too blurry to be helpful, but the fourth was crisp. I zoomed on the white spot and saw that, indeed, there was an insect.

Although I’d originally believed this to be a moth pupa, the eyes were too large and suggested a cicada or grasshopper. Also, on the insect’s back I could see translucent wing tips. Were these emerging from a pupal sheath? No, because beneath the abdomen there appeared to be clear, developed wings. This had likely been a cicada or grasshopper.

The next question posed was whether the white belonged to the insect itself or was it invading? Looking at the legs, the white substance appeared to attach the insect to the leaf’s surface. Invading.

Time for a Google search: white covering insect.

No success. These weren’t whiteflies/mealybugs. I knew what those looked like.

Perhaps it was a fungus?

Next search: white fungus on insect.

Now the search narrowed. The white substance was Massospora cicadina or Beauveria bassiana. Although these fungi have similar life cycles, they affect different parts of the host. Massospora attacks the genitals and affects the mating behavior of the target insect, while Beauveria launches a generalized assault.

I looked at photos of each. With Massospora, the fungus was only visible on the lower abdomen. Beauveria covered the entire insect.

Beauveria bassiana lives worldwide in the soil. Although it can live independently, it is able to attach to plant roots and form a symbiotic relationship, through which it receives carbon and nitrogen.

It is suspected that its attacks on insects are opportunistic. Grasshoppers lay their eggs in the soil and emerging nymphs feed on low-lying plants. Hatchling cicadas drop to the earth and bury beneath the ground. Here they live most of their lives, re-emerging to become adults. As both types of insects emerge from the soil, some come into contact with Beauveria spores.

As Beauveria sits on the insect’s exoskeleton, it produces enzymes that erode the surface. Once the exoskeleton is breached, fungal hyphae (rootlike structures that allow the fungus to feed) penetrate. Fungal chemicals then weaken the host’s immune system and compete with intestinal bacteria.

The host is a rich source of carbon and nitrogen and, as a result, is consumed rapidly. Most insects die within 3-7 days, although the process may take twice as long for larger, hardier hosts such as adult beetles. Infected insects show no signs of infection while alive.

Once its food source is depleted, Beauveria bursts through the cadaver and blooms, producing more spores which fall to the ground.

Beauveria can kill most insects, but usually affects ground-dwellers. It is increasingly used as a natural pesticide in agriculture.

Although generally considered non-harmful, it has caused infections in captive reptiles. In 1979 it was found in the lungs of a dead American alligator at the Oklahoma City Zoo. In 1995 it was identified in the lungs of a dead tortoise.

In humans, four cases have been documented in immunocompromised patients. In one of these, it was found in the liver and spleen of a 38-year-old leukemia patient. Since 1984, It has also been reported in 15 cases of corneal infection associated with eye injury or contact lens use.


REFERENCES

Insecticide Update: Beauveria bassiana is safe for beneficial insects, but avoid spraying where bees forage. LSU College of Agriculture.
Beauveria bassiana. Wikipedia.
Herrington Kelly. Beauveria bassiana. Missouri University of Science and Technology, 2006.
Ortiz-Urquiza A, Keyhani N O. Molecular Genetics of Beauveria bassiana Infection of Insects (Abstract). Advances in Genetics, vol. 94:165-249. 2016 Feb 11.
Henke Markus Oliver, de Hoog G. Sybren, Gross Uwe, et al. Human Deep Tissue Infection with an Entomopathogenic Beauveria Species. Journal of Clinical Microbiology, 2002 Jul,  40(7):268-2702.
Fromtling R A, Kosanke S D, Jensen J M, Bulmer G S. Fatal Beauveria bassiana infection in a captive American alligator. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 1979 Nov 1, 175(9):934-6).
González Cabo J F, Espejo Serrano J, Bárcena Asensio M C. Mycotic pulmonary disease by Beauveria bassiana in a captive tortoise. Mycoses. Mar-Apr 1995; 38(3-4):167-9.
Ligozzi M, Maccacaro L, Passilongo M, et al. A case of Beauveria bassiana keratitis confirmed by internal transcribed spacer and LSU rDNA D1-D2 sequencing. New Microbes New Infect 2014 May; 2(3):84-87.
Atzamoglou S, Siopi M, Meletiadis J, et al. (June 17, 2021) A Corneal Perforation Related to Beauveria Bassiana and Post-Penetrating Keratoplasty Management Discussion. Cureus 13(6): e15724. doi:10.7759/cureus.15724

Paraners Branch Loop Trail in O’leno State Park

Santa Fe River, Oleno State Park, FL, December 2021

I visited O’leno State Park during a foggy, overcast day. My plan was to try Paraners Branch Loop Trail, which I missed during my last visit. I crossed the swinging bridge and stopped to take some pictures along the water.

I then took River Trail. After following yellow trail markers for a time, I turned left onto Paraners Branch Loop, or the green trail.


This 4.4 mile trail crosses through pine and scrub forest and around several sink holes. Although not as scenic as River Trail, it’s an easy and pleasant 4.4 mile hike.

North Florida is having record-breaking temperatures, with mid-December highs in the 80s (27˚C). I encountered a young toad and a fresh snake-shed, suggesting that some animals are taking advantage of the warm days.

Part of a snake shed noticed along the trail.
Its length a dark, longitudinal strip suggests
it was cast by a Ratsnake.

I found the shed in two pieces. The tail section was about 18 inches (46 cm) and had a dark stripe running its length, indicating a Ratsnake. The second section was wider and folded into itself. I was slowly unfolding it when I was overcome by the stench of decay. Throwing down my find, a Flesh Fly immediately investigated.


A Flesh Fly investigates the decaying
second half of the shed.

I also noticed something that looked like a bird dropping on the underside of a leaf. But it was by itself and hanging in a way that suggested an insect. A mimic? I snapped several shots of the 1 cm spot for identification at home. (Post revealing ID)

I noticed some Turkey Tail Mushrooms, which seemed appreciative of the damp air.

Turkey Tail Mushrooms
O’leno State Park, High Springs, FL

Throughout O’leno State Park, dark water projects captivating reflections.

While on River Trail, I revisited some sinkholes and “my” turtle buds.

As I admired one of the sinks, a large American Bird Grasshopper landed a few feet in front of me. It waited patiently as I pulled out my camera and adjusted its settings.

American Bird Grasshopper
Schistocerca americana

Before leaving for the day, I attempted to photograph the park’s picnic area. However, since the tables are spread far apart, I couldn’t capture how inviting it is. Instead, I photographed a nearby stand of cypress along the Santa Fe River.

O’leno State Park is at 410 S.E. O’Leno Park Road in High Springs, Florida.

To access the River Trail loop, walk from the parking lot and across the picnic grounds, toward the Santa Fe River. Then, look for the swinging bridge  and a big log cabin.

Trailhead, River Trail, O’leno State Park, FL

Cross the bridge and continue walking straight onto River Trail. Or, follow the trail that passes in front of the log building. This joins/becomes River Trail.

Paraners Branch Loop Trail is accessed via River Trail. There are several entrance points, all of which are clearly marked.

Scenic O’leno State Park

O’leno State Park (High Springs, Florida) surpasses expectations.

The road into the park is paved, and the parking lot holds a moderate number of cars. Visitors are greeted with well-kept restrooms, a playground, and an expansive, well-kept picnic area.

On this initial visit, I walked River Trail, Dogwood Trail (to Limestone Trail), and Limestone Trail, for a combined distance of 3.4 miles.

To reach River Trail from the parking lot, cross the picnic area. Soon you will see the Santa Fe River.

Terraces separate the picnic area
from the Santa Fe River.

Then, look for the long swinging bridge, which serves as the trailhead.

When I crossed the bridge, I veered toward the left, taking the section that parallels the river. There was still a bit of fall color during this mid-December outing. And, since the trees had dropped many leaves, viewing the water was easy.

Veer to the left as you cross the bridge.
This section of River Trail parallels the Santa Fe River.

Occasional alligator warnings remind hikers to stay watchful. Although I didn’t see any alligators during my visit, I did hear a juvenile barking for its mother.

The park is filled with natural gullies, which apparently fill when the area floods. But today the paths were dry and covered with leaf litter. Boardwalks extend across deeper depressions.

As I walked, the well-marked trail eventually turned away from the water, crossing drier scrubland.

It then curved once again toward the river, wrapping sink holes and some long, skinny lakes.

A flock of Sandhill Cranes flocked overhead, honking rhythmically.

Sandhill Cranes, O’leno State Park

After this 1.5 mile trail, I had some lunch and then walked to the other end of the parking lot. Walking the left-hand side of the road, I soon spotted a sign for Dogwood Trail, which parallels the pavement.

Seven-tenths of a mile later, the trail again met the paved road.

Limestone Trail was across the street.

I had high hopes for Limestone Trail and its rock outcroppings. But I saw only one outcropping and some standing water.

Rock outcropping and fall colors.
Limestone Trail, O’leno State Park.

However, there were some beautiful maples in glorious fall color that made the hike worthwhile.

The trail itself was covered with fallen leaves. Although it was a pleasant hike, it was a bit of a let-down after spectacular River Trail.

Limestone Trail
O’leno State Park, FL

Oleno State Park is at 410 SE O’Leno Park Road in High Springs, Florida. I hope to complete the 4.4 mile, Paraners Branch Loop Trail in the future. Paraners is accessed via River Trail. Just veer toward the right before crossing the swinging bridge and continue until you reach the trail sign. Or cross the bridge and go straight on River Trail. Again, look for the Paraners sign.

Turkey Creek – easy trail through new-growth forest

Turkey Creek Preserve, Gainesville, FL

This week, I visited Turkey Creek Preserve, which opened to the public last year (2021). A dozen years after its purchase in 2009, this 376 acre site remains new-growth forest. It is testimony to the fact that it takes decades to reestablish decimated habitat.

There are two trailheads, one of which offers a well-kept parking lot. There are no facilities or trashcans, so be prepared to pack-in pack-out. Although “leave no trace” is considered common courtesy, it’s particularly important when visiting parks that border residential areas. When residents fear noise and spilled garbage, they resist the expansion or establishment of preserves.

Turkey Creek Preserve trail

As one enters the park, there are signs warning of venomous snakes, which like to sunbathe on the trail. Although I saw no snakes during my December visit, I imagine there are copperheads and pygmy rattlers in the area, since both like to camouflage themselves against orange and brown leaf litter.

Trail at Turkey Creek Preserve

The map on the Turkey Creek Preserve web page said that portions of the trail were closed but, during this visit, all were open. It took an hour and a half to walk 4.2 miles of well-marked trail, which included most of the park.

The parking lot is located at 6300 NW 93 Avenue, Gainesville, Florida.

New-growth forest at Turkey Creek Preserve

My head debates religion

In my mind, I debate the question of religion frequently. It’s not a daily thing, but rather a repetitive one.

Buddhism American Style

Within Buddhism, each major school of practice has a family tree. Through it, the teachings are traced back to the Buddha himself.  But I find myself unmotivated to learn or even care about the lineage tree.

At one time, I considered this a failing. But I’m coming to accept that my version of Buddhism isn’t going to be the same as a native’s. Although I can appreciate Tibetan culture, I wasn’t born into it. So my Buddhist practices and outlooks will be different from those who are.

I’m going to content myself with just being me, and incorporating Buddhism as much as I can into my daily life. But it may not be reflected in the same manner as those living in Tibet. I don’t know all of the rituals. I don’t know all of the customs. I’m always taking a guess, no matter what I do, whether it’s bowing, prostrating, or chanting. Whether my practice is strong or whether it is weak, I always feel I’m mimicking. I always feel like a newcomer, even though I’ve followed the teachings to the best of my ability for decades.

I appreciate the Buddha’s teachings and, well, isn’t that enough? The rest, after all, is only trappings.

Now, someone raised within Tibetan Buddhism might believe those trappings to be important. If nothing else, they are reminders to keep beliefs and values close at hand. But the trappings themselves are ornamentation. Whether it’s mental ornamentation, procedural ornamentation, or visual ornamentation, all are add-ons. I mean, when the Buddha came to enlightenment, he had nothing. He didn’t have all of these adornments. It was just him and the wilderness.

But I think it’s in people’s natures to want to dress things up. It’s a way of making things seem more beautiful; even more concrete. But it also makes concepts more complicated than they need be.

Why I gave up on church

I felt that way when I was attending the Lutheran Church, too; even though, as far as churches go, they had relatively few procedures and unwritten rules. Yet I felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t raised with the symbols and practices, and copying them made me feel like a faker. Later, I became a Methodist. The Methodist church has even fewer formalities, yet I felt like an imposter.

This wasn’t the only reason I failed to become a church-goer. Frankly, I don’t like going places where one is expected to dress up and display a façade. I don’t like dresses and I hate panty hose. Heck! I’m in my 60s now, and if I don’t want to wear something I’m not going to. And those little dress shoes! They hurt your knees, your hips and your lower back. Give you bunions. They’re vile on women’s bodies, and I’m not going to subject myself.

Are ceremonies necessary?

And when it comes to ceremonies, I’m always faking it.

Even when I graduated from college, the ceremony didn’t feel important or real. But I had to participate because it was important to my parents. At the time, I didn’t own a clothes iron, so I didn’t even press my gown for the procession. I may have been the only one donning a bolt of fabric with giant creases running through it. I could have found someone to help, but I just didn’t care.

While growing up, my family never maintained strong traditions. Granted, Mom always fixed the same meals for holidays, but that was an action she carried out. We had nothing to do with it.

And when I got older, I didn’t see the point of this one ceremonial meal, where you murder a bird and gorge yourself. If you really have a craving for a certain food, honor that craving when you have it. You don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving or Christmas. And if you feel you should give thanks, again, don’t wait for a holiday.

And scheduled worship seems equally pointless. Who are we trying to impress by showing up at a church? God already knows what we are, and what we’re capable of – both good and bad. If he just wanted people to sit around and perform ceremonies, he might have made a bunch of bots. It would have been easier than dealing with all of our individual personalities and anxieties.

The New Testament says that, if one feels they should practice certain rituals, then they should. But if one doesn’t feel rituals are necessary, they needn’t concern themselves.

Does going to church make true believers?

So I don’t think going to church should be one’s goal in life — unless you’re a minister or monk perhaps. It’s not that important. We simply make it important, because we need things to clutch on to – to grasp onto. It’s a way to anchor ourselves so we don’t wander away. But the anchor only works if a rope is attached; in other words, if we’ve been raised with certain habits and truly believe in them.

And sometimes people say they thoroughly believe, but do they? Because Christians in particular are quick to condemn another’s way of thinking. And they often protect themselves from outside influences, afraid they’ll hear something that might make them question. But if they fear so greatly, then the belief isn’t that strong. Otherwise their faith couldn’t be shaken, and they could simply accept others as they are without trying to convert them to self.

At the same time, I’m not criticizing those who follow a tradition or know a religion inside and out. I just don’t think it’s needed. If it makes you feel good, that’s great. If it helps you, even better. If it helps you help others, that’s outstanding. But I think rituals are created because we don’t feel we can hang onto certain ideas without them.

Is money necessary for worship?

Another reason I don’t like going to church is the constant demand for money. I understand it takes money to keep a church going. But, at the same time, I’ve never been able to earn high wages. In our culture, one’s value is linked to income bracket. Going to church simply emphasizes my lack of worth. Instead of helping me to feel good or inspired, it adds an additional layer of stress.

And do we really need a lot of money to worship? Maybe we do – in order to maintain the trappings. But are the trappings necessary?

The Buddha didn’t have diddly squat when he became enlightened. He had nothing. Did it make him less of a person? If it did, then why are we listening to him now?

And Christ had very little, although some churches distorted the tale and said he must have been wealthy, since master carpenters were highly valued. However, I’ve read the New Testament and nowhere does it mention Christ’s carpentry skills or a palatial demand for his work.

Or maybe we’re comparing Christ to our current TV evangelists – and we know how wealthy they are! However, TV evangelists usually teach to the wealthy or those who hope to become wealthy, whereas Christ taught to the poor and often reprimanded the rich.

Are Christianity and Buddhism one religion?

Over time, I’ve come to believe that Christ adopted the Buddha’s teachings, much as the Buddhists adopted aspects of ancestral Hinduism. Buddhism arrived in the world long before Christianity, and the world was exposed to it through extensive trade routes into the East.

Having studied both Christianity and Buddhism, I’ve discovered countless similarities. Here are a couple of examples.

Buddhism is essentially an individual practice. And Christ himself suggested we worship in private.

In Christianity, we are taught that Christ died on the cross for us. That he took on all of our sins.

This is similar to what Buddhists believe. When monks and nuns take their vows, they promise to keep coming back until everyone has been saved. So they are, in effect, condemning themselves for the sake of others. They’re taking on everybody’s sins, postponing nirvana, or heaven, or whatever you want to call it until every sentient being joins them.

Do people join churches out of loneliness?

Sometimes when I’ve joined a church, it wasn’t because of spirituality. I simply wanted to be around other people, and I knew church is a place where many people go. But then, to stay in the group, one has to jump through hoops, and I’ve never been a good hoop-jumper.

Traditionally I’ve had trouble staying with any group because, within them, I lose my voice. Probably because I just don’t care to shout above the fray. I mean, if the group wants to do something different than me or believe something different than me, that’s all right. Maybe those who shout feel a need to be heard; feel insignificant without the group’s approval.

However, I don’t feel that way. I’m okay with being me and sitting alone in the wilderness.