Yesterday I stopped at a dried out wetland to see what shorebirds might still be lingering behind in Illinois. Most have moved through our region during July and August, as shorebirds are the first to head south in fall migration. There are typically some stragglers, so it’s often worth checking out watery places in case there is some interesting bird to be found.
The wetland I visited was nearly dried out. That’s often the case in August, when lack of rain and heat combine to evaporate what’s left. Then the mud shrinks. The earth cracks open.
Once the process of dehydration starts in earnest, the waters often recede quickly. This wetland shrank so quickly that I found a ring of bird feathers at the outer edges of the mudflat. Even that feathery edge wasn’t the true high water mark. Further up the low bank a thick mat of cattail stems lay choked among the bushes. Earlier this spring the wetland swelled with water. Over weeks and months, it shrank in size until there is only a broad puddle left.
Year after year, these events occur in varying fashion. Early in my birding career, I’d often visit a slough on a farmer’s property at the edge of town. In spring there were would be twenty species of ducks that stopped at the wetland in spring. In summer, I once found the tiny black chick of a Virginia rail, evidence that many species depended on that wetland.
These moments teach us plenty about nature’s movements. When the wetland would dry up in late July or August, there would be swarms of small catfish left to wriggle about in the narrow channel of water. Water birds such as herons arrived to glean them for meals. Then the water would be gone completely. So would the food supply. These are the rhythms of nature.
Yet they’d spring back again to life the following year. Frogs and turtles lived through the same big rhythms. Their evolution as a species is built from the process of natural selection taking place every moment in time. Those with instincts to sink into the mud and wait out drought conditions will live to see another day. Others take off in search of wetter places. Some make it. Others don’t. It is humbling work, this process of survival.
Yet those that die often leave traces of their lives and evidence of their former existence. The world is rife with fossil records that run thousands of feet deep. Layers sedimentary rock hold evolution’s grand story in place. These fossils tell a tale of lives come and gone, entire species that flourished into existence and vanished when conditions changed. It has happened before. It will happen again.
The earth cracks and absorbs the living and the dead. It humbles those whose arrogance ignores warning signs and whose instincts fail them as a result. The human race loves to think itself a bold and brave species, almost separate from nature. Yet the raw intelligence of history cannot be denied. The waters cover the continents or gouge the earth, creating great chasms like the Grand Canyon. These speak to the time and patience the earth embraces. Selfish believers may write these events off to sudden cataclysm in an attempt to own the narrative. But these selfish notions deny the reality of the ages, replacing them with literalistic notions of Great Floods and Rainbow Promises that are an insult to the massive grandeur and eternal flow of nature.
Even the human race is but a footprint in the passage of time.
The ephemeral mark of a bird on the surface of a parched wetland reminds us that life and time don’t owe us anything. Science pokes and prods at these truths while religion reflects them in prose and praise.
It is evidently clear that all depends on paying attention to the rhythms of time and place. That is all we have to discern our place in this world. If we respect that reality, and do our best to provide a place for the generations to come, that is what the religious among us love to call the Kingdom of God.
But from a more pragmatic perspective, caring about stewardship of the earth and those who live with us is the right kind of pride. Anything else is a sin of selfishness. Ignoring that fact, we have no meaning or purpose at all in this world.
In 1976 as a sophomore at Luther College, I was enrolled in a Field Biology class taught by Dr. David Roslien, a professor whose course was a deep dive into every aspect of the natural world. I still have the lab journals richly recording our trips into the snows of January to capture voles and mice, and standing hip-deep in chill waters to study frogs in the ponds of northeast Iowa.
I did well in certain aspects of the coursework, but when it came to labs and genetics and such, I struggled. In true evolutionary fashion, Dr. Roslien saw that my aptitudes as a true biologist were limited. But he admired my artistic abilities as evidenced in a series of illustrations I did during our studies of frog species.
I don’t recall what motivated me to engage in this depth of depiction, but I can say that I was inspired by all the things we were studying. Part of our classwork involved capturing specimens of seven or eight different frog species. I got after it and found them all that spring. Then I set out to paint them in watercolor.
Working from photographs I found in some book about frogs, I painted furiously over a period of two nights. The results were some of the most detailed illustrations I’d yet done in life. I was nineteen years old. And obsessed with real-life depictions.
The spring peeper and gray treefrog illustrations were inspired by real-life encounters shining flashlights to find specimens on chill spring nights. We’d listened as well to the daytime calls of chorus frogs singing from flooded ditches. And toads whistling from dusk well into the night.
But midway through the course, Dr. Roslien pulled me aside to let me know the truth about my future as a biologist. “I’ve not sure you’re a pure scientist,” I recall him sharing with me. “But you finish those six frog drawings and stuff those birds in that artsy way you do, and we’ll give you a B. But I’ve already talked to the Art Department. They’re eager to have you over there.”
And that’s how it transpired that I became an Art Major with a minor in English. I didn’t give up wildlife art. In fact I sold hundreds of paintings over the years. While I didn’t become world-famous during the peak of the wildlife art boom in the late 70s and through the 80s, I did get chosen for some world-class shows at the Brookfield Zoological Society and other venues.
It was a competitive scene for sure. Many wildlife artists depended on photos to create original works. Some copied them outright, even projecting images on the canvas to copy the exact details.
Recently I got to see the frog drawings I’d done all those years ago. They’d existed mostly in my mind for the last 40+ years. I knew that I’d done an exceptional job on detail back then. I took great pride in doing so, working on the craft of “getting things right.” That’s always a good thing.
But my real pleasure comes in knowing that my professor lovingly framed and preserved those drawings as kept them as a symbol of his teaching and influence on a young man hoping to find his way in the world.
So while I’m not famous as an artist in terms of wealth or following, it has been a great journey nonetheless. And seeing those paintings from long ago offers inspiration for a new day.
On a flight out of London recently my goal was to use the time flying across the country to study the English landscape. Now that I had visited the country and seen its hills and creeks, listened to its birds singing in the hedgerows and wandered the streets of London in the sunshine, I wanted to see the country from above. To put it all in perspective. The visit. The return trip home from the land of my ancestors.
We were fortunate with weather all week. The English skies were clear and the temperatures cool and wonderful.
But there was something more. Coming east from America the country of Ireland had been obscured by clouds and I had not seen that landscape at all.
Going west again we soared 34,000 feet in the air and crossed the channel between Great Britain and Ireland. There was nothing but a few strings of clouds to block the view.
The coastlines were fascinating to me. They illustrate that habitable ground really does come to an end. From high up in the sky you can see the giant shimmering patterns of waves rolling up against the shore. It is humbling to realize that our view of the ocean by foot is always so limited. Yet there are truths to be revealed even in that narrow perspective. The breaking waves at our feet reflect principles of physics and laws of gravity replicated billions of times every second of every day, and for all eternity as long as the earth and water and sky have existed.
We know much about the visible consistency of our universe, our solar system and our planet. We also know that human beings evolved in concert with a very narrow band of physical properties that make life on earth possible at all. Some call that a miraculous circumstance. Others go a step further and credit it all to the power of God.
Science takes a parallel yet more verifiable view of such things, for our sciences measure the limits of all things as well as take measure of the infinite. That distinction is critical to our understanding of how things work. Yet it proves somehow unfavorable to people incurious about the material world and its deepest secrets.
An ideological divide
That divide between some brands of religion and the fields of study we call science is causing real problems with our collective understanding of our real position in this universe. Some people seem to have so much pride vested in the notion that human beings are specially created that they refuse to understand the real workings of creation at all. Yet nature truly is a creative, absolutely infinite source of invention if we consider both its power and its fragility.
Talk show enlightenment
On the radio this morning a pair of talk show hosts was leading a discussion with an astronomer from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. They discussed how much information the Hubble Telescope has provided the human race about the cosmos. It has helped us detect and trace the effect of Dark Matter, a source of activity and energy that is being studied for its effects on the expansion rate of the universe.
For 25 years the Hubble Telescope has also enabled astronomers to look for planets similar to earth that might hold life in other solar systems. That’s a pretty huge numbers game to be playing, with views from Hubble spanning eons of time. As light travels to us at astonishing speed it can tell us what was once there, but not what is there at this precise moment. It’s a conundrum of sorts to know whether anything truly exists or not.
Yet there is evidence of other planets out there, the astronomer admitted, but it’s so far away it would take perhaps million of generations of human beings to reach it.
This led to a short but revealing discussion about life on other planets and whether human beings will some day be forced to colonize other planets in order to survive. Our immediate choices aren’t that great. To our knowledge there are no other planets in the solar system that even offer oxygen as a breathing option. Human beings have evolved to need oxygen to live. So there’s not much encouraging news in the idea that we can travel to Mars or Venus and survive.
Those planets are also so far away that the first travelers will have to agree that they are going away and not coming back to Earth. They’d be chartered to somehow set up camp and possibly breed, while living on what? There are also no known sources of food or water (other than ice, perhaps) on Mercury or beyond. You want to live on a gaseous planet like Saturn or Jupiter? Pretty cold places people.
Considering the globe
The entire notion of creating some sort of time travel to reach distant planets has not one shred of possibility now. Our movies and shows such as Star Trek and Star Wars are fantastical lies designed to deceive us into thinking space travel is some sort of entertaining soap opera. It’s not. It’s a deadly universe in which we live compounded by a disgusting pride that makes us think we’re so important we can impose our pattern of existence on other planets.
That rude assumption makes it difficult for some people to take any sort of pride in in the notion of protecting and maintaining the one planet where we know that life can exist. That is, if we don’t screw it up. That’s planet Earth.
Yet there is long and conclusive evidence that human activity is adversely impacting our global climate system. We’ve already proven we can pollute the air at a local level to make entire regions of the world nearly uninhabitable. Look at China right now with its air pollution and water pollution problems. The more dense their population gets, the more demands for energy and its resultant waste products.
Profit and loss
The ugly pride that says near-term profits are more important than the air we breathe and the water we drink is the ultimate form of arrogance. Yet there are entire political parties formulated around these very ideologies. It comes down to a simple matter really. Would you rather be rich or alive? Because those are the choices we are making and have been making since the advent of human awareness. The acceleration of technology, miraculous as it is, cannot keep ahead of our wasteful consumption.
The earth can seem like a pretty big place if you fly around in an airplane looking down at the ground below. But go a little higher where the atmosphere runs out, which is where the Hubble telescope sits 360 miles above the earth, and you can begin to appreciate that the universe is as finite for the human race as it is infinite for God. The Earth is a very small planet.
We don’t need science or God to appreciate that if we mess up this planet badly enough, the entire human race is screwed. If that prick of awareness is not enough to warn us, and if our little light in the universe blinks out, perhaps only God will really care. But according to the Bible, there have been moments before in history when God has either let life be destroyed on earth or even rubbed it out in God’s own purposes. The Old Testament God was one rude sonofabitch.
But maybe God will not really be alone if the human race goes extinct. Perhaps we’re just one of many social and spiritual experiments he’s got swirling around in infinity. Perhaps God doesn’t really even want us to mix with life forms until we have actually figured out that being good stewards of creation really is the right kind of pride.
There are a whole lot of signs pointing toward that end. That if we cannot get along and be gracious to each other and the earth, then we do not deserve to exist. If that’s too depressing a thought for you to consider, then may I suggest writing your Congressman and telling them to stop denying the plain fact that protecting ourselves from self-annihilation and suffocating the human race in heat and poisoned air may just be the most important thing we ever do. That is true on a spiritual, ethical, social, political and religious level.
Or else you can tell them to pray, and hope to hell that God has the time and space to listen. But God track record is somewhat disturbing in that category. If the legend of Noah’s Ark is proof of anything, it’s that God does not have infinite patience with the arrogance of the human race. And like it or not, God does mess around with promises quite often. Hence the negotiations with Lot over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, which suffered a fiery fate not because of homosexuality but because the towns were so abusive of human rights in general God no longer felt they deserved to exist.
It’s time to stop foisting our arrogant pride on God and turn inward a bit. We need to do some real, productive soul-searching instead of the kind that depends on platitudes and political dogma. And we need to include science on this inner conversation to do the subject justice.
Because the real answers about why the earth is suffering under our hand do not come from God or the notion of original sin, but from our presents sins being committed toward creation. These are based on selfish aims and short term whims of profit and extraction. We’re taking (and emitting) far more than we’re giving back to the Earth. And the Bible always tells us that it’s better to give than receive. But that’s really true when you consider the possibility that our receipts may add up to a bitter and eternal end for human life on earth.
A sobering thought. Yet the right kind of pride when it comes to determining where to place our priorities.
Christopher Cudworth is author of two books. The Right Kind of Pride is a chronicle of cancer survivorship; character, caregiving and community and is available on Amazon.com. His first book The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith inthe Modern Age, is being republished on Amazon in early July.
In college our dorm room was on the 7th floor of a tower overlooking the Oneota Valley in Decorah, Iowa. Our windows faced west and winter sunsets over the valley were often quite dramatic. When the sun went down and twilight was complete, the hills lining the Upper Iowa River a mile away turned purple in the evening light.
Or so it appeared one late afternoon to the eyes of all those sitting together in our dorm room as the sun went down. “Look how purple the hills are…” I pointed out the window.
“No they’re not. They’re black,” one person responded. We all looked at him.
“Are you color blind?” someone asked.
“No. I can see colors,” he insisted. “But those hills are black.”
The hills clearly appeared purple. But everything this fellow knew about the world was telling him the hills looked black.
We all argued the point for a few minutes and then someone changed the subject. We were getting nowhere in our efforts to help him understand the principles of shadow, light and the color spectrum.
Other than reality
His contention that the hills could not be anything but black once the sun went down were based on something other than a reality perceived by everyone else in the room. Perhaps he truly could not see the color purple and did not know that he was color blind in that way. None of us had any way of proving that to him at the moment. So from his perspective, he won the argument.
That tendency to argue something cannot be a fact unless you can immediately prove a contention wrong is quite common in this world. It helps explain why so many people have trouble grasping basic scientific principles as part of their worldview. Over time, people tend to build up a brand of pride in affirming their own worldview, no matter how wrong or shortsighted it may be. If they find enough people that share their narrow perspective, it becomes even more powerful a way to think.
Content in what they think they know
In other words, people tend to be content in what they feel they already know. Many feel like they’ve worked hard to assemble their worldview. They don’t really want to hear contentions to the contrary. They grow proud of their ability to defend this worldview to the death. One thinks of well-known creationist Ken Ham, whose arguments about biblical truth through literalism are popular with all who find solace and contentment in a simplified view of the world where God created the universe and nothing has changed or evolved since the beginning of time.
That’s very much like contending that the hills are black rather than purple at sunset. Or that they were green during the day, so how could they be purple at night? Nor could they be orange at dawn. Perceptions confined to simple rules quite easily rule out so many possibilities on grounds that cannot be argued away. They are matters of faith in how something is meant to be perceived. It’s a confining way to think, but some people like it that way. They’re proud of their surety, firm in their convictions, and nothing can make them change.
Not even the purple hills of sunset
Yet we also know from the Bible that not even God is depicted as changeless. The deity that appears in a cloud in one book and a burning bush in another takes apparent pride in shifting and playing with the perceptions of all those who would fix the Creator in one place, one form or one time.
God transcends all of that. So does nature. It is very clear that our perceptions of both are organically intertwined. It is also acceptance of one does not automatically cancel out the other.
We all proceed at times with theories that ultimately get proven wrong. It happens in faith as well as science. Among Christians the old religion gave way to a new understanding with the advent of Christ. Then Martin Luther came along to shake up the Catholic order and traditions. Now there’s a new wave of Progressive Christians tugging at the sleeves of believers to reform around an organic view of the Bible that allows scholarship into the mix to determine a better understanding of what scripture really means, and what it doesn’t.
The trick to a establishing a better understanding in life is to never be content in what you know. That’s what’s taking place every day in science. Some people point to that fact as the source of an idea that science cannot be trusted. But that’s a mistake in perception too. We depend on science for all kinds of trustworthy activities. From medicine to industry, biology to economics, our sciences deliver dependable if not changeless information about how we view and interact in this world. Without this source of humanistic culture, we are in essence reduced to tribal beings caught in a blind play in which we have no control at all over our destiny. And shockingly, some people still think God wants that for us too.
We need our moral traditions to be equally open to change. One could say that God expects that of us. The right kind of pride is having the humility to be awakened to new ways of thinking. God has never liked stiff-necked believers.
Proverbs 21: 9–– “Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed–without remedy.”