Colin: Summer was starting to show signs that it would not last forever. Getting out of the car I realized I had maybe not dressed appropriately for the cool morning air. The ground was wet with dew, another sign of humid days running into cooler nights. A layer of tiny droplets covered the leaves and hung from the ends of sharp blades of prairie grasses. Each droplet held a rounded colorful world inside.
Saul Lake Bog is one of my favorite places to spend a quiet morning. A few decades ago this place was just a field of grass…an old pasture with only one species of non-native grass. Today it is a prairie. And in the late summer and fall the grasses and flowers reach their peak, 6 feet or higher and the insects become a constant chorus of the place, interrupted by bird calls–a hawk, geese, sparrows, an occasional sandhill crane.
I come here to hone my identification skills, to train my eyes, to see if I can find something new, some new depth of detail, some new way of seeing.
Many people today are becoming less able to identify the common plants and animals that live in their backyards and in the natural world that surrounds their community. One survey I found showed that children in the UK were more likely to identify Pokemon characters than real common creatures.
This worries me. I think when we lose the ability to identify something, we stop seeing it and we stop knowing it. When we no longer know the names and shapes and behaviors of something we stop caring for it.
It’s not always a conscious decision. Our brains are wired to be efficient. That means in most situations we aren’t actually processing every bit of information in the world. There’s just too much data–there would just not be enough time or enough space to hold it all and process it all. So we take shortcuts, use situations from the past to predict what is happening in the present.
But what that means is that when we stop getting to know our natural surroundings, forget the names of plants and animals, we lose a lot of information and some of what is happening starts to become invisible. And when the creation cries out, we are not tuned to hear or to see.
And while we may tend toward efficiency in our senses, we are capable of perceiving a lot of detail. Like a sommelier who can taste the tiniest nuances in a glass of wine, there are those who have honed their senses to see the tiniest details in the natural world. People like Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, or the patron saint of ecology, Francis of Assisi.
So I come to Saul Lake Bog to train my senses…to look for flowers and insects and birds, to see the ones I already know and to greet them and to learn some new ones.
Before I started learning the names of flowers they were all the same, except maybe for the color. When I started to learn them I started to see differently. When I learned a new flower I began to see it everywhere. All of the sudden the roadsides came alive with flowers I’d always just called weeds.
When I started to learn insects, a whole new world opened up. It made me walk slower. Soon, I was chasing butterflies and dragonflies across fields to get a close enough glimpse and it brought me to places I wouldn’t have gone on my own. I started to focus my eyes in closer, to see the small creatures buzzing nearby, which become invisible when focusing at a landscape level.
Each level of learning has also made me realize how much more there is to learn and to know. Each new detail reveals an immensity of further complexity with which to immerse myself.
But I’m also here on the lookout for hope.
I’m not looking because I’m hopeless. I’m looking because I think I’ve lost the ability to identify hope as well as I should. And so I go through my days blind to the hope that is around me.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things in this world that should cause us to be fearful and sad and worried. We look around and we see violence and destruction. I think we’ve been trained to see this way. And so without a practiced eye for the hope that is around us, despair creeps up and settles in.
There is quote from Aldo Leopold, considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology, that says, “the downside of an ecological education is that one lives alone in the world of wounds.” Meaning, the more knowledge we gain about the world, the more we see the damage that has been done. Things like invasive species, polluted water, unhealthy ecosystems all come into focus. And often they take up our whole vision.
Seeing the wounds is necessary. If we ignore wounds to our bodies they can become infected and cause more damage. The wounds can and should spur us to seek healing.
But I think there’s a missing piece to Aldo Leopold’s wisdom, one that I think is especially relevant to the Christian worldview. I think that as we increase our ecological knowledge we also increase the opportunities to identify moments of hope in the world. Every new surprise, each new creature offers a joy and a delight and a new reason for praise. And I think that this balance–an ability to identify hope and joy, alongside an eye for the wounded–is what Christ calls us to.
I like to think of Christian hope as a glimpse into the Kingdom of God. It is a small window into things working as they should. At Saul Lake Bog I find it in the geometry of black eyed susan and the intricate wings of a ruby meadowhawk dragonfly. I hear it in the call of a sandhill crane. The prairie itself exhibits hope that beauty, color, and sound can be returned to a barren field.
And of course hope isn’t found only in nature. It’s found in people and in communities. Maybe even especially in these places. For me though, identifying it here in the prairie helps me to know it better when I find it elsewhere. After a short walk I might be more tuned to see hope in the parking lot at work or in a conversation with my Uber driver.
Not everyone has a Saul Lake Bog, but even Saul Lake Bog was once only a field of grass and maybe it’s one reason to think about planting more prairies, protecting more forests, creating more parks. And the beauty of nature can be found in surprisingly unnatural places…insects are everywhere, plants have an amazing tendency to grow in the most urban and most desolate of places.
The more I see, the more I wonder–how much of this world is really filled with hope that has been invisible to me? Where else would I see God if I just knew how to look? What would the world look like if we were all tuned to see hope every time we went outside?
And when I feel despair creeping up again, when I realize my identification skills are getting rusty, I go to Saul Lake Bog and watch the dragonflies and remember that hope is all around me if I only have the eyes to see.
Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan
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