BONUS | God in the Noticing
A reflection on dragonflies, neurobiology, attention and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
There’s a little wooden chapel near the shore of the lake. There’s a small stone patio on the front of the chapel, and from it you can see the water and the round mountain rising on the far side. The chapel is the evening gathering spot for a small summer camp in the Adirondack mountains where I worked for many summers. I had a lot of meaningful experiences in and around that chapel. But I want to tell you about one of them in particular.
The evening chapel service has just finished. The campers have all gone back to their cabins with their volunteer cabin counselors. The staff, as usual, has trickled away toward whatever evening activities call for them. Some to quiet evenings with a book, some to gathering together for chatter about the day behind, some for walks or projects or planning for the day ahead. A few of us have stayed behind on the slate stone patio, held here by the quiet mood which tends to settle over the chapel at this time of the evening. The sun is down now behind the mountains on the far side of the lake but it is not yet fully dark. There is still color in the trees and the grass, still a bit of depth when I look into the woods.
A dragonfly buzzes by. And I notice. I notice because, though we can see the water, we are a ways from the water, at least from the perspective of a dragonfly. And I notice because it’s late to see dragonflies. And I notice because I’ve trained myself to notice dragonflies over the years.
The dragonfly arcs around and dips down over the grassy chapel lawn. Just a little patch of grass outlined in small cobbles of granite. And then over the grass I see that there are more dragonflies. I take a step down off the deck toward the lawn. The dragonflies buzz around, showing off their aerobatics.
I’ve watched a lot of dragonflies. Often while sitting in a canoe or standing near the edge of a lake or river. I’ve always been impressed by them. It’s not uncommon to see dozens of dragonflies at once but they always seem to take their own space, even fight each other off. In fact they’re quite territorial with males aggressively defending territory along the water side. But here there must be hundreds of dragonflies and they are all flying in the same small space. I cannot fathom how they could fly such wild patterns and never crash.
There are birds that fly in huge packs, starlings and others, all reacting to one another’s movements. And there are fish that swim in giant schools, as if one organism, each individual responding to a neighboring individual. In those cases the group begins to behave like a single organism, coordinated and organized. There is a kind of synchrony to it, which is beautiful and awe inspiring. But this is something different. There is no synchrony here. Each individual zips and darts, changing speeds, forward, backward, up and down.
As I watch, my eyes focus to be able to see the dragonflies better, like getting used to the dark, but even as I watch them I am unable to see what must also be there, a hatch of some smaller insect, the prey which drew this swarm. They must be in the air all around me, some tiny flying thing which the dragonflies are scooping up and shoveling into their mouths in mid air. Some research suggests that dragonflies are successful in 95% of their attempts to catch prey, making them some of the most efficient predators of the animal world. But their efficiency and their viciousness is invisible to me. I can only see their speed and their maneuverability.
I stay and watch them for a long time. Or maybe it is not so long. I am transported while I watch them. I heard somewhere that dragonflies experience time differently than we do. Not just dragonflies, but any creature with such a different neurophysiology. I looked it up and found some research showing that this might be true for flies. They use a method called Critical Flicker Fusion Frequency, which tests to see how fast of a flicker of light can be detected. Humans can detect flicker at 50 to 90 hertz. Any faster and it becomes a blur, a single light. I couldn’t find much beyond this and trying to understand a dragonfly’s perception of time probably steps out beyond the boundaries of science. But maybe you’ll step out there with me for a bit.
Dragonflies have much smaller brains than we do. That’s no surprise. But what that means is that signals can move much faster through their bodies and through their neural network. Every photon of light that enters a dragonfly’s giant eye will reach its brain, be processed, and result in some physiological change — a shift of a wing for example — in a fraction of the time it would take that same photon of light to go from my eye to my brain and result in some reaction. Because of this, the smallest moment a dragonfly is able to experience is much much smaller than anything I can realize. For me, for all humans, time can only be broken down so far, the resolution is limited. The smallest segment of time we can experience is constrained by how long it takes to actually process something in the world, for some signal to move from the boundary of our body to our brain and back out. In that same amount of time, a dragonfly has processed many images, analyzed them, changed a flight pattern and eaten dinner.
While I watch the dragonflies, the world beyond that lawn blurs for a while and I see only the flitting and darting of a hundred dragonflies. And then, without my seeing any one dragonfly leave, the swarm thins and then it is only a few dragonflies hunting over the grass.
It would have been easy to miss the whole thing, to have left the chapel quickly into the night like most everyone else. It might even have been easy to be uninterested, or at least to have been more interested in what was calling me to leave. Would I have stayed if someone somewhere were waiting for me or if I had a chore to do? If my phone rang would I have picked it up and left? I’ve passed by so many extraordinary things because I was expected to be somewhere or had some plan that seemed unchangeable. I have felt the pull before. Sometimes, while driving I’ve seen an amazing sky, filled with color or a rainbow reaching from one end of earth to the other, and I have thought, this deserves to be watched. And so many of those times, I have driven on, feeling guilty that I don’t have the courage to stop by the side of the road, make someone wait for me. I worry, absurdly, that other people driving by would think I am strange if they saw me standing outside my car on the side of the road staring at the sky.
But on this night the dragonflies find me ready, unfettered, ready, open.
Jesus asked his disciples to leave everything. He asked them while they were going about their daily tasks. Many of them must have felt the pull but they could not detach themselves from their routines, their families, their jobs. A few he found in a place where they could give full attention and it changed their lives. I’ve put myself often in the place of those who were called and it’s much easier for me to relate to the ones who said, “my wife is waiting back at home,” “my business needs tending,” “my children are expecting me” “I have a grocery pickup at 3”
To be called at all, to notice what calls over everything else, is not a given.
So I’m reminded by these dragonflies to pay better attention to what deserves my attention.
But I also have a hard time thinking that God sent the dragonflies to me as some sort of message about attention or about discipleship. The dragonflies came to feed on some hatching insects over the grass in front of the chapel in the low light. It doesn’t mean God wasn’t there. Maybe God was there in the noticing, there in between the dragonflies and me. The dragonflies were fed there on the lawn and filled, and so was I. So maybe there was God in that. But the hatching insects, whatever their species, were mostly devoured. And some of those dragonflies were most likely picked off by birds as they flew back to cover of the woods. And if those small insects could contemplate God, they might think the opposite about the whole encounter, wondering instead about the question of evil, wondering why God seemed so distant, so uncaring, as we so often feel at the strike of tragedy in our lives.
It is easy to see God in something that benefits me or maybe that benefits some external creature in my vision, but the world isn’t nearly as simple as that. In that little patch of lawn, in the time of the dragonfly swarm, a billion interactions took place between creatures and plants and fungi and bacteria, between mites attached to the legs of the dragonflies and the microbiota that live inside the mites, between the mycorrhizal fungus in the ground, which connect with the roots of the grasses and trees, which together affected the chemicals released by the plants, which affected which insects came and went. All of it came together in that moment that I took part in.
If it’s hard for us to say what its like to be a dragonfly — and they are physical creatures like us with lots of similar neurophysiology — how much harder must it be for us to say what God is like? But we try and use metaphors and speak in negatives. God is not some humanoid pulling levers while looking down from the sky and controlling the world around each human, so that he or she might be blessed or punished, or called to discipleship through a bird or a storm, a billboard beside the road or a swarm of dragonflies at dusk. Maybe it means that God is something wider and less human. How could anything human be so pervasive as to attend to so many interactions, even on just one little patch of lawn in the Adirondack mountains, let alone throughout the history of the cosmos. Maybe it means that God’s spirit hovers between me and the dragonflies, drawing me to notice them. And if that’s true then maybe it is also true that God’s spirit hovers in so many other places waiting for my attention, and also in places which have nothing whatsoever to do with me.
I like to think of the Holy Spirit as being like the mycorrhizal fungus, with the mission of intertwining with all things, that God’s spirit pervades all things, not in a way that controls, but in a way that binds one thing to another, the tiny unidentified insect to the dragonfly, to me and out into the trees and into the birds watching and waiting for a dragonfly meal, and to the fisher cat stalking in the shadows, still with the cockleburs stuck in her fur waiting to be dropped in some fertile soil and grow, and to the worms and centipedes and millipedes, the roly poly bugs and beetles and spiders and all the other creatures that live always beneath our feet, churning the soil, turning the dead — which are also connected — into the basic elements which will feed the living.
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