Creation / Faith / Spirituality
Seeing beyond the traces
One of the things I love about winter in Minnesota is how tracks are left to tell a story in newly fallen snow.
In urban settings this can be limited to the tracks of humans and their dogs, these quickly obliterated on sidewalks by crowds of footsteps or when the snow is cleared. The stories told are also limited—of unknown destinations, exercise, busyness, and the various types of shoes and boots preferred by the passers by. In such settings one must work at seeing more delicate traces, of bird tracks along the top of a garden wall, or the prints of a rat disappearing behind a dumpster, or that of a chipmunk who came upon the remnants of an apple left by an office worker under a bench in a city park. Limited traces with limited stories, though it can be surprising how much we can come to see if we are willing to slow down, look, and then look some more.
I am blessed—that’s the correct word—to live near a major urban area (Minneapolis/St Paul) but on the edge of a large (46 acres) park with steep ravines falling down to a wandering river, heavily wooded except for a small picnic area and softball field. My office looks down into one of those ravines, and from my desk I can see no human habitation unless I crane my neck off to the side. Red fox and coyote, wild turkey and deer, owls, hawks and bald eagles, raccoons and woodchucks, chipmunks, red and gray squirrels, field mice and voles all live in these woods, along with a myriad birds drawn to the feeders we keep stocked on our deck. The possibilities for tracks in snow are almost limitless. It’s the first thing I check each morning after snow has fallen. And as we patiently watch, slowly the stories behind the tracks come into view so that we learn of hidden dens, foraging patterns, what is preying on what, and how different species adapt to changing weather and the activity of humans.
One of the earliest tracks to appear each winter in our yard is not actually a track, as in footprints, but just a faint trace that something has traveled beneath the surface of the snow. A diminutive, long, wandering line of slightly raised snow begins in the weeds at the edge of the woods and snakes across the lawn to a flowerbed along the foundation of our house. It’s a large bed edged with bricks, full of perennials and so, full of seeds and vegetation that voles and field mice find attractive. Their tunnels never break the surface as they engineer a series of roadways under the snow between their burrows and sources of food or plant fiber for their nests during the months when nothing is growing. It’s a trace of life beyond what I can see directly but is not less real or significant for being hidden. God’s creatures, I never see them but the tunnels inform me they are my neighbors.
Wild turkeys walk out of the woods to search for seeds under our bird feeders. The red polls, chickadees, goldfinches and woodpeckers are messy eaters. They pick through what’s offered, flicking away whatever does not interest them and fling little flurries of seed into the air when they fly away. If the snow is wet rather than powdery, the turkey tracks will be clear and sharp in the snow a steady line disturbed by sidesteps to investigate something just off their path. Sometimes it is a little flock, their tracks working back and forth across each other, slowly picking their way across part of our lawn and then back into the safety of the woods.
Sometimes the tracks I see suggest a more sinister story. In the spring raccoons make their way onto our deck. One night my wife left her wine glass out by mistake. The next morning there was dirt in the bottom of the glass, and cabernet sauvignon footprints scattered across the deck. The raccoons are the reason we must bring the bird feeders in each evening. We will need to move these masked visitors away from our property if we are to raise chickens in the backyard.
The tracks I see in the snow always suggest a story, a meaning that I cannot see but that nevertheless is part of the reality in which I live. Ordinary things are a signal of something else, a sign of whatever it is they signify. Reading involves this experience. The word “you” is nothing more than marks of black ink on a page—or glowing pixels if you are reading this on a computer screen—but it signifies something real that is beyond itself. Ordinary things, in other words, point beyond themselves.
Sometimes the track itself is so hidden as to be for all practical purposes, invisible. Two blocks from our home on the edge of the woods is a pond. Little rivulets feed into it, flowing more strongly after a rain or in the spring when the snow melts. Canadian geese, little flocks of ducks and coots live there during the summer and visit occasionally in winter when there are open stretches of water. Except for a few migrating species, the ducks are primarily mallards. Each year I see little flocks of ducklings following their mother in a neat line, peeping as she leads them out onto the pond. What remains hidden from me is the nest. I know it must be nearby since the ducklings are far too small to have walked far and they cannot yet fly. The ducklings tell me that the nest is close by, but I have never spotted one. Mallard nests remain cunningly hidden—and the story behind that is amazing. British naturalist John Lister-Kaye explains ways the mallard has adapted to thrive in a world of fierce and numerous predators—six remarkable defense adaptations that no other species of bird can match.
…defense adaptation number one is the camouflaged plumage of the duck and her ability to freeze. I have stepped on a nesting mallard before she flew up. Number two is the wide diversity of habitats in which she can nest: woods, marshes, fields, scrub and thickets, in gardens, up against walls, in old hollow logs, in drifts of leaves… The list goes on and on. Many species are tied to one particular habitat. Not so the mallard, and she will learn by harsh experience which nesting sites are successful and which to avoid. Adaptation number three is her cunning laying technique. She can lay only one egg per day, so she lays it in her carefully prepared nest and covers it with down. Then she heads back to the water and safety. She doesn’t return to the nest until she’s ready to drop another egg, thereby keeping her presence at the nest to an absolute minimum. She keeps this up for as long as three weeks, sometimes laying as many as fifteen eggs. During that time her giveaway presence at the nest has been absolutely minimal, a few hours only, every time carefully covering the clutch with down from her own breast, then with grass and leaves. But that’s not the end of it. Adaptation number four is another cunning ploy. For the safety of her chicks it is vital that they all hatch together, within a matter of an hour or two, so that she can lead them to water together (we have all witnessed the endearing sight of a mother leading them across a main road). So, once the clutch is complete, she covers it up, then abandons it to allow all the eggs to cool to exactly the same temperature. This ensures that none of them starts to develop until she brings them back up to 37.5 ° Celsius. She can leave them for as long as three weeks before returning to begin incubation. This secret hoard of concealed eggs, if undiscovered, must mean there is no trace of duck scent emanating from the eggs, or anywhere near the nest. She sneaks back in, settles, bares her brood patches and begins the long twenty-eight-day incubation. If she has to leave the nest she covers it over again and is away for the shortest time she can to keep herself fed and watered. Adaptation number five is her ability, apparently unfazed by losing an entire clutch of eggs first time round, to find another site and, within a few weeks, build a new nest and lay another clutch. The same thing could happen several times, but mallard ducks don’t give up. Despite being hit over and over again by predators, eventually she will raise a duckling or two to replace herself. But the trump card she has, adaptation number six, is not just her laudable and obstinate refusal to give up (it breaks my heart to see a clutch of twelve ducklings successfully hatched and, within a few hours, down to eight, then to five, and finally one if it’s lucky), it is her longevity.
In captivity mallard have survived in breeding condition for twenty years. In the hazardous wild it is likely to be much less, but assuming an average lifespan of only eight years, during that time a duck can produce hundreds of ducklings. Even though only one or two may survive each year, if she herself survives, by the time she succumbs she may well have replaced herself and her mate many times over. Other species can’t do that. [167-168]
I’ve never gone trooping through the marsh and woods at the edge of the pond, and don’t intend to do so—the ducks have enough creatures searching for their nests without me trying to catch a glimpse. Still, the little lines of ducklings swimming behind their mothers remain a sign to me of a hidden nest, a reality unseen but nevertheless real.
And then there are the goldfinches. I do not know why they have particularly caught my attention and captured my heart, but they have. One of our feeders is dedicated to them, filled with Niger seed—mistakenly thought to be thistle, the fruit or achene of Guizotia abyssinica. I love their calls, their winter and summer plumage (unlike most birds they molt twice each year), their squabbling at the feeder, and have long seen them as a sign of the divine, a golden signal of transcendence.
Atoms dead could never thus
Stir the human heart of us
Unless the beauty that we see
The veil of endless beauty be,
Filled full of spirits that have trod
Far hence along the heavenly sod
And seen the bright footprints of God.
[From “Song” by C. S. Lewis]
The idea that signs exist in nature to point to ultimate reality is an ancient conviction. It arises, I would argue, from our experience of life. All around us are things and events that point beyond themselves to something else. We see tracks in new fallen snow and know where the toddler has wandered. Averted eyes are, in one case, a sign of love, and in another tell us a lie has just been told. Tears can be a sign of pain and grief or joy and happiness, and our ability to discern which one is essential for mature and lasting relationships. Meaning and significance quickly leach from ordinary reality if nothing serves as a sign for something greater.
This is not a new idea even if it happens to be new to us, or something we have not considered with care. In his poem, C. S. Lewis is saying the same thing that the Hebrew poet affirmed so long ago. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” David wrote, “and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalms 19:1). The biblical flood narrative, one of the oldest stories in scripture echoes in the myths of numerous people groups around the world, and concludes with a divinely identified sign. “I have set my rainbow in the clouds,” God says, “and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:13). Centuries later, during a time of uncertainty because armies threatened to invade, the seer Ezekiel was commanded to perform what we would call street theater today. Ezekiel thus became at God’s command a “sign” to the people of God that ruinous exile awaited them (Ezekiel 12:11). When angelic beings broke into the view of the shepherds to announce the birth of the long promised Messiah they were not simply asked to believe. “And this will be a sign for you,” the shepherds were told, “you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). I would have thought that seeing joyous angels was sign enough, but apparently not. The shepherds were to look for very ordinary things and know that in seeing them they were seeing the fulfillment of promises made by prophets over many centuries. They went into Bethlehem, we are told, saw and believed (2:20).
The fact that signs exist, of course, does not mean they will be seen as signals. We may be so distracted and busy that we fail to spot the little tracks in the new fallen snow. Would the story be different if the shepherds had cell phones? Even before he performed his street drama God warned Ezekiel that he was acting before an unresponsive audience. “Son of man,” God said, “you dwell in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see, but see not, who have ears to hear, but hear not, for they are a rebellious house” (Ezekiel 12:2). They watched the performance but failed to see or comprehend the sign.
When I point to the lovely goldfinches at my birdfeeder as brief glimpses of glory, as little signals of transcendence, there are voices in our world that would find my witness to be unconvincing and incomprehensible. The voices influenced by the long and venerable tradition of eastern thought adopt a monism that defines ultimate reality as spiritual, and so tend to see physical phenomena as illusion. Enlightenment severs me from the imprisoning physical so I can be free to merge into the impersonal oneness of all things. Here things are less signs of the transcendent but rather distractions from the spiritual. On the other hand, the voices influenced by modern naturalism adopt a monism that sees all reality limited to only the physical. Assuming there is nothing beyond the narrow limits of space/time in the here/now, all of reality simply is in an impersonal cosmos. Here things cannot by definition be signs, and the very notion of signs is nothing more than random firings in my synapses that bear no meaning.
The monism of both east and west represent too large a leap of faith for me. That the goldfinches are insignificant illusions or meaningless objects strikes me as totally insufficient as a reasonable explanation of reality. As a Christian I believe in both physical and spiritual reality, the seen and the unseen, and so the long tradition of finding signals of transcendence in some physical things—like my lovely goldfinches—requires no stretch of the imagination and no mental gymnastics in my metaphysics.
On the other hand, I realize that no amount of argument will make someone else see goldfinches as signs, as signals of transcendence. If someone is blind to it, it makes no sense to say they are wrong. At least it makes no sense in terms of helping them to see with greater clarity. It is true, as St Paul argues in his letter to the church in Rome, that there is an active refusal of the truth involved in unbelief.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (ESV, Romans 1:18-21)
Or consider Eugene Peterson’s translation of this text:
But God’s angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth. But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse. What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives (The Message, Romans 1:18-21.)
This is a true analysis of the process of unbelief, but imagining that we can reason someone into seeing something as a signal of transcendence does not follow. Unbelief produces blindness, and no blind person has ever been made to see by argument.
In fact, unbelievers can even witness miraculous signs and remain unmoved. St John tells us that when Jesus changed water into wine at a celebration in Cana, it was “the first of his signs” as he “manifested his glory” (John 2:11). Even his religious enemies noted the signs he performed. “So the chief priests and the Pharisees,” John records, “gathered the Council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him.’” (11:47-48). Even Herod, a ruler in the service of Rome was eager to interview Jesus “hoping to see some sign done by him” (Luke 23:8).
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed (Matthew 16:1-4).
Jesus was not being difficult. Rather, the Jewish leaders had all they needed to know to believe in Jesus but they refused. They acknowledged Jesus “performs many signs,” but since he did not meet their messianic expectations and called them to repentance they were unmoved. Yet even here Jesus extended grace, offering them “the sign of Jonah.” Just as the ancient prophet had descended into the watery depths of death and lived, so Jesus would die and three days later rise from the dead. And yet it continues—though the historical evidence for the resurrection is really very compelling so many hear of it yet do not believe.
Apart from the signs Jesus’ contemporaries witnessed or heard about the greatest sign before them was Jesus himself. In the opening section of his Gospel St John identifies him as the very word of God. This means that as those Jewish leaders stood before Jesus they were in the presence of that word. When they listened to him speak they experienced the word. And when they looked at him as he turned and walked away they equally experienced the word. He is the word, the ultimate signal of transcendence, the final sign but they were unable to see.
All creation is called into existence by God so all creation reflects his glory, which means that signals of transcendence can be found across all of life and reality. Some are touched or moved by things in nature, a flower or goldfinch or nebula. Others find traces of glory in human creativity, in art, humor, play, science, technology and the myriad crafts that bring utility and beauty into the common tasks of daily existence. And then there are the deep yearnings that are so rooted in the heart and imagination that they are indistinguishable from our humanity—the yearning for a father, for a home, and for love that will not leave with the morning light. The inexhaustible desire for justice, the insistent search for meaning, the hopefulness that is born with the birth of a child—all of which are present even when warfare, famine, plague, drought and flood ravage the countryside.
I have no data for this, no research to back this claim, but my experience tells me that the millennial generation is more open to signals of transcendence than their Boomer parents. I think this is true for those both inside and outside the church. It’s not so much that Boomers are more committed to naturalism than their children but that we have settled for too little, content to be distracted and diverted with busyness and things. Millennials grew up in our homes, but are not impressed, and are unwilling to live as if everything is limited to the here and now. They are haunted by myths and experiences that whisper there might in fact be something more.
Certain authors capture the reality of signals and signs with particular clarity. Read Wendell Berry’s poetry, and you will see what I mean. Or read the prose of Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) is a meditation on Dillard’s observations along a small creek over the course of the year. Little creatures, frogs and moths, both fascinate and point beyond themselves. “Nothing is going to happen in this book,” she writes in Holy the Firm (1977). “There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time” (p. 24). Dillard cannot see without seeing things in nature as signs, traces of the supernatural in the ordinary things of life and nature.
Would that I could see as clearly as Berry and Dillard do. Reflecting on all this reminds me to be grateful for all the ways there are traces of God that appear around me in this broken world. It reminds me to order my life so that I do not miss the signals of transcendence that are in my path. It reminds me to develop the wise disciplines of observation and waiting that permit my view of reality to have greater clarity. And it reminds me to listen carefully and ask questions when my non-Christian friend mentions something that suggests they have spotted a sign and wonders what it means.
SourceThis essay was prompted by my reading Echoes of a Voice (Cascade Book, 2014) by James Sire and Fool’s Talk (InterVarsity Press, 2015) by Os Guinness. Consider these two books to be the footnote for everything I have written here.
Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-Eye View of a Changing World by John Lister-Kaye (New York, NY: Pegasus Books; 2015).
Spirits In Bondage: A Cycle Of Lyrics, XXVI: “Song” by Clive Hamilton [C. S. Lewis] (Heinemann 1919, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1984, Public Domain). Available online at Gutenberg Project: (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2003/2003-h/2003-h.htm)