Phoenicopterus ruber, the Greater Flamingo. J.J. Audubon, 1827-1838. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Last year while sitting in a waiting room I read an article written by a fellow who was both a biologist and skeptic on matters of religion. I don’t remember what magazine the piece was in or the author’s name. Let’s call him Dr. Smith. His thesis was striking: He said it is easy for physicists and astronomers to believe in God because we live in a balanced world of symmetries and mathematical harmony. We maintain our watch on distant outer spaces where spiral galaxies rotate effortlessly and on equally remote inner spaces where magnetic forces cause atoms to precess like impossibly tiny tops. Our subjects’ meager overlap with life shields us not just from its surface brutalities, but from the microscopic randomness that rules it, was his point. And when we did momentarily pause to regard earth’s great array of life, it was through lenses tainted by the ideal of a kingdom most peaceable. In our ignorance we did not understand what we were looking at. If we could only tolerate the messiness of life long enough to correctly interpret its meaning, we would cease our God-talk. But unwilling to read the plainest of clues, we retreat to secure quarters where things are smooth and predictable. Orderly places where God pacifies his fretting children with glittering cosmic pinwheels and tiny mechanical toys. So Dr. Smith suggested.
This put me on the defensive. I have always tended toward nature’s mathematical and rather austere features. Cardioid lily pads, nautilus shells and their logarithmic spirals, fractal-like ferns. And of course, above all, the night sky. These things calm my frayed nerves, give me hope for the world, and make me happy. For example, about 5 years after my parents’ divorce a terrific bird fixation lit upon me and remained for the better part of two years. I was 10 years old. I came to know all the species around my house by sight and most by song, and I learned small details of far-off and rare kinds I had seen only in books. In private I mourned bygone species: the passenger pigeon, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the great auk. My pain was acute, for their vanishment was all I had known of death. Straining for realism, I drew pictures of birds. John James Audubon stood large in my imagination, and his exquisite Birds of America became my favorite book. The beauty within its pages is mathematical and clean. Even now I dream of being a 19th-century naturalist. Audubon’s birds were, for me, healing.
And much later, on a clear day early in my junior year at Furman University, I was passing through the entrance hall of the library and my forward momentum was gently arrested by the fabulous S-curve of Audubon’s American Flamingo, for there was a full-sized facsimile of the great book generously displayed, opened to its most famous plate. As I stood still looking down at that otherworldly beast and the small studies of its feet in graphite floating at the margins, I welcomed the memory of my own miniature copy of Birds, borrowed from the DeKalb County library years before. Details of his paintings I had pored over as a boy appeared in my mind’s theater in sudden succession: the strangely large heads of the screech owls; the tail of the sedge wren, held at an obtuse angle to the axis of the bird’s body; the semitransparent water through which one could discern the enormous black feet of the trumpeter swan. I stood and I yearned to reach through the glass and gaze long at each outsized page. These recollections were gentle reminders: Nature has such graceful ways with our wounds.
So Dr. Smith and his thesis made me mad. I took to psychoanalyzing him. What kind of psychosis drives a person to devote his life to the study of brutality and randomness? (Okay: randomness is actually a pretty cool thing to think about.) And then to write a tough-guy article bragging about it? What did he want? Some kind of prize for “calling it like it is”? Had he never found a trace of inspiration and healing in his work? In nature? Surely Dr. Smith can see that if, as he assumes, nature and God are in some way related, then God’s presence must stand alongside God’s absence.
God’s absence is a fact and a reliable clue to the secret of the world. But on good days I look out at the wrens and cardinals on my bird feeder and remember Audubon’s birds. Then, of a sudden, I know that I’m thankful for this beautiful world. And I suspect that a lot of biologists, whether or not they are the praying kind, understand this.