Occasional blog and online home of Paul Wallace

  • Local Pages

  • Quote of the month

    And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud.

    -- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

  • Facebook

    Smelling the flowers just quietly: Ferdinand on life

    Ferdinand loves flowers, and for all the right reasons. A scene from Munro Leaf‘s classic children’s book The Story of Ferdinand. Ferdinand, unlike his peers, has no interest in butting his head and “sticking his horns around”; he prefers to spend his days sitting “under the cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly.” Image source: Design Shack

    Consider a kindly bull, a tree, and some flowers. They all came from dirt, but they’re not dirt. Is there a lesson here?

    We here at psnt.net love The Story of Ferdinand. Ferdinand is a young bull who grows up in the Spanish countryside with other young bulls. But Ferdinand is different; unlike his peers, he does not like to fight and run around and play rough games. He prefers a quiet life of slow days, sitting under the cork tree among the sweet-smelling flowers, watching the clouds roll by.

    One day, by an odd series of circumstances involving a well-placed bumblebee, our hero is picked to fight in the bull fights in Madrid. When the time comes for him to face the brave matador, he walks out into the middle of the enormous ring, smells the flowers the lovely ladies of Madrid have placed in their hair, and sits contentedly on his haunches, lost in the sweet fragrance. No matter what the matador does, he just can’t make Ferdinand fight, and in the end the kindly bull is returned to his quiet life among the flowers under the cork tree. And there he is, once again, very happy.

    What we like about Ferdinand is, Ferdinand knows the true value of flowers.

    What Ferdinand may not know is where flowers come from. And where do they come from? They come from the dirt, friends, just like we said. Flowers are made of dirt, really, and so is Ferdinand. Just like our bodies are made of the food we eat. It’s interesting, really, to think about the origins of things.

    For example: Whenever my ten-year-old son Henry sees people drinking water, he likes to remind them that they’re drinking dinosaur urine. Which is true. The water molecules in that Smart Water you just bought for $2.09 have been around for billions of years, ever since their oxygen nuclei were formed in the the searing interiors of massive stars, were thrown out into interstellar space where they quickly collected their electrons, and, not so quickly, were joined with the plenteous primordial hydrogen atoms floating about out there. Some of those molecules found their way to our neck of the Milky Way and were around when our humble planet was formed. Since then, they have been spewed up by volcanoes, been parts of clouds, rivers, dew, rain, the oceans (all of them) and, yes, they have passed through dinosaurs (and other people) and are now collected — for the briefest of instants — in that bottle you just bought at the corner Zippy Mart. They have a lot more places to go after you drink it. So that’s really cool, right?

    Oh, you bet it is.

    But it doesn’t tell you everything you may want to know about water; in fact, it tells you virtually nothing about it. Think of the poetic and symbolic power of water, its practical use, and its physical quirks (H2O is one of the very few substances that is more dense in its liquid phase than in its solid phase, a fact that makes life possible). None of this has anything to do with its origins.

    And take Ferdinand’s flowers. They come from dirt, and that’s cool, but that’s not what makes Ferdinand so happy. That’s not what made all the lovely ladies of Madrid put them in their hair. Knowing the origin of a thing does not tell you too much about the thing itself. In fact, it is often entirely, fully, absolutely beside the point.

    Genesis 2.7 reads, “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground.” Out of the dust of the ground we came. And that’s where our food comes from, all of it. We, too, are made of dirt.

    Evolution agrees. Our point is not that the Bible confirms evolution, or that evolution confirms the Bible.  We don’t care so much about those lines of thinking. Our point is that, from a strictly scientific view, and even from a scriptural point of view, our bodies have very humble origins. We are made out of dirt.

    There seems to be an assumption, held by some who oppose the theory of evolution, that our physical origin says more about us than our present state. Put another way, there is a prevalent view that the best way to understand something is to understand its origin. This is — at best — an entirely debatable and not self-evident viewpoint.

    Consider: If we descended from apes, are we best understood as apes? If those apes descended from slugs, are we best understood as slugs? If those slugs descended from bacteria, are we best understood as bacteria? If the bacteria came from the dirt, are we best understood as dirt? No, no, no, and no. One must deal with what is actually the case. And what is actually the case is, we human creatures are here, today, and we are special.

    Yes, all life on earth is descended from a common ancestor. That is a cornerstone of evolution, and it is one of its most securely established bases. How is one to interpret this fact about our origins? By saying that “the facts speak for themselves,” and that we were randomly barfed up by an indifferent cosmos? That we are no more than nicely-organized dirt? No; this is hardly a necessary conclusion. It is also, despite some claims to the contrary, not a scientific one.

    What common ancestry means to us here at psnt.net is: We human beings belong on this planet, we are not aliens here, we are at home. And we’re different, yes, than all other creatures. This is undoubtedly true. And that we are somehow related to all life does not diminish us; how could it?

    We are formed from dirt, yes. But it is only the most profoundly narrow of minds who would insist that this is the most important truth about us.

    Those who have eyes, let them see: We are here for a reason. We belong here, as surely as does Ferdinand, that most special of bulls, out there in the Spanish countryside, sitting under his cork tree and smelling the flowers just quietly.

    Comment Pages

    There are 6 Comments to "Smelling the flowers just quietly: Ferdinand on life"

    • Phil Ewing says:

      What a beautiful post- makes me want to get the book now,


    • Amen, Brother…

      “I am made of the dust of stars, and the oceans flow in my veins.” – Rush

      We are very special indeed, and even more so because of our humble origins, not less. We’re the most complex example we know of of that temporary triumph of organization over entropy we call life. The world needs more Ferdinands, and more Paul Wallaces.

      Res ipse loquitur.


    • Tom Harkins says:

      I am confused about something. If the origin of things is not particularly important, why do evolutionists so demand that everyone accept the “from Big Bang to stars to planets to ‘dirt’ to bacterium to . . . apes to men” scenario? (Ellipses intentional.) Really, why would anyone even care if that is a “scientific” view of the matter? Why not, as you say, just look around at what we actually see and go with that? No theorizing as to “what steps along the way” supposedly got us to where we are.

      (As an aside, how do we know, qua scientists, that there was just ONE “spark of life” from which all other forms of life on our planet evolved? Such a rare [unlikely] event that it could only have occurred once?)

      Of course, we refuse to accept such a “blissfully ignorant” status about things. We want to know. We want to know how we got here. We want to know where we are going. We want to know if there is some particular reason we are here, or if things just “happened that way.” (Evolution could have stopped at dogs, or mice, or slugs.) So we theorize and study. (Andrew, is this something evolution “causes,” as you surmise it “causes” people to adopt religious beliefs?)

      I think it does matter “where we came from” as PART of determining “what we are.” I don’t accept the view that our “puzzlings” are nothing but bumpings around of subatomic particles from the Big Bang “writ large.” I don’t think “thinking” makes any sense from a merely “naturalistic” causative history. I especially don’t think thinking about things like God and origins and meaning and purpose and love and any number of dozens of other things could logically result from such a “history” as evolution posits as “where we came from.” While it may not be ESSENTIAL for there to be a God for us to have the idea that there is one, nonetheless that cause and effect relationship is more logical than, “we just created the idea as a means of survival of the fittest, somehow.” In my view, mere natural “evolution” is a virtual vacuum as an explanation for what people truly think about concerning subjects that actually matter, as opposed to just getting the next paycheck, and the like.

      So, that may not be enough “proof” to persuade a diehard atheist to consider the “from God” option as to the “how we got here” question, but it should be enough to cause him to consider the matter. And when we consider the “God-option,” we suddenly find that our theorizing about ‘what and who we are” shines in a very different light than the “just from dirt” option. Dirt, thinking about dirt, is kind of depressing, even if it could make sense. Instead, I choose to think about whether there is some purpose beyond the “dirt” highway, not because I am making it up, but because I believe in “revelation” as another legitimate “source of information” about things besides the microscope and telescope. Those who take the “conservative Christian” approach to knowledge do so not because of some “social evolution,” but because they believe “God talks.” And they believe what “God says” about things. Including “origin” things. If there is a God (and how can we just assume there is not?), wouldn’t you agree that his view of origins (and current meaning and purpose) is entitled to more weight as to truth than our theorizing? About dirt being the origin of everything? Given the choice (which I do choose to exercise), I go with the “created in the image of God” option over mere “dirt.” Because I believe God is there, and that he speaks, and that this is what he said.

      It really comes down to whether one believes in God or not. If you do, you can seek him until you find him (as I believe I have done). If you don’t–have fun in the dirt.

      Tom Harkins 02/22/2011


    • Brice says:

      We come from dirt. We belong to the Earth… we also belong God. Dual citizenship rocks!

      You just reminded me of one of few times that I could have talked myself into a mystic experience.

      Cue up the background harp music.

      When I was a gardener-educator at a Lutheran church camp, the staff often shared communion – fresh bread and wine, and held service in the outdoor chapel. During the ritual, I was imaging the growing of wheat and grapes. How they grew from seeds, how long it took, how the sun and rain felt as they transformed into the what I was eating and how they were now me. They come from the ground. They come from water.

      It was revealed to me that I could just as easily have Communion from a pinch of dirt and drop of dew, if i ever found myself lacking bread and wine.

      It felt really good to belong to God, through Jesus, through the dirt.

      Thanks Paul for awakening a spiritual memory.


    • […] him on the head with an axe. In this fresco by Fra Angelico, Peter enjoins us Christians to sit just quietly for a bit. It’s not a bad idea. Image source: Bob Swain via […]



    Latest posts