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

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    I am impressed with existence lately

    Louie surveys the killing floor

    NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON, in this recent CBS video, is asked if he believes in God. He says, among other things,

    The more I look at the universe, the less convinced I am that there is something benevolent going on… I look at disasters that afflict Earth, and life on Earth: volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, disease, pestilence, congenital birth defects. You look at this list of ways that life is made miserable on Earth by natural causes, and I just ask, “How do you deal with that?”

    I have no problems if, as we probe the origins of things, we bump into the Bearded Man. If that shows up, we good to go! Okay? Not a problem.

    There’s just no evidence of it.

    I get that.

    A stray red tabby showed up at our house a few months ago. We fed him tuna and named him Louie. He stayed. Nowadays he mainly dozes and strikes poses in our backyard. He is a living lawn ornament, graceful, discreet, inoffensive.

    Except when he catches small animals, traps them in our glassed-in patio, sets them “loose,” and slowly tortures them. During these hours—and I do mean hours—our backyard, nicely landscaped and full of flowers and photosynthesis, becomes Louie’s Theatre of Death. All readers with outdoor cats know the mindless cruelty of which I speak.

    The other night Henry and I were in the kitchen adjacent to the patio. We looked out through the sliding glass doors and saw that Louie had a baby rabbit under the patio table. I groaned. There was nothing we could do—the little guy was very bad off—so we turned our attention elsewhere. Thirty minutes later we heard a horrible shriek. Again and again it happened, three times, each cry loud and rising and abruptly cut off. It echoed in my head for several days afterward. A baby rabbit’s death scream is not something you want to hear.

    And although I have never witnessed it, I am aware that human beings sometimes suffer such ends: early, natural, brutal, mindless.

    So I get it when Tyson finds no evidence that “something benevolent is going on.” Life is death-saturated.

    Yet: Here we are.

    This fact is often overlooked.

    When I was a kid I played tee ball in a local church league. I remember the uniforms and the heat and the black rubber tee and the chain link dugout. I also remember trying to smack the ball between infielders and make clean throws to the cutoff man, but I was no athlete. Neither my heart nor my head was in the game.

    There were distractions. If you ask my mom what she remembers about those days she’ll tell you how my efforts in the field consisted largely of staring at my shadow and kicking up dust and watching it drift past. My mind couldn’t wrap around the game; it was not game-shaped. Shadows and dust, on the other hand, were a perfect fit.

    I spent those Saturdays in right field, stunned into uselessness by the bare fact of the world, by existence.

    I am no longer a child, and the game has changed from baseball to ladder-climbing (among other things). But my inability to play the game remains. Yes, I have worked hard and have a number of accomplishments under my belt. You won’t find me minimizing those accomplishments or the saints whose love and dedication made them possible. I have been freely given the material, emotional, educational, and spiritual resources—along with multiple opportunities—to organize my life into a clearly-marked, stable, one-way career. But the pieces never fit. My mind can’t wrap around that game and I’ve given up trying to play.

    I again blame existence, which is oddly persistent. My admiration for existence has led me from physics to theology to writing—what else is there?—and still I spend my life wondering. I feel as useless as an outfielder in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game with three men on and two men out, wondering at shadows, lost in the interplay of light and dust.

    It really is something, existence.

    If it sounds odd to say such a thing it might be because existence is rarely acknowledged. It is rarely acknowledged because it is rarely sensed. Usually we need art to become aware of the surprising fact of the world, or music might do it, or science, or sustained religious practice, or great violence, or great loss, or great joy. Mostly we wander around “sunk into everydayness,” as Walker Percy put it, unaware of existence.

    This is probably OK. Existence can be paralyzing. Awareness of it, I mean. We can’t all walk around stupefied like Merton on the corner in Louisville, blinded by passersby shining like the sun. Nothing would get done.

    Ever since dad died last year existence has become harder than ever for me to overlook (and yes, it can be tough to get things done, but I show up as best I can). I can’t stop imagining the woods, the creek, the trees, the creatures, the sky; or walking through the actual woods, along the actual creek, under the trees, among the creatures, beneath the sky.

    The other day I was at the South Fork of Peachtree Creek and a saw a great crested flycatcher for the first time. I heard it before I saw it, a sharp buzzy wheep. It was so sudden and so loud it scared me still. I turned in the direction of the sound, toward a stand of gnarled boxelder. Waited, stared, focused on nothing, poised for motion or sound. And wheep there it was, in plain view and full sunlight, 15 feet away, lemon and gray and greatly crested. I didn’t know what I was looking at until I got home and did some research. It’s an impressive bird, yes, but it might have been a dodo for the lift it gave me.

    Existence, fully gratuitous and unasked-for, to the rescue (again). I can’t get past it—I tell you, there’s something holy out there.

    As for Tyson? He’s a super famous science guy and he’s got a line to toe when it comes to God. I get that too. But if he were to read this I bet he’d know exactly what I’m talking about.

    Waiting on a tree


    The sassafras at Agnes Scott took no time to ID — no other North American tree looks or smells anything like it

    I’ve been learning to identify trees lately. More than once it has reminded me of my first year in college.

    I attended a tiny school in the southern Blue Ridge. There I spent many nights walking and learning the constellations. Under the stars I experienced something I had known in childhood but had nearly forgotten: the wild, boundless rapture of silence and solitude. My insecurities were stilled by the regularity of the night sky. My mind settled, my thoughts became clear, and my emotions, wary of daylight and company, slowly emerged from their hiding places.

    I went out at a regular hour and so new constellations arrived piecemeal. Night after night the sky slowly unspooled on the eastern horizon. The Pleiades, indicting the heart of Taurus, appeared in early September. A few days later they were higher up and I saw the bull’s eye, marked by the red giant Aldeberan, for the first time. A week after this I observed the first of the stars of Gemini. Castor and Pollux showed up a day or two after that. And so it went.

    At first I was impatient with this. More than once I found myself up on my toes facing east, thinking that if I could just get up a little higher I might see what was hiding behind the horizon. But after awhile I realized that nature was offering me a nightly dose of the familiar and the new, mixed just right for learning. Every night there was plenty to review and a little to learn. I came to like it that way. By early spring I was going out later and I felt myself avoiding the eastern sky. I didn’t want to spoil the pace.

    Today I’m in the latter half of my middle years. As a college student I thought I’d have life pretty much solved by now. I thought my faith would be steady and my income solid, that I’d have a strong health regimen, a dependable daily schedule, few anxieties, and no regrets. I thought I’d have worked through all the difficult but standard questions of personal identity and life purpose. I thought I’d be in control.

    But I’m not, and it can take a while to really see that and admit it. Since college my days have been filled with meetings and kids’ activities and new jobs and countless logistic and personal and professional challenges. There have been deadlines to meet, dates to remember, articles to write, papers to grade, classes to teach, messes to clean up, forms to fill out, bills to pay, all good and normal midlife tasks. But they seem to me like so many heads of the Hydra. It’s hard to take a breath when you’re fighting such a monster. I can list only a handful of times since college that I’ve been in touch with my essential freedom, times when I have not at some level been conscious of the push of my schedule, worried on some level about What’s Next.

    I’m tired and a little bewildered, to tell the truth, and I have miles to go before I sleep.

    I was in this mindset when I started on the trees. It was January. The conifers and laurels and magnolias were easy enough, but until lately the deciduous trees were really challenging. For them I had only branching patterns and bark. Also location: sandy soil, slopes, bottomland, creekside. I poked through ground litter and that helped in a few cases, but mostly I was at a loss. So I waited on leaves, flowers, fruit, anything. I checked certain trees regularly. The waiting was satisfying, just as it was for me as a college student under the stars. I stood and looked up at branches spread like fractals against the winter sky while life prepared itself underground, in the atmosphere, behind the bark of a million trees.

    Today, for the greater part, the leaves have arrived. I’ve learned maples and oaks and hickories and dogwoods and hornbeams and locusts and many others. But trees won’t be rushed. Many leaves are still new, and new leaves have this in common with new embryos: even across species, they can look a lot alike, and they reach their final forms on their own schedules.

    image1 (7)

    There is a small tree on the bank of Burnt Fork Creek, a short walk from my house. The leaves in the image above came from it. I have been watching it since February and I have found several others like it, some quite a bit larger. I have drawn pictures of the tree and its leaves. I have returned to it again and again over the weeks, and I’m still at a loss. It is neither dogwood nor elm. It is neither hornbeam nor persimmon. It might be blackgum. It might be silverbell. Right now I don’t know. One day flowers and fruit will arrive and I’ll know its name. But today its name is a mystery.

    Waiting for this one tree makes me conscious of time’s great stream. It takes my attention away from the ongoing staccato of deadlines and appointments that threatens to fragment my life. Waiting for this tree reminds me that life is not a problem to be solved or a situation to manage. It is not just one damned thing after another. It is an unfolding, a vast rising and falling, a wave of great depth. My job is to ride the wave, to wonder at it, to document it, to say: I am here, I am a part of this and a witness to it.

    My mind is settling. My thoughts and feelings are appearing here and there like animals after a long hibernation. The happiness of being outdoors and learning the names of things is once more proving to be unreasonably powerful in my life. And when I learn the name of this one green and particular feature of the cosmos, I’ll be sure to let you know.

    UPDATE: It’s Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina). Thanks to Alert Readers John Graham and Monica Sheppard for their help!

    The big one is coming


    Total solar eclipse of November 2012, photographed from Queensland, Australia. Click image to enlarge

    THE INTERNETS OVERHYPE everything, and everything includes astronomical events. Take, for example, last month’s full moon-eclipse-comet incident. Online media had a whale of a time with that one, with headlines national and otherwise trumpeting it as a Triple Treat, a Stargazer’s Delight, a Cosmic Triple Feature, a Trifecta, and even a Snow Moon Lunar Eclipse Comet Spectacular!, among other super-exciting boosterisms. But in truth it was a very subtle affair, exciting only to those who spend a disproportionate number of hours examining the far-off twinkly lights. Not only that, but a full moon is required for a lunar eclipse, so that reduces the trifecta to a difecta, and that’s not even a word.

    Yes, it’s neat that an eclipse of any kind happened on the same night a comet was visible. But. The eclipse was of the penumbral variety, which means the Moon drifted through the outermost edge of the Earth’s shadow and dimmed just a fuzz. If you were not an avid Moon-watcher you’d not know it was happening at all. And the comet (it’s green! they said) was invisible to the unaided eye. If you had had a good pair of binoculars, had known which blank space in the sky to point them toward, and had been willing to stay up until 3 AM or so—five hours after the end of the eclipse—on a February night, you would’ve been able to make out comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková. But seeing its faint green hue required high contrast with the background sky, and the Moon’s full and no-longer-eclipsed face brightened the sky so much that simply seeing the comet—with binoculars—would have been an achievement, especially for anyone unaccustomed to such work. Color would have eluded you unless you had a large telescope.

    So again: there is hype.

    But we’re on the leading edge of a vast incoming swell of fresh astro-bluster, and, though the media will certainly find new ways to overdo things, the total solar eclipse of Monday 21 August is something you’ll remember as long as you live. You should start making plans now.

    In a total solar eclipse the Sun gets entirely covered by the Moon. The Sun, you will have noticed, is brighter than the Moon, so when it goes out you’ll not be able to miss it. But it will only go all the way out out along a 70-mile-wide swath running from Oregon to South Carolina. The Moon’s circular shadow will make landfall near Salem at 10:15 AM (local), race eastward across the continent at about 1100 mph, and pass into the Atlantic north of Charleston at 2:49 PM (local).

    Created with GIMP

    Click on image for high-resolution version

    You will need to be within the shadowy band on the map to experience totality, which is the complete coverage of the Sun by the Moon. Along that path the sky will go dark, the overhead stars will appear, the air will cool, and the birds will fall silent. The Sun will appear as a ghostly ring among the stars and for once in your life you’ll be free to stare directly at it. All of this will happen in the middle of the day and will last about two minutes.

    Outside the path viewers will experience varying depths of twilight. In Atlanta, for example, 97.3% of the solar disc will be obscured so the Sun will show itself as the slightest of crescents. The world will grow strangely dim but it will not be enough to cool the air or quiet the birds. And the Sun will not appear weird and wraithlike among the stars. You’ll not be able to look at it. Down in Mexico the Moon will eat a bite out of the Sun and sensitive observers will notice a slight decrease in daylight but it will not be dramatic.

    But for those who experience totality, this will be an event to talk about all the way to old age. This will be the real thing.

    So: pray for clear skies, dear reader. Plan a long weekend and a road trip with family and friends. Take some kids if you can. But if you can’t that’s okay. Go with one grownup or three, go alone, whatever. Whether or not actual children are present is not so important—this eclipse will have the power to draw out the child in all of us.

    P.S. Here’s a detail map for my Atlanta peeps. Click on it to enlarge


    Brown snakes, gastropods, and the very present darkness


    WE MOVED INTO our present house in mid-2015. Whoever landscaped the place really had a thing for rocks. There may be excellent reasons to have rocks everywhere but sometimes they get in the way, especially during the annual mowing of the monkey grass. We have one bed that contains about a dozen rocks, each the size of a small shoebox. At the time of mowing they’re completely hidden by the grass so I need to raise my mower blade and progress super carefully.

    The weekend before last I was performing this task and, with no particular purpose in mind, looked under a rock near the edge of the bed. And lo! There rested a pair of North American brown snakes, each no more than six inches long, and a fine little land snail. The creatures were hibernating. I picked up one of the snakes. It was rigid and sluggish and stupefied. It never did the normal snakey crawley thing. It just sat in my hand and occasionally smelled the air with its tiny black forked tongue.

    For days now I have taken great pleasure in this photo. It has been an antidote to the deadly flow of news, fake news, and juiced-up opinion on the Internet, which, these days, I navigate with trepidation. I have tried to trim my sources of information while maintaining a range of perspectives, but even the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic and the Washington Post give me plenty to worry about, even as I call my senators and donate to environmental organizations for the first time in my life. And I am looking for new ways to engage with the world, to do my part in righting this listing ship called America.

    In my view the Christian life is a balance of contemplation and action (as Pope Francis said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works”). To be effective, action must be principled, focused, deliberate, persistent, and hopeful. I myself cannot maintain this attitude without a strong dose of contemplation. So I am thankful for the snakes and the snails for helping to settle my frenzied soul over the last couple of weeks.

    It is a strange world where such beauty and complexity and organization can be found under rocks. “There is no accounting for a single second of it,” wrote Annie Dillard.

    It’s a world worth fighting for. May we all find new ways to do that today.


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