Field Report

Tonight

I was walking home from a friend’s birthday dinner. At the end – alone with her and her husband, fortified with imperial stout – I shared my frustrations with my church. My spiritual dryness, my concern that I was walking in place – and walking in a pit of molasses. Maybe I should leave. Maybe I should find another church. But was I overly sensitive? Would I find the same situation elsewhere?

They gave me a great deal of considered, godly wisdom.

Walking home from the bus station, I encountered a possum walking along the fence just beside me. Possums look cute but when cornered they can be dangerous. Surprised, at first I just walked alongside it. Like we were both strolling through the sidewalk just after midnight. Strangers well met.

I stopped and waited. Let it get on ahead and move away from the fence. The possum walked a little farther and then stopped, looking back at me.

I held its gaze for a good twenty seconds.

I looked away and pretended to study the moon veiled in clouds, the train tracks, the city glowing behind me. When I glanced back the possum was still watching me. Unmoving. I suffered a flash of transcendent clarity – the sudden conviction that I was being called to wait politely behind this possum for as long as it took, to discover endurance and patience in the movements of a humble animal.

I strode home, down the path, leaning away from the possum. I looked back and saw it peer at me, and then follow. Slowly. It might have been stalking me. It might have just happened to be headed in the same direction. At whatever pace its paws set.

I’m going to stay at my church a bit longer.

Sleep tight.

Field Report: Sir David Attenborough and Gardening

For my 25th birthday I was given a ticket to see Sir David live. I have just got back from seeing him. And he is quite the person to see.

He is the second-humblest person I have ever seen on a stage or heard speak in public. The degree to which he is uninterested in himself and vastly interested in the world about him, cannot be overstated. Insight and warmth radiate off him. And this is even more impressive when you remember that his character has endured the white heat of modern celebrity.

The show was about two and a half hours of anecdotes, background detail, and short clips from programs with which he had been involved. I saw no one over the age of seven leave disappointed or unhappy – including myself. Sir Attenborough is a gifted writer, speaker, narrator, producer, and organiser of expeditions; he considers himself an amateur gifted with astounding privilege; it was a joy to bask in his joy at the world he has seen.

He touched on the subject of conservation, of course. Near the end he mentioned a golden frog found only in a small part of Panama – and not found in the wild at all now. The whole population is bred in zoos because a fungus has swept into the golden frog’s habitat. This fungus grows over the frog’s skin and, because they breathe through their skin, suffocates them.

Sir David ended with the final sentences of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which read:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

And yet the processes of life are not automatically wonderful. The fungus that kills the golden frog is also life: life striving to exist, to replicate, to compete and consume. Darwin’s grand view of life shows us new forms. It also shows us the loss of old forms. By mourning the loss of the wild golden frogs, we admit that biological striving is not inherently good. The golden frog does not have value only as an organism suited to survival in the conditions that exist – it is a grand living thing. Each frog itself! Every frog, grand – not just the results of a grand process of life cycling and evolving. If that process were really grand by itself, we would consider the death of frogs by fungus to be as lovely as the frogs themselves.

As I left the hall, I thought about gardens. Unlike zoos – which are institutions that arise out of terrible necessity and the limitations of this world – gardens can contain something without limiting it. Roses in a garden are not domesticated or reduced from what they are. But they reach their fullness in the garden. At one point humanity lived in a garden, and all living things found their place there. But humanity was driven out. We entered a world of competition and strife. We began to build cities and made a hash of that too.

But I know that at the end of this universe, there is a city. A city that grew out of the garden; a city in which gardens grow. And in the pools and garden ponds of that city, I hope to see a golden frog. Caught up in our ark of a city. Loved for its own sake.