Early this morning my children clattered out the door to the schoolyard across the street, where they returned to freedom a tiny ground frog they’d captured yesterday. When stillness refilled the house—this took longer than you’d think, especially at that hour—I rolled out of bed, found a shirt and slippers, and followed them outdoors. From the front porch I could see their uncombed heads huddled over a patch of mudclay in the lawn; I called to them and they came running, barefoot and shouting, up the driveway.
They’d found a dragonfly, dead, perfectly preserved, which my dauntless girl brandished in triumph. (This is the four-year-old who thinks nothing of battering at the hairy spider reigning in the basement.) We took the creature inside, examined it minutely, and then, naturally, scanned it and googled “dragonfly anatomy.” (These are the preschool-adepts who beg me daily for their “own kids’ email” as they navigate their bookmarks.)
Some beautiful objects defeat description, like those two blond heads hovering above the mud, and some, like the dragonfly, absolutely demand it. The insect’s head was dominated by its coppery compound eye, two lobes scattering light with a million scintillas. The thorax arched into a sort of jeweled chartreuse carapace between the wings. Those four broad wings spanned nearly five inches, black-veined and paned like stained-glass windows, and tinted lemony-amber along the top rail. A brilliant turquoise bulb at the base of the thorax let go the taper of its abdomen, meticulously reticulated and, at that early stage, flexible along its length.
The living issue of the natural world, the beautiful and the terrible together, show us God the Creator: All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing Alleluia! It’s proper and good—dulce et decorum—for creature to acknowledge creator, as the clay does the potter, and I think God is pleased to receive praise ascending from the watered ground and the clay grown tall.
In truth, though, the loveliness of the fly focused me less on its status as creature than on its passage as organism; less, that is, on its muddy origin than on its muddy end. This is in part because dead things are so often very beautiful; to admire a sleeping child, wrapped in death’s second self, is to sense the fearful, intimate mystique of the just-dead. This pleases God too, I think. Christ blighted the fig tree not to revive it again, not, this time, to subdue death, but to claim its withered limbs, together with earth and unruly sea, for faith.
On the Sabbath Christ mixed a clay of spittle and dust to anoint a blind man’s eyes. In that earthy poultice he mingled the elements of life with the locus of death, and the man came seeing. In the the end it is not, perhaps, for God to show us life and death, but for life and death to show us God.