Saturday, September 15, 2007

Notes from a Picnic

My friend and I had a picnic the other day in Challenger Seven Memorial Park. Not far from NASA-Johnson Space Center, the park borders Clear Creek, which is more like a bayou, slow and wide and turbid, with banks overgrown with honeysuckle, live oaks, palmettos and other semitropical greenery. The day was hot and humid but pleasant enough in the shade. We saw marvelous creatures:

1. A water skier practicing his moves who worked his way up to doing complete somersaults. Nice show, but the boat motor was loud, so we took a walk.

2. A snowy egret in flight, a delicately plumed white bird with ridiculously yellow feet. The yellow feet are practical: the bird can tell the difference between its own toes and the wiggly prey it hunts in shallow water.

3. Fish fingerlings, lots of them, in two very small ponds more like large puddles connected by a drain pipe under a roadway. We've had plenty of rain this summer, evidently enough rain to generate puddles durable enough for that many fingerlings to hatch and put on an inch or two of growth. The presence of all those fishies may say something about the abundance of mosquito larvae for them to eat. It may also say something about the culinary prospects for the local egrets and herons.

4. Extremely large spiders of a species always abundant in Challenger Park this time of year. They are the Golden Silk Orbweavers (Nephila clavipes) also variously called Banana Spiders and Giant Woods Spiders. They can be a couple of inches long exclusive of leg, and they construct webs wide enough to span a small road. My friend and I took a close-up look at one specimen. Its cephalothorax (i.e., the front section of a spider) resembled the Jason-horror-films hockey mask, in good time for Halloween. And it had furry knees.

5. Hot pink dragonflies: Roseate Skimmers. When the insects are older (middle-aged in dragonfly years?) the color cools to a lavender pink, but the young males are hot pink. In sunlight they looked like shards of neon signage.


So today my spiritual director comments, "Nature is the original temple. A nondenominational one." Complete with hot pink dragonflies and furry-kneed spiders and a lot of other unexpected things, including hurricanes.

I think I saw the tropical storm that became Hurricane Humberto this week – watched it pass our area by. Late that day I went for a walk, with a rain hat and plans to bolt for home in the event of threatening lightning. The sun gilded clouds in the west, while dark cloud fragments scudded across the sky overhead. To the southeast a sturdy-looking rainbow framed stacks of gray cloud. About halfway through my 3-mile walk, a rather strong wind picked up out the east, and blew steadily. At that point my crocodile brain ran its own little storm warning flag up the pole. But I kept going – no lightning yet – and the wind soon slackened. The clouds in the southeast seemed to melt away. My crocodile brain called off the storm warning. So did the weather forecasters. It was as if I'd seen the skirts of the storm swirling by in the distance as Humberto took an unpredicted turn to the east, away from Houston. It coiled ashore near High Island. The authorities in Houston were left to contemplate a glaring flaw in the city's hurricane contingency plans: planning to date assumes a lead time of three days to evacuate in front of a hurricane. Humberto ramped up from a bunch of thundershowers to a hurricane in much less time than that.

"Nature is the original temple." That works for me if it's understood that what's found in a house of worship is not predictable and safe. By most accounts, safe and predictable are not attributes of the divine mystery anyway. Having a picnic in a park is enough like communion or ritual feast to adorn the metaphor. Birds and fish and insects are less the metaphorical equivalent of interior decoration than they are fellow congregants. The water-skier? A sideshow; and most times you go into a church there's a human sideshow in progress. Attending temple/church with a human friend and fellow creatures, including spiders with furry knees... may not be a bad way to think about a picnic in the park. Challenger Park, in particular, provokes reflection on the meaning of death, because it commemorates fallen astronauts. The more I think about it, the better this nature-as-temple metaphor works for me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

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