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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Glory To God In The Smallest


How much of the world have I missed until I kneel, as if in prayer? 

Pulling weeds in my garden, I moved one of the stones around the edges and discovered a small snail. For some reason that day, I stopped and watched as it very slowly, slowly made its way along the stone. 

"You're moving at a snail's pace." is a complaint we have for someone who's being poky or lazy, though I have often heard it whenever I get caught up in my Walter Mitty moments. Snails travel at only one meter per hour. For some reason, watching this tiny garden snail, made me think of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's statement, "Above all, trust in the slow work of God." How contrary that is to our own human nature. We are so caught up in our frenetic pace and everything must be quick as if to slow down means to die. Yet, as I knelt there observing the snail, I imagined Christ saying, "Consider the snails . . ."  The peaceful pace of its slowness caused me, that day, to pause in my own as I watched it make its trail of broken, slimy, white mucus on the rock as it moved along in its deliberate progress. What would the world be like if we all moved at such a slower pace? If we move determined, but not rushing mindlessly. Instead, as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, "Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."

I came to nature not through a scientist or naturalist (though I would later love the works of Thoreau, Muir, Eiseley and Dillard) but through a poet, Emily Dickinson. She wrote of the miraculous minutiae of a fly or a bee. Her poetry first introduced me to the spiritual concepts of paying attention, being aware, and being present. My guess is, if I had not discovered her poems, I would probably not have stopped to watch this snail, observing its otherwise unobserved existence. How many of us do? Most of us never notice a snail until its eating the leaves of one of our plants. 

I had become so caught up in watching this snail that I had not even noticed that the clear blue sky had become first and ashy gray and then a darker one. It was only when it began to rain that my attention was broken from my studying this small snail. As the rain came down heavier, I dashed inside the house, where my older son asked, "What were you doing out there for so long?"

"Watching a snail," I replied and waited for him to respond with, "Why?" 

But he didn't. 

He must be used to my peculiarities (such as my habit of watching clouds or my fascination with rocks or leaves or shadows).  Ever since I was a child, I could be caught up in curious absorption of the world around me. It came from my finding solace in two things: books and exploring the woods behind our house (both of which were solitary activities for me).  My pockets were filled with my finds: small animal skulls, smooth stones, owl pellets. Or I'd bring home an abandoned wasp nest, bird's nest, or turtle shell. These would join my collection of sea shells, a stingray's shell, arrow heads, and petrified wood. Out in the woods, I would watch birds, rabbits, a fox, frogs, turtles, and it was where I experienced God long before I experienced my Creator in any church. In Gravity and Grace, the French philosopher Simone Weil wrote, "As Creator, God is present in everything which exists as soon as it exists."

"The heavens declared the glory of God," the Psalmist wrote, "and the skies proclaim his handiwork." How easy it is to gaze up at the stars or an ocean or a mountain range or even a bird in flight and be filled with a sense of awe and wonder, but what about the minuscule?  Do I find traces of God in the insignificant and small?  As I watched this snail, I thought about how gastropods existed 500 million years ago compared to humans, which are only around 6 million years ago. Unlike ourselves, snails were a part of the Cambrian explosion of life forms. How many immeasurable events over the course of history have they survived? According to the Carnegie Museum of Natural Sciences, they have thrived so much that there are over 800,000 known species of gastropods. 

The latest discovery, according to an article in the journal ZooKeys, is the Acmella nana (nanus being Latin for dwarf) and is the smallest known snail in the world at only 0.5 to 0.6 millimeters across and can only be seen under a microscope. To give you a perspective on its smallness, ten of them can fit into the eye of a needle. And it's only one of 48 new snail species discovered in Borneo according to the Naturalists Biodiversity Center. In Borneo alone there are 500 native snails, that's as many as all of North America. The limestone caves they inhabit are 16 to 20 million years old with voluminous, intricate chambers where it can take a century for the limestone to form just half an inch. The snails have evolved smaller and smaller so that they can utilize microscale environments their competitors cannot access as they feed on the microbial films that grow on the rock. If these caves were to be destroyed, 500 snail species would be completely wiped out. To quote Simone Weil once more, "The vulnerability of precious things is beautiful because vulnerability is a mark of existence." 

 Imagine the child-like delight God must have taken in creating these snails so small that they would not be discovered until a few years ago. How many more are unknown to us even today? And how much do we have to still to know about the ones we have discovered both on land and in sea? Certainly, thousands of new species of animals and plants are found each year. In 2012 alone, there were 20,000 new species discovered from insects, to plants, to microbes, to fungi, to mammals. There is so much that remains unknown on this planet alone that it makes me agree with the English essayist Leigh Hunt, "If we can conceive of no end of space, why should we conceive an end of new creations, whatever our poor little bounds of historical time might even appear to argue the contrary." It' overwhelming and to know that God did not have to create such diversity and with such complexity. How can one not be so overwhelmed that one doesn't fall to one’s knees in adoration and worship?

The human brain alone is astounding being composed of 100 billion neurons. Compare that to the humble snail, which has only two. Despite that, scientists at the University of Sussex are studying the brains of snails to better understand how the mind works in terms of explaining how complex behavioral decisions are made. They did this by watching how freshwater snails searched for lettuce. Using electrodes to record small electrical charges, called action potentials, in individual neurons they "discovered a controller type neuron which lets the snail's brain know potential food is present and a second neuron which transmits signals telling the snail's brain what its motivational state is, i.e., whether it's hungry or not," according to Professor George Kemenes, one of those working on the project. "Our study," he told Lynsey Ford, "reveals for the first time how just two neurons can create a mechanism in an animal's brain which drives and optimizes complex decision making tasks. It also shows how this system helps to manage how much energy they use once they make a decision."

As soon as my shadow falls across the rock, the snail quickly pops into its shell. This is because they have light sense cells that warn them. I pick up the shell to study it more closely. 

It's amazing to think of how long gastropods have been around. How much of their survival is due to that heavy wheel of its shell? Each one's unique. The snail I watched had an acorn-colored shell with spiral shape. Made of calcium carbonate the shells are secreted from the part of the body known as the mantle. Its structure and mechanical properties are being studied by biologists and engineers to improve everything from airplane hulls to sports equipment to orthopedic applications. 

The more I watch this snail, the more I, like the Psalmist, want to cry out, "O Lord, how manifold your works: in wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures" (104:24).  Or at least break into the hymn "This Is My Father's World." Being attuned to such a small creature made me understand how the excavation of the eternal can begin in the external earth. God can be found in His creations. As Colossians 1:16-17 reminds me, "For by him all things were created, in heaven and earth, visible and invisible . . . all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together." In a sense, seeing this snail gave me a glimpse of the numinous, a glimpse behind the veil of the invisible by the visible before me in the world. 

It also made me aware of how, when we are aware, we are connected to each other. Charles Darwin wrote that we "may all be netted together in one gigantic mode of experience." How can one not be filled with awe, wonder, amazement and worship when we realize that science and faith need not be at odds, that both are meant to point us past our concrete certainties to something grander, greater than ourselves: The Divine Mystery that has formed and shaped and created all things. And isn't it amazing to be reminded of this by something as seemingly small and insignificant as a snail? So, next time you're in your garden, pause for a moment and, "Consider the snails."


Citations:

Ford, Lynsey. "Snails Reveal How Two Brain Cells Can Hold the Key to Decision Making."The University of Sussex. N.p., 09 Aug. 2016. Web. 21 Apr. 2017. <http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/35787>.

Geggel, Laura. Micro Mollusk Breaks Record for World's Tiniest Snail. LiveScience, 2 Nov. 2015. Web. <http://www.livescience.com/52664-borneo-smallest-snail.html>.


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