A Little Proof of a Large Thing
Here’s a photo of a young man struck by lightning.
His arm has been exquisitely branded with a Lichtenberg figure, the visible pattern left by an electrical discharge.
I’ve seen photos of Lichtenberg figures in the sand (fulgurites), formed when lighting strikes the ground and actually fuses the sand into tubes of glass in a characteristic branching fractal. There is even a theory that mountain ranges themselves were formed by some immense, cataclysmic electrical discharge. Here is a view from space of the Alps:
The other day, as it started to get warm, I saw the thick ice of the turtle pond start to give way, and the water below began to move and breathe again.
I saw that branching pattern again, dark on the grey ice, and I thought of nerves
and I thought of lungs. Here are two trees, breathing for the earth:
and here are human lungs:
Here is an iron-rich river estuary:
and here are blood vessels
When I was about six years old, I would lie in bed, falling asleep as I gazed at the dark green maple leaves pushing against my bedroom window screen. Each leaf was just the size of a hand—so many hands, all gesturing in the breeze, saying more things than I could keep track of. I remember gazing at my mother’s hands as she sewed a patch on a pair of corduroys. The veins on her hands—the veins on those leaves: the pattern was not lost on me. This is a world with something to say. My mother’s hand darted up and down so quickly that I was terrified of her needle, but I couldn’t get myself to back away. She never did make a mistake: the needle went where her hands wanted it to go, briskly mending until the cloth was whole again.
Here is the late Christopher Hitchens describing the era in his life when he began to doubt that Christianity held any truth about the world. He was in elementary school, he said, and his teacher told the class:
[Y]ou notice, boys, that God has made the vegetation and the trees and the grass very green, a lovely kind of green, which is the most restful colour to our eyes. And imagine instead if they were orange, or puce, or magenta or something. So that shows that God is good. And I remember thinking, ‘I know nothing about chlorophyll, photosynthesis, let alone natural selection.’ But I remember thinking, ‘that’s nonsense.’ That must be untrue. If either thing adapted to the other, it would have been our eyes to the vegetation, surely. And it’s one of those little proofs of a large thing ... Once you have a thought like that you essentially can’t unthink it.
By the grace of God, I was luckier than Hitchens: Once I saw the world as a body, I could not unsee it. It only remains to decipher the gesture of those thousands and thousands of green hands, with their mother veins. Here is what I have heard them tell so far:
Chlorophyll and photosynthesis and natural selection show that God is good. Science and beauty are cooperating systems that function in the same body, and they both tell us something I cannot unhear: something is happening here. This is not random. We have a goal. There is a plan. I am afraid, when I stand so close by and watch that quick, terrible needle flash up and down. I am afraid when I see that the whole world is electric, that mountains can be thrust up with the same gesture as a neuron firing inside my brain. It’s a little proof of a large thing, yes.
Every natural structure is a sign of the goodness of life. The world has lungs, the world has nerves, the world wants to carry life to every member. What difference does it make if our eyes are made to love the world, or the world is made to be loved by our eyes? We are made for each other by someone with a plan, someone who loves efficiency and also loves pleasure: loves the elegance of the way a river carves new banks, and loves the way our eyes follow the mute eloquence of a fractal.
Our bodies, and the pattern of our lives, make a gesture which is meaningful because of the very fact that some pattern exists. There is not nothing, and there is not chaos: there are patterns, and I cannot unsee them.
photo sources: Lichtenberg figure arm; Alps from space; ice thaw; nerve; two trees; lungs; river estuary; blood vessels