Beyond the Edge of Knowledge: An Ecological Hope for Lent

The Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
The Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly—Closer to home in Illinois
Friday, March 1, 2024

“Every single creature is full of God
and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature,
even a caterpillar,
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God is every creature.”
Meister Eckhart

An assumption baked into this Lenten devotional is the idea that drawing near to the ache of God’s creatures will teach us something about God. It might also teach us something about ourselves, about our own longings and our own burning hunger to care for God’s creation. 

Ask the beasts and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In God’s hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of every human being. —Job 12:7–12

Ask the dragonflies too, I’d say if I were speaking with Job. Ask the Illinois dragonflies; ask the dragonflies who have languished on the endangered species list since 1996; more specifically ask the Hine’s emerald dragonflies who dance across the shallow waters near aquifers and riverbeds. These ambitious, hovering creatures dart and glide across the ponds and dew-covered fields, taking in the world from their bulging eyes that can see a full 360 degrees around them (eyes which scientists believe take up 80% of the small creatures’ brainpower).

There is something awe-inducing about dragonflies swooping past on a warm summer day. What I didn’t know was that their larvae can live in the soft mud of shallow water for up to five years before undergoing a butterfly-like metamorphosis ending in a five-to-seven-week adulthood. I am not surprised, then that their long incubation in the bogs, sedge meadows, and marshes puts them at risk of pollution-induced bio-crisis. It would be hard to find a little muddy shallow water that could sustain a dragonfly larva for five years without encountering habitat destruction, urban sprawl, agriculture, pipeline construction, logging, or (especially) groundwater contamination. 

Environmentalist and conservationist Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring made public the dangers of chemical pesticides, spent decades of her life scrambling up and down the rocky seasides, pantlegs rolled up, wading into life-filled tide pools, pondering the connections between one creature and another. She writes with awe about that sacred task saying, “to stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.” In other words, drawing near to God’s creatures, we draw near to God.

What was to her the seaside, is to us the lakeside, the prairie, the deciduous forest, the sand dune and the lifelong habitat of the Hines emerald dragonfly. There is something about being outside in these habitats that cannot help but inspire the next generation of climate scientists, environmental lawyers, solar energy economists, sustainable development engineers, and journalists. May our Lenten musings lead us to a spring and summer with pantlegs rolled up, wading in the waters of our own landscape in awe.

Let us pray:
Give us awe, O Spirit, for
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
but only the one who sees, takes off their shoes… 
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning (adapted)

March 1, 2024

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