Beauty and the Beholder


Sunday, July 12
Julia Harris

Welcome

Hello. I am Julia Harris, and it is my privilege to host this virtual service for Hope Unitarian Church. Wherever we are, our mission is “to seek hope, love and justice–together in community.”

Whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you are on your spiritual journey and whatever your life circumstance, you are welcome here.

I had planned to visit Scotland this summer to spend time at the Aigas Field Centre,  Scotland’s foremost center for nature study and wildlife. Instead, I have been re-reading books by Sir John Lister-Kaye, the esteemed naturalist, writer and founder of Aigas. When invited to host this service, I knew right away that I wanted to share from his book Nature’s Child. With his permission, we will join Sir John and his daughter Hermione on just one of their adventures he calls “Beauty and the Beholder.”

First, though, let’s begin where we are rooted: on Hope Hill, with pictures collected while we have been away and music by Joseph Rivers.

Hymn

“For the Beauty of the Earth,” #128, Singing the Living Tradition
Arranged and performed by Dr. Joseph Rivers

Covenant

Please join me as we recite our living covenant:

Love is the spirit of this church
And service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.

Offertory

As part of Hope’s Outreach Mission, we give away all the money we collect every week in our Sunday service. Our Generosity Recipient this month is the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma which  distributes food and other grocery items to 350 Partner Agencies in eastern Oklahoma,  including food pantries, emergency shelters, soup kitchens, senior citizen centers and after-school programs.

Oklahoma consistently ranks at the top in the nation for the rate of people who struggle with hunger, and now the pandemic has created a huge spike in demand. If you would like to put some money in our  “Virtual Collection Plate,” visit this page: http://www.hopeuu.org/hopes-virtual-collection-plate-july-2020/.

Reading

Our reading comes from Rachel Carson’s “The Sense of Wonder.”

“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life ….

…If a child is to keep alive her inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, she needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with her the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

Hymn

We have missed singing together. Today our good friend Carol Young is here to help us sing, wherever we are. Please join us in “Spirit of Life.”

“Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.”

Words and music:  Carolyn McDade

Reading

Today we visit the Highlands of Scotland, to join Sir John Lister-Kaye and his daughter Hermione at the loch on the Aigas estate. He begins:

“I sit leaning against an old pine tree with my notebook and pen on my knees, my laptop beside me. The ground is still moist from six months of sodden winter, although the air is fine and the sun generous.

Spring seems to be surging up at me from below. Green shoots are piercing the tufts of winter-bleached grass, and worm casts have oozed to the surface like toothpaste, as if the soil is sick of being stuck below ground.  In the pines and birches around me blackbirds, thrushes, great tits and coal tits, wrens, and chaffinches are fluting, sawing and hammering out their rousing refrains of life and duty. They are grabbing the moment as if their lives depend upon it, which, come to think of it, they probably do. It’s infectious. Whatever the day is doing to my blood is happening to theirs too, automatically. For them no thought process exists; this is no chance encounter with a bright spring day, it’s programmed in.  Hormones are teeming; breasts swelling. Forces have combined to demand – to insist – upon this spontaneous celebration of the years turning.

I have come here to work. Once my senses have settled down a bit I shall open my laptop and try to feed the spring directly into its mysterious grey belly.  But there is another reason to be here:  I am on duty.

Hermione has begged me to let her launch her little boat on the loch for the first time this year. It was a present a year ago, for her seventh birthday;  a grey inflatable dinghy with yellow-bladed aluminum oars fixed on articulated pins so that she can’t lose them. It is eight feet long and it skims over the surface like one of the water boatmen in her aquarium. She nags and I have delayed, waiting for a day like today. Now I’m happy to concede – it’s hardly a chore. I love coming to the loch and I have little fear for her safety. Not only does she swim well, but in her life-jacket she and her little boat are unsinkable. Besides, in only eight acres of reflected sky she can never leave my vision;  even her mother is content. So off she goes, tugging at the oars and bouncing through the sunlit ripples and the birdsong, neither knowing nor caring what elemental forces are gathering at the loch’s soggy shore.

I settle to my work. I open the lid of my laptop and nudge it out of its slumber. Words stream in a babble of scarcely coherent impressions. Such is the wonder of this technological wizardry that I can tip them in at random and sort them out later, entirely confident they will still be there. From time to time I glance up. I see the boat zigzag about, now on one side of the loch, now on the other, now heading for the marsh. My brain logs the distant boat and its orange blip of an occupant, but nothing more. But I do know exactly what my daughter is doing:  she’s exploring in a way that only a child can, places she has often explored before, finding them again and again, adding jigsaw pieces to the growing picture in her head. She is unconsciously garnering images and soaking them up, storing them away —like I am doing but without having to work at it— to sort out later. Her thoughts are as zigzagged as her progress; she is lost in that great treasure trove of mental and temporal levitation a child calls adventure.

I’m not aware of time passing. I scroll back through my pages:  an hour must have passed, maybe more. The boat is still in the marsh but Hermione is some distance from it, bent almost double. She seems to be fishing for something in the shallow water.  I home in with my binoculars. Cupped in her hands she carries the thing back to the boat, lolling on its air-filled bulwark she leans in. I can’t see what she is doing. She is happy;  that is all that matters. I go back to my work. The next time I look up I see the boat heading back towards me. Every few strokes she looks over her shoulder and adjusts her direction with a tug.    I’m torn. I have enjoyed this wafting meditation in such a beautiful place;  I don’t want it to end. Whatever it is she has found is being rowed across the loch for me to see. I can tell how important it is by the urgency of her stroke. I press ‘save’ and gently close the mystery box down. She flings me a rope. What greets me instantly snaps me out of my introspection. ‘Good God!”  The words are out before I can stop them.

‘Aren’t they lovely?!’  Pure delight radiates across her face. I can scarcely believe my eyes. The bottom of the boat is alive with toads.”

Hymn

“For the Beauty of the Earth”
Sung by Carol Young

“For the beauty of the earth, for the splendor of the skies,
for the love which from our birth over and around us lies:
Source of all, to the we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.”

Words: Sandford Pierpoint. Music: Conrad Kocher

Reading

Sir John continues:

“Quite frankly, ‘lovely’ is going it a bit for a toad. I concede that to another toad, especially in spring, ‘lovely’ might be appropriate,

but there it ends. The common toad, Bufo bufo, is the warty and, for most of the year, dry-skinned but amphibious cousin of the frog. Placing this creature in your hand and facing it, eyeball to eyeball, reveals a fascinating animal, but it is not lovely. Beauty is singularly absent.

It has a broad, slightly upturned mouth with a bony rim. Pump-like, its leathery throat pulsates rhythmically. With bright golden orbs and dark horizontal pupils, it eyes appear to be struggling to burst out the top of its head. Its expression is a bemused sneer, as though nothing really matters, least of all you. It has no neck. Its body is plump but not fat and resides within a loose, variously dirt-colored, golden or greenish skin covered in lumps and warts that, on a human would indicate decades of both leprosy and smallpox. Its underbelly is palely speckled and smooth. Stubby forearms are inward turned and bowed; grubby little fingers on each hand point at each other. The double-folded rear limbs are tucked beneath its body with frog-webbed toes, less extended than its fully aquatic cousin. It prefers not to jump. It plods — in fact plodding is its thing.

Every April a ritual takes place that lies at the ecological heart of spring and freshwater wetland. It is a rite of passage, a life force inextricably linked to the turning year, which happens throughout Europe  –  in fact wherever there are common toads. Once seen one is unlikely to forget it.

The common toad is an insect-eating amphibian of damp habitats. British frogs live in or very close to water all the year round;  toads don’t. Just like frogs, toads spawn in the water to produce tadpoles which gargle to breathe and then consume their own tails. A bit later they grow legs and crawl ashore to moist places. They lurk beneath mosses and ferns, under stones and in crevices. Coldly they creep into other people’s dark burrows. I once knew a toad that lurked for many years among bins of vintage port in a dark, damp cellar.

When ashore and growing into adults, toads disperse far and wide. For a creature of slow movement it is surprising how far they travel. Unlike the frog they only jump reluctantly. So they plod, up to a hundred yards a day, often for over 2 miles from where they were born – a fairly astonishing distance.

Having found their desired damp hollow, they take three years to grow and become sexually mature. Having croaked and crept into their chosen cave; having forgotten about water for three years and grown fat on flies and bugs, slugs and worms; having laid up in clammy torpor for three consecutive winters, having done all that up to 2 miles away from their birth water, as soon as the air temperature reaches 4°C in their third spring, they wake up, turn around and plod all the way back to their natal pond.”

Hymn

“For the Beauty of the Earth,” verse 2

“For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and mind’s delight,
for the mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight:
Source of all to thee we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.”

Reading

“Early every Spring – here it happens at the end of March – toads desert their drystone walls, abandon their culverts, crawl out from their dim crevices and come home. No matter how far it is; no matter whether they have to cross mountain, moorland, field or stream, whether through forests and wet woods or over rock, tarmac  or pavement, clambering over the corpses of their comrades squashed on roads, at whatever cost, fixed and resolute, they plod back.

As the end of March approaches the land here is heaving with thousands of toads. They are everywhere, in a huge ring, a circular wave of warty amphibians slowly imploding to a bright, watery core. Research has revealed that the level of glycolic acid emitted by certain algae in a water body enables the toads and frogs to smell their way home, like a salmon smells the run of its own river where it meets the sea. Incredibly, the concentration of glycolic acid detectable by toads at a three-quarter mile range is only one part per eighty million. To walk around the loch at this moment in the spring, before the toads actually take to the water to breed, especially at dusk, is to see and hear them everywhere.

The air is burdened with the muted, croaky exclamations of males persistently calling out for a mate. They seem to be gulping “Help” with the failing cry of a drowning man. You can’t take a step without treading on them.  At nightfall the croaking becomes oppressive, almost threatening, an inescapable hoarse chorus that reverberates deep within the skull. No, lovely is not the word.

But in the streaming light of a sunny afternoon this sense of menace is absent, especially to an eight-year-old country girl. The toads have taken to the water and are in the process of breeding. In a moment which should be private and uninterrupted they have fallen captive to the over-enthusiasm of a child enthralled by her own discovery. She wants them all. They are a challenge and a joy. She has caught them in the act of raw amphibian sex  – called amplexus  – the smaller male riding the female, clasping her round the waist with his bowed forearms, locking into position so that he can release his cloacal sperm on to her gelatinous bootlace of black-dotted spawn. The she-toad winds her mechanical route about the weeds, while her male passenger emits a slow flush of sperm into the water surrounding them. He is in a protracted orgiastic trance; she is hell-bent on duty. They have no choice; it is for this that they doggedly plodded all the way home. So there they were this morning, dotted about among the rushes in shallow water, oblivious and preoccupied with their moment of procreational bliss  — and along comes Hermione.”

Hymn

“For the Beauty of the Earth,” verse 3

“For the wonder of each hour of the day and of the night,
hill and vale and tree and flower, sun and moon and stars of light:
Source of all to thee we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.”

Reading

We rejoin Hermione in the marsh:

“Tenderly she gathers a pair up. The first thing they do is to urinate on her hand. ‘Lovely” seems ever more remote. Unfazed, she peers into their bulging, unblinking eyes with horizontal pupils and lovingly places them into her upturned sweatshirt. She captures another pair and another. Soon her sodden shirt is bulging, so she wades back to the boat and decants her treasure on to its rubber floor. With the bailer she swills in two inches of water. Then she returns to the marsh for more toads. For over an hour she has gathered up hundreds of coitally embracing amphibians. She has achieved a crawling, croaking, eight-foot boatload of fecundity. Three hundred toads are sloshing around her as she climbs in, easing her feet between them so that she can take up the oars. Then she sculls back across the loch to show me her squirming, spawn-strewn consommé of unexpurgated sex. She is beaming all over her face.

At moments like this I have to take a deep breath and think hard. It would be both deflating for Hermione to be told to put them back herself and risky for the toads. Somehow I have to scoop up her over-enthusiasm and redirect it. I also have to sort out my own revulsion. However much I don’t want to climb into that slimy, heaving and croaking boat, I have to. Rowing back to the marsh with her will give me the time I need. I take off my shoes and socks and, still feigning enthusiasm, ease my feet into the cold, crawling, gelatinous soup. I row while Hermione sits in the stern gazing lovingly at her charges.

By the time we reach the marsh my bare feet are a tangle of slime. I have persuaded Hermione that the best thing to do is to put the toads overboard slowly and carefully as I row around, making sure that they are returned in the same sort of spread and density as when she found them. This is a huge success. She is able to pick up each pair in turn, smile into their horizontal pupils and give them a name. We have Jack and Jill, Fred and Wilma, Kermit and Miss Piggy, Pinkie and Perkie…then she begins to run out of names. I offer Hansel and Gretel, Bonnie and Clyde, and Romeo and Juliet, which go down well, but Porgy and Bess, Crosse and Blackwell, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Victoria and Albert are lost on her;  she rejects them as though I don’t properly understand the game.

After five minutes we still have over a hundred pairs to go. I can see this is going to take a while. Luckily the naming quickly palls and we get down to work in earnest. Toads plop over the side every few seconds, sinking to the muddy bottom a few inches below us. Some of the females are trailing ticker tape from their back ends. At last only a mass of tangled spawn is left at the bottom of the boat — an unappetizing caviar —  so that I decide the only thing to do is to get out of the boat in a suitable spot, tip it up so that all the spawn left over after the party slops into the weedy water. Then we judiciously place a few pairs of toads among it so that sperm still being produced can have a fine bonanza wriggling around fertilizing ova in every direction. Hermione is disappointed she can’t see the sperm. I thank heaven we haven’t got to give them names, too.

It is almost certainly the case that even if these three hundred toads and their accumulated spawn had been abandoned in the moored boat, lost, overheated in the sun, or just forgotten, as so often happens when something else attracts children’s attention, it would not have affected the total toad population in the loch. I have not exaggerated;  thousands of toads migrate back to breed in its eight benevolent acres. The loss might not have been significant, but an important dimension of being a naturalist is to respect the fellow creatures with which we share our planet. It is a principle dear to me and one I have taught each of my children from an early age, not just because of this, but also to help them build for themselves a rational defense against the sickly animal-sentimentalism that pervades so much of modern children’s entertainment. The cuddly animal culture does few favors to children or to the animals it purports to represent.

We moor the boat back at the jetty and I wash the slime from my feet before heading home for tea. I am pleased that the toads are home again after their adventure, hopefully unharmed. Hermione has learned a lot about toads. She has a headful of impressions she will remember for the rest of her life. There is much more she will learn in time, but by then I hope that the wonder and the joy of these adventures will have worked their ageless magic, expanded her imagination and shaped her values. Here, perhaps, is where the beauty lies.”

Hymn

“For the Beauty of the Earth,” verse 4

“For the joy of human care, sister brother, parent child,
for the kinship we all share, for all gentle thought sand mild:
Source of all, to thee we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.”

Benediction

May we find beauty even in the common things of life, especially in the unexpected. Blessed be.