All winter I had searched for voluntary moss on the roof in front of my studio window. Plump chunks of shocking apple green life popping out of cracks in crazy black antediluvian tar paper. (Perhaps this should be a poem – a poem about the days before the great flood. … No! Way beyond my skills.) Anyway, the moss is gone now.
First, roofers came one morning to fix a leak. With a blowtorch and patches of fresh tar paper, they transplanted that happy moss from the convent roof into my wistful memory. Then yesterday we had a blizzard that crushed any possibility of moss life that might have survived the blue flames and black mud from the roofer.
With foam you have to be gentle, like birthing a new paradigm…like raising a child. Moss has no (visible) roots – too young in evolutionary history to be considered “true plants”.
Its thin, non-vascular structure lacks the prowess of gravity-defying stems. Blankets of it lay prostrate for hundreds of millions of years as giant ferns and woody plants rose high from the forest floor. Moss does his job near the curve of the planet, barely claiming the dirt he hugs. It is as easily moved as any exuberant cause of joy.
We classify it according to what it lacks: division Bryophyta – rootless, flowerless, grouped in an academic tank with liverworts.
How did it get there — this subject of my daily devotion, on the roof no less — when nothing else in the world below looks green or orderly? Promiscuous spores – blown by the wind? Bird-delivered? Did he ask to grow up here?
Before it was extinguished by the blowtorch, there was barely enough to line a small Easter basket, let alone a coffin like people did in the past before they had a choice between velvet or satin. Mindful of our respective humble states, we greeted each other each morning as we settled in to do our work – Sister Moss tattooing the rare rays of the January sun into rudimentary leaves to make useful sugar. Me, still sullen from last night’s moon, trying to turn the milky light into sharp, perpendicular words. We were there for each other for quite a while, until she ended up with fire, a thick black layer and ice.
Under the microscope, its architecture was stunning. More infrastructure than mass. More light than substance… a fabric so translucent it was hard to tell which filament was above or below the others. Focusing is tricky – whether you’re a pair of optical lenses in a microscope, or a scholar of archaeological scriptures, or a soul searching for the face of the beloved.
We come from a long line of voyeurs.
Ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans used crystal shards, obsidian slices as magnifying lenses. In the 15th century, Galileo made a tube to spy on the sky. A little later, van Leeuwenhoek probed the depths of the dewdrops.
Fast forward to 1847 on Nantucket Island, when an American astronomer and poet, Maria Mitchell, captured a comet in her tiny lens. She lovingly said to her students, “Mind the light of the stars in your lives and you will not be bothered by trifles.”
Since then, we’ve been aiming deeper into the microrealms and higher light years into the sky. Projects such as SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and the Hubble Space Telescope have encouraged our imagination.
Years ago, a colleague/friend from the biology department and I discovered an unusual insect on the bark of a ginkgo in our college arboretum. We affectionately called it the “Mystery Bug” because it eluded identification in all the entomology books on our reference shelves. It challenged all of our reliable insect experts. It was neither “a kind of mealworm” nor “a kind of leafhopper”, as an entomological botanist cleverly suggested.
The creature came as a surprise – a pure gift. We weren’t about to pin him to a black velvet cushion, or slam him on a lab bench like a dead cat to see what was inside. It presented itself with an opportunity: to step back and question, to find within ourselves a silence of speech and action – a suspension of knowing and need know what this creature could continue to thrive in and know us in our Glory – curious and clueless, reveling in his mysterious holy life. It alerted us to the immense unknown that we often obscure through efforts to explain the world and tame it into facts.
Since that discovery, no tree in the arboretum sparkled with the possibility of secrets. Suddenly, scrutinizing every inch of bark has become a morning meditation, a lunchtime school outing, vespers by torchlight. We found others. Or maybe they found us.
On one occasion we transported it in a Petri dish to the lab. Under 20x magnification, we saw six insect legs and claws emerging from the end of the head or tail.
But the astonishing aspect of this individual was — that he was not an individual at all. This creature dragged on its back, like Atlas, an entire ecosystem. We spotted algal hairs and fungal threads, and even a single-celled, amoeba-like passenger before leading her back to her tree.
I then made a vow to teach – not from the facts – but from the mystery. I would stage it if necessary; strap the students to their lab benches until the mystery takes hold of them, pierces their hearts, launches them into the quest of their lives.
I am sure that the metaphorical message of this creature will not escape us, my dear worried and curious earthlings. How heavy are the ecosystems we carry on our aching collective backs! Do we even know who is here with us – sharing our bodies, creating our soil, looking down on us from the heavens? Oh, the elegant eyes and ears that we humans have equipped to find them!
In a few months, we will see, with meticulously crafted metal eyes, what the highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope will show us.
Wait. What are we still looking for? The beginning of time? A glimpse of nothingness before there was anything? Wait. What if this brand new telescope saw the face of God? (Who among us will come forward to confirm or deny it?)
And after all, what are we looking for? otherwise the face of God?
Someone who looks back and doesn’t turn away. someone who is looking for we in the eyes of Easter.
What would it mean to be seen, and to see the whole world, through Easter eyes?
PS The Mystery Bug has subsequently been identified. No fearsome insect, but the larval stage of the green lacewing: Chrysoperla rufilabrisa beneficial insect that we are happy and very honored to have among us.