I once almost rolled a Land Rover to avoid hitting a dung beetle. I spotted it in the nick of time as it was rolling its ball of elephant dung down a sandy track. Screeching to a sideways halt, teetering momentarily on two wheels, my passengers screamed, “What’s wrong!” “Nothing!” I replied. “Look! A dung beetle!”
My weirdness this way was cultivated from a young age.
At age five or six, I would spend a good bit of the day wandering around the pasture near my birth home in Kenya, digging in cow dung for dung beetles or searching the bushes for chameleons. Dung beetles fascinated me. Quarter-sized, black and shiny, helmeted and appearing from seemingly nowhere to dig holes underneath a cow pie where they would bury quantities of the dung as a food source for the eggs that would eventually hatch into young.
I’d come home covered in cow dung, often with an angry chameleon dangling from my collar, to be hosed off by my mother. She was so proud.
As I matured, eventually doing away with such childish behavior, I turned my more adult attention to another species of African dung beetle, Scarabaeus zambesianus. Known also as a telecoprid by virtue of the fact that this one rolls dung into balls, it carefully navigates obstacles to arrive at the exact location of its hole. New research has shown that these beetles can use polarization from the moonlight for navigation – the only species on earth known to do so.
The fact that that dung beetles are coprophages (feces eaters) is inescapable; yet my admiration grows. It is also the case that dung beetles account for vast amounts of carbon sequestration. Without dung beetles, greenhouse gases (from methane produced by animals) would be orders of magnitude greater than at present, more than all the vehicle exhaust on earth.
So great is my admiration for these little creatures that they became an icon for a rite of passage each of my sons endured upon their graduation from high school. In a backyard ceremony among select classmates and like-minded fathers, each son was presented with a brass sculpture of a dung beetle that they were advised to keep in a prominent location as a reminder that greatness and importance can arise from the meanest of contributions. (I used other, less flowery language at the time.)
Beyond dung beetles, what I’m really talking about is love. Love of the earth and its creatures – all that which God has created and imbued with God’s likeness. Some call creation the “original incarnation” as attested to by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans:
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (1:20).
Yes, I was and am in love with dung beetles and several other of God’s creatures, I might add – the Jackson’s chameleon, the Paradise Flycatcher and Acacia tortilis, and more recently, the White-breasted Nuthatch, the Eastern Phoebe and the Tupelo Black Gum. These, among many other flowering trees and plants from which I derive great comfort this spring, are objects of my love and affection on the 50th iteration of Earth Day on April 22. This has been especially so during the season of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Perhaps fear immobilizes us, stopping the flow of love that is so essential to all nature.”
Whether or not the statement “fear is the opposite of love” is true in all circumstances, it’s certainly been my experience that love is the more powerful. When I’m overcome with fear because of the known or unknown, love has proven a consistent antidote. Not just feelings of love, but the expression of it.
Perhaps fear immobilizes us, stopping the flow of love that is so essential to all nature. If we believe, as the mystics suggest, that we can only know God by loving God, then noticing, receiving and passing on God’s love from that which bears God’s image (everything?) is a good start. Surely this flow is central to the trinitarian nature of God.
Echoing Meister Eckhart, Matthew Fox, the priest, theologian and creation spiritualist, “commands” us according to his “via positiva” to “fall in love at least three times a day; not just with a human being but with wild flowers, and trees, and forests and fishes, oceans, animal, birds, poems and music. We are here to fall in love and falling in love three times a day is a minimal requirement for being alive” (interview on earthrestorativejustice.org, emphasis mine).
Excellent advice for us on Earth Day 2020 – and all the uncertain days that follow.