Friday, April 21, 2006

The desert and the well

An essay by Martin Kemp in the April 13 issue of Nature takes note of the symbolism of ostrich eggs in classical myth and medieval Christian art. The ostrich was called the camel-sparrow by the ancients. It was believed the bird could incubate its eggs by staring at them -- this at a time when vision was thought to involve emanations from the eye. Christian writers and artists used the ostrich egg to remind worshippers to keep their eyes fixed firmly on Christ.

All of which reminds me of a wonderful poem about the ostrich by a favorite poet of mine, Marianne Moore. 'He "Digesteth Harde Yron"' is a rich meditation on our relationship with animals, and by extenson with the natural world. The heart of the poem is the line "The power of the visible is the invisible." I've never been quite sure what Moore was getting at here, but I think her message is rather like that of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince: "What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well."

We celebrate on this site the reliable knowledge of science, living gorgeously in the sensual, but we know too that what makes the world beautiful is something that eludes the empiricist. This is not to admit the supernatural, only to affirm that the complexity of the world so far (and perhaps forever) eludes the limitations of our senses and mental powers. Even as we celebrate what human ingenuity has expressed through the artifice of natural law, we know too there is something that might be loosely called "brute courage" that resides unexpressed and possibly inexpressible in every star, every atom, and, of course, every "alert gargantuan little-winged, magnificently speedy running-bird." To admit the inexpressible into our lives is not superstition but humility.

(And, yes, my phoebe produced a second small white egg, on schedule, one a day. I can expect two or three more over the weekend. Then the sit.)