Somewhere in her luminous novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson describes a storm that blows the roof off of a chicken coop. In describing the reactions of the chickens to this event, Robinson penned a line that caused several high profile reviewers to pause so as to linger over the line. The reactions of the birds to their little catastrophe were, Robinson wrote just “chickens being chickens.” It’s hard to say why this commonplace line arrested people’s attention. Maybe it’s because they thought she’d labor over some eloquent analogy or some noticeably clever turn-of-phrase. But no, instead Robinson revealed both her own keen insight into the nature of things and the spare eloquence of her prose by simply letting chickens be chickens.
I thought of that line a few times this past week while my wife and I took a little vacation to southern California. We were blessed to have a hotel room with a balcony right on the Pacific Ocean. The shore bird activity was incessant. A colony of maybe a 100 sea lions was all of 75 yards away. After getting home, we both agreed that one of the best delights of the week had been simply sitting on that balcony observing things. The sea lions were a constant source of delight as their barks, calls, coughs, and other vocalizations were just generally fun to hear but now and then there would be noises that caused us to burst out laughing. Their coughs can sound utterly human. Sometimes their brayings sounded like someone who had had too much beer and nachos.
Then there were the Heerman’s Gulls. They had a series of calls that sounded exactly like a cascade of human laughter, as though some stand-up comedian had caused an entire audience of people to burst out into a very sustained guffaw over something really funny. In any event, we most certainly chuckled repeatedly over the more raucous of these gull outbursts.
At a beach one day while hiking and looking at tide pools, we also noted a very small little plover (not sure which kind) that hung out in groups of a couple dozen. Their pattern was consistent: as a wave withdrew, they scurried to pick out of the sand whatever it is they feed on. But as the next wave came in moments later, they were like synchronized swimmers at the Olympics as their tiny, stick-like legs moved furiously as the whole flock ran back to dry sand, only to repeat the whole funny little spectacle a moment later.
When I asked my wife what I should blog about today (since we arrived home a day later than planned and I need to scramble to get this blog posted!), she suggested to write about what a good sense of humor God has in creating these delightful creatures. And I think God does have a good sense of humor–the neck of the giraffe, the lack of neck on a hippopotamus, the barks of sea lions and the laughter of gulls: this is all funny stuff. At the same time, I think it also just reflects the diversity of God’s creative imagination. In the end, sea lions, Heerman’s Gulls, scampering plovers are not trying to entertain anyone: they are just being what they were made to be. Sea lions being sea lions, gulls being gulls, plovers being plovers. Each is wonderful in its own right, each reflecting yet anther aspect of God’s handiwork. It’s easy to anthropomorphize these creatures but it’s also enough just to let them be what they were made to be. They are what they are whether we are looking or listening or not.
Alas, in our workaday worlds, we don’t usually notice or l0ok or listen to whatever part of creation is around us at any given moment. But when, usually on vacation, we take the chance to do so, the world God made reveals itself once more to be a pretty amazing place even when nothing more is happening than creatures being creatures.
I am back in slate-gray, snowy (and at the moment icy rainy) Michigan and those creatures that brought us delight are a long ways off. But they are still doing their thing this very moment. They are just being. And that’s a wonderful thing to ponder.