Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Uncommon Encounters

When was the last time you stumbled upon something uncommon? I mean some thing or some event that is (or was) unlikely? It happened to me just recently. I was travelling along a winding back-country road just east of California’s Salinas Valley when a bald eagle flew over my truck. The sight of its strikingly white head and tail feathers is not an everyday occurrence in these parts, and I got a little excited.

It was obviously intent on where it was going. Its flight was direct and descending. I pulled off of the road to take a closer look just as it swooped down on a juvenile coyote that I just then noticed.

Wow! I thought, as I began fumbling for my camera. This is great. As it turned out, the eagle decided against grabbing the coyote. The young canine saw it coming and was ready to put up a fight. At the last minute, the eagle flew off in another direction and both of us – the dog and I – watched it fly away.

For several minutes after that, the coyote canted back and forth across the narrow valley. It was clearly agitated and, despite my proximity, it continued looking back in the direction of the eagle. It kept acting this way for several minutes, even after I could no longer see the eagle in the sky. I felt a little guilty being so happy when the poor coyote was so upset.

The truth is that I get excited over every coyote that I see. I might see half a dozen or more every year but it still gives me a thrill. And seeing a bald eagle is even more exciting. I am lucky if I see one or two a year. I knew that seeing them both together, in such an unlikely juxtaposition, was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I have also come to appreciate that such rarely experienced moments make life so much more enjoyable. Experiences of the uncommon and the rare remain in our minds and hearts. They are the stories we tell at parties and to our children and grandchildren. Sharing them with others very often creates a bond between those experiencing them together. Is it any wonder that sacred texts insist on the fact that holiness is uncommon – or that God Himself requires us never to refer to His handiwork as common?

The Apostle Peter, referring to the dietary restrictions in the Law of Moses declared that, “I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” And then the author to the Epistle to the Hebrews states that (referring to Christ) He is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens…”

What is there, exactly, between these apparently unrelated things – I mean between the uncommon, the clean and the holy? For starters, maybe it would be best to look at what it actually means to be rare or uncommon.

Scientists have come up with a fairly precise vocabulary for unlikely things.  Here is Kevin Gaston’s rather formal definition of rarity: “Rarity is merely the current status of an extant organism which, by any combination of biological or physical factors, is restricted either in numbers or area to a level that is demonstrably less than the majority of other organisms of comparable taxonomic entities.”

This is fairly complex way of saying that, for living things, something could be rare in a couple of different ways. A species could be rare because there are only a few individuals left in the wild. Or it might be rare even though there are still many individuals alive in the wild if they only occur in a restricted place.

An example of the former kind of rarity would be the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) – assuming that it still survives. It probably disappeared from the United States several decades ago, although reports in the Deep South occasionally raise our hopes that some may still survive there. The more realistic possibility, though, is that if it survives at all, it does so only in small numbers in the remote forests of Cuba.

An example of the second kind of rarity might be the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata). This tree is restricted to a fairly small area in coastal California, although it has been bread for lumber and grows, in modified form, in a much larger area. There are still quite a few truly wild Monterey pines left in the tree’s native habitat, but they only occur in a fairly restricted area.

When should an animal or plant be considered rare, or just uncommon? The answer to this apparently simple question is not simple. There is a broad area of overlap. But it isn’t the academic definition of rarity that I wish to discuss. Of course the definitions and the philosophical clarity are important. But this understanding does little to explain the thrill of actually running into something unusual.

The thrill itself is not rational. It is visceral. It starts with a rational awareness, it is true. But then something beyond reason happens when one experiences a real encounter with the uncommon. Let me give an example.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have followed the plight of the California condor. For some reason it’s rarity and its unusual Latin name (Gymnogyps californianus) captured my imagination. I worried about it becoming extinct and followed with great interest the stories of the captive breeding efforts to save it.

In 2010, I was travelling with my friend Steve along Highway One in coastal California. Steve is an accomplished birder and we were hoping to finally spot a condor. At the time of our trip, the breeding program had been successful enough that several dozens of birds had been released into the wild. And some of them were known to be living along the coast.

At one point we had pulled off to the side of the road to look for seals when Steve spotted a couple flying high above us. We got a fairly good look before they disappeared behind a small mountain to the west.

We now knew that we were in the right area and so continued on the lookout as we managed the winding coastal highway. At one particularly steep curve we noticed a small group of cars suddenly stopping just as another condor flew overhead. Then we saw another one, and a third.

We stopped quickly, I grabbed the camera, and we both stumbled out of the truck onto the road, staring at the sky – thankfully there were no other cars passing just then. Something had attracted the rare birds and we found half a dozen of them perched on a rocky outcropping not far down the steep embankment between the road and the Pacific Ocean.

This was an unimaginable thrill for both of us. For me personally, having believed most of my life that I would probably never see this impressive bird, I was both thrilled and half dazed. Could this really be happening? And then, as if to make the moment even more unreal, Steve exclaimed incredulously, “Sam, look, there’s a peregrine falcon off to the right.”

This truly was incredible. The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is another uncommon bird. It had been devastated by the excessive use of DDT years ago and was considered rare throughout my youth. Thankfully, its numbers have been increasing in recent years. But still, I had only seen it one other time, many years before, when an unlikely pair decided to nest on a tall building in downtown Salt Lake City. To see it at that very moment only made me giddier than I already was. It was a sensational experience. 

I am convinced that it is the combination of awareness, and of personal immediate experience that can make uncommon moments sacred. This may seem a bit sacrilegious to those who would restrict sacred things to the purview of religion. My belief is that encounters with the Created world should often be religious experiences of a sort.

Consider the word sacred itself. It comes from the Latin sanctus meaning consecrated, holy, sacred, inviolable. It was used anciently to describe such things as deities, liberty, the dead, emperors, even the Roman senate. 

But our word sanctuary also comes from the same root. While it’s true that we often think of a sanctuary in a temple or a church, it can also be used to describe a place for animals and plants. A sanctuary is a place to protect these creatures from hunting and fishing, etc. It is perfectly proper, both from religious and historical contexts, to refer to created beings as sacred.

And what is maybe even more unusual, there is precedent for considering all of God’s creations in the same light. And the way that this is to be done is to gain a perspective that even common things – like human beings, for example – are really quite unusual after all.

In her book, The Rarest of the Rare, Diane Ackerman writes, “Sometimes it is difficult for us collectors of rare artifacts such as paperweights or buttons or paintings to understand that we ourselves are rare… We are among the rarest of the rare not because of our numbers, but because of the unlikeliness of our being here at all.”

Ackerman is not arguing from a religious context. Biologists that may not recognize any creator other than Mother Nature can still talk about the unlikeliness of mankind. Steven J. Gould (the late evolutionary biologist and essayist from Harvard University) was fond of pointing out that all of life’s many branches were caused by chance events, and that if our evolutionary past were to be replayed, nothing would turn out the same way again.

But of course this is only one perspective. The reality is that we have no first-hand knowledge of much of the Creation. Nor can we rely on scientific inference to provide us with unerring guidance about the past. Some things we will never know as sojourners here below.

But consider the further words of Peter as he recounts in greater detail his vision of why the gospel should be taken to the world: “but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”

I know this seems odd. How can a relatively large mammal (ourselves) numbering in the billions be considered uncommon? Yet if Ackerman can imagine our human uniqueness and call it rare among living things, is there not something to Peter’s realization that all of God’s children are worthy of special notice?

Another way to look at this is to consider the words vulgar or profane. Most of us think that vulgar refers to something crude or boorish. And in fact, these are legitimate definitions of the word. But they aren’t the only ones. In fact vulgar originally had reference to masses of people, or to the language spoken by the common man. The Latin Vulgate – or the Biblia Sacra Vulgata – is an early translation of the Bible into the common language of ancient Rome.

The word profane – referring to irreverence or blasphemy – can also refer to common or vulgar things. In many ways, profanity is the improper relegation of sacred things to common use – speaking of deeply meaningful religious realities in an offhanded or disrespectful way.

Given this religious and biological perspective, it soon becomes clear that most of us are guilty of a chronic and of a crass profanity. I mean that we look upon sacred beings – I mean other people and even sadly upon ourselves – as if we were just so many warm bodies.

This happens because of our failing to grasp the first part of the two-fold path to the sacred (I mean that we fail to be aware of what we see). When I pulled off to the side of the road to watch a bald eagle, I did so because I knew that I was seeing something unusual. While the remarkable natural scene was being played out, a few other cars drove by without noticing anything at all. It is this lack of awareness that makes us miss the sacred – that makes our world so profane.

Years ago, while driving along Highway 40 in western Colorado, Kathy and I happened upon a crackle of Mormon crickets. Many of them were engorged from feeding and their bodies were full of nutritious morsels that would be allocated to their offspring.

The adult females, in particular, were fat and each carried a long egg-laying blade (called an ovipositor) at the end of its abdomen. As a group they hopped and scuttled over the ground and into the tender vegetation that covers the high Colorado Desert in the spring.

Some of the crickets had started to cross the road only to be run-over by passing vehicles. Other crickets, eager to benefit from these flattened storehouses of food, were then moving into the road to eat them. Many of these crickets would also get run over, and soon the highway became slick with dead cannibalistic crickets.

Kathy and I stopped to see what was going on. When I discovered the crickets, I quickly grabbed a few and plopped them into a bottle of alcohol. They were fairly easy to catch because they don’t have wings. I was thrilled (I guess you can sort of see the pattern here). Mormon crickets are not very commonly seen.

They have become part of the history of the Inter-Mountain West because of the damage they caused to the crops of the Mormon settlers. There are a handful of accounts from the mid-19th Century telling of millions of these crickets devouring the sorely needed crops of pioneer families. 

In desperation, these inexperienced farmers prayed for relief whereupon hundreds (perhaps thousands) of gulls descended on the crickets en-masse. Accounts tell of the birds engorging themselves to the point of regurgitation, only to return to the arthropod feast and eat some more. There is a monument to these avian miracles on Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.

And, for whatever reason, the efficiency of the gulls seems to gain even more traction because nobody sees the crickets anymore. Most members of the Mormon Church know the story of the Mormon crickets, but very few could ever recognize one of the insects even if they saw it. The reason seems clear enough. Almost nobody ever does see one.

They are primarily restricted to the tops of high mountains – above tree-line. I have seen them on a few occasions as I have climbed some of the peaks in Colorado and Utah. But it seems that they only come down into cultivated areas rarely or in a few isolated places.

I have come to look upon the time of our lucky encounter with these insects with soberness. It combined the discovery of an uncommon creature with a sacred tradition. And the result somehow made the whole experience much more poignant.

I don’t believe that we have to be in the presence of something rare to experience this thrill. If this were true, very few of us would ever experience it. Some people may never experience it with living things. Perhaps they know the thrill from seeing an original Rembrandt painting or a rare golden coin. These can all be very exciting.

Finding an uncommon being, however, should be an extra meaningful experience among followers of the Judeo/Christian tradition. The Creation, after all, is part of our theology. A rare painting is not. Seeking them out can be one of life’s great pleasures.

It can also be addicting, although finding them can hardly be predicted. The hope, however, that I might find something unusual often compels me to start looking through maps and planning my next trip only days after I return from my last junket into the wild. I can never get enough. And I think we are made this way for a reason. We are supposed to be inspired by sacred things.


The New Testament references to Peter are in Acts 10:14 and 28. The reference in Hebrews is in Chapter 7, verse 26. On Gaston’s definition of rarity see, What is Rarity?; in, Kunin and Gaston’s The Biology of Rarity, Chapman and Hall, 1997. Ackerman’s quote on rarity from The Rarest of the Rare is in the introduction (on page xviii). You’ll have to excuse me for the phrase “a crackle of Mormon crickets” but I couldn’t resist the urge to use James Lipton’s interesting phrase (and a very appropriate phrase in our case of treaded insects). His book, An Exaltation of Larks, is a wonderful collection of nouns of multitude – or terms of venery as Lipton prefers. For a detailed account of the “Miracle of the gulls” see William Hartley’s “Mormons, Crickets, and Gulls: A New Look at an Old Story,” Utah Historical Quarterly 38 (summer 1970): 224-239.

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