Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Kingdom of God is Like…a Vernal Pool Ecosystem

The Kingdom parables combine Jesus’ favorite topic with his preferred pedagogy. They usually start “The kingdom of God is like…” and then go on to describe something that is empirically unimpressive that is infused with a more fundamental and powerful reality. Yeast is hardly visible but makes bread possible, the mustard seed is among the smallest of the seeds but grows into an enormous plant[1] and the ordinary field conceals treasure hidden just beneath the surface. [2]

Far from the uncritical reading that the ‘kingdom of God’[3] is talking about a future ‘pie in the sky,’[4] disembodied, ethereal state…Jesus is talking about an empirically subtle parallel reality that is more fundamentally real than our reality. In this reality, God rules truly (hence the kingdom language) and it occasionally breaks through into our reality. ‘Your kingdom come,’ is not a prayer for the end of the world but that we would be rooted enough in true reality to make this one reflect it more accurately.

One of the primary features of Jesus’ parables was their situatedness. Even the most rudimentary mental picture of Judean peasant life demonstrates that he was doing HIGHLY contextualized theology, telling the story of Israel’s liberation with the cultural furnishings of the life of a Judean peasant. I was once in a Bible study where the leader asked us to re-tell the yeast parable using something from our profession or daily life. Mine sucked. I have tried to think of better examples several times with limited success. But now I have one. The Kingdom of God is like…a Vernal Pool Ecosystem.

I am taking my first entomology class this quarter: Aquatic Invertebrate Ecology. It is simply thrilling.[5] I could not have predicted[6] how engaging I would find bugs that live under rocks. But the other amazing thing about this ‘lab class’[7] is that most of the labs are field trips. Are you kidding me?!? As if the class wasn’t already fun enough.[8]

All of that to say…our first field trip was to a set of ‘vernal pools.’ Now, vernal pools are not impressive. It is a fancy way of saying ‘really big puddle that accumulates during spring rains and dries during the summer.’ They totally fit the criteria for the topic of a Kingdom of God parable…visually unremarkable. And that is why they constitute a threatened ecosystem…because no one thinks twice before tiling them up for crop land…surely there is nothing of sublime beauty and intrinsic worth in these mucky puddles. You see, the Kingdom of God, is like a vernal pool ecosystem…empirically unremarkable but intrinsically stunning.


Careful attention to these glorified puddles tells the story of a subtle but astonishing reality. They are home to one of the most remarkable aquatic ecosystems in the world. I expected an invertebrate sample of one of these pools to turn up some wormy things and some beetley things and a few squirmy things (I am still cultivating my entomological vocabulary). Instead, the samples told the story of a complex and intricate food web dominated by creatures that look like they should be from another planet and the oldest living animal found on our own.

Vernal pools are dominated by fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp.[9] The fairy shrimp is aptly named. It is a sublime, translucent back swimmer (we saw one, but I didn’t get a good picture - so I borrowed). It is unlike anything I have ever seen. If I saw it on a nature show I would guess that it lived in an eccentric brackish estuary of Brazil or Malaysia, not in a glorified cow puddle 25 minutes from my house.

But the real shocker was the tadpole shrimp. Triopsidae have been around for 300 million years, giving them the title of ‘oldest living animal.’ They are found in temporary waters on six continents. Our most ancient organism, our oldest living fossil, makes its home in temporary waters around the earth, but almost no one knows about them because transient puddles are perceived as unremarkable.
So that is my yeast parable. The Kingdom of God is like a vernal pool, it does not appear to be much, but it is infused with a truer, more sublime, reality that can break through into our mundane existence if you are looking for it. But the Jepson Prairie vernal pools that we visited also work as a parable of the ‘treasure in the field.’ The way this parable goes, when you find a field that has buried treasure, you sell all you have to buy the field, because it is worth far more than it seems. That is what the Nature Conservancy did with Jepson Prairie. Realizing that vernal pools were being tilled at an alarming rate, they went out and bought these (at, presumably, a huge price). To most people they looked like big puddles, but the TNC realized that they had far more value than the vast majority of people perceived. That is what the Kingdom of God is like.

This post was prepared while listening to Brother Sun, Sister Moon by mewithoutyou

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[1] That is ecologically important. I have always liked the detail in this passage that the mustard plant “so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches."
[2] And the theme that God often inhabits the empirically unremarkable is a broad theme in the larger text. The tabernacle housed ‘the glory of God’ (whatever that means) but was essentially a tent of cow hides. And in 2 Cor 4 Paul translates Jesus’ agrarian peasant analogies to a more ‘urban’ context: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (Note: I love referring to Paul as ‘urban.’ It is historically correct. Jesus was small town (another way in which God consistently chose to inhabit the empirically unimpressive) and Paul was thoroughly cosmopolitan. If it calls to mind the Apostle listening to hip hop and decked out in ‘bling,’ well, that is just bonus.)
[3] Or, in Matthew, ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’ Matthew will often tell exactly the same stories but with just one word replaced. The standard theory on this is that Matthew was writing to Jewish background Christians who were exceptionally careful about how they used the word G-d on second commandment grounds.
[4] This phrase is often used derisively to deconstruct religious hopes in a future better world…essentially mocking their lack of present utility. Here’s the thing, though. I LOVE pie. If you want to deconstruct Christian eschatology, you may want to choose a less compelling word picture.
[5] My Ecology graduate program does not start until the fall, but I have been taking classes to get up to speed all year. I have found each of them entirely satisfying and so full of wonder and intrigue that ‘thrilling’ is the only word that seems to consistently capture how I have felt about them. Now, you don’t accumulate the number of degrees I have without having a pathological enjoyment of learning…but this is different. I simply like biology better than math or engineering. Only my theology degree was comparably enjoyable. I finally think I know why. Because biology is a narrative in a way that math and engineering are not. By the end of a quantitative class, you know how to do something, but by the end of a biology class, you have another clue to the grand narrative of life. Each class is like an episode of Lost, leaving you desperate for the next piece of information that might move the story forward (though, like Lost, new insight usually opens more questions than it resolves).
[6] But, in retrospect, maybe I could have predicted it…since I find the rocks themselves so compelling.
[7] For those of you who were not science majors, lab classes are extraordinarily bad deals, credit wise. I never understood how 3 extra hours in class and almost 100% more work somehow only added one credit to a 3 credit class. I call it the science tax…but I digress.
[8] Here is my first insect collection (mostly Bietiae Ephemeroptera, with one very cool Placoptera and a water mite) and a Megaloptera (the most bad ass of all the aquatic insects) that someone else found in the same trip.

[9] It is their temporary nature that provides this unique niche…as the invertebrate communities of most fresh water are dominated by insects. The shrimp can survive the dry season in a cyst form, hatch before insects can colonize, and out compete for the pools resources. But they do not do well elsewhere because they are especially vulnerable to fish predation…which is conveniently absent in the temporary waters. It is a rare convergence of conditions that make being a crustacean an unqualified plus in fresh water.

1 comment:

JMBower said...

I don't hesitate to say that I enjoyed every aspect of this post. Well done. I have to admit, upon just reading the title, my first thought was "...it's full of larvae and shrimp?". I am much happier with your take on it.
I am definitely enjoying, however vicariously, your ecology experience. I remain jealous in a purely academically inspired way, if such a thing is possible.