Nothing humbles us quite as powerfully as those moments wherein the vastness of the universe unfolds as a reminder of how small we are in relation to the cosmos.
We scarcely comprehend the distance between our sun and the nearest star, let alone the unimaginable spaces that separate whole galaxies from one another.
And when our minds grapple with the incomprehensible enormity of a universe that holds countless galaxies in its grasp… Well, is it any wonder so many refuse to even try?
During brief jaunts at White Rock Lake this past weekend I found myself confronted with a different sense of scale, one comparable to our own infinitesimally insignificant size when rested beside the whole of that which contains our planet, our star, our solar system and our galaxy—along with many billions of similar planets and stars and galaxies.
The ground wet with dew and the last tears of a thin veil of fog that still lingered in the air, I stepped carefully as I traversed fields of clover and grass that sparkled in the morning sun. Always mindful of the life filling the shadows beneath each blade, of the marvels scampering about a veritable rain forest that I might consider nothing more than ground cover, I measured each step carefully, each footfall preceded with a sweeping of my shoe before me as warning to those in my path.
Those watching me no doubt believed me mad, what with the slow, cumbersome movement that carried me forward like a gnat through cold molasses. They surely felt I would never make it out of the park before starvation and stagnation claimed me for their own.
Yet I can survive hours in this manner, hours of life carefully paid to the tills of observation and care. Only in this way am I capable of seeing that worth seeing, experiencing the fullness of life that fills every moment whilst going unnoticed by almost all humans.
Katydids and grasshoppers leaping from leaf to leaf… Crickets singing until I came too close for comfort… Mockingbirds winging their way on air washed white with moisture fighting the rising sun for one more moment… Spiders jumping and chasing and running… Dragonflies and damselflies filling every void with the hunt and perch and hunt and perch… Ducks and geese and herons and pelicans rushing from bath to swim to meal to nap… Armadillos racing off to bed while snakes awoke to a new day…
So much life can overwhelm the senses, make one feel too unable to see that which matters. It is precisely at that moment when the importance of scale presents itself.
No larger than my own thumbnail, this juvenile toad leapt before my lumbering form, each landing a dive beneath some smidgen of grass or cluster of clover; nevertheless, its first jump caught my attention and drew me in for a closer look.
Several minutes it took for me to capture it, and several times it escaped my gentle grasp before I lifted it more than a heartbeat above the ground. I smiled in that careful frustration that defines such experiences, that captures the essence of wanting a picture of that which does not share the interest.
Even as I held my subject with the utmost care, I witnessed a myriad of its brothers and sisters making their escapes while my attention focused elsewhere. The ground writhed amidst the carryings on of an amphibian swarm defined by children. I gasped at the profound presence of so many toads and frogs, not one of them larger than the one I held in my hand…and many of them much smaller.
Then my mind wandered to the previous day, to an experience not too dissimilar from the magic I felt then, to an even smaller creature with whom I shared the briefest of experiences.
I watched the ground carefully in an effort to avoid needlessly ending a life. My wet shoes scuffled along like heavy weights tethered to weak legs. Too many innocents fled my approach for me to be careless.
Then a spot of movement caught my eye, a glimmer of spirit racing along at minuscule speeds beneath my lumbering approach. I knelt down for a closer look.
How long it took me to capture the child I cannot say. So small that I feared even my gentlest touch might crush it, I worked diligently to coax it into my palm with tender movements made too large and cumbersome by the disparity of scale that defined our existences.
Only one photo could be taken, one moment captured in digital form. Too much chasing and too much handling, I feared, would lead to some cataclysmic disaster wherein I would take a life through no intent save that of snapping a picture. Such would be unforgivable.
And again my mind wandered, soared from thought to though, from memory to memory…
A sense of scale began to take shape, one defined by an enormity made of my own smallness and characterized by the tiniest of life so placidly held in my grasp. Even as I began to weep from the mystic power revealed to me, I turned away so as not to frighten the creature with the disastrous onslaught of something as small as a tear.
We as individuals feel so small in the face of the universe. We feel so threatened, so challenged by a vastness that questions our long-held sense of superiority, of being the center of the cosmos.
In those moments when I held two lives indescribably small within the confines of my enormous hand, that sense of scale came into focus, made itself manifest in a truth too many ignore and too many revile.
We are small because we think we are small. We are giants because we think we are giants. The truth lies somewhere in between, somewhere along a path of enlightenment that few travel and many renounce.
True strength rests in the peace of gentleness, and real tenderness demands a strength of spirit all but a few lack.
I hope this sense of scale never escapes me, never leaves me questioning, leaves me wondering that, even if I can do a thing, does that mean I must do that thing? Just because I can inflict my superiority upon others in the form of death, does it necessarily follow that I should?
A sense of scale. A sense of humanity.
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Both are of a toad, probably Bufo valliceps or Bufo nebulifer. Neither example was old enough to tell for certain (and both species are so similar that even adults are hard to tell apart). As they grow, as they age, both—assuming they survive—will show the traits more describable by their respective species.
I at first thought I might crop these images to focus more intently on the toads. Further review while writing this post made clear such an approach not only felt hollow, but it would diminish the fierceness of what I experienced. The measure relative to my hand pronounces what matters; emphasis on secondary considerations employs a deception unworthy of the impact.