Often Google+ is filled with images of improbably beautiful scenes: Paradise-like beach resorts, pristine lakes and streams, and other images that defy description. Occasionally someone will also post a photo of a fantastic tropical bird or other magnificent creature. Given the tools that are available for manipulating and enhancing photographic images, many of these images may not be real. They often seem too close to perfect. Sometimes some incongruity in the photograph, such as shadows that fall in different directions, gives away the deception. Nonetheless, these images are pleasant to view and elicit considerable appreciative and awe-filled comments.
In most of the world that ordinary humans inhabit, the natural world offers beauty that seems to fall far short of perfection.
Autumn in particular is a time when the face of the natural world shows its wrinkles and flaws. The bright breeding plumage of the birds that we see in spring and summer gives way to dull camouflage. Leaves on most deciduous trees turn red, yellow, and orange, which provides a few moments of new beauty, but that is only the outward manifestation of the mechanisms by which the trees prepare for the hardships of winter.
This mockingbird and his surroundings illustrate autumn in the northern hemisphere’s temperate zone. The tree is a pussywillow. The leaves don’t turn colors in the fall, and the tree doesn’t wait for the first frost to begin shutting down for winter. In late August the leaves start to curl up, turn brown, and fall off. Even before the leaves fall, however, the buds for next year’s flowers have formed.
From a distance the mockingbird looks much the same as he did in the spring, but a closer inspection shows that he appears to have aged. I don’t know enough about bird physiology to say whether this bird is healthy or not. He had been picking insects from the leaves and branches before this photo was taken. He will migrate to his winter territory soon, but I don’t know if he will make it or not. If he doesn’t, perhaps he and his mate produced some offspring who will return to this area next spring.
So autumn reveals a beauty in the natural world in our backyard that is not readily visible. Absent some events that we can’t now foresee, this tree will be covered with small gray, then yellow catkins in late winter. Mockingbirds, among them either this bird or his offspring, will return to mate and rear their young nearby. The beauty isn’t in the outward appearance, but in the mechanisms for renewal that are built into creation.
Thinking about the cyclical nature of life in our backyard does raise the question of what redemption of the natural world will mean. Will plants, birds, and animals cease to die and decay in the world to come? What, then, is the place of microorganisms that are a part of the decaying process in the new Jerusalem? But those are questions to be answered on another day.