My brother-in-law, Dr. Ben McIlwaine, is a genius. I don’t say that just because he might read this blog, and I don’t even say it because he had the good sense to marry my sister, Suzette. I say that because Ben has cultivated some acute senses of observation, something that one desires in one’s physician, and which Ben deployed profusely throughout a long and successful medical career. But I’m not referring here to Ben’s highly refined capacity to diagnose and heal.
When Ben was a boy, his father would take him for long walks in the woods and there, the elder McIlwaine, a Presbyterian clergyman, would tell young Ben all about the birds they heard. Soon, Ben could identify even the most arcane of avian creatures. A deep love developed for the lives of birds, a love that survives, thrives, and drives Ben even in adulthood.
In fact, that love astonishes me. Whenever we’ve had occasion to hike together, where I hear a bird tweeting somewhere, Ben hears a female, tufted titmouse expressing anxiety over a threat. Where I hear a shrill cry come from the direction of a winged shape in the sky, Ben hears the mating call of a Cooper’s Hawk. I look up in the sky and see a lot of little birds. Ben looks at the same sky and sees barn swallows, wrens, and sparrows. It seems that the love born in the woods of his childhood brings the world into sharper detail, but isn’t that what love always does? It celebrates the details of the beloved and weaves of the world a rich tapestry.
And so it was the other day Vicki and I took a hike along the north bank of the Cahaba River near our home. Vicki was exulting in the tiny late summer flowers we found dotting the tree line. That’s when we saw some delicate orange-colored blooms peeking out from under some rich, green, spear-shaped leaves. I pulled out my iPhone and made a couple of photos. I then texted the pictures to Ben and Suzette. I said, “Look what we found down by the Cahaba! They’re beautiful and I don’t even know what they are! I’ve never seen them before.”
Well, guess what? Ben had seen them before. He texted back that those flowers were impatiens capensis, otherwise known as “orange jewelweed.” He told us how his father would strip off the leaves from the weed, crush them, and make a paste which he’d rub on poison ivy to relieve the itch. “It worked,” Ben said, and a pediatrician cousin would take those leaves, put them in rubbing alcohol and use it to soothe his patient’s poison ivy. If Ben had been on that walk with us, where we saw pretty little flowers, he would’ve seen impatiens capensis, “orange jewelweed,” and the presence of a past relationship and the knowledge it imparted would still live. Love yields detail – and the relationship that yields the detail remains, even when the flesh and blood are gone.
And so, thus sensitized, I walked out into the garden behind our home. On the butterfly bush by the birch tree in the rear of the yard were a half dozen orange butterflies with wings fluttering. One of them landed on a zinnia near me. That’s when I thought, “I’m going to look at the detail,” and rather than take a global picture of the butterfly bush with a half dozen flickering orange shapes, I got close to ONE butterfly as it flexed its wings. It’s not just “orange!” Now I notice the intricacy, the extravagant beauty in that small space, a lavish tapestry of line and color, all of which emerged from what used to be a little caterpillar.
I think I want to do a better job of noticing the cornucopia of beauty in the little things that live right under my nose. If more of us did that, perhaps we wouldn’t be as indifferent to bulldozing a wood or filling in a wetland. Perhaps we’d discover love growing – because we took the time to notice the details.
Take time. Notice. A loving relationship lies therein.