Monday, August 8, 2011

"If design govern in a thing so small"

According to my wife (later confirmed by some Internet research) what you are looking at in the picture to the left is a cicada wasp. I was attempting to repair the bare spots in my lawn yesterday when I heard a loud buzzing, and turned around to see the tiny drama of the wasp dragging its prey back to the nest, where apparently the dead cicada would serve as the first meal for a soon-to-be-hatched baby wasp.

While I'm not generally a squeamish person, something about the scene repulsed me, and I found I was deeply disturbed by the notion that such a thing was happening right in front of me. I felt like the wasp should be ashamed of what it was doing. And suddenly I had a flashback to Providence College, and Dr. Barbour's 20th Century American Poetry class. In particular, I recalled the last line of Robert Frost's great poem, Design, which the poet wrote after watching a spider consume a similarly grisly meal. It ends:
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.
This is, as so many of Frost's poems are, much more than a bit of acute observation. In those last two lines, he is calling into question whether someone can believe the universe is designed, if it has order or meaning, when confronted even with this small-scale carnage. To put it more bluntly, why God would allow the cicada or the moth to fall victim to such ruthless predators. Frost lays out a choice: either there is evil design in allowing it to happen, or all is randomness, because the notion of a benevolent designer seems like a sick joke when confronted with the cold reality of death in nature. I have to confess that watching that scene play out on my front lawn, it seemed impossible to reconcile the death of that cicada with a merciful God.

Upon reflection, I have tried to tell myself that the physical world requires balance, and that the predator is needed to balance the prey so that the system as a whole can continue. And a part of me can accept that. But another part of me was compelled to grab my garden hose and drown the wasp in its nest, and still feels now that the punishment was fitting.

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