Wonder, Bread

Seeking the sacred in the mundane world

Jay Berrones

Let us begin with wonder. Actually, let us begin with Wonder Bread. I don't remember what took me to the Oregon seacoast on the day I want to tell about. My memory begins as I was standing by my car on the south jetty on a gray day. I was watching sea lions dive for fish along a rock gabion that jutted into the channel. What had caught my attention was the small cloud that appeared each time a sea lion snorted to clear its nostrils. It was a measure of how cold the day was, and how hot and wet the sea lion's lungs must have been, and I was thinking about the miraculous transformation of cold wet fish flesh into hot wet mammal breath and flaring my own nostrils to catch the smell of the little clouds, when I heard a car slowly grinding gravel along the jetty road.

It was a white Buick, trailing a string of gulls. It parked beside me in a gravel pullout. Catching up the wind, the gulls winged furiously over the Buick, squawking. The passenger door opened on the far side of the car. Bedroom slippers on thin legs lowered themselves to the ground. Without warning, slices of bread flew up like toast from a cartoon toaster, and gulls swarmed to the open door, screaming and fighting.

On the driver's side, a woman opened the door, grasped the door frame, and pulled herself to standing. From her shoes to her blouse, she was dressed in lavender, and her hair, short and tightly permed, was brick red. The gulls circled her as she made her way to the back of the car. When she opened the trunk, the gulls went wild. Screeching, they swooped in close, colliding in midair. More bread popped up on the far side of the Buick. The gulls glanced over and dove for it, clattering their wings together, crying out.

The woman reached into her trunk for a loaf of bread. She unwound the twist tie and held it between her lips. Then she pulled out as much bread as she could hold in one hand. Gulls pressed against her legs, stumbled over her shoes. In spasms of excitement, they tilted back their heads and gulped out the raucous food call. The woman tossed up a handful of bread. Gulls caught the bread on the fly. What fell to the ground disappeared under slapping yellow feet and flapping wings. Gulls swooped in to pull at the bag the woman held in her hand. They swallowed quickly, and who could blame them, tossing back their heads and gulping down the scraps before another gull could snatch them.

How many gulls? A hundred? Two hundred? I sidled closer, not wanting to scare the birds or intrude on the old woman, but wanting to feel the wind of these flapping wings. She saw me coming.

“Want some?” she offered, and in fact, I really did. She beckoned me over to her trunk. Every niche was crammed with bread, one plastic grocery bag after another, each bag stuffed with five full loaves. This was soft, white Wonder Bread. When I was a kid, this was the bread we used to slather with margarine and coat with as much sugar as wouldn't shake off. It's a wonder we ever grew up.

“Safeway sells it,” she said, although I hadn't asked. “Five loaves for a dollar.”

“Good price,” I said, because it was.

“We've been doing this every day for ten years. It's what we do.”

I stood next to her and tossed bread into the wind. Knowing perfectly well that gulls couldn't live on white bread, knowing perfectly well that it deformed their wings, I fed it to them anyway. I threw a slice to a pure white gull that had only one eye, firmly fixed in my direction. I threw a slice to a gray-winged gull that had only one leg. But it didn't matter where I aimed; every bird mobbed every piece of bread. Birds hung at our heads, wings flapping and legs dangling. They swarmed at our feet. Feathers and bird droppings fell from the sky. Experimentally, I sidearmed three slices into the crowd. The volume of screaming was directly proportional to the amount of bread in the air.

Another handful of bread shot up from the far side of the car. A phalanx of gulls peeled off and settled by the bare feet in the bedroom slippers.

“My husband,” the woman said.

Ah. “Do the birds follow you home?” I wanted to know.

“No. But they know we'll be back,” she said, and turned to pull another loaf from her trunk. She gave me fully half the loaf. I would have liked to have eaten it, I was that hungry for what the old woman offered—not just for the bread but for her closeness to the birds. But I tore the bread to pieces and threw it to the birds. Then I backed out of the melee. There stood the woman in her purple shoes, her face lifted to the birds, her arms wide open in the universal gesture of exaltation. Gulls fluttered around her like moths.

In the weeks after I met the gull lady, I thought about how one goes about living like that, with that extravagant joy and astonishment, how it becomes what you do, that hard embrace of what is wonderful, which is everything, when you think about it, every single thing in this mysterious, miraculous, morning-drenched world.

And her husband, the mechanical bread-throwing machine in the maroon bathrobe? He had fellowship, I would say. He had beautiful beings who flocked to him, the way his children probably once ran to him at the end of the day, the way his students (I'm guessing) once gathered around him, all eager hunger. Every day for ten years, faithfully, without fail, living beings sought him out for what he had to give them, even though he had so little left—except for the Wonder Bread, which he had in great abundance.

It fed us, the woman, the man, and me. That's what I want to say. Never mind the 140 calories, 180 milligrams of sodium, twenty-nine grams of carbohydrates, and two grams of dietary fiber in every two slices. It nourished us, we humans, to be surrounded by flocks of living beings of astonishing beauty and intelligence. (Astonishing, from the Latin word tonus, which means “thunder”—to be struck, as by lightning: the sudden flash that startles and, just for a moment, lights the world with uncommon clarity.) Humans need this delight, the way plants need sunlight. So we seek it out, going to the places where life is abundant, or bringing it into our homes, drawing it toward us with sunflower seeds and cracked corn. People by the thousands, sitting at their desks, link to webcams focused on endangered peregrine falcons who are feeding pigeons to their young in nests in high places: the Mid-Hudson Bridge near Poughkeepsie, the Times Square Building in Rochester, the fourteenth floor of 55 Water Street in New York.

If there is a fact true of human beings—today, as always—I would suggest it is this: that we want to love and be loved, delight and be delighted, give and be given, in the back-and-forth relatedness that earns us a meaningful place in the pantheon of all being. The very muscles that allow us to raise our arms in gladness are the muscles that allow a gull to fly. I believe that this universal yearning, lifting toward life, is the greatest, most enduring, wonder of all.

Not so long ago, my daughter called from Tucson. Hearing a strange noise, she had come out the front door to investigate a sort of cracking and scratching noise, “as if somebody was trying to tear a mesquite tree apart with bare hands,” she said. As she glanced around, she noticed that feathers were drifting from the sky and alighting on the gravel. She looked up. There, perched on top of a utility pole, was a sharp-shinned hawk, a mourning dove pinned in its talons. With its bony beak, the hawk pulled out the dove's feathers—that popping noise—and tossed them away. Each floating feather was soft and gray, with a puff of white at the end of the vane. My daughter stood in the yard, her arms spread, her face raised into a snowfall of bloody feathers. She was smiling, she said, but trying to keep her mouth closed so feathers wouldn't drift in.

“Souls that are focused and do not falter at first sight,” the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Â…can behold the mountains as if they were gestures of exaltation.” And here it was, on the jetty. The hovering gulls raised their heads and spread their cantilevered wings in the same gesture as my daughter's. Here was the bread and the tide in the channel and women in the wind of wings—everything beautiful and ineffable. Look! Look as if you have never seen this before, with that surprise, that wonderment. Look as if you would never see them again, with that yearning.

When I look with those new eyes at the story of the world, what I see rattles me, body and soul. From a single point in space and a single point in time—“a roaring force from one unknowable moment,” Mary Evelyn Tucker calls it—all the elements in the universe burst forth. The elements self-organized into nebulae and stars and then galaxies and planets; in startling bursts of creativity, their patterns unfolded again and again. From those elements' unfolding came cells and the beginnings of self-replication and self- complexifying, life and lives developing like a fugue, variety unfolding, complexity unfurling, until, with the evolution of human consciousness, the generative urgency of the universe created a way to turn and contemplate itself. We are, she says, “beings in whom the universe shivers in wonder at itself.”

Wonder, indeed, because here we are in the Cenozoic era, when evolution has achieved a great fullness of flowering, what theologian Thomas Berry called the most “lyric period in Earth history,” the time of thrush-song and thirty thousand species of orchids, the time of microscopic sea angels with tiny wings and whales that teach one another to sing, the time of crocodiles and butterflies with curled tongues. Call out the names of the exquisite and roaring animals. Call out the names of spores and seeds.

I don't know if you think it was God who struck the downbeat that began this music, or if you think this glorious Earth is the result of the creative urgency of the universe alone. In a way, it doesn't matter. If you think it was God, do not think for a minute that He is indifferent. “And God saw that it was good, and it was good, it was very good,” day after day, as the waters and the firmaments rained glistening life.

But say there is no Creator: that life created itself in great bursts of variation and selection, and filled the sky with midges and birds and filled the seas with not just fishes but the most extraordinary collection of creatures too various to be imagined—the creeping, chirping things with thin legs or sucking parts. If this is so, then this world is astonishing, irreplaceable, essential, beautiful and fearsome, generative, and beyond human understanding. If the good English word for this combination of characteristics is sacred, then that is the word I will use. We are born into a sacred world, and we ourselves are part of its glory.

This is the wonder-filled world that we are destroying, the lyric voices that we are silencing, the sanctity that we are defiling, at a rate and with a violence that cannot be measured because we have only the paltriest understanding of the world's multitudes of lives. Nonetheless, it's an extinction, scientists are able to agree, on the scale of the extinction that ended the Cretaceous period and the fern- and swamp-graced era of the stupendous dinosaurs. Then, an asteroid smashed into the Yucatán peninsula. Now, the destructive agent is human intention and disregard. This year, there are 40 percent fewer plants and animals on the planet than there were in 1974, when my daughter was born. In 2050, when her son is raising his own children, there will be 50 percent fewer species. His field guides will need only half as many pages, and the picture books about penguins and owls will be fantasies.

What does that matter? Why is it important that there be this planet with these odd little creatures? It could all end tomorrow. So what? Why should we care? We wouldn't know. Would anything of value be lost?

The answer of course is yes. It matters that a hundred years from now, salmon return to the streams, children hum themselves to sleep, red-legged frogs burble underwater.

We are struggling to talk about something of deep sacredness, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson says. The creativity of this living world is continuing to unfold. And that unfolding is sacred. Be prepared, she goes on to say, be prepared to wonder at this unfurling. Be prepared also for this: that every extinction, every suffering, every destruction, is a diminishment of creativity, and so it is a profanity. Be prepared for anger and for grief. The world is a mystery of infinite and intrinsic value. Be prepared to love it in ways beyond our own understanding. This wondering love is what brings us to the work ahead of us and sustains us in the struggle.

Why is it wrong to wreck the world? Because the world is a wonder, beautiful and creative, unique and irreplaceable. And what is wonderful ought to be honored and protected. The failure to honor and protect it is a failure of reverence.

Philosophers put this somewhat differently and debate it endlessly, but the point is the same. Two kinds of value can be distinguished, Immanuel Kant said centuries ago: instrumental value and intrinsic value. Some things have value as means to the ends of others. Some things have value as ends in themselves. A shovel, for example, is instrumentally valuable if you want to dig dirt. But in itself, apart from its usefulness, it is not worth much except as an example of human invention.

So what of the world? Does it have instrumental value? Absolutely, yes. It provides food, water, sanitation, warmth, shelter, beauty—all the necessary and sufficient conditions for human life. Economists call these “ecosystem services” and run the numbers about the replacement value of these services until their computers overheat. But something with instrumental value can also have intrinsic value. For example, my husband has great instrumental value. He is a wonderful provider; he fixes things that are broken, builds what needs to be built, and provides any number of pleasures. But he also has intrinsic value. His life is something of great worth in itself, apart from its usefulness as a means to my ends, and if I should forget that for any length of time, I will soon find out that his “services” are in fact “gifts” that can be readily taken away.

This planet, with all its lively systems, has instrumental value, beyond doubt. But it also has intrinsic value. Surely it is good—in itself.

To be clear about that, try what has come to be called the “last man” thought experiment. If you were the last person on Earth, leaving the planet in the last spaceship, never to return, would you, as you fastened your seat belt, press the hypothetical button that would destroy everything on the planet and leave it ruined and smoking in the rearview mirror? If the world has value only as it is useful to humankind, there would be nothing wrong with this. Nobody will return to the planet; it is suddenly useless. But if the world has intrinsic value, then pressing that destructive button would be wrong—the wanton destruction of something that is of value, even when human uses have rocketed away.

Comments

2 comments have been posted.

My former father-in-law was an eastern oregon redneck in his heart and soul. I remember him saying during a discussion about preserving the environment: "What do I care? I won't be around in 50 years". The operative word there is "I". He had no empathy for the trees as a logger. He hated the whole idea of wilderness areas. I loved his daughter so it was a touchy subject to discuss. I am Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla on my father's side and have a personal relationship with mother earth and all her beings. I am biocentric in my heart and soul. Because we all descended from the first replication of RNA, we are all related. The structure and function of the cell is similar to the structure and function of mother earth. It is against my religion to cut down a living tree. Standard family trees should go back far enough to show when we were all one to remind us of how all living beings started here on our mother, the earth. The operative word is "we".

David Michael Liberty | September 2016 | Hood River Oregon

Thank you Kathleen. Your careful words always inspire: breathe in: pause, remember. My daughter Izi and I need to feed gulls again soon.

Nancy | August 2016 | Astoria, OR

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