Originally published at Covenant, June 7, 2016.
The Gospels indicate that mankind lives on a cosmic boundary, between the treading down of Jerusalem and the end of all things. The Lord called this borderland “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24). Elsewhere I have quoted Vaclav Havel:
We must honor with the humility of the wise the limits of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence.
Cardinal Newman too wrote about this metaphysical boundary, of how the course of human history veered sharply at the Incarnation, when the Maker of all things crept quietly across the border of space-time:
For so it was, that up to Christ’s coming in the flesh, the course of things ran straight towards this end, nearing it by every step; but now, under the Gospel, that course has … altered its direction, as regards His second coming, and runs, not towards the end, but along it, and on the brink of it; and is at all times equally near that great event, which, did it run towards, it would at once run into. (Sermon XVII, “Waiting for Christ,” in Parochial and Plain Sermons)
Ecologists speak of an “edge effect,” of the biotic conditions marked by the boundaries between habitats. Where woodland runs up against cultivated land, for example, hunters know to look for cottontails or bobwhite quail, where sunlight and wind create the right conditions for the kinds of plant communities such animals like, shade-averse shrubs and vines, leafy forbs and so forth.
There is a temporal edge effect too: the dusk and the dawn, sharpening the attention of the wading bird and the fisherman alike, temperature differentials and changes in light and barometric pressure stirring the frogs and the fish to action.
The borders between changing seasons awaken the migratory instincts of many species. It takes four generations of monarch butterfly to make their annual pilgrimage from the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico to their summer habitat in southern Canada, and back again to Mexico. Some unfathomable instinct urges the generations there and back, wave on wave across a continent of mortality and reproduction.
Over the Memorial Day holiday I went fishing at a farm pond known to harbor the South’s favorite freshwater game species: micropterus salmoides, the largemouth bass. Largemouths are voracious and fierce, which goes a long way toward accounting for their popularity among anglers. The fastidiousness of the trout fisherman is wasted on largemouths, especially in the spring, when warmer water temperatures and the exertions of the spawn incline them to attack almost anything dangled in front of their faces. “But,” as Havilah Babcock noted, “bass fishermen can be dumb too, which sort of balances the books and explains why they sometimes catch each other.”
Encouraged by this intelligence, I loaded my rods and tacklebox into the truck, together with Jeb, my bird dog, an enthusiastic fellow idiot, and set out after Sunday Mass to join a another clergyman-angler looking for fish, and renewal, at the farm pond.
Fishing is usually slow in the heat of mid-afternoon. And so it was last Sunday. We caught a few in the shade of some willows, along a hogwire fence that spring rains had caused to jut improbably a few yards out into the water. But for the most part, the heat lay heavy and the fish weren’t biting.
Having been at this game for many years, I should know better, and yet I always sink into a mild despair as the afternoon wears on. But as the sun touches the horizon and the temperature drops just perceptibly, the first frogs begin to croak, and the waders and shorebirds begin to flutter about and position themselves a little more strategically, and the casual angler does well to shake off the afternoon’s torpor and attend to his business.
So we did, and our attention was rewarded by an uptick in the action. The pieces de resistance were two truly enormous bass that my companion landed in quick succession, each of which I estimated to be over seven pounds. As the light faded, we fell back to the tailgate and toasted the outcome with a couple of cold beers, as thunderclouds rolled over the horizon in the distance. Lightning, too, loves the twilight.
As we sat on the tailgate, watching the stormclouds on the horizon, the lightning was constant yet there was no thunder, and the clouds seemed stationary, locked over the monoculture and suburban sprawl in the distance to the east, the graveyard of the blackland prairie. We were again on the edge of something exceeding our competence, a patchwork of boundaries. Psalm 102 hung somewhere beyond the borders of my consciousness:
They all shall wax old as doth a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed …