If you drove around one small Philadelphia suburb in the late 1980s, you might have spent a few moments of your life staring into the back of a blue Crown Victoria and wondering, fleetingly, “What’s with all the gravel?” For several years, I stored my treasures in the back of the Crown Vic. Under the scent of motor oil, their white veins and irregular surfaces captivated me. I picked them up, rough and beautiful, in the back alley by the creek while my brother and his friends burned the garbage in cans, roasting marshmallows over the toxic fumes. No two rocks were alike, and I marveled afresh at every one.
Then one day, we led a carpool to a picnic by a lake and my dad’s friend Bob drove behind us, looking at those rocks. All the way, he must have felt sorrier and sorrier for the poor kid grubbing in parking lots and gutters for gasoline-soaked pearls. Between burgers and frisbee, he asked my dad who the budding geologist was.
The next time I saw him, Bob gave me a smooth white stone, polished and shiny. Somebody, probably a mall artist, had painted a purple thistle on it in rich, tiny detail. “A proper rock for your collection,” he said.
So conflicted were my young feelings. I have always anthropomorphized everything. If you were to say in a clothing store, “What an ugly shirt,” I would have probably given the shirt a gentle pat or a whispered apology to soften the blow of the insult (especially if I secretly agreed). So I placed the painted thistle stone in the car among the gray alley rocks and felt uncomfortable. The alley rocks had interesting veins and protrusions, even if they were purchased cheaply by the scoop. I kept them all.
I still have the thistle stone in a box of old letters. Meanwhile, the more I see of creation, the more my collection of odd natural shapes expands. I have so many shells and rocks and twisted branches adorning my nightstands and bookcases that in our last move, the packers wrapped up a bundle of walking sticks and labeled it, in obvious confusion, “TWIGS?” I take them out in each new house and find them new perches. Their numbers grow as each of my husband’s duty stations yields the unique treasure of new climes. They are beautiful.
Last week, I listened to Inklings scholar James Pearce lecturing for the House of Humane Letters and outlining a hierarchy of creative value. Our artistic impulses produce what he calls subcreation. By it we reflect the primal creation, ex nihilo, that is God’s alone. True art must be derivative, for it is our participation in the divine image. We must imbibe original beauty in order to offer back ripe bounty in artistic works.
The driftwood by my bed that looks like a hip bone but feels like velvet and the rock next to it that lost its sheen as I got farther from the beach—its soul, like mine, needing the ocean—are primal creations. God fashioned their shapes, commanding the waves that tumbled them smooth.
The painted thistle is a subcreation, a secondary work. It is a good likeness of the thistles that grew around the pee-wee soccer fields in Pennsylvania—we used to nibble them after practice. How interesting that a painted flower is doubly imitative: the artist bears the image of a creator and thus creates. But too, the artist depicts what was first formed and brought into vibrant being by the mind of God.
Both act and product reveal our inescapable nature. We and this world are God’s. The two rocks, one painted, one not, prove what Pearce means when he says that art cycles back—our creative work enhances the beauty given by and defined by the creator. To marvel is to respond rightly to beauty, even beauty in gravel. But, too, the painted thistle’s medium, its subject, and its canvas, when they inspire an artist to life his brush, yield a kind of worship.
The wandering years, golden and free in the creeks and alleys, were rich in ways that Bob may have been too grown up to remember. In our children’s world of hovering supervision, and even more so in this new world of quarantine, wonder will need feeding. May the snakeskin displayed in the dining room, the bouquet of collected feathers in a mason jar, the bits of gravel that my daughters now lug home from parking lots, and the thistle stone still nestled in old postcards preserve winsome wonder. And may we respond in subcreation, offering beauty back.
He is given a fragment of time
In this fragment of the world.
He likes it pretty well.
Cover image by Jimmy Chang.