Green Lacewings

I’m the sort of person who stares at lichen. I love its patterns, colors; the way it clings to cold, mossy boulders, craggy tree bark, and smooth, algae-painted fence rails. And I love how every now and again, it takes a walk.

Of course, lichen doesn’t walk, but it can travel with a bit of help.

Twice in my life, I’ve come across a larva of the Green Lacewing. The first time, I was bent over a rock face looking at clusters of lichen when suddenly a tiny piece moved. I gasped, pulled back, then wrinkled my brow and leaned in closer. A mere pinch of the pale, crinkly green was waddling along the stone’s surface, clearly hindered by uneven terrain, lots of very short legs, and mostly, by the load on its back.

Despite their small stature, Lacewing larvae are ferocious beasts. Sometimes called Aphid Lions, they are ruled by their appetite and not too picky about how they satisfy it. Besides aphids, they’ll eat caterpillars, thrips, white flies, spider mites, insect eggs, and the list goes on.

They are not . . . attractive. But to be fair, most insect larvae are not pretty; cute maybe — in their own way. These larvae are covered in a hard, brown armadillo-like shell and shaped like deflated, bumpy footballs. Their mouth parts resemble the business end of the Grim Reaper’s scythe. Once you learn the load on their backs is not just lichen but the carcasses of creatures they’ve sucked the life from by draining and slurping their bodily fluids, the image of death’s deliveryman makes sense. Underneath this load of cadavers and debris, they hide their true selves from predators.

It’s hard to believe they grow up to be lovely, ethereal creatures, appearing as if they may have arrived fresh from some other galaxy. They change from a scuttling blob of waste-covered, brown, hard shell to an almost unreal beauty; from angel of death to angel of light. With dragonfly shaped bodies and wings laced with veins and cross-veins in patterns that must have taken some thought they shine, iridescent, in lime green. Their heads are crowned in yellow, and their large eyes are a dark, rich bronze.

Lacewing in the laundry room.

Lacewings are slow, dreamy fliers; acrobats who sometimes lift off with a backflip. They are fae in flight, just a wee bit enchanted.

Lacewing in a world of green.

The eggs they lay, tiny, white pearls attached to a thread of hardened mucus, dangle from leaves or tree bark. An easy and enjoyable way to spot their eggs, is to relax in a hammock and scan the branches and leaves overhead.

I have no quarrels with trees or hammocks.
Lacewing Egg — that tiny white spec in the center.
Lacewing Egg
Lacewing Egg on Green Leaf
Lacewing pupa — I think.

I love the adults but must admit, I relate more easily to those shuffling larvae. I too drag death around on my shoulders, things that weigh heavy, things I can’t forget. You know the ones. They fall over you like a wave out of nowhere then settle in your gut.  

Words: The ones you wish you’d never said. You ache to reach through time and yank them back. The ones you wish you hadn’t failed to say – “I love you”, “I forgive you”, “Will you forgive me?”.  The words that were lies that have somehow remained; the real story never revealed, always distorting a friendship, your standing at work or church, a spousal or parental relationship.   

Actions: The things you regret doing, the ones you did for pride, vengeance, or fear’s sake. The things you regret not doing, the ones you were too afraid to do, too vain to risk failure; the opportunities to serve and welcome that you left lay.  

The words and actions of others pile up as well. We can be wronged and still feel shame even though we aren’t the guilty ones. Maybe we’ve been abused or neglected. Maybe rejected even though we’ve been faithful and kind. Those things, when we remember them, make our faces burn with the humiliation that should belong to another.

We carry dead weight just like those little larvae. Thinking of this reminded me of Isaiah 46, the false gods of Babylon are being hauled away on ox carts. The prophet says they are bowed down as they are lowered to the ground — too heavy for the people to bear. Too heavy for the oxen to bear. They cannot protect the people, and the people cannot protect their homemade gods. He says both the gods and the people are brought low by the weight of the lifeless statues.  

Verses 6 and 7: “Some people pour out their silver and gold and hire a craftsman to make a god from it. Then they bow down and worship it! They carry it around on their shoulders, and when they set it down, it stays there. It can’t even move! And when someone prays to it, there is no answer. It can’t rescue anyone from trouble.”

In Christian-think, an idol is anything we hold above God, anything we make more important. Past sins, the ones we’ve committed and the ones done toward us, may not seem like idols on the surface. But if we’re honest, we often think about them more than we think of God. We allow them power over us; control. And if we say we trust Christ and his work on the cross yet continue to scoop up our sin-debris and place it on our own shoulders, then we aren’t trusting at all. We’re either believing God is weak and can’t bear sin’s weight, or that we are strong and must deal with it ourselves.

When ancient people carved stone or wood into a “god” they were only making burdens for themselves. That’s all an idol is — a heavy, oppressive burden. We must fashion it, bear the weight of it. We move it where we want it to go; it cannot move itself. We put it on its high place and take responsibility. An idol cannot leave us alone of its own accord, it has no will. It cannot set us free from itself.

The bible says, I was dead in my sin but now am alive in Christ, that my sins are removed from me as far as east from west; that I am not condemned. So why shuffle and scuffle and waddle under the weight of if-onlys. If only I had done better. If only I could have been braver, smarter, kinder, wiser. It never ends. Notice all the “I” statements. I keep believing in me, but I can’t rescue me from trouble. I can carve up my past in so many different ways, replay things, drag them here, drag them there, but still, I drag. I carry. I can’t erase or redeem anything. Perhaps, it isn’t the stuff on my back that I worship. Maybe, after all, it’s me.

But I can learn and change. Growth is key for us and for the Lacewing larva. Overtime, the smallness of the creature becomes larger, the body expands until it sheds its flesh as well as the load on its back. It doesn’t get away with doing this just once. There will be many periods of growth as well as periods of piling on, of hauling around a collection of all the harm it has wrought on others and perhaps some wounds inflicted to itself in the fight.

But, there will be a last molt. The old, not-so-pretty skin will fall away one final time and a winged creature of light will emerge. And it will dazzle.  

Life in a corrupted world is like this. We lug the wreckage of our existence. We drag it everywhere we go. We hide our true selves underneath it, the selves that live blameless in Christ. Just like the larva, we want to be protected, to feel safe from those we fear might hurt us, whether they be people or Almighty God. We think if God or our friend can see what we really are, they won’t be able to love us.

But I am reminded again of how this started  — with my lichen fascination.

Lichen clings to a winter tree

Lichen is not dead. It’s alive and lives in death’s company on the back of the Lacewing larva. It even grows there. When the death cloak falls away, wherever it lands, the lichen will eventually overtake it, so whomever passes by, when they see it, will only see life. This observer will have no idea this bright, living organism covers over a multitude of death.

This is the fate of those who put their trust in Christ. He clings to us, holding on when we struggle over rough paths in a world full of loss and rubbish. His life, our eternal life, is always with us, and one day, all that we have carried will lift. It will be left behind with our old self. We’ll be new, made completely lovely by the persistence and patience of Jesus to never let us go.

A Soft Place to Land

Most hikes, I am looking up, scanning for birds or other unidentified tiny fliers, but if the snow is deep underfoot, my eyes tend toward the ground directly ahead. I’m not as steady as I used to be and find each year brings less willingness to fall; more caution and dependence upon, not one, but two sturdy walking poles. What lies beneath could twist an ankle or cause a slip, maybe a slide, so I look down, and before I know it, am distracted by the beauty at my feet and thoughts of personal calamity fade – for little while.

I have taken an obsessive amount of photos of seeds and their pods, feathers, lichen-coated twigs, and leaves that have fallen on snow.

Many times, I begin to trudge past reminding myself I already have too many pictures of these things.

But, a few steps forward, and I stop, roll my eyes over my weakness for all things golden, brown, soft, hard, and squishy against a sparkling white backdrop. I shrug, turn back, position my camera, focus and shoot a spiny pod,

a swollen green cluster of lichen,

or the luminous leaf of Fagus grandifolia – the American beech.

Beech leaves are a winter delight. They are hangers-on. If you’ve ever walked in a cold Ohio wood and felt surrounded by a glow, or stopped to listen to the clatter when the wind picks up, you’ve likely been in the company of beech trees.

It’s called marcescence when a tree holds its leaves through the chilly seasons, and beech trees aren’t the only ones to do it, they just happen to be my favorite.

Beech leaf-keepers are usually young. In the fight for their lives, surrounded by tall and spreading behemoths, some as old as 400 years,

the little beeches know what they need and that they’ll have to be savvy to get it — light, food, and air aren’t just handed to a small tree in a big, old forest. Grandparents make for stiff competition but these whippersnappers are ready.

Like a camper, banging pots and pans to keep from being devoured by a bear, young beech clack their leaves in the wind, causing winter-hungry deer a degree of uncertainty about munching any part of them.

A young beech surrounded by its own leaves and others.

Like me, these trees know it’s wise to save a snack for later. I don’t know about you, but the only time I don’t really consider snacking is, pretty much, when I’m asleep. I break my fast after about eight hours, but a beech stands dormant for many months. Those brown and brittle leaves, don’t look like much of a treat, but come spring, when the tree needs fuel for growth, they’ll be laid to rest and all the nourishment stored inside will seep into the earth in just the right spot for the little tree’s roots to soak it up.

Speaking of soaking things up, those winter leaves also collect snow that melts and follows the path of drooping leaf to the base of the tree. Could be those stubborn adherents are the perfect watering cans.

But, not all leaves hold fast. Some lose their grip and fall, willing or not.

I have fallen a few times. Once, in younger days, when I used to run through the forest instead of hike, more focused on swimsuit season than the glorious mysteries around me, I tripped over a tree root and slid downhill. Well, I bounced face first over the rest of the tree roots in my path. When the ride ended, I crawled to the base of that very tree – I think a beech, actually – and sat with my back against it, loyal dog at my side, until I felt able to stand and limp back to my car.

As I said, my steps are ginger these days, the thought of falling, terrifying. I know a tumble now won’t just mean a day of soreness but could crack a hip or knee; could bring the end of hiking, altogether. I’ve experienced a long period of being unable to hike and admit to a fear of facing that loss again. It was a years long illness the first time. I used to lie in bed, close my eyes, and visualize familiar trails. I tried to picture them one step at a time, not wanting to forget a single landmark. As I mentally traced those paths, I remember tears making paths of their own, tracing my cheek, pooling on my pillow, marking my agony.

Hard times come for all of us. We all get sick or injured, lose jobs, lose those we love, relationships fail. We want to hang on and hold fast to our faith – to God – in those times, but often grow brittle, clacking against our circumstances, making noise, being irritable and short-fused in a twisted effort to protect ourselves from more pain. We fight to hold on to things we know were always temporal, wanting to drink in every last drop of the only life we can see, taste, and touch. I admit, that was often my response to illness. My forced confinement to the little indoors sparked frustration and anger. Everyone else was still attached, still part of a group, but my life became, of necessity, isolated. It was difficult to know what my purpose was. I did nothing, and I did it for days, weeks, months. I was cold. So cold, it hurt. My toes and fingers felt like they might snap off. And I complained. I moaned, cried, and, when I could muster the energy, pounded my pillow,

Today, I am back on the trails, and see in those bright leaves the way I wanted to be. The way I want to be.

In winter, when things are cold and quiet, when light is scarce, beech leaves can still find a soft place to land.

Alone, on a bed of snow, fallen well before their companions, they appear at rest, and just looking at them, calms me. In their brilliant, peachy phosphorescence, they light the way.

Some say life is fragile, but I don’t think so because I walk through forests and pay attention to things like leaves. No matter a leaf’s circumstance, it’s all about life, not just its own, but that of its mother tree, the ones surrounding, the ones that emerge with help from the nutrients it adds to the soil. It fell earlier than others but not before it was supposed to, not before it was necessary. Its purpose remains, which was, and is, life.

I was fallen, well before my companions, just as beech leaves can’t help but let go, submitting to sickness was not optional. It overtook me. I couldn’t see it, but even in – or especially in – that state, my purpose hadn’t changed. To glorify God and enjoy him forever, I didn’t need to be healthy. I didn’t need to hike. It really, really felt like I did, but I didn’t. I just needed to rest and teach those around me to do the same.

I needed to love the Life-giver more than anything else. I look back, and fear I didn’t light the way for my kids, didn’t teach them how to handle adversity with grace, joy, or gratitude. I fear I was only concerned with myself and not those around me, those I claim to love deeply. I know, sometimes, I was a hanger-on, hanging on to all the wrong things.

You’ve seen a leaf fall. It’s a gentle descent and a soft landing, but not an easy process. Like everything in nature, it’s about survival. Leaves are expelled, excised from the tree — pushed away. In autumn, cells grow and collect where the leaf stem meets branch forming what’s called an abscission layer. Even the name sounds harsh. But think what would happen if trees refused to let go. The water inside those leaves’ cells would expand and rupture when frozen, so no photosynthesis come spring, that would mean no food. The weight of snow and the strength of winter winds blasting against those leaves would cause branches to fracture and break away. By end of summer, many leaves are suffering insect infestations or other kinds of disease, dropping them is tree pandemic 101.

I think Christ is offering the same to me – not an easy process, and okay, maybe a rough descent, but the promise of a soft landing does wait for me, and I am meant to hold fast to this.

There is much in my life, that needs to be abscised, excised, pushed away, things that weigh me down, keep me from real and full life. Maybe beech trees wish they could cut those leaves loose. I often wish I could do that with my sin – just cut it off, cut it out, and walk away, never to be scarred by my actions, thoughts, or desires again – never to scar anyone else.

Isaiah 48:4 is God’s message to the people of ancient Israel, but this verse in particular seems apropos of little old me. “Because I know that you are obstinate and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass . . .” Stubborn, stiff-necked, and hard headed, I hang onto things that damage me, things that rob me of nourishment and growth. But, somehow, even those things, God uses for my good and his glory. Somehow, he makes beauty from ashes, and mourning, he turns to joy.

All the difficulties we endure are like those dead leaves, they seem useless but aren’t. They protect us from thinking we’re all that. When God allows that extra weight, that constant rattling for a time, we remember that we aren’t really in control. It’s so easy, in our day-to-day, to forget that. We choose and schedule our work and leisure. We plan our pregnancies, college, weddings. We’re in control, right? Nope, not even a little, and that shouldn’t be hard to grasp, but, unless you know God, and sometimes if you do, it can be hard to find comfort in it.

Isaiah 48:10 says God is using the afflictions of his people to refine them. Beech trees don’t waste the death that dangles from their branches. Those leaves protect, water, and eventually feed and allow them to mature. As we endure, we store up grace and mercy for others and learn ways to help those around us when their time of struggle comes.

A soft landing, water to keep us pliable, to expand our hearts and refresh those around us; food to keep us growing. All this, God gives so when our time to suffer, even our time to pass from this world, comes we will still be all about life. — hangers-on, clinging to the One who made us and sustains us, who uses us for His glory and the good of all. Christ never lets go. Even when I am dormant, not growing, not drawing near, he waits and pursues.

We cling to Christ to protect our hearts from doubt, pride, fear; to gain wisdom to serve and to sustain ourselves in a world full of foolishness.

We cling to Christ until we are so full of living water that it has to spill out, follow its determined path to quench the hearts around us, and return again and again to the source, so we never run out.

We cling to Christ, but, inevitably, we fall. Even in our descent, we stay close and keep looking up. We don’t lose hope because we land in a place of charity, a place of the sweetest mercy. Even in our failures and weaknesses, that bed of grace will allow us to light the way, to nourish the weary hiker who feels the next step may be too much.

We fall, succumb, and in doing this, let go our fear. We rest, drawn into the source of life.