Abraham Lincoln once quipped that God must really love the poor, because he made so many of them. The same might be said of dandelions, which brighten suburban lawns unbidden every spring. Dandelions are classified as weeds, perhaps because they require no cultivation and are not easily eradicated. But what did they do to deserve such ignominy? They have undeniable aesthetic appeal, albeit short-lived — hardly disqualifying in itself. Plus, dandelions are edible, exceptionally rich in vitamins and minerals, and can be made into wine. They have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over a thousand years, and they remain a staple of various herbal remedies around the world. Their lineage is impeccable, having been brought over on the Mayflower for their medicinal properties. So, apart from their unfortunate tendency to trespass on well-manicured suburban lawns, what’s not to like?
Small wonder that the essayist nonpareil G.K. Chesterton used the dandelion as emblematic of what he called the “submerged sunrise of wonder” in life. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Chesterton was not afraid, as he put it, “to write against the Decadents and the Pessimists who ruled the culture of the age.” He stated that “the primary problem for me… was the problem of how men could be made to realize the wonder and splendor of being alive, in environments which their own daily criticism treated as dead-alive, and which their imagination had left for dead.”
Chesterton seized on the lowly dandelion precisely because it was despised, then held it up as a sacred object. In his autobiography, he called attention to “the strange and staggering heresy that a human being has a right to dandelions; that in some extraordinary fashion we can demand the very pick of all the dandelions in the garden of Paradise; that we owe no thanks for them at all and need feel no wonder at them at all; and above all no wonder at being thought worthy to receive them.” He added, “The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed.
As a landscape photographer, I generally do not seek out sweeping vistas. My subjects are usually much closer at hand, including objects I can pick up and hold in my hand. I often use a macro lens, which allows me to get in close, sometimes only inches away. When your subject fills your viewfinder, it makes no difference whether there is only one of them in the world or dozens sprinkled across your front yard. You are forced to see it for what it is, shorn of any context. And if you are paying the least attention, more often than not you will be astonished.
One morning some years ago I was out for a walk when a Bible verse came to me out of the blue: "What God has made clean, do not call common." The verse in context applied to Jewish dietary laws. As an Episcopalian. I am not bound by such dietary restrictions – or at least none that my doctor hasn’t recommended to keep my cholesterol and glucose levels down. What could this verse possibly mean?
I had been walking along a stretch of road that skirted a golf course near where I live. It was early in the morning, and the sun had lit up some wildflowers growing by the side of the road. I stopped to look, momentarily transfixed by their beauty. I made a mental note of where to find the flowers again, so I could come back to photograph them. They were just common wildflowers growing by the side of the road. And yet, to borrow a phrase from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” I realized in that moment the Bible verse that had popped in head was more about what I should be seeing than what I should be eating.
Chesterton had seized on the common dandelion as emblematic of all that was despised in the world. But he might just as easily have held up the common rung of humanity, many of them poor and despised. Lincoln was right in saying that God must love the poor because he made so many of them. And he commands us to love them as well. For starters, we must not call them common. We must learn to see them for who they are, creatures made in God’s image.