The Economy of Useless Things

October 23, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Botanic Series, No. 14

Mississippi River Botanic Series, No. 14


"We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us."

-Anthony De Mello [1]


Among the things I like to photograph are those that have no apparent human value. I like things that have nothing to do with us, that offer us no advantage and that have not been swept up in the tidal pull of commodification. I like worthless things precisely because they ignore us.

The weeds, vines, and brush along the shoreline of the Mississippi River are among such things. They are a thorny nest of useless things that grow up among the mud, rocks, and driftwood left behind by the receding river.  

It takes time and patience to see the beauty of this overgrown tangle. At first, it seems that there is no order, no beauty, only out-of-control weeds, many of which have hostile thorns eager to stab the flesh of trespassers. And then there is the tangle of vines growing over concealed, loose rocks that plot our downfall on the steeply sloped river bank. But even imputing such motives to useless things is one last gesture of the self-centeredness from which we are about to be delivered.

As we slow down and cease grasping for large gestures of beauty, the small ones emerge. Here and there in the relentless chaos, is a little bit of order — a small cluster of seed pods caught poetically in the vines, performing in rhyme. But we will miss it if we are anxious "to see something." Only when we give up the search will it find us.

The beauty of useless things is often this way. It is given from beyond ourselves. To experience such beauty is to sense some plasticity of self. The rigid borders of the self, guarded by anxiety, cognitive control, and egoism, become fluid and permeable in the presence of such little surprises. When this happens, we glimpse a fleeting but deep truth, the fact that in the end our lives are not our own, and they are framed by purposes and mysteries much larger than us. The beauty of useless things dethrones us, reminds us that we are not the measure of all things. We are among the measured. And it is freeing.

Here in the economy of useless things lies a new self.



[1] Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom. Quoted in Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 57.


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