Science and the Spirit in an Age of Hostile PresumptionBy D. W. Sabin for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Washington, CT. Winter was a hard-nosed professional this season just past. It sunk its icy teeth in long and hard and mocked us with a one day January thaw that in years past, had usually afforded at least a week of relief before plunging us back into the icebox. The dismal weather added a kind of Greek Chorus of chattering teeth and cold toes to the ongoing economic storminess. Before it was all over….even now, as the Lilacs bloom the nights are brisk…I’d shoveled four cords of wood into Old Soot the trusty stove. At one point, roundly disabused of my three-cord optimism, I was forced to head out into the snowy hillsides with chainsaw and axe in order to maintain both my toasty warmth and a vigorous middle finger salute to the oil baronies. In over 25 years of messing around with hardwood logs and an iron box , I’d never shoveled such relentless quantities of ash. So much for minimizing one’s “carbon footprint”.
Then, about two weeks ago, we experienced one of those strange 95 degree days before the leaves had emerged. This seems to be some kind of recent weather phenomenon of the last five years and it is more than a tad odd to be sitting in a sweat within one’s garden before the leaves have demurely said “I Do” to their lusty suitor the returning sun. Consequently, the rapid heat automatically sped the spring awakening up to a boil before the simmer had even been hinted. The lovely but subtle mauve mist of the hillsides abloom in Red Maple, Birch and Elm came to an abrupt finish while the rest of the somnolent leaves woke up with a roar and the bird ruckus and frog choir leapt into overdrive. While this history-drenched little State of Connecticut might not be as scenically spectacular as my native Utah, the annual resurrection of life in the forest and field amply makes up for it. Spring onset within the plant kingdom may be silent but it is an explosion as sure as any we might devise with our brute technology. Watching it…no strike that, luxuriating in it, I am put in mind of all the force of energy that is involved in the unfolding hues of green. It advances in a wave that builds up from the bottom of the hollows and then crests over the hilltops in a symphonic cascade of vibrant life. Add the returning birds with their amphibian back-up ensemble and it becomes an epic opera whose complex plot and stunning beauty cannot but fail to stir even the most jaded technocrat.
Stretch this corrugated little corner of New England out flat and it might cover western Kansas and then multiply that by all the land mass involved in the Northern Temperate Zone and you arrive at a gargantuan spectacle of powerful growth that is mind numbing to ponder. From grasslands to forest and all the ecotone between, the bolt awakening of life dazzles us out of a grey winter retreat. Reducing it all to an ecological energy budget would somehow appear a brazen affront to such poetry but I am quite sure that if one were to scientifically quantify the amount of energy expended by this annual combination of sun, water, soil and plant, you would arrive at a figure that would make the energy released by an atomic bomb seem circumspect in comparison. We humans stand astride our industrial might with such a cocksure pride and yet we utterly fail to comprehend how primitive and trifling our presumptions about power and energy really are. We muck about with extractive resources in decay and smoke while all around us is a continuous crackling display of life-energy that makes our sordid efforts seem silly if they were not so devastating in their impact. This would seem to be a modern lament that has been around forever.
Four hundred years ago this September, Henry Hudson took his sturdy little ship the Half Moon up the Hudson River in search of a northern passage to the Orient. The founding of Jamestown was two years prior and Plymouth colony was still eleven years into the future. It was but a few months past the peace agreement between the Netherlands and her Spanish overlords but already, tiny mercantile Amsterdam was seeing what booty the world “out there” could provide. Thus was started…. in my neck of the woods anyway…. a four century long exaltation and rape of that thing we call “nature”. This , as we know now was to occur on a lush continent whose original inhabitants begged to differ with the interloper’s assertions of a “New World”. The native’s “newness” with this continent was already 20,000 years in the past before Henry and his sailors rolled out the grog barrel to see how …as they noted in their ships log…”treacherous” the new trading partners might be. Nature, in all her raw abundance was , to the European, something terrible to see, at once invigorating and troubling. The stupefying American continents were something to be tamed and made better for habitation and while they were at it, the existing renters were advised to get lost or be lost. Inadvertent disease certainly exacted its toll but of course, neither side held an exclusive on the savagery which was to occur over the next several centuries.
About three hundred years after the mysterious little Dutch vessel had plied the waters of the Algonquin host and well after this host had been beaten back to the point of oblivion, another explorer of sorts set his thin frame lightly down upon the sublime flanks of the Hudson River. This explorer was afloat on a sea of ideas and he discovered that new world of American Naturalism which would start to question the industrial juggernaut defining our preternaturally busy Republic. His name was John Burroughs and he built a little two-room writing cabin on the shoulder of the Catskills near his boyhood farm and christened it Slabsides, after the first cuts of logs with their bark still on them that clad it. Burroughs, heir to Emerson and Thoreau, friend of the arcadian Hudson River Painters and confidant of Whitman…he was a man possessed by the absolute beauty of all that surrounds us:
“I am in love with this world; by my constitution I have nestled lovingly in it. It has been home. It has been my point of outlook into the universe. I have not bruised myself against it nor tried to use it ignobly. I have tilled its soil, I have gathered its harvests, I have waited upon its seasons, and always have I reaped what I have sown. While I delved I did not lose sight of the sky overhead. While I gathered its bread and meat for my body, I did not neglect to gather its bread and meat for my soul. I have climbed its mountains, roamed its forests, sailed its waters, crossed its deserts, felt the sting of the frosts, the oppression of its heats, the drench of its rains, the fury of its winds, and always have beauty and joy awaited upon my comings and goings.”
Though perhaps not religious in that conventional sense of recited psalms and regular hushed sojourns in somber churches, Burroughs sought a spiritual strength in the vast cathedral of the American Landscape. This is a temple that never fails a prayer properly rendered. His was a spirituality easily as deep as anyone’s and he expressed it in a simple but beautiful prose that gained him admirers from all walks of life. Like Whitman and Muir who had their own less than wholly enjoyable experience as presidential boon companion, Burroughs was beseeched to attend the old Knickerbocker President Teddy Roosevelt on a camping expedition and they had a “Bully” of a time. He was also a frequent guest at the soiree’s of the powerful, including Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He obliged these invitations cheerfully but was never happiest than when listening to the awakening birds in the pre-dawn darkness from his bed perched on either the front porch of his family farmhouse or at Slabsides because, only upon reflection could he discern the truer strains of the possibilities in community:
“In my tranquil seclusion I am often on the point of upbraiding myself because I keep so aloof from the struggles and contentions and acrimonious debates of the political, the social, and the industrial world around me. I do not join any of the noisy processions, I do not howl with the reformers or cry Fire! with alarmists. I say to myself, What is all this noisy civilization and all this rattling machinery of government for but that men may all have just the same and contented life that I am living and on the same terms that I do. They can find it in the next field, beyond the next hill, in the town or the country— a land of peace and plenty, if one has the peace in his heart and the spirit of fair play in his blood.
Buildings, politics, government, are but the scaffoldings of our house of life; they are there that I might have a good roof over my head, and a warm and safe outlook into the beauty and the glory of the universe, and let them not absorb more time and energy than the home itself….Let those who love turmoil arm for turmoil: their very arming will bring it; and let those who love peace disarm for peace: the disarming will hasten it”
Burroughs however, was no anti-technologist like many in the nature-loving realm. During his life, the great industrial juggernaut of America began and the era of the railroads was well along. The early years of the automobile were cheering him with its convenience but chastening him with thoughts of what it might portend. But, unlike our contemporary naturalists and environmentalists who have become justifiably cynical at the prospect of our future, John Burroughs thought the cure for the ills of science was more science:
“Our civilization is so largely the result of physical science that we almost unconsciously impute all its ugly features to science. But its ugly features can only indirectly be charged to science. They are primarily chargeable to the greed, the selfishness, the cupidity, the worldly-mindedness which has found in science the tools to further its ends. We can use our scientific knowledge to improve and beautify the earth , or we can use it to deface and exhaust it. We can use it to poison the air , corrupt the waters, blacken the face of the country, and harass our souls with loud and discordant noises, or we can use it to mitigate or abolish all these things. Mechanical science could draw the fangs of most the engineering monsters that are devouring our souls. The howling locomotives that traverse the land, pouring out their huge black volumes of fetid carbon, and splitting our ears with their discordant noises, only need a little more science to purify their foul breaths and soften their agonizing voices. A great manufacturing town is hideous, and life in it is usually hideous, but more science, more mechanical skill, more soul in capital, and less brutality in labor would change all these things. “
How might we achieve this? Through wisdom and a love of labor. Work and craftiness are never enough alone, however. The human being, to be a full measure of their potential must also host a profoundly spiritual presence. We must balance our ability at labor with our miraculous sense of poetry and in this pairing, will come an intellectual imminence that is equal to the vast expanse of our universe. Burroughs detested the squalid quality of our more base outcomes yet he saw the possibilities remaining open to us if we were only to stumble back upon that which we already know.
“A riotous, wasteful, and destructive spirit has been turned loose upon this continent , and it has used the weapons which physical science has placed in its hands in a brutal, devil-may-care sort of way, with the result that a nature fertile and bountiful, but never kind and sympathetic, has been outraged and disfigured and impoverished, rather than mellowed and subdued and humanized.”
“Knowledge comes but wisdom lingers”, because wisdom cannot or will not come by railroad, or automobile, or aeroplane, or be hurried up by telegraph or telephone. She is more likely to come on foot, or riding an ass, or to be drawn in a one horse shay, than to appear in any of our chariots of fire and thunder.”
“In every mans life we may read some lesson. What may be read in mine? If I myself see correctly, it is this; that one may have a happy and not altogether useless life on cheap and easy terms; that the essential things are always at hand; that one’s own door opens upon a wealth of heaven and earth; that all things are ready to serve and cheer one. Life is a struggle , but not warfare, it is a days labor, but labor on God’s earth, under the sun and stars with other laborers, where we may think and sing and rejoice as we work.”
“Without soul and sentiment we cannot have literature, art, music, religion, and all that gives the charm and meaning to life; and without reason and the scientific habit of mind we cannot have exact knowledge and the mastery over the physical forces upon which our civilization is based. We must transcend physical science to reach the spiritual and grasp the final mystery of life. To science , there is no mystery, there is only the inexplicable; there is no spiritual, there are laws and processes; there is no inner, there is only the outer, world. To science Goethe’s exclamation, “There is the universe within thee as well” or as Jesus put it before him, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you”, has no meaning, because it cannot weigh and measure and systemize this inner universe. Hence, I say, if we would know the world as it stands related to our souls,—-to our emotional and aesthetic natures,—-we must look to literature and art; if we would know it as it stands related to our religious instincts and aspirations, we must look to the great teachers and prophets, poets and mystics; but if we would know it as it is in and of itself, and as it stands related to our physical life and well being, and to our reason, we must look to science. ……..Science and poetry go hand in hand in this respect at least—-they transform and illuminate the common, the near at hand. they show us the divine underfoot.”
“More and more I think of the globe as a whole, though I can only do so by figuring it to myself as I see it upon a map, or as the larger moon. My mind’s eye cannot follow the sweep of its curve and take in more than the small arc at a time. More and more I think of it as a huge organism pulsing with life, real and potential.”
Some may say that these powerful testaments to the human spirit are romantically antiquated……. overrun by the realities of the hundred years of technology and population growth since John Burroughs pondered and wrote on his porch at Slabsides. They may be right . We have become, as the landscape architect Ian McHarg or anarch red rock sachem Ed Abbey asserted, a kind of petulant cancer upon the body of the Earth. These contemporary men are due their rage at the machinery of this guillotine we erect around our own necks. The idiotic notion of what the corporate economist refers to as “external costs” can drive a man to cynicism. How else could one reasonably respond to the idea that a corporation or an entire economic system can countenance the idea that the effluvia of their production is either somebody else’s problem or something we must accept with consigned duty? The very idea is profoundly uneconomic and any capitalist insults himself when obliging it as a remedy to their bottom line. “Bottom”….indeed.
We are both better and worse than that. However, as Burroughs avers, it is through a meshing of science and spirit….machines and poetry…….labor and art…. that the species will find a more effective future. This is a modernity worthy of the term.
We in this country, the tribes and flotsam of all the people of the globe have been a-westering upon a not so new , new-world for half a millennium now and by all accounts, it would seem that the gig is up and our welcome plumb wore out. We have met the western ocean and feel let down that the frontier is officially gone. It most assuredly is not. There is a far more limitless frontier within us. Science thrusts into space and invents ever more murderous weaponry between curing diseases but it rebukes or disregards religious faith. Religions, for their part are now prone to impugn both the motives and outcomes of science, and actually, in some quarters, erecting pseudo-scientific exhibits of humans cavorting with dinosaurs in an imaginary firmament barely 6,000 years old. Apocalyptic fears gather and the people consign themselves to ever-diminishing returns. Thus, modernity becomes a pox and both our “can-do” technological optimism and our spiritual capacity suffer as the art and poetry of our lives slip noisily away. Humanity, risen to a peak of remarkable dexterity becomes its own predator and given it’s talents, this ability can inexorably quicken with horrifying results.
Yet, with each spring comes a reminder that second chances and resurrection are both real and a regular part of this silent roar we call life. We have spent too many years at war with both ourselves and our world. Discovering the power of the atom, we have atomized our own modes of being and turned our faith into a retreat and our reason into rationalism. We regulate land development by zoning density and relegate open space to a minor percentage, if present at all. Oddly enough, the great awakening of naturalism of the Hudson River School of painters and President Theodore Roosevelt’s era of conservative Conservation have sanctioned a kind of “either-or” dialectic where if one saves certain superbly distinct natural areas or an occasional park, then the rest of the landscape can be ravished at will. This has effectively codified and institutionalized a system of mankind at odds with nature. Accordingly, Man has foolishly elevated himself to be over and above the habitat he lives within and the nature which sustains him remains an antagonist or something fit only for exploitation and profit. Where there is man, let it be man and where there is nature let it be nature and if they should meet, it is at best a happy accident but more often than not, it is the scene of a crime. Conversely, to the radical environmentalist, where man must enter nature, he is to do so as an uninvited and ill-advised guest, sullying the scene with his otherworldliness. Ironically, as we erode the natural environment, we cannot even create town’s and cities worth loving . We remain distracted by our own power and immune from a recognition of the more powerful energies that surround us and unite us in the unfulfilled role as the great cognitive actor in a complex web of miraculous life. Science has not failed us, it has simply been misused. Spiritual faith has not abandoned us, it has simply become more common. As the Atheists and Theists assemble in their factions and rail at one another and advance into conflict with one another, the world descends into a chaos that starves all. What we require is exactly what Mr. Burroughs asserted from the porch of his rude but elegant cabin perched upon a rock above wetlands. Science needs more science but it must also lock arms with a spiritual cohort that has the force of both humble labor and poetry within it. If and when this intellectual rapprochement is achieved, we will be ready to perceive a new energy that exists within the powerful forces of nature and then, it will be the frontiers of our inner life that we will have finally come home to. Homo sapiens sapiens will then possess the full measure of wisdom that we now so presumptuously ignore. Our latin name, “Wise Man” will no longer be a cruel joke.