Before nature one must be silent and stare.
Late in the afternoon I often go out walking with my dog in the hills around my home. Such excursions have the character of escape. I climb over a sagging barbed-wire fence and am free. This twisted metal thread, gradually being engulfed by wild currant bushes that birds planted while swinging on the wire, separates one reality from another. Both my dog and I sense this.
We follow the natural divisions of the land as we walk—a rock fault, the crest of a hill, a dry creek bed. It takes only a few minutes for the authority of this other reality to make itself felt. In this sphere one must be silent and stare. There are no interposing “media.” There is no “sharing.”
I stare at a white-skinned, black-scarred aspen tree whose leaves have turned a rosy gold with the trapped anthocyanin left by the receding sap. The tree and I do not communicate. Yet as I rub my hand across its tough skin and scabs and feel my own sap, full of sugars and enzymes, circulating through the branches of my body, I once again sustain the momentary illusion that, given such a setting of steady, silent intent, of beauty, I would find it easy and natural to be forever good and virtuous. Here every organism goes about its business with unwearying devotion. Sap rising and falling. Leaves drifting and decaying. Birds eating and excreting. Seeds dying and sprouting. Surely I could slip into a niche somewhere in this open-air monastery.
I sit down under the tree and call my dog to me. He is a comical sight, sniffing his way over the hill in systematic criss-crosses of ecstasy, belonging yet not belonging to this separate reality. Watching him, I realize that his devotion to his destiny is greater than mine. With a few exceptions, mostly in the form of squirrels, he is obedient, faithful, and affectionate toward his master. In that great avalanche of creation we call the fall he has landed somewhere between me and the tree. He is that strange anomaly, a domesticated animal.
This separate reality my dog and I invade was invented in the eighteenth century, and it is called Nature. It contains the images that float before our mind’s eye when we hear the word Creation: trees and birds and flowers and fish. Ruffed grouse and black bears, gray whales and mule deer. It is the preferred setting for Boy Scout jamborees, rock concerts, vacations, and summer weddings. We reverently preserve it in national parks and game sanctuaries.
But we do not allow it in the house. It is useless to point out that gravity operates indoors as well as out, that bacteria decompose garbage in the trash can, that water evaporates from the sink. Those activities of the physical world, while acknowledged as Science, are outside our common category of Nature. The closest we come to Nature indoors is pine-scented room deodorizer.
Yet nature, or at any rate Creation, has always been a significant category in Christian understanding. Significant but not static. For example, the comparable category for the first-century Greek world was the cosmos. The Greek cosmos differs from our Nature in that it contains all things that have being, including mathematics and time. Only cursory attention is given to small furry animals and fields of daisies. Thus there arose in the first few hundred years of the church life-and-death controversies over the “nature” of Christ—how he came into being; what that being, in an almost mathematical and molecular sense, consists of; how it relates to temporal history. These concerns, imbedded in the Nicene Creed, now seem almost inaccessibly antiquarian to the contemporary Christian. “Very God of Very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father.” That was the closest approximation to a “nature talk” the early church in its Greek milieu ever made.
It remained for Tennyson, a millennium and a half later, to translate that cosmological obsession into our familiar Nature terms:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
Well, we may say, we will leapfrog over the esoteric Greeks and get back to those earthy Hebrews. They understood about Nature. Didn’t Jacob camp out with a rock for a pillow? And Moses, out on a nature walk, discovered a new and truly wild flower, a burning bush. But that’s not exactly what we had in mind either. That’s somewhat more than we ask of Nature today. Indeed, we won’t put up with its getting so out of hand. It is the steady predictability of Nature that we love—the rotating seasons, the weather forecast, the ecological balance.
But for the Hebrews, the category we call Nature, one for which they had no word at all, was always precarious and unpredictable, capable of breaking forth into flame or dropping bread down on their heads or washing away the world in a few weeks. Jacob’s pillow became the first step on the stairway to Heaven. Anything one touched, any place one innocently laid his head, could be an unlooked for entrance into the unveiled presence of the Creator. Trees and rocks and streams were alive with the possibilities of what God might decide to do next. And although the Old Testament escapes the sentimentality of latter-day pantheism, the prospects of Yahweh’s showing up in a whirlwind or a thunderclap were enough to encourage the Hebrews to keep a wary eye on the environment.
They also insisted upon its joining the chorus of praise to its Creator. The psalmist orders the trees to clap their hands and the hills to leap for joy. We even have it on no less a Hebrew authority than Jesus that the very stones could cry out in praise of the King of Heaven in addition to performing the formidable task of raising up children to Abraham.
Yes, Nature has suffered a considerable comedown since the days of the “earthy” Hebrews. We tend to place the burden of this responsibility on the thin shoulders of Sir Isaac Newton, who in the eighteenth century formulated the binomial theorem, the laws of gravity and motion, and the elements of differential calculus. The poets who inherited this vivisection of the world were particularly distressed with Newton’s study of light. Blake, for example, scorned both the Greeks’ cosmology and Newton’s science, preferring to cast his lot with the Hebrews, when he wrote:
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
But such a dividing of waters of creation into Nature and Science must have begun even earlier in the church’s history. On one side of the gulf we see the Scholastics, for whom Nature was primarily a proposition in an interminable argument that was to prove the existence of God. On the other side stands Francis of Assisi, birds perched in his hair, proclaiming his kinship with the sun and moon. Give them a few centuries and the Scholastics in their cold stone edifices of the University of Paris have become Isaac Newton at Cambridge writing his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in which Nature becomes Number. Now Newton was a pious man who also wrote treatises on Daniel and Revelation. To him the numbers added up to God. But to his followers they added up only to Science.
And what of the inheritors of Saint Francis? As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, they either went mad, like Blake, stomped off in a huff to die early, like Shelley and Keats, or lived to a ripe old age writing silly things about the “natural piety” of the pagan, like Wordsworth. Yet even the mad Blake could recognize nonsense: “I see in Wordsworth the Natural Man rising up against the Spiritual Man Continually, & then he is No Poet but a Heathen Philosopher at Enmity against all true Poetry or Inspiration. There is no such Thing as Natural Piety Because The Natural Man is at Enmity with God.”
Yet when Wordsworth wrote his famous sonnet celebrating that pious pagan, “suckled in a creed outworn,” it was the first three lines that set the tone for the twentieth-century “nature lover,” that wistful, slightly comical creature:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours …
At last. There is the use of the term “Nature” we have been looking for. There are the wandering clouds and the fields of daffodils and the babbling brooks. And there too is the divorce of Nature from “the world” that is also a part of our understanding. Human beings and their society forever separated from Nature. Henceforth we can only be picnickers or backpackers, inserting ourselves as unobtrusively as possible into the landscape, scrupulously gathering up our sandwich bags and virtuously picking up the soda cans others have left behind. We refrain from picking the wildflowers and shoot wild animals only with a camera. But at last we must go home and sadly shut the door on Nature.
True, for its part Nature will not have us on any account. At a recent national campers’ convention a few miles from my former home, the very grass disintegrated within two days under the hiking boots of pious pagans. The game removed themselves to the next county. Pollen grains and mosquitoes filled the air. The campers were humble toward the mosquitoes and apologetic about the grass. Still, Nature has a way of receding upon our approach, like one who is not anxious to make friends.
Yet we persist, pagans and Christians alike. Take us back, we whimper, plucking at the sleeve of heartless Mother Nature. We may not, as a culture, have penetrated to the meaning of disobedience in the Garden, but we have certainly appropriated the fact of our expulsion from it. We stand somewhat bewildered beyond the gates, wondering why the sight of a scurrying furry animal should move us so when we don’t even remember its name.
Becoming Christians has not given us the key to that particular gate. Ours is the key to the City, not the Garden. A city, however, that is like none we have ever known, pierced by a river and with a tree at its heart. Therefore, since we might one day be called upon to return to our original occupation of naming creation, we should perhaps attend more closely to the tenderness and trepidations we feel toward Nature while we wait for the lion and the lamb to become bedfellows. Jesus expected his own generation to read at least the signs of the sky and the harvest. Few of us can do that much.
The greater the gulf between Nature and the world, the more disastrously imbedded our sense of invulnerability becomes. We may lament Nature’s elusiveness, but we also feel safe from its surprises. That is why termites in the woodwork and cancer in the bloodstream always come as a shock. Despite the “unnaturalness” of fallen humanity, Nature has been allowed to keep a grip on our bodies, our breath, our bacteria.
How far we have withdrawn into our illusory citadel can be measured by our distance from the Franciscan hymn that begins, sweetly enough, “Praised be God for our Sister, Mother Earth, which brings forth varied fruits and grass and glowing flowers,” but ends on the shocking note, “Praised be God for our Sister, the death of the body.” That is truly a nature psalm, embracing all the mysterious implications of our kinship with creation.
Indeed, it would be a great boon to all human culture if Christianity could succeed in once more uniting Nature and Number. We have heard for long yawning decades now about the war between science and religion and their imminent reconciliation at the hands of Christian apologists. These announcements would be much more credible if they came from Christian scientists. In the twentieth century, Christendom has embraced Nature more passionately than ever our forebearers did. Lilies of the field leave us positively giddy. But too close an embrace makes respectful attention impossible. Our love is more often a consumer’s orgy. We must possess Nature. We protect the lilies and feed the sparrows, hoping to make them ours.
Stand back a bit, and instead of “loving” nature, do as Jesus instructed and consider it. Observe where the constellation Scorpio rises in the summer sky. Learn how long light takes to reach the earth from our own sister sun and why it is at present impossible to calculate accurately either the distance or size of strange quasars. Follow the seedpods of field flowers and the hundred curious paths by which they find their way into the ground. Discover what cancer cells look like. Jonathan Edwards knew, much more intimately than Tennyson, the anatomy of arachnids. The one is content to stand with his uprooted flower drooping like a dismal question mark in his disappointed hand, while the other pursues spiders to his satisfaction.
This is the only significance of the science-and-religion reconciliation, not that scores of doubting scientists will be converted, but that thousands of blurry-eyed, nature-loving Christians will shake themselves, blink, and begin to take a hard, intimate, respectful look at the handiwork of their Creator. That they will sit down on a stump or a rock somewhere silent and feel the listening, watching, thrumming sense of separation and groaning desire that engulfs them—the separation that makes it painfully impossible for human beings to live like lilies and the desire that makes it equally impossible to stop trying.
Yet even in the continual tension we must suffer between these separate realities of “the world” and Nature, there is a grace extended to us, often misappropriated but nevertheless real. It is the very quality of carelessness, of what-will-it-matter-fifty-years-from-now. It is freedom from self-importance, egotism that dissipates in the open air like smoke. Misappropriated and turned inside out, it is the frequently described fear that assails the solitary figure overwhelmed by the night sky, filled as it is with vast spaces and infinite stars. But it is that sense of not mattering that comforts the heart of Sam, the hobbit, struggling with the outsized task of saving Middle-earth. Within the very realm of the Enemy, he has a moment of carelessness mediated by the sight of a star. “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack, above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.… Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s ceased to trouble him” (Lord of the Rings, Houghton Mifflin, 1965, p. 199).
Notice that Sam did not, like Dorothy in the Land of Oz, begin to sing about wishing on a star. He did not attempt to “commune” with Nature in the shape of the star. He recognized it as a separate—but substantial—reality. Far from frightening him, the thought of his own inconsequence comforted him. Field flowers being burnt in the oven, numbered sparrows falling out of the sky, seeds buried in the earth. It is by such strange paradoxes that Nature talks to us.
G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.
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