In Emily Dickinson’s poem, one who died for truth and one who died for beauty were laid to rest in adjacent rooms of a tomb.  They talked “until moss reached their lips.”

In her poem, the one who died for beauty died first.  It is different now.

Truth has taken a beating and died in postmodernity.  It waits for beauty in its tomb.  Goodness has lost its way without truth, or else, goodness has joined itself completely with beauty.  Only beauty now survives.  For how long, no one knows.

If my death shall have any meaning, I pray it be for the sake of beauty, for the beauty of the earth.

In 433 Saint Patrick wrote,

“I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.”*

In his binding to the virtues of the earth and sky, he sought or found protection from evil.

Before we even ask, we are bound to the virtues of sun and moon and earth and of all that goes with them and of that which they are part. What comes without asking theologians call grace. James Lovelock called it the Gaia Hypothesis. Charles Darwin called it the grand view. Joseph Wood Krutch called it the great chain of life.

Bind me too, Saint Patrick. Bind me too to the carefree strength of the bear, to the easy motion of the deer, and to the soaring wings of the birds. Bind me to their joy.

*This translation of part of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate is from The Catholic Encyclopedia at

“From His strength the mountains take being, and the sea, they say,
And the distant river;
And these are his body and his two arms.”

From a hymn to Prajapati, rendered “To a God Unknown” by John Steinbeck.

“It is easy to know the beauty of inhuman things, sea,
storm and mountain; it is their soul and their

Humanity has its lesser beauty, impure and painful; we
have to harden our hearts to bear it.”

From The Wonder of Things by Robinson Jeffers.

“He has exalted those of low degree
and filled the hungry with good things…
in remembrance of his mercy.”

From the Song of Mary, St. Luke.

In the first case, divinity is strength and is incarnate in the earth. In the second case, divinity is beauty and is incarnate in the earth and to a lesser extent in humanity. In the third case, divinity is redemption or mercy and is incarnate in the Messiah.

In all three, divinity is expressed and known in this world.

Steinbeck and Jeffers lived on the Monterey Peninsula. I once lived there. It is a place so beautiful and mysterious, the landscape so dramatic, that it evokes the presence of divinity.

About nature, Joseph Wood Krutch wrote:  “she accepts much that is unacceptable to men who have pushed too far in their efforts to imagine a universe they would like better.”

Krutch’s critique of humanity here parallels, I think, Matthew’s presentation of the devil’s first temptation of Christ – to turn the stones into bread.  Krutch believes we should be more accepting, like nature, and to “reconcile ourselves, as she does, to things unreconcilable with purely human attitudes.  His belief parallels, I think, Christ’s response to the devil and the lesson God sought to teach Israel in the wilderness after the exodus – man does not live by bread alone.

Nature, in Krutch’s assessment, and mine, provides more than bread.  “She is joyous,” he wrote.  Nature to Krutch is like the word of God to Moses.  Krutch wrote, “nature … furnishes the most cheerful as well as the most intelligible context for thinking and living and being….”

It is beautiful, this idea:  the joyousness of nature, that nature provides manna and joy, if we let her.  In her acceptances are tender mercies.

To climb mountains, to walk beside creeks and rivers and oceans, to follow washes in the desert and paths of deer in the forest, to watch birds, lizards, squirrels, waves, clouds and stars for the sake of her joy and tender mercies:  this is living and being.

(Quotations are from the last chapter of The Desert Year, by Joseph Wood Krutch, 1951.)

“The hundred-odd years spent absorbing and improving on Darwin’s empirical story have, I suspect and hope, unfitted us for listening to transcendental stories.”  (Richard Rorty, 1994)  He acknowledged that we sometimes try to “stick with Kant” and “insist … that transcendental stories have precedence over empirical stories.”   Sometimes we try like Aldo Leopold to “think like a mountain” in the hope that transcendence is green.  Or, we try as some Christians do to think that God is yet knowable through evolution in the hope that we will be redeemed.  Or, we try as critical realists do to think, in spite of Darwin’s evidence to the contrary, that we are knowing ourselves and our world through science and philosophy because we tell ourselves without correspondence of our beliefs with Reality or Truth we have no hope at all.  Rorty suspected we would not be able to sustain such efforts and hoped that we would not.

Rorty believed that since Darwin “we have gradually substituted the making of a better future for ourselves, constructing a utopian, democratic society, for the attempt to see ourselves form outside of time and history.”  He believed our new hope is more useful than the old hope.  Rorty believed the old hope impeded the new hope.

Eliade beautifully described the old way of hope in The Myth of the Eternal Return.  Through ritual and other religious (or philosophical) ways ancestors escaped what he called “the terror of history.”  Through religion and philosophy our ancestors could see themselves “outside of time and history” (in Rorty’s words.)

I do think we have chosen the path Rorty described, but I don’t think we have as much confidence as Rorty had that this path does lead to utopia.  It is tough to sustain Rorty’s confidence in the face of the terror of history.

Could we possibly escape the terror of history by finding our way back into the green world from which we came?  Is that not as Darwinian as is the pragmatism of Rorty?  Is that not as Darwinian as it is religious?

Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Darwin had written something that is equivalent in The Origin of Species.  He wrote how unlikely it would be for humanity to select as effectively as nature has.  It is from this kind of idea that the contemporary stress on biodiversity comes.

In Darwin, nature is chance and necessity.  Life is its selection.  Chance and necessity are the meaning of wildness.  Life is the gift of wildness.

It is a conservative idea, “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”  No progressive can live with such irrationality and arbitrary unfairness.

Darwin wrote, “if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it perishes and dies.” In context, he was writing about mistletoe growing on apple trees. It was part of his explanation of the struggle for existence in The Origin of Species, Chapter 3.

In the next paragraph he wrote, “Every being … must suffer destruction during some period of its life…, otherwise, on the principle of geometric increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product.” A few pages later he wrote about what checks the increase.

One thing that checks increase is competition for food among the member of a species and with other species. More significant than that, however, is that we are prey to other species seeking food. Darwin wrote, “very frequently it is not the obtaining food, but serving as prey to other animals” that limits the population of a species. As we struggle for food with members of our own species and with members of others, we are prey to creatures larger than us, and smaller.

Among the most powerful checks on increase is climate, which acts indirectly on population by “favouring other species.” When climate warms, our food supply will shrink. As competition for food among us builds, other species will prosper. In the paragraph after he wrote about climate, Darwin wrote about epidemics that occur “when a species, owing to highly favourable circumstances, increases inordinately in a small tract.” Imagine this Darwinian future: As we struggle with each other for food on the small tract that is earth, small creatures will devour us.

We are like mistletoe overloading a tree. We hope the tree will survive if we switch to fluorescent bulbs and build enough solar panels and windmills. A “sustainable future,” we call it.

It is a ridiculous hope, of course, if Darwin is right. I think he is.

Even if human caused increases in carbon do not adversely change the climate, we are overloading the tree. Our food needs are too great. Too many of us are attached to the same tree, crowding a small green tract, and we continue to increase.

Walk a few miles along a river, cross it where it bends and narrows, force your way through a mile of thick brush, and climb up a canyon to a high ridge: that is a morning. After lunch, walk the narrow ridge along the precipice, climb down another canyon, force yourself through more brush and find a way back to the river: that is an afternoon. Rest and dream in a soft place: that is a night.

You think you know where you are on these treks, but you don’t. In spite of maps, compasses, navigational satellite receivers, and diligence, you don’t. A human mind is a deceptive organ. It imagines destinations, routes and reasons, and the passage of time. It dreams.

Two deer climbed the canyon ahead of us in the morning. A solitary animal, a wild cat I think, traveled the ridge and then down into the afternoon canyon before us. The trek seemed easier for them.

Back at the river, my friend noticed the water was sinking into the sand and the river was becoming shorter so quickly that we could see it happen – like a train leaving the station before us. I remembered Heraclites who long ago said, “You cannot step into the river twice.” It is a philosophy, but perhaps it is also a warning. You won’t be able to step into the river twice. Step into it in the morning or you will miss it.

Nothing else is like the river. After you step into it, you can never forget its power.

From an old observatory on the side of Cowles Mountain, waiting for the sun to rise on the day before the winter solstice, my mind was taken up imagining the sentience of things not human – of animals, trees, rocks, mountains, oceans and the earth itself.

If not for the clouds on the horizon when the sun rose this day, a small peak in the distance would have divided the sun into two lights – one north and one south – an appearance created by the tilt and turn of the earth.  To see the daylight come on such days is to witness the emergence of a different solar system.  To see it, one must climb the mountain in darkness to a certain place on the mountain side to wait for the light to come.  The cosmogenesis lasts only a few seconds.  Then the two lights arc and merge into one.

Some say that reality is ongoing cosmogenesis.  Heraclites said something like that:  we cannot step twice into the same river.  Still, when one sees the two suns arc and merge, it is not hard to imagine that the cosmosgenesis is brief and that in a few celestial seconds all will merge into one, and, just as Parmenides said, in spite of appearance, all is one, even now  – not just the sun, but animals, trees, rocks, mountains, oceans and the earth.

The merging of the suns, the tilt and turn of the earth, the cosmogenetic arc that binds us all in life, and the dreams of one waiting in darkness on Cowles Mountain:  there is one sentience.

All autumn I have mourned the passing of summer, missing the feeling of warmth, the bright light, the long days and slow sunsets – signs of eternity. Only when autumn is nearly past do I admire it too.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote,

“The day becomes more solemn and serene
When noon is past—there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!”

Surely Shelley is right : there is a harmony in autumn and a lustre in its sky.” Still, I wish he had not compared autumn with summer, nor even mentioned summer. The pronoun “it” in the phrase “is not heard or seen, as if it could not be, as if it had not been” must refer, I reassure myself, to “harmony in autumn, and a lustre in its sky, but appearing just after the word “summer,” my thoughts go back to summer. I miss summer.

I don’t want to think that summer “could not be.” On these cold wet days at the end of autumn it is indeed “as if it had not been.”

Recent Comments

June 2022