Again, in lieu of any fresh songs springing forth from my own muse, I offer this recent reverie from a writer I’ve come to deeply appreciate, Brian Doyle. In an essay on the wonderful website curated by the Center for Humans and Nature, he glimpses the needle’s eye:
What is the greatest single virtue of our species? What is the one thing that we have in spades and abundance, the one thing that perhaps allowed us to prosper and multiply in such staggering numbers, to send men and machines into the sea of the stars, to fling a chirping robot past the boundaries of our very galaxy? Imagination, brothers and sisters. Imagination. We dream and then make real our dreams. And all that inventiveness, all that innovative zest, all our yearning to solve puzzles and discover secrets and worry inarguable truths from the welter of lies and distractions, all our deep pleasure in making things that were never in the world before in just that way—now that is become the thin thread of our salvation. Not to mention all the other actors in the play. Not to mention your children and their children
Following his heart and his pen through a series of powerful and poignant reflections (please do read the whole piece), Brian reminds us, and asks us:
We dreamed ourselves aloft. We dreamed ways to wrestle and wrangle rivers. We caught electricity. We persuaded plants to march in rows and give us their children to eat. We dreamed ever-faster ways to whir along the skin of the earth in steeds of steel. We dreamed throbbing cities so big and vast and high they seem unreal when we shuffle through them gawking far below. We dreamed the most extraordinary music and the most haunting deep-shared stories. We invented uncountable thousands of languages and religions and dances and sports and foods and medicines. Can’t we invent new fuels for our steel steeds, and new ways to catch and share energy, and new ways to spin detritus into fuel and energy? Have we gone stale and dim as a species, here at the apex of our population and technology boom? Were these last centuries of incredible invention and innovation and imagination all just for money and power? Or do we have a last slim door through which to send our wild holy imaginations into a future where children do not gasp and retch and duck the bullets of the Water Wars?
I am holding the hand of a small child in a yellow raincoat and orange bib overalls. His little boots have long ago filled with water. His hair is damp and smells of salt. And I am staring at my boots and thinking of what it could possibly mean to this child, to live on a planet whose life-supporting mechanisms have frayed and fallen apart.
He sucks in his breath. “Hey! Guys! Come close and look. Come close and look.” Under a blade of rainbow kelp, he has found the red, orange-spiked, gooey sea animal called the California sea cucumber, Parastichopus californicus. How beautiful it is, and how beautiful is the human impulse to be astonished.
But there’s this: Yesterday, on a beach only two miles from this one, sea cucumbers by the hundreds washed up, dead. I’d never seen anything like that before. Gloriously colored animals sagging under the sudden weight of the world, they rolled in with the tidal detritus, tangled in seaweed and slime.
What does this mean for our children, yours and mine, this dying? Can children thrive in a world where other species are vanishing as they watch? I just don’t know. And what does it mean for us, the parents and grandparents who desperately love these children?
Do read the whole thing; it’s beautifully written. And click through for links to two other recent pieces by Kathleen.
I recently discovered Michael Leunig, an Australian cartoonist whose wonderful and often-poignant work is well worth perusing; his site features extensive archives. Click through below for a few more of the ones that jumped out for me (one in every five or ten, I’d say; many others are pretty grim, if also too true).
We may “know” the universe of galaxies is out there, and we do indeed gaze with wonder at our galactic body shining across the summer sky. But the largest of the bodies we are really able to experience is the Solar Body. We see this body from different angles, as earth circles the sun. We watch it change over time, our cycle but one figure in the eternal dance of our sister planets. And we feel it with our animal bodies: the sun warming our tender skin, human beings reveling in the seasonal breath of life within the skin of the earth.
Check it—that’s how high the sun gets on my birthday! Tip the ol’ head back, to its natural easy limit (just shy of craning) and I’m looking right at that great ball of plasma at the center of it all. Seems pretty far up there; it really does take a leap in February, after the two chilly months straddling Solstice; for so long, we’re looking way down across the winter planet’s deep backwards tilt, while the southern horizon swings eastward not much more than hands-breadth below our precious local star.
Ah, Bodhi. Another year gone by and again the anniversary of my birth is being spent within your warm embrace. Morning on the back porch, catching some eastern rays as the orange and white cliffs spin down and away from the brilliant beacon in the sky. Midday finds me on a bench under bare cottonwoods, continuing my day of reading and integration. And now, as the afternoon fades to evening, the pools call and the books are set aside. Ah, Bodhi; earth-warmed waters, take me in. How I love the touch of your cobblestones under fingers and palms that slowly pull this floating body across the pool, sun rippling on stones below, chin slipping through the subtle, pliant surface tension of your waters.
Body temp rising, head now resting in a grassy nook between a couple of rocks along your edge, high clouds streaming through the deep blue sky. Ah, Bodhi, here in this mighty canyon, where ancient waters scoured away towering layers of limestone and volcanic ash all the way down to where today’s small, lively stream dances ceaselessly a few feet away. . . and draws my awareness out, and up, beyond the cliffs shining upstream in soft afternoon sun.
A Valentine’s Day message from The Teilhard Project speaks to the deeper spirit of the day:
Love is the the most universal, formidable, and most mysterious
of the cosmic energies
—Building the Earth
The day will come when,
after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation,
we shall harness for God the energies of love.
And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world,
man will have discovered fire.
—Toward the Future
The special effect of love is to plunge the beings it draws together more deeply into themselves.
Love is a sacred reserve of energy, and the blood stream of evolution;
that is the first discovery we can make from the sense of Earth.
—Building the Earth
Learn more about Teilhard de Chardin on this edition of On Being, in which Krista Tippet interviews three thought leaders for whom he has been a formative influence (includes links to transcript and audio).
Curve-billed Thrasher reappeared in the yard today, orange-eyed, alert, dashing away jays that deigned to also seek out some of the seed scattered there on the path. The entire yard is aflutter with winged ones, steadily stoking their inner fires at the feeders, here in the midst of what will likely be a full week of below-freezing days and several sub-zero nights. The valley is blanketed by six inches of snow—settled from the fluffy foot that fell two days ago—and the hillsides all around are a speckling of pine-green branches mottled with snowy white mounds.
This activity outside my door is but the local embodiment of a hemispherical pulse as our planet slides its way toward the point in its annual ring-around-the-sun in which we in the north find ourselves leaning far back, away from the Solar Heart, now skimming low and briefly over the southern horizon, unable to fully warm the air above and around us. And the nights, ever longer, so deeply chilled: stepping outside, we are—instantly, intently—aware of our skin, the insides of our nostrils, our eyes, these tender edges of our bodies through which we meet the world around us, now in a palpable, vulnerable relationship with the very air. No longer a benign emptiness, the air takes on a physical presence, a sharpness, a density, actively reaching into us through these permeable boundaries, the very heat of our bodies seeping out into the dark night. Ah, the vividness of deep cold!
And that’s not all. These long nights are aglitter again with the glorious starscape that we revisit at this time each year. As the deeply tilted Earth spins us into and through the sunset band of color, our one most sacred star is shadowed by the rocky water-world beneath our feet, and the sky opens wide into the larger local surroundings that spread away from Sol on the winter side of our orbit. . . Orion bright and wide around his belt and sword. . . the V of the bull’s face (red eye aglow). . . seven Pleiades sisters splattered high in the sky. . . while Sirius gleams low over the hills, sparkling magenta-now-teal-now-golden-now-white, following not far behind our sun as both are swept along in the great currents of the Milky Way’s slow turning. Joining the wintry delight this year is mighty Jupiter, king of our planetary brethren, outshining everything: so big, so close.
All this—pecking juncoes, snowy junipers, sun low over the shoulder of the valley, nights frigid and fragile and brilliant and vast, our own eyes and hearts taking it all in—is this not God made manifest? What more might we worship than the dance of life (co-evolution of a planet), within the miracle of the seasons (solar pulses spurring that dance into Earth), embedded in a galactic home that dazzles us with its expansive spiral embrace, itself a remote condensation of matter within a vastness of energy surging forth from a source beyond understanding? To see, and feel, and honor this dynamic and incomprehensible power and beauty—and intelligence, and yes, design—that pulses across these nested scales of creation’s embodiment; to walk a path through this world that acknowledges this grandeur while seeking simply to be a vessel by which it may live within our hearts and actions; what else does anyone’s God ask of us than this?
We are living beings within a living world in a living cosmos, a cosmos whose dynamism and beauty reveals patterns we recognize also in wave-lapped shorelines, wind rippling through woods, the slow surging forth of dawn across drifting clouds, and our own churning feelings, questing souls, and deepest longings. As has ever been the way, to see our small lives—giving and receiving, breath by breath and touch by touch—as expressions of a design and creativity so much larger than us is to bow before that mystery, our purpose becoming one of service, and care, and reverence.
Around thirty years ago, a new story began to be told, a story that continues to unfold and become richer, deeper, truer with each passing year and each added voice. It weaves together sciences and religions, history and today, our human bodies and the starry depths. In books by many different authors, several films, and conversations in churches, wilderness retreats, and living rooms, this new story is still coming into form, and has built quite an audience among leading environmental and religious thinkers.
It’s a Creation Story, the first such story to emerge from diverse voices from around the planet, rather than within a particular local or regional culture. For millenia, primal peoples the world over told tales of mythic beings and forces taking shape as sky, earth, humans, animals: Creation Story 1.0. Later, organized religions emerged and spread, with Asians honoring a pantheon of Gods while the three cultures of the Middle East each revered a single God: Creation Stories 2.0. Today, both animism and deism remain potent belief systems, while science stands apart, examining the matter and energy that gave rise to our world. It’s time for a story that can embrace each of these mighty threads of human inquiry: Creation Story 3.0.
Thomas Berry is a lodestar for this new story of the sacred universe, as is Joanna Macy. Many others have informed its heart and its tendriled edges: Gary Snyder and bioregionalism; E.O. Wilson, Lynn Margulis, Stuart Kauffman, and other integrative scientists; poets of intimate and expansive embodiment like Mary Oliver, Pattiann Rogers, and Jim Harrison; the list goes on, with multiple strands back in time to Whitman, Emerson, Goethe, Rilke, and so many more. Each of us has our own litany of others upon whose shoulders we dance, and reach, and dream.
The new creation story draws on what we’ve learned in recent decades about the common themes seen in the formation of the cosmos and our solar system, the evolution of biological life, and the emergence of human society and consciousness, yet it retains an allegiance to the sacred—the fathomless power and intention within the very essence of all creation. This new story doesn’t aim to replace anyone’s God or faith; it’s a place to gather together humanity’s diverse ways of seeking to understand this world. . . and so know one’s God more intimately and fully. Still, the story leaves room for all ways of seeing, feeling, knowing, and understanding the deeper source of the the beauty we see around us: a creator-being, complexity driving emergent properties, the spark of love, “dark” energy, blind chance (though this last one tends to be frowned upon in these circles!). All that the story asks is that we see ourselves as part of this world, rather than somehow separate from it, and that we acknowledge that there is something more than what we can see: a set of connective and creative principles and energies that underly and flow through all we know. The more spiritually inclined among us look beyond the principles, yearning toward their source: an unfathomable mystery and intelligence. Many know this as God; others simply acknowledge the presence of a life force or spirit of some sort.
So: this new creation story is rooted in profound personal experience of—and relationship with—the world around us, and an equally profound openness to the divine, the core driver of our reality, however we may each see it. The story, while enlivened by this direct, lived experience, is expanded and informed by an ever-richer understanding of the synergies that drive growth and change within physics, biology, and culture—recognizing especially the ways in which science’s understandings are yet still laced with unreachable Mystery. The sacredness of all life grounds the story, while the eternal desire to know the world and our place in it is the breath that gives it voice.
The new creation story need not replace our many local and cultural stories, with their established foundations of purpose and meaning. But it would serve us well—in this time when modern communications and global challenges are both pulling us closer together as a planetary culture—to also weave a larger story that can hold all of humanity’s rich histories and cherished beliefs within its embrace.
These musings—today’s reflections you just read, and all the glimpses shared throughout this site’s witness to the years—are bits of my own ways of hearing and telling this new global creation story (my particular fascination has to do with becoming more concretely attuned to the nested physical scales within which we live, and to the relationships, the giving and receiving, found within and between scales). These few paragraphs, more specifically, bubbled forth after listening this afternoon to a recent hour-long talk by Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, which is one of the best and most concise distillations I’ve heard of this thirty-year collaborative global endeavor; this little essay borrows part of its title from one Michael’s themes. Michael and Connie have been weaving their versions of this great story for over a decade, and Michael in particular is especially interested in bringing it into churches (he’s a former evangelical minister); this talk frames some of the key themes of the new global creation story in ways that aim to bridge the scientific and the religious ways of looking at both creation and the choices we make in our individual lives. He, and many others, see this new story as one that can be embraced by followers of many religious traditions, while also adding an appealing depth to the modern secular worldview. I highly recommend this talk both to those looking for an introduction to these ideas, and to those who’ve been following these themes for years. The first 25 minutes will give you the nut of Michael’s recent new framing of what this may be all about (try to listen at least until the Thomas Berry quote about honoring the earth); the second half explores many of these fascinating ideas in more depth. Again, here’s the link.
Photo: Jim Cummings
Late last year, hopes began to rise that a Great Comet might be drawing near. Comet ISON (formally addressed as Comet C/2012 S1) looked large, and it was headed for a very close encounter with the sun, which could trigger a fantastic outburst of gas and dust, creating a potentially huge tail for a few weeks after that, perhaps even bright enough to be seen in daylight.
While astronomers were quick to stress the uncertainties inherent in any comet’s outbursts, especially one that had never entered the inner solar system before, and was going to skim so close to the gravitational dynamo at the heart of our solar system, it was easy to also feel their excitement. Guy Ottewell added a “stop the presses” section to his annual Astronomical Calendar to fully illustrate ISON’s potential, and as its sun-grazing moment grew closer, multiple solar observatory satellites were sending near real-time images down to the eager eyes of pros and amateurs alike.
Well, as you likely know by now, the traveler did not survive its close encounter with our local star, the immense ball of plasma that fuels all life on this goldilocks planet of ours. That distant speck of light drew ISON ever closer, growing bright as the comet moved into the inner solar system (realm of the solar body’s rocky fragments: Mars, Earth, Venus, Mercury). A few days before its big moment, our hero began to shudder, showing some signs of partial crumbling; then, in the final hours of its approach, ISON’s dusty nucleus—a half mile or so in diameter, careening into the sun’s magnetic streamers and the pressures of a gravitational force beyond imagination—found it all to be too much, and simply puffed apart.
The last images before it moved too close to the sun to be seen showed it fading fast, and when it didn’t come out the other side as expected, astronomers and skywatchers the world over sighed in collective disappointment. Yet once more, the intrepid dustball surprised, faintly glowing again a few hours later. Yet this was the ghost of ISON, a diffuse patch of dust, continuing along the orbital destiny of its former self, far too faint to be seen by the eyes of earthlings.
These three links honor the memory of ISON in various ways that may be worth your time:
- AstroBob summarizes what we now know of the physical stages of its destruction and shares a time-lapse movie of its approach and retreat from the sun
- A post-mortum Reddit Ask Me Anything session with comet scientists
- Karl Battams of the ISON Observing Campaign offers a short and stirring In Memoriam
And, a few weeks later, this column looks at 10 Lessons from ISON.
Karl’s final words are a fitting conclusion here, as well. This is how Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) wishes to be remembered:
Images: Damien Peach
Mount Etna recently surged back to life, as it tends to do every few months or years. A local volcanologist, Dr. Boris Behncke, has posted videos from Saturday night, and they are spectacular! This 8-minute sequence may stretch your online attention span, but there’s a wealth of riches to be had herein. After thirty seconds of scene-setting, the fireworks ramp up, with a series of stunning lava-bursts from about ninety second to three minutes or so: huge spheres of glowing lava expanding outwards, then settling ever-further down the mountain’s flanks. From about six to seven minutes, there’s a wonderful sequence with the near-full moon setting behind the smoke plume and peak. As an added treat, the video gives at least a sense of the thunderous booms that follow a few seconds behind the visuals, the locally-familiar call of the mountain rolling across the landscape, day and night, into the streets and homes—and the hearts and bones—of all its neighbors.
For more on this eruption, including several links to more images of Etna, see this article at Wired.com. And check out these two posts from the good Dr. Behncke, on an especially interesting burst of activity in late October, and on the last surviving remnant of an old hut, built in a burst of foolishness in the 1960’s: an antenna, now poking its lonely head from ash and lava flows.