from a response I wrote to a class question in my Poetry and Politics of Nature: Muir and Whitman
Holli’s question stirred up the waters and I was scanning over some notes from my “Wild Gospel of Nature” course (at Dominican University) from a few years ago. Some lines from James Mitchell’s book, The Life and Adventures of John Muir (1979) caught my eye.
Mitchell calls attention to the age-old tension of human creatures “who are in nature but not quite of nature” (if you have an evangelical background as I do you might hear this as “in the world but not of the world”–a biblical phrase).
He describes a famous painting of St. Francis in an Assisi church. Francis is preaching his sermon to the birds (notice it is to the birds, no listening). He goes on to say that “John Muir’s life was a kind of campaign, a testimony against the notion that all of nature was designed for the use of [humans]. He was at home in, and took an ecstatic pleasure in, the world that [humans] have not made.”
I would add that religious or spiritual interpretations of Nature arise from this “ecstatic pleasure” which is precisely the challenge: can ecstacy, pleasure or beauty be put into words or be adequately expressed? Could it be that all “sacred scriptures” are the (inadequate) attempt of human creatures to put down in words that which cannot be written? Think of Muir’s language. Wasn’t he reaching for any word possible to describe the indescribable? If so, can we ever be literal with any of this? Is this evidence of our human conundrum, the paradox we are “nailed” to (as Soren Kierkegaard put it)?
If we are creatures OF Nature and IN Nature then can we express this relationship, this interconnection (interbeing) any better than a beetle, hawk, whale or bacteria? Can we ever step outside the cosmos–our home– to look back or down to really say who we are (and isn’t this one working definition for our god-images?)?
Just a few more questions. . .