“In my mind a naturalist is someone who comes to understand the biological life and ecological relationships of a particular place with some depth and seeks to use this understanding to forge an appropriate relationship with earthly life.” (14)
- Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent (2006)
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent (2006)
I have been kept in the house today by a beautiful flurry of snow and wind. Sitting here, watching the snow falling, hearing its slight patter on the window and smelling the snow-fresh air coming in at the crack under the door, I have turned to devout thinking, and am inspired to wonder at Nature in all its beauty. Looking out the west window as the lecturer on my laptop continues talking about inflation and how it solves certain problems related to the Big Bang and cosmic evolution, I’m suddenly led to reflect on the ways in which we interact with Earth & Cosmos.
As I have noted in other blogs, there are subjective modes of experience and engagement that are known only to us as individuals. Then there are intersubjective modes that arise through common experience and via the communication of our own experiences with others. Finally, there are modes of interaction with the objective world_ and with the cosmos beyond our present horizons_ in which we interact with the universe, both intimate and distant, relating to and hopefully coming to understand that which we cannot change just by thinking about it differently.
Being a poet as well as a thinker and an amateur science enthusiast, I find myself fascinated by all three of these levels. This morning, however, I’m drawn toward an exploration of three ‘themes’ that seem to me important in understanding our ‘place’ in the given world; that ‘objective’ dimension that does not depend upon us for its existence or its nature. The first theme concerns engaging with the particulars of experience. This is extremely important to both the poet and the scientist, and has done more to further our knowledge of the world and ourselves than almost any other preoccupation. The second theme is the need to link the intellectual and sensual dimensions of our experience, in order to establish a holistic response to Nature. The third theme that occurs to me as I meditate on the snowy scene outside my window is the nature of the space in which we live; its three dimensionality—which implies a certain kind of universe and pervades our ‘perspective’ as a species.
1. Dwelling in the Particulars
“Maintaining our sense of wonder at the world is not achieved by retreating from science but by engaging with it.” (81)
- Richard Feynman
“God is in the details,” a friend of mine once quipped. The expression was already cliché at the time, and so I said in response, “Ironic, as that’s where our knowledge and understanding of Nature begins, too.”
How do we come to understand anything without paying attention to the details of it? Whether it’s a political issue, a poem or a flower, to know what it is we have to examine it and engage with the details of its existence. It has always struck me as significant that both naturalism and poetics – i.e., the ‘practice’ of poetic thinking and poetic engagement with life; though which poetry arises – emphasize dwelling in the particulars of their subject. When a naturalist studies a particular ecosystem, a location – such as a creek, a hill, a wooded area – or even a plant or animal; a tree or a deer, a Red-Headed Woodpecker or a Day Lily – observation of it in detail is the primary line of engagement.
To know the Red-Headed Woodpecker or the Tulip Tree only by a name and a dictionary generalization is not to know anything at all, really. When Thoreau lived at Walden Pond, he kept detailed notebooks on the flora and fauna, on his walks and on what he saw and heard and smelt and felt and tasted. It was from out of these detailed observations and engagements with Nature that his philosophy and poetry arose, organically. Surprising insight can sometimes flow from sustained attention to the details of some phenomenon. Concerning the great naturalist Charles Darwin’s attention to detail, Lyanda Lynn Haupt says, in Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent (2006), that:
“Darwin’s watching, as it matured, maintained an air of bright expectancy – a sense that, were he to watch even the smallest creature for years on end, it would still possess secrets beyond the reach of his knowledge. Such watching centers on a recognition of unplumbable depth, on a belief that all living beings are rich beyond measure.” (86)
_This experience has been shared by many naturalists, from Audubon to John Muir to Stephen Jay Gould (whose evolutionary articles strike me as just as much in the naturalist tradition as in the tradition of biological science writing, which it may be said arose out of naturalism). While we must see a phenomenon as a whole; with all of its parts integrated and articulated, depth of understanding comes from engaging with the particulars and then dwelling in deep reflection upon the whole, having become familiar with the details.
Poets likewise pay homage to the details of existence. I think of Wordsworth amongst the daffodils or sojourning at Tintern Abbey. I think of Robert Frost dwelling in the minutia of rural human life of New England or meditating out in the snow and frosted landscapes. They took in the whole scope of a scene or a situation and then, through attention to the details, came to insight that was then communicated in their poetry.
When I ‘research’ an idea I have for a poem, I review journal entries I’ve written on the subject, I meditate on experiences I’ve had relating to the topic, and I even search written sources on the topic. I then let all of these elements ‘percolate’ in my imagination, until the poem actual flows forth of its own accord. Poets say profound things because they have ‘studied’ the details of the life situation, object or tale they are re-presenting, and they do not like to gloss over anything, if possible. Granted, there are poets who simply effuse and write whatever comes into their heads, and a fair amount of this kind of poetry is good. But even here, the poet has to have had some kind of depth of experience in order to say anything that will stand beyond the moment of utterance.
The religious poet and visionary William Blake is known to have said that, “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit. General knowledges are those knowledges that Idiots possess.” (1810). This, so far as it goes, sums up what I am thinking by “dwelling in the particulars.” When I read this, I hear the praxis of the poet, and am also reminded of the naturalist and – by extension – the scientist. This rune applies to all three of these major epistemic endeavors.
2. Intellect and Sensuality
“The best science is an integrated product of our emotional and intellectual sides. … The greatest eurekas in science combine both sensual aesthetics and conceptual insight.” (13-14)
- Sean Carroll
Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2005)
“Darwin felt, and enjoyed, his own residence in the creature world. From almost the very beginning, he refused the arrogance of human separateness, allowing himself an entrance into wild life, a unique communion with the natural world that gave his intelligence broad play. In Darwin’s rare watching, every creature is allowed to stand as each of us stands – both as a distinct individual, and with our edges blurred, in flowing lineage.” (125)
- Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent (2006)
There are many different ways to experience the details of a phenomenon. We can experience it via our senses. We can experience an emotional ‘reaction’ to it. We can experience it through study and devotion, and we can also reflect on it and think about it. Thinking is an experience; we know what it is like to think devoutly and reflect on something, and it also has results that we can then experience; the end result of prolonged reflection on a natural phenomenon or the details of a scientific theory is itself an experience. Whereas I have been both a Rationalist and an Emotivist in my life, I have come to fuse these two abilities – sensuality and intellect – into one holistic praxis of engagement with the world.
We are emotional and also intellectual animals who have the capacity for both deep experience and heightened thought. We can theorize and mull things over, just as naturally as we can dance in the daily rounds of life, experiencing all that we can take in. Thus it seems we should develop a praxis in which each of these aspects of our being can be expressed and tapped. Human beings are more than ‘feeling animals’ and also more than ‘thinking machines,’ to call up two rather over-used metaphors. The struggle between Plato and the Romanticists must be overcome once and for all by an integration of thinking and feeling, intellect and emotion, mind and heart.
Dwelling in the particulars provides a person with the fodder for an holistic response to experience, and it is a shame to see poets and naturalists locked into either the sensual or the intellectual mode. It is not enough simply to experience Nature. To be awake to Earth & Cosmos and our place in it, we must also reflect, think, dream and ponder over what we experience. The rung between these two steps is study. We need to explore what is known about Nature and ourselves, and integrate this with the patterns of our experiential knowledge. Experience is what interests me in the wide world. Study deepens my experience; it fleshes out the sensed particulars and helps to give heft to my sensual and emotional responses to my experience in Nature. Reflective thought also deepens my experience of self and world, by integrating the fruits of study and the potent images, sensations and feelings that I have had while engaging with Nature at some level.
I have found that the dynamic tension between Intellect & Sensuality is what often drives the quest for Wisdom forward. Experiencing the world in all its particulars and taking in its vast canvases has its richness and rewards. But a catalog of naked experiences is not as rewarding in the end as it might seem. You can be left asking, "what does it all mean?" Abstract thought without experiential content -- on each of the three-fold levels; subjective inter-subjective and objective -- can become dried out and lifeless. Nature is full of mysterious things and strange events as well as a cornucopeia of ordinary phenomena that can inspire wonder and awe when considered seriously and playfully, and not just taken for granted. Devout Reflection on such phenomena may lead the seeker on down the path toward Wisdom's Henge. Linking Intellect & Sensuality brings us to a more holistic engagement with Nature and thus with ourselves and our own existence.
3. Perspective and the ‘Real’ World.
“Beauty is a threshold event; it may make use of ordinary and uncomplicated things, but these serve as the bridge to a domain of meaning and significance.” (xx)
- Robert P Crease
The Prism and the Pendulum (2003)
“Pray, oblige me, by removing to this other bench, and I venture to assure you the proper light and shadow will transform the spectacle into quite another thing.”
- Nathaniel Hawthorne
One of the things that I find most fascinating about Nature is that it varies according to one’s perspective. While it remains ‘the same,’ we perceive it differently, depending on many factors. I’m not here referring to the difference of perspective that arises from personal bias or from varied life-experience and cultural background, but rather to the fact that things and beings in the three-dimensional space that we inhabit can be viewed from various angles and can be experienced in different conditions and circumstances. The variations in perspective arising from cultural and personal experience are relative. The kind of variance that I am fascinated with here is an objective element of the Earth & Cosmos and does not depend upon personal bias or even theoretical orientation.
As I sit here looking out through our west window, I see the bird-feeder swinging in the wind. I see the Dogwood tree in the middle of our little back yard, with all of the birds trying to alight on its branches; from there hoping to get to the birdfeeder. _I am surprised they are being so determined with the snow falling as hard as it is! I see the bird-feeder and the Dogwood and other things as framed by the window from this vantage point. If I now go upstairs and look out one of the west windows onto the lawn below, I see the Dogwood from a different vantage point. I see it from the twigs and branches down, instead of side-on. It is the same objective tree, but it looks very different from this perspective. If I now boot up and put on my coat and go out into the snow, I can go to the Dogwood and see it from other perspectives as well. I can walk around it, and what I see of it ‘changes’ as I do so. But it is the same tree.
I’ve always taken Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quote above from Main Street as being about the subjective and intersubjective dimensions of life. He was, after all, writing family and inter-personal dramas out of which epiphanic moments arose. Since turning to science as the basis of my experience and a main taproot of my spirituality and mysticism, I have come to recognize that Hawthorne was using a physical change of perspective – “Pray, oblige me, by removing to this other bench,” he says – to illustrate or point toward the change of perspective he would use in his stories to render out insight and wisdom’s runes. Yet is it not interesting to pay attention to this physical basis for the allusion? If I were to sit watching and feeding squirrels from one bench in a park – as I see many people doing – and then ‘remove’ myself to another bench, perhaps one all the across the green or the commons, and sit there; everything changes. I see another set of particulars, my scene has another back-drop (tree covered hills, perhaps, rather than the park facilities), and I see a different side of the trees up and down which the squirrels are scampering. Yet the objects I see are the same as they were before, from an objective perspective.
I think it’s rather amazing to think about this, and reflect on it. We are – and now I’ll use a cliché – like fish in water where the three-dimensionality of space is concerned. We know of no other way it could be; we don’t really know what it would be like to live in more than three dimensions (I’m not forgetting about time, here, as the fourth dimension; I’m just focusing on space). Or less? There have been literary and philosophical attempts to describe a two dimensional world and what it would be like to ‘live’ in such space, but I always find them straining at the bit of the metaphor and importing, almost unavoidably, three-dimensional references and modes of action, thought and experience. When the fascinating experiment is over, I always think, “but life as we know it could not exist in two dimensions! Cells and everything else associated with life requires three-dimensionality.”
You might laugh at this meditation on the three dimensions of space, but I ask you to try it out for a while. I think it is important to reflect on, from a spiritual as well as philosophical point of view. We are what we are because we exist in three spatial dimensions. Even a thought – conceived of in physical terms as the result of a series of neurons firing – exists in three dimensions. Could a 2-dimensional being have a thought? What about a being existing in a 5 or 6 dimensional universe; assuming there could be such a thing—could they have a ‘thought?’ Part of what makes us – and everything else in this universe – unique stems from our three dimensionality.
Look up from where you are reading this. What do you see? If there is an object near you that you can pick up; do so. Look at it. See what you see. Turn it around, and look at it from another side. Unless it is a regular solid – like a box or a sphere – it will look different from each angle you observe it. William Blake claimed that he could look at something ordinary – like a knot in a tree – until he saw something wonderful and visionary. A similar reverie of revelation can occur from reflecting on the particulars of things from a naturalistic perspective. We don’t need to see angels and hear heavenly choirs to be stunned and amazed by Nature. Practice experiencing the three-dimensionality of our universe, and I believe that you will have interesting reflections.