Thursday, April 30, 2009

The oldest road -- 2

New Agers believe the Avebury stone circle is the cosmic energy center of England, a focus of ley lines that channel the powers of the universe to a hot little fusion. Well, maybe, but I think not. Still, there can be no doubt that Avebury was a power center in that long ago time when the megaliths were raised.

The primary circle, a quarter-mile in diameter, originally consisted of 98 rough megaliths, each weighing 40 tons or more, dragged from the nearby Marborough Downs. Another 56 stones stood in two inner circles. The whole thing is surrounded by a massive earth bank and deep moat. Archeologists estimate it took more than a million man-hours to build the complex. Nearby, the earth mound known as Silbury Hill looms like a miniature mountain. It has been estimated that heaping up this colossal dirt pile -- of uncertain purpose -- would have required 18 million man-hours, or 700 men working for 10 years. All this when the population of the region was no more than 10,000 souls.

Clearly, this was not the work of a carefree band of peaceable hobbit farmers living in sweet harmony with the land, gathering in their magic circle on seasonal holidays to celebrate the cycles of the sun. Planning and executing such megaprojects surely required massive changes in the way society was organized.

Which sent me back to a book I read many years ago, cultural historian Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine. (And, yes, there in the back pocket of the college library's copy was the card from the 1970s with my signature repeated half-a-dozen times, the last time anyone checked out the book.)

Mumford begins by emphasizing those human characteristics that do not leave a tangible archeological record -- Homo ludens rather than Homo faber. The burial of a body tells us more about human nature than the tool that dug the grave, says Mumford.
With man's persistent exploration of his own organic capabilities, nose, eyes, ears, tongue, lips, and sexual organs were given new roles to play. Even the hand was no mere horny specialized work-tool: it stroked a lover's body, held a baby close to the breast, made significant gestures, or expressed in shared ritual and ordered dance some otherwise inexpressible sentiment abut life or death, a remembered past, or an anxious future. Tool-technics, in fact, is but a fragment of biotechnics: man's total equipment for life.
We catch here a glimpse of hobbit life in the peaceful shire far away from the smoky techno-engine of Mordor. Mumford's book is a warning against letting technique overwhelm those things that are more fundamentally human.

At Avebury I think we see on a more modest scale the reorganization of society around technique that Mumford examines in ancient Egypt and the river valleys of the Mideast: The centralization of political power in a kingship or oligarchy, stratification of social classes, a lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the introduction of slavery or forced labor for the purpose of aggrandizing royal stature. Perhaps the peoples of the Marborough Downs in 2500 B.C. turned their hands and minds willingly to the construction of their versions of the pyramids and ziggurats, but I rather suspect it was more like what Mumford describes -- more ant colony than hobbit shire.

And, of course, religion would have been part of the mix. The wielders of power -- those lords who prepared for themselves those fabulous tombs -- held the keys to the afterlife. Religion was the glue that held the machine together, that greased the wheels of megalomania. The subsistence farmer -- our happy hobbit -- who was corralled from his fields to carry dirt to make the massive Silbury Hill presumably expected his reward beyond the grave. Feminine earth gods were supplemented by a masculine sky-god whose transcendent will was expressed through the divine rights of priests and kings. "Those earth gods and sky gods remained side by side in most cultures," writes Mumford, "but if the vegetation gods continued to be more sympathetic, lovable, and popular, there is no doubt which were the more powerful."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The oldest road -- 1

The antiquarian John Aubrey first recognized the significance of the Avebury complex of tombs and temples in the mid-17th century, as the Scientific Revolution in England was beginning. Until that time the place belonged to fable and fairies. Aubrey wrote that the Avebury stone circles, with their great enclosing moat and linear avenues of standing stones, "does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge, as a cathedral doeth a parish Church."

The primary stone circle is one of the largest in the world, big enough to have the village of Avebury sitting inside it. Unfortunately, many of the defining megaliths were broken up by locals for building stone. This desecration seems to have mostly occurred between the time the presiding fairies and pagan spirits began their retreat in the face of a newly emerging empiricism and the advent of an incipient preservationist consciousness in the 17th and 18th centuries. That is to say, the Avebury "cathedral" presumably survived for millennia after its builders vanished because it was considered a sacred or haunted place in the popular imagination, just as many of the ring forts of Ireland survived into the protectionist 20th century because of their association with "the fairies."

No one knows with certainty the purpose of the Avebury structure. Most archeologists believe it did indeed serve as a kind of cathedral, or holy gathering place, for the Neolithic farmers of the Wiltshire Downs, perhaps a place to celebrate the arrival of spring and the fall harvest. (Tomorrow I will suggest a darker purpose.) As Carmen suggested yesterday, the celebration of life assumed a continuation into an afterlife; the "cathedral" is surrounded by a vast "churchyard" of burial structures -- barrows of earth and stone, including the famed West Kennett Long Barrow and Silbury Hill, the largest manmade earthen mound in Europe. As we walked from site to site we felt the sense of otherworldly enchantment that must have been integral to the lives of Neolithic peoples. We were in the presence of what is assuredly among the most ancient, universal and enduring of human characteristics -- the desire to live forever.

But there we were, three modern adults who do not believe in a personal afterlife, or fairies, or pagan spirits. We accept the scientific consensus that the death of the soma is the death of self. Why then, if we are so soon to be gone, should we care that a place like Avebury be preserved, or that we should embrace a conservationist ethic of any sort? One only saves what has an intrinsic value -- that is to say, that which is sacred or holy. Can words like sacred or holy have meaning in the absence of personal immortality or a transcendent plan for the world? I believe the answer to that question is not only "yes," but that -- as the title of my most recent book suggests -- foregoing the transcendent requires us to assume responsibility for re-enchanting the world. How that re-enchantment might work in a secular context I propose to explore now and again over the coming weeks as I reflect on our Ridgeway walk.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Oldest Road

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And wither then? I cannot say.
I suppose I should write a few words about our 100-mile walk along England's Ridgeway, the oldest known trackway in Britain (and which I preface with a bit of Tolkien).

Dan, Tom and I flew into Heathrow on Saturday morning, where an arranged driver took us to the tiny village of East Kennett near Avebury. We spent the afternoon exploring the many antiquities of the area -- the impressive Avebury stone circle and avenue, the West Kennett Long Barrow, Silbury Hill, and the Overton complex of round barrows. Many other barrows in the area are now the base for stands of ancient trees, for the simple reason that they were never incorporated into fields. The entire area is permeated with a preoccupation with the afterlife.

Sunday morning we set out on the Ridgeway itself, on a dry track in perfect weather that endured all week. We came prepared for wet, and walked in shorts and tees. The first three days kept to the crest of the chalky Cretaceous escarpment looking out over the Vale of the White Horse, fields of yellow rape extending in every direction. Every high point had its hill fort, massive earthworks from the Iron Age, the most impressive of which were Barbury Castle and Uffington Castle, not castles in the usual sense of the word but broad summits protected by huge ditches and walls of earth. Whitehorse Hill above Uffington, with its fort and totemic White Horse carved into the chalk, was sun-drenched and glorious. This was where forty years ago I promised myself to someday come back and walk the entire track. We passed through an occasional village, invariably picturesque and graced with a ye olde pub where we indulged in a ye olde pint. In late afternoon we dropped down off the ridge to our accommodations, where our bags waited. Our B&B hosts were warm and welcoming without exception.

At the end of day 3 we reached the Thames, where our track now took us 4 or 5 miles along the river through grassy meadows and tiny villages. Then east again along Grim's Ditch, a long, straight Iron Age earthwork of uncertain purpose reaching from the river to the Chiltern hills. "Ditch" here does not mean a depression, but a ridge, and like the round barrows it is now crowned with ancient woods carpeted with bluebells (see pic below; click to enlarge). Then back to the uplands as the trail turned north toward its termination on Ivinghoe Beacon, an outlier of the Chilterns with splendid 360 views over central England. Our last two nights were spent in the cozy comfort of a B&B presided over by Sandra Crannage, a grandmother who is herself an enthusiastic walker. Our accommodations were only a few dozens of yards from our "Prancing Pony," the Valiant Trooper pub in Aldbury where we were soon adopted as regulars.

All in all, a perfect walk in the congenial company of two fine young men. We can warmly recommend Contours, an outfit that made long-distance walking a piece of cake without intruding on our privacy. We had the Ridgeway pretty much all to ourselves.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And wither then? I cannot say.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A chancy universe

It's hard not to like Wendell Berry. Farmer, poet, philosopher, ecologist, economist. Champion of perennial values rooted in land and faith. Speaker of truth to power. What's not to like?

Yet I do not always find myself in full sympathy with Berry, as for example on the occasion of his dueling books with E. O. Wilson. Or as I read his poem "By Chance, Of Course" in the February issue of Harper's Magazine. I wish I could quote the entire poem here, or that it was available without subscription on Harper's website. But let me try to convey the gist, and quote only enough to qualify as "fair use."

The poem takes the form of comments from "the mad farmer" sitting in the back row at an academic conference on causality and the big bang. The farmer takes exception to the evocation of "chance" as a default explanation when cause-and-effect runs up against the big-bang Why, and by extension throughout creation.
Prove to me that chance did ever
make a sycamore tree, a yellow-
throated warbler nesting and singing
high up among the white limbs
and the golden leaf-light, and a man
to love the tree, the bird, the song...
Berry does not tell us in the poem what he would invoke in place of chance, but we sense lurking in the background a good Old Testament God, the God we meet in the 7th Question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q: What are the decrees of God?
A: The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.
A sparrow shall not fall, and all that.

Berry is quite correct to suggest that science can only tell us in the broadest strokes why there is a sycamore tree and yellow-throated warbler. The evolutionist would say there is an element of chance in the creation as we find it. As Stephen Jay Gould said, run the tape of evolution again and it is unlikely that you would get precisely the same sycamore tree and yellow-throated warbler. But surely we can celebrate the tree, the bird and the song with reverence, humility and awe without surrendering our curiosity about how it all came to pass.

The universe is supremely complicated to the point that chance can be a practical explanation, if not an ultimate one. Was it chance that sent an asteroid smashing into the Earth 65 million years ago, redirecting the course of reptile and mammal evolution? It's as good a word as "God did it," and conveys exactly as much information. The difference is that "chance" is open to ever deeper investigation, whereas "God did it" is a closed door.

We presumably have much more to learn about quantum indeterminacy, entanglement, mutation, and other apparent elements of chance. The quest for pattern and law in nature is open-ended, and it is fair to say -- as Berry suggests -- that "chance" explains nothing. Chance is a placeholder in the vast territories of our ignorance, roughly equivalent to "I don't know." Why the big bang? I don't know. Why something rather than nothing? I don't know? What are the decrees of chance? I don't know. To invoke the decrees of God, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass tells us exactly as much as "chance," that is to say, nothing.

Wendell Berry and the big bang theorists reside in the same bailiwick of ignorance. The big bang theorist chisels away at his ignorance; Berry gives his ignorance a name and lets it go at that.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Weather continues splendid. Your merry Trekkers down from Cretaceous
uplands to Thames (or brandywine, as tom calls it), along river to
grim's ditch, gorgeous wildflowers, into chilterns. On we go, to end
at Ivinghoe Beacon tomorrow.
Sent from my iPod l

Monday, April 20, 2009


Chiseldon to wantage via Uffington hillfort, white horse & other

Weather perfect. Ridgeway magnificent.

Sent from my iPod l


17miles today, east kennet, chiseldon. Avebury environs yesterday.
Sent from my iPod l

Friday, April 17, 2009

The oldest road

This evening my sons Dan and Tom and I fly to England to spend a week walking the Ridgeway, the oldest known trackway in Britain, dating far back into prehistoric times, now a national trail. We will begin near Avebury (with its magnificent stone circle), walk along the brim of the chalk North Downs (past many Iron Age hill forts and megalithic monuments), drop into the valley of the Thames at Goring, then climb through the Chilterns to Ivinghoe Beacon. The only way I will have to post is with my iPod Touch, assuming our accommodations have WiFi, so I may not be here often next week, and If I am, my posts will be brief. Please excuse typos.

Tom has traced our track in red on Google Earth, and added labels. You can follow here. Zero in at any scale you want. You will need to download Google Earth if you don't have it.

Tom points out that our walk parallels in length and character Frodo and friends' walk from Hobbiton to Bree. This is perhaps not surprising since Tolkien resided in nearby Oxford and often walked the Downs.

We have no Ring to carry, and our luggage will be moved each day by a neat outfit named Contours. Other than that, we are on our own. I hope to check in along the way.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The maintenance of self

Ah, yes, the pitcher plant. Those devouring goblets. Those caldrons of digestive juices. And now naturalists have found the biggest one yet, as big as a chalice, on a mountaintop in the Philippines, its punch bowl filled with beetles, flies and wasps.

Come hither, ye who flitter. Admire my colors. Sip my nectar. Yes, yes, just like that, touch my milky pool. I'll be your Tar Baby. Your flypaper paramour. That's it. Sniff my irresistible scent. My buffet waits. Sip. Lap. Gorge yourself.


Countless plants use insects to consummate the business of sex, and some, that generally live in nutrient-deficient soils, have turned to carnivory. Alastair Robinson, who was part of the team that discovered the gargantuan pitcher, says the plant is "akin to an open stomach." Which is miracle enough. But what I want to know is: Why don't its dissolving juices dissolve the plant itself?

Oh, wait. My closed stomach does the same thing, digesting plants and animals but not itself. How can that be? Well, as we all learned in school, it does. The gastric juices eat away at the stomach's mucus lining, which has to be constantly replaced. Somewhere I read that the stomach lining sacrifices half-a-million cells a minute, completely replacing itself every three days. Digestion of food is a work in progress, a delicate balance between the dissolver and the dissolved. The stomach lining works like like an ablative heat shield on a space craft, except it is perpetually regenerating.

Pitcher plants, apparently, use a variety of mechanisms to turn their prey into useful nutrients -- enzymes, bacteria, mutualistic insect larvae -- but they too must have some way of maintaining the integrity of self. Maintaining the integrity of self! That's what it's all about, isn't it. We need to eat. Other organisms want to eat us. Ablating stomach walls. Immune systems. Repair mechanisms. Our bodies are winds of molecules, torrents of cells. Blowing in and blowing out. And somehow a self remains.

The biological integrity of self, upon which depends utterly the intellectual integrity of self. Astonishingly resourceful -- for the pitcher plant and for ourselves. But not unlimited. We are all doomed to die. Let's give the last word to one of William Blake's Songs of Innocence:
Little fly,
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Curriculum matters

I see by the Stonehill student newspaper that the trustees and administration of the college want to reinstitute a requirement in "Catholic theology." It has been some decades since the Theology Department was renamed Religious Studies, a change I deemed altogether appropriate. Now, here and at other Catholic institutions of higher learning across the land, there appears to be a new constituency in favor of shoring up orthodoxy. At my college, at least, this constituency does not appear to include most of the faculty and students.

The-ology is an oxymoron. As most of the great Catholic mystics have suggested, God is ultimate mystery, the unknown and unknowable ground of our being, and all being. A "theology" course should not require a semester, merely ten seconds: "Whatever you say God is, that it is not."

Religion, on the other hand, is an important subject for study by anyone who pretends to be liberally educated. What are the biological and cultural origins of religions and religious feeling? What are the varieties of religious experience? What is the connection between religion and morality? Between religion and art? Between religion and science? Is there a uniquely "Catholic" religious experience, and if so what is it? How do liturgies sustain individuals and communities? What is the advantage of perceiving the world as sacred?

These are just some of the questions that are properly addressed in a religious studies course. We are not talking here about knowing God, but about understanding a broad and important dimension of human experience. Science can contribute to religious studies; so can literature and art. Religious studies are comprehensive and open-ended, touching upon our deepest yearnings. Theology, as it was constituted when I was an undergraduate, was a closed door -- answers substituting for questions. The "-ology" in the Catholic theology I was required to study was parochial dogma posing as knowledge.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


A few days ago I took note of Bert Holldobler and Ed Wilson's magnificent new book, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. The authors show us the intricate societies that can result from collectivities of individual organisms, organisms as simple as -- as ants. The many parallels with human societies -- hierarchal class systems, the specialization of work, slavery, plant and animal agriculture, and communication among the social insects all sometime strike familiar notes. But human societies have evolved the notion of individual human rights, which take preference over genetically or culturally assigned roles within societies. So that, unlike the ants and bees, we live in a constant tension between individual freedom and collective stability. It is a fine balance we are still struggling to obtain.

And now comes the internet, and its associated communication technologies. Cell phones, instant messaging, blogging, Twitter, Facebook,, eBay, Wiki -- it is easy to imagine a new superorganism evolving under or noses, the Noosphere envisioned by Teilhard de Chardin. We don't rub antennae, we twitter. We don't emit pheromones, we IM. Willy-nilly the superorganism defines our niche. I sat in a doctor's waiting room the other day with a young girl who spent her entire time thumbing messages on her phone. I sit in the College Commons each morning with other early morning risers who are wirelessly connected to the internet, checking their e-mail, running through their friends on Facebook. Even the president of the United States has a MySpace page. And who doesn't have a blog, or at least a home page.

Of course, I spend an inordinate amount of time on the web, researching, and sharing through this blog. Originally the idea was to sell books, but the blog has taken on a life of its own and I'm not altogether sure it's a good thing. Anne, our former every-Sunday illuminator, realized that her commitment to a weekly production was distracting from more concentrated work. I sometimes feel the same way.

But I like it. I have been subsumed by the superorganism, and I tend my niche like an ant in a colony that plies no other task than nurturing some little patch of fungi. It remains to be seen if the emerging electronic superorganism represents an advance in human evolution, leading to mutual tolerance, collective creativity, and a generative sharing of individual achievement, or merely a leveling of exceptionalism, a twittering down to the lowest common denominator, a wikified homogenization of what was once called high culture.

I cheer for the former, but fear the latter -- as I click "Post" and send this fragment flying into the snowstorm of bits and bytes that is the blogosphere.

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt"

Dennis di Cicco of Sky & Telescope magazine has given us some original astrophotographs over the years, but this one (with Sean Walker) recently featured on APOD is pretty amazing: a view of a big swath of the night sky as it might appear if we had vastly more sensitive eyes. Not just stars, but swirls of gas and dust -- the veils and draperies of the Milky Way Galaxy out of which stars and planet are born.

Close-up photographs of particular features in the field show glowing colors, such as this one of the Great Orion Nebula (you can find the nebula in di Cicco and Walker's photograph three windows-lengths above the upper corner of the house with the two lighted windows). But here the much vaster wisps and streamers of gas appear in black and white, as the sky generally appears to the casual naked eye. (I have written at length about the visual color of stars in The Soul of the Night.) But even in black and white we get a sense of the fullness of space, the oceans and continents of starstuff, the billowings and gushings of which our own tiny planet is a mote of dust in a whirlwind. John Burroughs once suggested that if deep night were revealed to us in all its naked grandeur, it might be more than we could bear. Di Cicco and Walker give us a new glimpse of that naked grandeur.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The mysterious play of forces

I have often quoted here the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, mostly from the Duino Elegies or The Sonnets of Orpheus. We now have a new translation of Rilke's earlier The Book of Hours, by Susan Ranson, which I have been reading, and on this eve of Easter I offer a short poem from the First Book: The Book of Monkish Life.
I find your trace in all these things, in all
that like a brother I am careful for;
you sun yourself, a seed, within the small
and in the great give yourself the more.

This the mysterious play of forces, then,
that serve in things, over and under ground:
that rise in roots, narrow into the stem,
and in the crown like resurrection stand.
The poems of The Book of Hours, written when Rilke was in his mid-twenties, are as the title suggests addressed to God, but his is a strange and unfamiliar sort of deity. Not quite the transcendent God of the theist, who lives outside of the creation. Nor is he quite the immanent God of the pantheist who is manifest in all things. Rather, Rilke's God is concealed within the creation, within the poems even. The point of the poems, says Ben Hutchinson in an Introduction to Ranson's translations, is to create a "lattice-work" of rhymes and rythms through which the poet encourages God to grow. Rilke's God resides in the interstices of things. The poet -- the poem -- is "your pitcher," writes Rilke, addressing God. If the pitcher shatters that which might quench the thirst is dispersed.

A curious God, this God of Rilke. I'm not sure if there is a name for his sort of religion. In a sense, it is an egotistical theology, making God's existence dependent upon the poet's apprehension. But it is also an enobling sort of theology, emphasizing our responsibility to nurture divinity -- to divinize the world.

Anyway, the little poem above strkes me as an appropriate Easter meditation for a religious naturalist. On this equinoctial occasion, we praise the things -- call them divine if you wish -- "that rise in roots, narrow into the stem, and in the crown like resurrection stand."

Friday, April 10, 2009

The improbable effectiveness of mathematics

It dawned on me like a hammer blow to the head, at about chapter ten of my high school physics book. For weeks we had been solving problems. The problems involved frictionless pulleys, massless strings, perfectly smooth inclined planes, and other idealizations of the real world. And I thought: Physics isn't about the real world at all; physics is about a world that exists only in the physics text. So why were we studying this imaginary world? It was because only in that idealized world were there problems that could be solved with high-school mathematics. And solving the problems was fun. I loved solving the problems. I loved doing my physics homework.

And I loved that imaginary world of the physics text that seemed to be built out of pure mathematics -- number, algebra, geometry, trig.

Years passed. College physics. Grad-school physics. The pulleys acquired friction, the strings acquired weight. The problems became ever more difficult to solve, but solving them was still fun. More and more fun, actually. I especially loved solving problems involving electromagnetic fields around charged objects.

But the world we were playing with was still an imaginary world. When I put down the pencil and turned away from the text, it was a very different world that attracted my attention. My real body was bathed, no doubt, in real electromagnetic fields, but there was no way I could describe them with the analytical elegance of the fields in the text. The text world had a simple beauty that appealed to my esthetic sense. The real world was messy.

What is the connection between the mathematically elegant world of the physics text and the real world? Why is physics, which is an exercise of the mind, so fabulously successful in practical application? Einstein once said: "I am convinced that we can discover by means of purely mathematical constructions...the key to understanding natural phenomena. Experience may suggest the appropriate mathematical concepts, but they most certainly cannot be deduced from it. The creative principle lies in mathematics."

We are in the face here of one of the deepest mysteries of philosophy -- the uncanny resonance of mind and world. And all these years later I can still remember the precise moment when this mystery of mysteries leapt off the page of the high-school physics text.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

As strange a maze as e'er men trod...

Well, I'm back in my corner of the library surrounded by more books than I could read in a lifetime, and that's just the ones that arrived while I was away. And the first one of those I sought was Bert Holldoblet and E. O. Wilson's The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. Like its bigger, more expensive daddy, The Ants, it is a hefty read, and not cheap, but it is a different sort of read, less encyclopedic, more "Wow!" It is the kind of book one keeps beside the easy chair and devours in snatches with quiet delight. Like its subjects, it is beautiful, elegant and strange.

Ants are endlessly interesting, with their queens and kings, their castes, their farmers and herders, their armies, their construction workers, their languages of pheromones, strokings, wags and wiggles. Even after a first quick perusal, I sat in my chair for twenty minutes just shaking my head with wonder. Like the social insects and the book, the world is beautiful, elegant and -- breathtakingly strange.

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder's eye (and brain) is a product of the world and evolved to maximize the fitness of the organism to its environment. Elegance? The physicist knows what that is; a criteria by which she evaluates the fitness of theories. And strange? Ah, now we come to the crux of the religious naturalist's faith -- the overwhelming sense that there is something afoot in the commonplace that eludes, perhaps, forever, our intensest study. Something beyond beauty, beyond elegance, beyond description, unspoken and unspeakable -- a "business more than nature was ever conduct of." That strangeness exudes itself from every page of Holldober and Wilson's book.

Ed Wilson is one of the greatest thinkers and science popularizers of our time. He is also a kind and gentle man who, like his predecessor Thomas Huxley, evolved a reverent agnosticism and never ceases to delight in the beauty, elegance and strangeness of the world. Late in life Huxley wrote: "The cosmos remains always beautiful and profoundly interesting in every corner -- and if I had as many lives as a cat I would leave no corner unexplored." Wilson, I think, would agree.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


I walked the three miles to my son's house on Sunday afternoon. A bright day, the temperature in the 50s. As I moved along a open stretch of path connecting two parts of town forest I was accompanied by a mourning cloak butterfly. It stayed near my shoulder as if it appreciated my company. I certainly appreciated its company.

The mourning cloak is the most prominent New England butterfly that over-winters as an adult. Other species pass the frigid months in the larval stage, or wrapped up tight in egg cases. The monarch migrates to warmer climes. The mourning cloak seeks out some protected spot and hibernates like a bear -- without the bear's fur coat or layers of fat. Then, on the first warm day of spring it sallies forth in all of its black and golden glory, a fragile slip of promise of greater warmth to come.

That first mourning cloaks usually appear in March, and sometimes as early as February. But I was in the tropics till the first of April, so the mourning cloak that accompanied me on the path was certainly not the season's pioneer. No matter. For me it was the reason I had returned to New England -- to watch the earth awaken after a long sleep. green and golden, flecked with sunlight, tipped with buds.

I have written at length about the mourning cloak before, in the chapter of The Soul of the Night about nucleosynthesis in stars. If you've read the book you will recognize Michael McCurdy's linoprint above. Michael is an artist of renown and a good and gentle man. My book is graced by his illustrations.

In England, where I will be in a few weeks, the mourning cloak is known as the Camberwell beauty. (Camberwell is an inner suburb of London, south of the City, more rural in 1748 when the species was first identified there.) It is an occasional migrant from the continent, all the more prized for its rarity. Nabokov uses the English name in his autobiography Speak, Memory, in a lovely passage recalling the first blush of passion in St. Petersburg in the spring of 1916. The love-struck youngster sees a "Camberwell beauty, exactly as old as [his] romance, sunning its bruised wings, their boarders now bleached by hibernation, on the back of a park bench in Alexandrovski Garden." Spring, young love, and a fine big butterfly with funereal wings fringed with the gold of resurrection, an Easter week apparition risen from winter sleep, an equinoctial harbinger of all that renews itself eternally in a sometimes violent and broken world.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Asperges me, Domine

Greystone Books publishes a series of "Literary Companions" to natural environments -- mountains. rivers and lakes, deserts, gardens, and the sea, so far. Now they come to my environment -- night -- and have been kind enough to include a chapter from The Soul of the Night, the chapter called "The Shape of Night." I am in lovely company, admired companions of several generations -- Diane Ackerman, Timothy Ferris, Annie Dillard, Henry Beston, Loren Eiseley, Louise Erdrich, Pico Iyer, and Gretel Ehrlich, to name but a few -- all connoisseurs of darkness.

Our earliest mammalian ancestors were presumably nocturnal -- to escape the predations of dinosaurs -- but for most of human history we have been afraid of the dark, huddling in caves around stuttering fires, curled together in darkness like mice in a burrow. Night belonged to animals with big, dark-adapted eyes and sharp teeth, to footpads and graverobbers, to werewolves and vampires. Ironically, it was with the coming of electric illumination that it became reasonably safe to go out and about at night, even as the illumination erased the best reason to do so.

William Blake called day Earth's "blue mundane shell...a hard coating of matter that separates us from Eternity." At night we peer into infinity, awash in a myriad of stars. We creep to the door of the cave and look up into the Milky Way and catch a glimpse of divinity -- everlasting, all-embracing, utterly unknowable. Night -- that cone of shadow, that wizard's cap of spells and omens -- is the chink in Earth's shell through which we court Ultimate Mystery the way Pyramus courted Thisbe.

Which is why, I suppose, that whenever I think of "the porch" of people who visit here, I imagine Carolina rockers on a southern summer verandah, far from city lights, Vega, Deneb and Altair swimming in the Milky Way, fireflies flickering on the lawn. At some point the conversation ceases and we simply sit, rock, and listen to the sounds of the night -- the whippoorwill, the bullfrog, the cricket and the owl -- and let starlight fall upon our heads like a sprinkling of holy water.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Starting with a bang

When I began teaching in 1964, part of the required reading for my general studies science course were two articles published in Scientific American eight years previously, by two prominent physicists.

George Gamov, a principle architect of the Big Bang theory, made the case for a universe that began some billions of years ago as an explosion from an infinitely dense and infinitely small seed of energy.

Fred Hoyle, stalwart champion of the Steady State, took the stand for a universe with no beginning and no end, in which matter is continuously created in the space between the galaxies.

Both theories explained the outward rush of the galaxies discovered by Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason at Mount Wilson Observatory in the 1920s. Both theories had strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Big Bang successfully accounted for the known abundances of hydrogen and helium in the universe, but indicated a universe that was younger than the apparent ages of certain rocks on Earth. The Steady State theory avoided the stumbling block of a universe that seemed to come from nowhere, but replaced it with many little unexplained beginnings (those particles of matter appearing continuously from nothing).

However, the Big Bang theory made one prediction that was precisely testable: If the universe began in a blaze of luminosity, a degraded remnant of that radiation should still permeate the universe, and the spectral distribution of this microwave-frequency background radiation could be calculated.

Then, the very next year, 1965, entirely independently, two radio astronomers at Bell Labs in New Jersey, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, were trying to find the source of an annoying hiss in their microwave antenna that seemed to come equally from all parts of the sky. The hiss turned out to have precisely the characteristics predicted by the Big Bang cosmologists -- a knock-out blow to the Steady State.

The effect was breathtaking. What an exciting beginning to a long teaching career for me and my students, as spectators to history. For the first time, the human mind had constructed a creation story that could be tested empirically!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Heaven in the ordinary

If I had to choose another life in another time, perhaps it would be as a country parson in Anglican England, Gilbert White, say, in the late-18th-century village of Selborne, or -- why not? -- George Herbert in little Saint Andrew Bemerton a century earlier. Herbert was not quite the naturalist White was, but he was keenly attuned to the natural world, as evidenced by this sonnet, called Prayer:
Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;

Engine against th' Almightie, sinner's towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise, church bells heard at night, the land of spices, gladness of the best, these are the soul's blood. Herbert celebrated the divine in ordinary things -- the plough, the clod, the milkmaid's pail, the dance on the village green, the spangled dome of night -- a kind of tune that all things hear, the heart in pilgrimage.

(Click to enlarge Anne's Palm Sunday illumination.)

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Pointing heavenward

I think it was Lyra who mentioned here that she had seen Galileo's finger in Florence. And, yep, it is there - or was there -- in the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, along with the Galileo's telescope, microscope and compass, and other artifacts I cannot remember in detail. I do remember standing with my three young kids before the spooky, shriveled finger, pointing upwards as if to the stars. I told them the story of the first astronomical telescope -- constructed by Galileo 400 years old this year -- and the remarkable observations he made in the winter of 1609-1610, discoveries that would change the way we think about our place in the world.

The museum in Florence is currently undergoing renovations, and many of the artifacts are temporarily on display in Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, as part of a show that opens today called Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy. From a review in the New York Times, it would appear the exhibits seek to place Galileo's discoveries in the context of the cultural milieu created by the ruling Medici family of Florence, especially Cosimo I (1519-1574). That culture was secular, curious, bent on discovery. As we all know, it produced great art; it also produced maps, globes, timekeepers, survey instruments, astronomical instruments, and geometrical devices, things of immense beauty, as if each and every one were an artfully-crafted lamp that when properly stroked might yield a genie.

These were instruments of knowing, in a culture that was more interested in questions than answers, more interested in this world than the (supposed) next one. I have quoted here before the physicist Heinz Pagels: "The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer. Centuries ago, when some people suspended their search for absolute truth and began instead to ask how things worked, modern science was born. Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration."

Galileo did not invent the telescope. As far as we know, he was the first to turn it on the stars. This seems surprising; to us, telescope means the dark sky. The instrument was important; more important was an open mind, prepared to see the unexpected, ready to entertain contradiction with reigning orthodoxy -- the genie that gave us modernity.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Yellow journalism

Some of you in my generation may remember National Geographic's "Everyday Life in Ancient Times" series of articles in the 40s and early 50s. How we poured over those full-page paintings! The legions of Lagash, led by King Eannatum in a golden chariot, cut down the armies of Umma; the battlefield littered with arrow-pierced bodies. A haughty visitor to the slave markets of Babylonia in the 18th century B.C. makes her choice from among nubile young women. Na'r, King of Upper Egypt smashes the heads of his enemies with a mace of ivory and gold. Scantily-clad boys and girls of Crete do handsprings between the horns of a charging bull. The courtesan Phryne poses nude for the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. Alexander, in golden helmet fashioned in the form of a lion, defeats Darius at the battle of Issus; his spear transfixes a hapless Persian.

This was heady stuff for kids of the 40s and 50s, about as rich a diet of sex and violence as one could find in those days. It had the advantage of conveying a healthy dose of history along with the titillation. Scattered among scenes of nakedness and carnage were others that illustrated the origins of agriculture, writing, mathematics, music, coinage, civil engineering, law, medicine, and democracy.

All of this information had been dug up out of the ground by the archaeologists of the preceding century, many of whom themselves lived lives of Homeric scale.

Among the giants of early archaeology were Heinrich Schliemann, who as a boy read stories of Homer's heroes, Paris and Helen, Achilles and Hector, and of mighty Troy, burned and leveled by the Greeks, and after a lifetime of dreaming found the fabled city on the Anatolian plain, and in it "Piram's Treasure"; Arthur Evans, who unearthed at Knossos in Crete the fabulous palace of Minos, the legendary king, and the labyrinth of the minotaur; Howard Carter, who opened the tomb of Tutankhamen, filled with priceless treasure, only to be haunted by "the curse of the Pharaohs"; Leonard Wooley, who excavated the royal tombs of the kings of Ur, where richly attired queens were laid to rest with murdered ladies of the court.

Somewhere along the way from Schliemann's excavations of the 1870s to Wooley's Babylonian adventures of the 1920s, archaeology changed from a treasure-hunt into a science. Archaeological expeditions are still called campaigns, in the style of Napoleon's monument-snatching adventure in Egypt, but sensitivity to local cultures has replaced the imperialist attitude that the past belongs only to the privileged museums of Paris, London, and New York. The goal of archaeology has become exact description and cautious interpretation. The computer and the mass spectrometer now supplement the shovel and the pick.

National Geographic changed too. When I got married and started a family, one of the first things we did was subscribe to the magazine. By the time our kids were grown and we canceled our subscription, we had a closet full of yellow spines. The articles are no longer quite as titillating as they were in my youth, but the magazine remains one of the great instruments of family education.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

A naturalist's credo

"Mysteries are not necessarily miracles," said Goethe. And that is about as succinct a statement as you might make of the difference between a religious naturalist and a supernaturalist.

Consider what is surely the most spectacular scientific discovery of the past century, maybe ever: the constructional machinery of life. Four chemical bases on a spiral helix -- A, C, G and T. A always pairs with T, C always pairs with G. The unique order of the base pairs determines the organism. Each triplet along the sequence (ACT, GAA, etc.) codes for one of twenty molecules called amino acids. A sequence of linked amino acids (typically hundreds long) is a protein. Proteins do all the work of an organism -- carrying oxygen, building tissue, breaking down food. ( I paraphrase Sean Carroll.) It is stunning in its elegance and simplicity.

There are 64 different triplets of A, C, G and T, but only 20 amino acids. A good computer programmer might have found a way to use all the possible combinations. In fact, there is some repetition; some different triplets code for the same amino acid, and three triplets act as "punctuation," like a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence and a period at the end. But still, how all this came to be is fraught with mystery. Jaw-dropping, heart-stopping mystery.

But mysteries are not miracles. Mysteries are puzzles to be illuminated. Every puzzle solved leads deeper into mystery. And the deepest of all mysteries, where all interrogations end -- unnamed, subsuming all our ignorance, glimpsed as through a glass darkly -- is the ground of the religious naturalist's faith, which is to rigorously pursue knowledge wherever it leads us, and in the end, faced with the limits of our knowing, to humbly say "yes" to the world.