Monday, December 07, 2009

Tao

One of the few nature-themed books in my parents' library was Donald Culross Peattie's Green Laurels: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Naturalists, published by the Literary Guild in 1936, the year I was born. I assume my mother belonged to the Guild, and that the book came as a monthly selection. Certainly, The Book-of-the-Month Club was the source for many of the books on her shelves.

I still own the book, and like all of Peattie's work, it is a good read. I return to it now and then, as last evening, when I read again his chapter on the great French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre. The chapter is called "Fabre and the Epic Commonplace," and it occurs to me that Fabre and his wonderful books on insects and spiders had a significant influence on my life.

From him I imbibed a sense that any place can be every place, that nature is all of a piece. Or as Peattie writes of Fabre:
He gave himself heart and soul to the intimate, patient, sympathetic study of that life which live all about us; he saw that the same secret, the same beauty, the same tremendous significances are everywhere. Any life is all life, and the line of attack for the naturalist begins at the front door -- or better still, at the back gate.
Tomorrow, I will visit with Professor Ives' class in Buddhist Ethics. The students will have read my book The Path, as part of a discussion of the spirit and ethic of place, and we will walk the Path together. In the introduction to that book I wrote: "Any path can become the Path if attended to with care, without preconceptions, informed by knowledge, and open to surprise." The path, the way, the Tao. I don't know much about Eastern religion, but I do suspect there is a relationship between a physical path and a spiritual path, as the tradition of pilgrimage in all the world's religions suggests.

My Path, like Fabre's, starts at the back gate. It may not lead to heaven, but it has provided satisfying glimpses of the epic commonplace.