Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nature -- 1

Shortly after I return to New England in late March I'm scheduled to give a talk on the theme "Let Nature Be Our Teacher." So I've been pondering what nature might teach us, and why we should want to know it.

First of all, I am a big believer that nature is our only reliable teacher. I have little confidence in pure reason as an avenue to truth, and no confidence in revelation. The entire enterprise of science is based on the idea that the final arbiter of truth is a close interrogation of nature. That is to say, empirical truth is the only reliable truth.

Of course, the interrogation of nature includes an examination of our own thoughts and dreams, but we have to be cautious about listening to those little voices in our heads that have a habit of constructing fantasies out of emotional needs. Dreams are part of the natural world, but they are fun-house mirrors of reality.

In any case, it is not science per se that I am expected to talk about. Rather, it is what we loosely call "natural history" or "nature study," and in particular the personal encounter with nature.

Why? Why study nature at all? What do bugs and birds and weeds and mushrooms and stars have to teach us that could possibly be of much use? And the answer, perhaps, is "very little." Very little, that is, of a utilitarian nature. Few of us are likely to be stranded on a desert island where a mastery of nature lore might be the secret of survival. In the 21st century, we need only to step into a supermarket or flip a switch to meet all of our material needs.

So why study nature? One might as well ask: Why study history, art, music, poetry. Non-utilitarian education is a way of expanding our soul, of forging links with the past, with the global present, with the universe of the galaxies and the DNA, not so that we can cash in at some later date (or in some other life) but because making a soul is satisfying in its own right.

And nowhere do we encounter soul-making materials so rich in content and so close at hand than in nature. I think of those lines fro Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day":
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?

What does nature have to teach? More tomorrow.