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    The Book of the Creatures

    When we forget how to read nature, we forget how to read ourselves.

    By Peter Mommsen

    May 25, 2021

    Available languages: français

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    • Jeanette Johnson

      I am so grateful for my Finnish roots. By and large, they (surrounded by forests) have a deep appreciation for nature in all forms. I seem to have inherited that need to be out in the woods, like oxygen to my lungs. The out of doors brings such peace and joy. The thought that we are losing animal species and that our environment is degraded by thoughtlessness and greed brings great sorrow in my heart.

    • Peggy Ellsberg

      Thanks to Plough for once more dedicating an issue to my favorite subjects—this time, especially, for Peter Mommsen’s essay on reading the book of nature. He begins by describing dogs as having “expressive eyebrows”—and, of course, it is true that after 40,000 years of domestication, dogs have managed to “hack in” to our emotions. John Cheever wrote that he woke every single morning to the realization of how much he loved his dog. My dogs use their eyebrows, yes, and they also smile for the Iphone camera and tilt their heads to demonstrate they are paying attention. Mommsen admits that his own dog might be playing him emotionally, fairly enough, but writes a larger essay that connects us with God through nature (“the natural world is a book that reveals the divine”) and with nature as healer (“Reading the book of nature is therapeutic”). Mommsen opens the conversation that while connecting with creation through your dog might be an experience delivered to your door on a silver platter, less accessible expressions of nature are also Godly. My daughter Christina Ellsberg recently received the unexpected gift of a just-hatched Australian crested gecko, only slightly bigger than a thumb. With peach-colored, soft-as-silk skin, Chickpea (her human-chosen name) slurps up a banana smoothy from time to time and sips water from a tiny plastic cup. Christina quickly built for her a vivarium, filling the tank with earthy substrate aerated by microscopic insects that arrived by UPS from the department of agriculture. To this, she added Hudson River driftwood and green plants. For hours, Chickpea rests on a leaf, breathing in and breathing out. She has no appointments, no deadlines. Smooth and cool to the touch, she just is. From her, Christina intimates that she is learning an alternate way of being. Mommsen bestows high-octane attention, with reference to many sound texts, on the book of nature: “All this strikes one powerfully as so obviously good,” he writes, “that it seems to suggest a Goodness behind it all.” Awesome.

    • Toni Smith

      I spent the last week at our daughter’s home on Lake Keowee, South Carolina. What a joy to be immersed in forests in this region - so different from our Southern California scenery. So much GREEN!! Although past the age where I could “wake surf” on the lake, I renewed my soul just by sitting in the midst of the magnificent trees around us.

    Dogs evolved “expressive eyebrows” to trigger feelings of affection in humans, according to a 2019 study reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that in the thirty thousand years since dogs separated from wolves and began consorting with us, their faces have changed so that their eyes “appear larger and more infant-like” and are capable of mimicking human expressions. When they look at us, we feel the same tenderness as when we’re face-to-face with a young child. Put more cynically, dogs have managed to hack into our most primal emotion.

    Is it then instinctive manipulation when my Brittany hound gazes at me with his sad and eager eyes? No doubt, but that’s not the whole story. By analyzing hormone levels, the same study showed that dogs feel a pleasurable rush when their masters show them affection. Their masters feel the same, thanks to the same chemical, oxytocin. Evidently, we have learned to communicate as fellow creatures who genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

    People in earlier centuries took the joy we feel in other living things at face value, as a pointer to a theological truth. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all,” wrote the Anglo-Irish poet Cecil Frances Alexander in her well-known 1848 hymn. With childlike sweetness, the hymn sums up a core belief shared by most religions. Flowers, birds, humans, stars: we are all creatures, the handwork of a Creator. “In the beginning God created heaven and earth,” declares the first sentence of Genesis, which then sums up the creation story with the affirmation: “And it was very good.”

    The natural world is a book that reveals the divine, just as the book of scripture does.

    This very-goodness will be familiar to anyone, religious or not, who loves nature. It’s a spontaneous wonder at the beauty – the apparent meaningfulness – of life. It’s the inkling one gets when hiking, let’s say, through a forest on a cool morning in early summer, hearing a red-winged blackbird sing in the sumac, watching largemouth bass dimpling the surface of a misty lake, startling a fawn up from the brush. All this strikes one powerfully as so obviously good that it seems to suggest a Goodness behind it all.

    This intuition is an ancient one common to traditional cultures the world over, whether Aboriginal Australian, Shinto, or classical Greek. In Christianity, a long tradition going back through Galileo and Bonaventure to the third-century Desert Fathers holds that the natural world is a book that reveals the divine, just as the book of scripture does. Nature is legible. As the Egyptian hermit Saint Anthony, who spent decades living in the wilderness, expressed it: “My book is the created nature, one always at my disposal whenever I want to read God’s words.”

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    When we read the book of nature, what is it that we read? Nothing less than a description of who God is, insisted this tradition. In the words of Basil of Caesarea: “We were made in the image and likeness of our Creator, endowed with intellect and reason, so that our nature was complete and we could know God. In this way, continuously contemplating the beauty of creatures, through them as if they were letters and words, we could read God’s wisdom and providence over all things.”

    In Basil’s view, reading the book of nature is mostly a matter of contemplation: paying attention, not analyzing. Unlike a scientific researcher, a contemplative doesn’t ask first what things are made of or how they function. Instead, she aims to commune with the goodness with which the Creator has suffused creation, a goodness that can heal troubled human hearts. Reading the book of nature is therapeutic. (This same insight still drives today’s efforts to reconnect people with nature, from national park systems to Fresh Air programs for city dwellers, from Scandinavian forest schools to Japanese “forest bathing.”)

    It’s hard to overestimate the value that early Christians placed on the right appreciation of nature. This isn’t surprising, since the sayings of Jesus himself brim with delight in the “birds of the air” and the “lilies of the field.” Jesus’ love of the natural world, in turn, reflected that of Hebrew scriptures, especially the Psalms:

    The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

    Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge. . . .

    Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.

    The creation’s “words” thus communicate to everyone, everywhere. Augustine of Hippo, one of the foremost teachers of scripture, judged nature’s testimony to be superior to the Bible in at least one respect: it is accessible to everyone, even those who cannot read or write. “There is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above and below, note, read. God, whom you want to discover, did not make the letters with ink; he put in front of your eyes the very things that he made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”

    image from illuminated manuscript of two pigs

    Artwork from the Aberdeen Bestiary, a twelfth-century illuminated manuscript Images from Aberdeen Bestiary. Used by permission from Aberdeen University.

    But the book of nature reveals many things that are less lovely than stars in the sky and singing birds, a side of creation famously described by Alfred Lord Tennyson as “red in tooth and claw.” This account of nature found its most influential articulation in Charles Darwin’s 1859 Origin of the Species.

    To be clear, Darwin’s theory in itself doesn’t necessarily conflict with faith, as theologians from Karl Barth to Benedict XVI have pointed out. (The particular brand of biblical literalism that it does exclude was already rejected by Augustine and Origen.) In fact, evolution claims a majesty of its own, as Darwin’s book concludes:

    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

    Yet it’s understandable that to Cecil Frances Alexander’s generation Darwin’s revolution came as a shock. In his account, nature is not primarily bright and beautiful. Instead, it is a world of desperate competition for survival, of mass extinctions and genetic dead ends, of disfiguring diseases and cruel parasites. Is such a world a convincing argument for the Creator’s goodness? Many have concluded that it is not. As the British comedy troupe Monty Python put it in their 1980 rewrite of Alexander’s lines: “Each little snake that poisons, each little wasp that stings, He made their brutish venom, He made their horrid wings.” Even if a deity had created such a world, skeptics charge, what kind of deity would he be?

    It’s a legitimate challenge – one with a special resonance as a pandemic continues to rage. Monty Python’s satire may not mention contagious respiratory viruses. But the coronavirus microbe fits neatly into their song’s catalog of “all things sick and cancerous, all evils great and small.”

    Put another way: How can evil exist in a good creation? Darwin was hardly the first to notice the existence of natural evil; it’s already addressed in the Book of Job, likely the oldest book in the Hebrew Bible. This question has also had a long history of Christian reflection, going back at least to the apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Romans, he wrote that creation is “subjected to futility” and in “bondage to decay,” “groaning in labor pains until now.” It’s a passage that seems remarkably apt as a description of the realities of natural selection – or indeed, of the Covid pandemic.

    The answer to the riddle, for the early Christian authors, lies in the nature of reality itself. All creatures, they believed, are words in the book of nature; but that book’s preeminent Word is the Logos, the Word made flesh. This Word is the grand theme of the opening chapter of John’s Gospel – not coincidentally Basil of Caesarea’s favorite text. Here, the Word who made all things enters into the futility of his groaning creation and through his own death and resurrection rescues it from its evil and suffering. In the pithy formulation of another church father, Maximus the Confessor, when we read the book of nature, what we are really reading is “the words of the Word.”

    image from illuminated manuscript of bees

    This kind of reading doesn’t come easy to us moderns. Why do we have trouble seeing what seemed clear to these early authors? One reason is straightforward: we’re simply out of practice. This is partly a result of rapid urbanization – today for the first time in human history, the majority of people don’t live out their lives surrounded by the natural world. Unfamiliarity leads to estrangement. Children, especially, are missing out on the encounters with nature that were formative for earlier generations. In 1920, 30 percent of Americans lived on a farm; today only 1 percent do. Over the past fifty years, the share of Americans who hunt has halved, so ever fewer kids learn the ways of wildlife by heading into the woods. And 80 percent of Americans can’t see the Milky Way from where they live.

    Instead of lived experience and childlike reception, we moderns are more likely to approach nature with the analyzing bent of modern science. This in itself is an excellent means of unlocking it: studying ornithology only increases the birdwatcher’s sense of wonder; knowledge of river biology enhances the fisherman’s love of the sport. More broadly, modern science’s analytic tools command wonder in their own right – for example when geneticists discover Neanderthal genes in modern human DNA, or physicists identify strange behavior by muons that may give hints about the 95 percent of the universe that we know almost nothing about because it consists of dark matter and dark energy.

    All the same, the empirical data supplied by the scientific approach are only one kind of knowledge, and this is what modernity tends to forget. As C. S. Lewis observed, there is a difference between knowing what a star is made of, and what a star is. Today we know more by several orders of magnitude than Basil or Maximus did about what nature is made of and how it works – even what gives a dog his puppy eyes. But that does not yet tell us what nature is or what nature is for.

    This illiteracy applies to human nature as well. When we forget how to read the book of nature, we forget how to read ourselves. The givenness of our humanity no longer yields self-evident truths about what rights or purposes our Creator may have endowed us with, or indeed about who we really are. What then is there to guide and limit the bounds of technological manipulation of humankind? Transhumanism may remain a fantasy, but CRISPR gene editing of babies is not. Meanwhile, our behavior untethered from any understanding of the natural good has wreaked havoc on life forms across the planet – a careless destruction that will ultimately harm us too.

    This is where the ecological movement can perhaps ride to the rescue. For the one great gain arising from our civilization’s crime of global environmental destruction is the growth of ecological consciousness. We’re slowly – far too slowly – realizing what it would mean to lose the natural world from which we arose and to which we belong.

    To be sure, ­environmental activists bolster their cause by citing statistics showing the costs of climate change in habitat loss, economic and social disruption, or perhaps the disappearance of specific species. But underlying such rhetorical tools is a more basic conviction: That nature in all its intricate diversity has an inherent dignity and beauty. That ecosystems and landscapes are goods in themselves that ought not to be destroyed, regardless of any effects on GDP. That blue whales, African elephants, and the Amazon rain forest have a value of their own that we are bound to respect.

    Here then is an example of millions of people worldwide re-learning to read the book of nature, even if only partially and imperfectly. Perhaps as we learn to read again, we’ll find that human nature too becomes more clearly legible. And perhaps too, as we read more deeply, we’ll again learn to decipher the signs of the Goodness behind nature – the one who is both author and subject of the book of the creatures, and who, in Alexander’s words, “gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell how great is God Almighty who hath made all things well.”

    Contributed By Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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