Monday, April 25, 2011

Sense of Wonder: Easter Sunday 2011

In 1962, while Nature was literally dying, Rachel Carson audaciously, gently wrote of a Silent Spring, an imaginary but plausible season, when the customary birds wouldn’t be singing, because they had been eradicated by human artifice. A prime culprit was a very effective insecticide (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) with a harmless acronym: DDT. (Remember these were the days when better living was being proclaimed through chemistry.) DDT was liberally sprayed across the landscape to kill mosquitoes and other objectionable insects, but killing other creatures, causing the likes of birds and squirrels excruciating deaths. Other unintentioned consequences affected other species, such as eagles which ate DDT infested fish, their eggs becoming too fragile to hatch chicks.

In 1962 this rather unassuming but persistent and poetic woman, Rachel Carson, helped launch an environmental movement that arguably saved Nature in America. Rachel Carson is a contemporary hero and an Earth Mother whose wisdom resonates.

I’ve made a study of Ms. Carson, inspired in part by a fine, one woman presentation of her by author/actor Kaiulani Lee that I recently re-aired on public television. (I’m doing my best to give kudos to Public Broadcasting these days.)

On this Easter Sunday, in concert with the rising tide of Nature in the spring as well as in recognition of a Web of Life saved and being saved by awareness and conservation, I speak first to Ms. Carson’s understated ethical and spiritual understandings.

First her ethics, what might be called in aggregate an environmental ethic. In Silent Spring, she proposed three ethical reasons to rescue and keep Nature: 1) for purposes of human health, 2) out of respect for the inherent value of non-human life, and 3) to preserving Nature for human edification and happiness. The first, for purposes of human health is, in a good sense, a thoroughly selfish reason. The second and third reasons, respect for the life of another and the beauty and meaning that Nature brings, lead into Ms. Carson’s spirituality, though she didn’t actually speak explicitly about religious matters, as such.

She once spoke to how her reverence for life had concrete sources. That such an awareness comes “… from some personal experience, perhaps the sudden, unexpected sight of a wild creature, perhaps some experience with a pet. Whatever it may be, it is something that takes us out of ourselves that makes us aware of other life. From my own memories, I think of the sight of a small crab alone on a dark beach at night, a small and fragile being waiting at the edge of the roaring surf, yet so perfectly at home in its world. To me it seemed a symbol of life, and of the way life has adjusted to the forces of its physical environment. Or I think of a morning when I stood in a North Carolina marsh at sunrise, watching flock after flock of Canada geese rise from resting places at the edge of a lake and pass low overhead. In that orange light, their plumage was like brown velvet. Or I have found that deep awareness of life and its meaning in the eyes of a beloved cat.”

And in a magazine article (Woman’s Home Companion 1952) that became a posthumous little book called The Sense of Wonder she asked, “ Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper?”

She replied, “I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant. … Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after the night and spring after the winter.”

Earlier this church year, I gave a sermon that asked “Do We Need Nature More than Ever?” I answered yes, of course we do. I argued, “Parents, I’ve come to believe, have a moral obligation to ensure that their children grow up nurtured by Nature. And though an intellectual understanding, such as acquired in school, or via natural history museums, or books and videos has value in this regard, yet none of these methods approach what’s acquired by a child getting down and dirty and maybe holding an earthworm, grasshopper, snake, or even a lifeless bird. (Anecdotally, contemporary parents loathe their children being “contaminated” by direct contact with Nature.)”

I consider Rachel Carson an authority on the spiritual possibilities of a direct relationship with Nature. In her words you heard earlier, in the experience of Nature, there is something lasting and significant. What this something is, to use words that describe a mystical experience, is something both ineffable and noetic. Ineffable means that it defies description, though we strain to describe it. Noetic means it brings knowledge/understanding. Both are matters of personal experience.

I believe that with every mystical encounter with Nature in its parts and in its larger systems, in the micro and the micro schemes, you come to directly realize again and again, something deep—lasting and significant.

Rachel Carson’s posthumous little book that I mentioned earlier, The Sense of Wonder, in my opinion, is a genuine religious classic. Taken from a "Women's Home Companion" 1952 article written for parents to better nurture their children; it’s also a text for adults to keep their sense of wonder alive and vital.

[I then read an excerpt from The Sense of Wonder.]

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