I want to talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous 1836 essay, “Nature,” and why one of its central ideas is dead wrong, but first I’m going to tell a true story about a bald eagle. The two thoughts are related.
A long time ago when I was still in school, I was at a religious retreat when someone from the church brought a live bald eagle for us to look at. As I recall, this person volunteered at some wildlife rescue organization. The eagle had been injured and was no longer able to fly. This was back before the bald eagle population had recovered from the effects of DDT. This was only the second one I had seen; I wouldn’t see one in the wild for another decade. The bird was wary but not agitated, and we all kept a respectful distance.
I remember that it was obvious to me at the time that the man had no particular reason to show us this bird. It was just something he wanted to do. But we were at a church retreat, and a pretty conservative church at that, and so after telling us about the species, he made several analogies to spiritual subjects and basically wrapped the whole thing into a Sunday School lesson. He probably even quoted the “They will soar on wings like eagles” verse from Isaiah.
He ended his talk this way, I think, out of some sense of moral or spiritual obligation. The eagle wasn’t allowed simply to be a wonderful being in and of itself. To be truly worthwhile it had to represent something higher, something abstract. Even at the time, that bothered me. Continue reading →
So you’re walking through a wilderness preserve near your city when you discover ancient ruins of a lost city built by a long forgotten but highly sophisticated civilization. You realize with a start that this ‘wilderness’ is simply what grew up after the civilization came to some mysterious bad end.
This sounds like the premise of any number of fictional stories, but essentially it’s the real life story of the so-called New World, which wasn’t nearly as new as its European settlers assumed. I’m going to talk about two books here, both bestsellers, one relatively recent and the other now so obscure that you’ve probably never heard of it — though it contains an unintentionally enlightening surprise for modern readers. Continue reading →
Brooklyn ferry boat, latter nineteenth century, via Wikimedia Commons
It was just a ferry crossing, nothing out of the ordinary. People used the Brooklyn ferry all the time, and it was not normally an occasion for imaginary time travel. But writers are weird that way, and poets are the oddballs among writers, and Walt Whitman was an oddball among poets.
Whitman takes a remarkable flight of fancy in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which is why it is one of my favorite Whitman poems. I’m only going to quote a few bits, but the full text is here.
Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose. Continue reading →
“I want to leave a mark,” says one of the characters in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, subject of last week’s post. “But… The marks humans leave are too often scars.”
As the speaker implies, a lot of the ugliest aspects of human history come from people trying to leave their mark on the world. But can’t we all identify with this? Who doesn’t want to make a lasting difference and escape the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes, “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.”
But maybe we do achieve a kind of permanence, after all. You could think of it as sort of a web of effect. Everything we do has multiple effects that spread out from ourselves like the strands of a spider web, or like ripples in a pond. Your actions affect other people, altering their behaviors in big and small ways that in turn affect others, and so on, spreading out through space and time. (Time travel stories make much of this. You go back in time and step on a bug and return to your own time to a world altered beyond recognition.) Continue reading →
You must read this book. I realize it’s been out for a while and is already being made into a movie, and as usual I’m late to the party. But if you haven’t read it…
OK, this is a book about teenagers with cancer. Terminal cancer. This could have been a depressing book, but I didn’t find it so — though it certainly has its share of sadness. Even the dust jacket warns you:
“Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.”
You’ve probably heard it said, “Young people think they’re immortal, and that they’ll never grow old.” (The last part is true enough in Hazel’s case.) And today’s generation of young people, just like every recent generation before it, is often dismissed as spoiled, narcissistic, shallow, and lazy. If that’s true, why is this smart, unflinching story so wildly popular with said young people? Why does a book for teenagers deal with the issues of mortality more seriously and more intelligently than most of what you find in the adult world? And this isn’t an anomaly. Both the Harry Potter books and The Hunger Games trilogy face death pretty squarely. (I can’t comment on Twilight — I haven’t read those.) Continue reading →
“An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
— Thomas Paine, Dissertations on First Principles of Government (1795)
Have you noticed that there are some lessons that we seem to have special difficulty learning? Paine articulated this idea more than two hundred years ago, and I suppose most people alive today, especially in the West, would give it at least grudging assent. But we no sooner feel wronged or threatened than we fall back on older, harsher ways of thinking. Continue reading →
One of the helpful things about history is the way it gives us perspective on our own lives. Issues that we think are new or unique to our day have usually appeared before in some form or other. History helps us see the large trends rather than getting lost in the day-to-day details of current events.
“Big History” takes this even further. As David Christian’s talk demonstrates, the idea of Big History is to step way back and look at the broad scope of events in terms of various time scales… including the largest time scale of all. Not only is it a great way to induce awe, but it will also change and deepen the way you look at not only current events, but history itself. Continue reading →