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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

You first

There is not a person in the world that behaves as badly as praying mantises. But wait, you say, there is no right or wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept! Precisely! We are moral creatures in an amoral world…. Or consider the alternative…it is only human feeling that is freakishly amiss…. All right then—it is our emotions that are amiss. We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all go have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can leave…lobotomized, go back to the creek, and live on its banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed. You first.

— Annie Dillard, as quoted in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

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Tech-wise parenting has added wonder to my life, though, and that’s enough. The real world is so fantastic that getting a taste of it makes even the most jaded kid want more. Not only have I always known that wonder is out there; I’ve been taught how to search for it. No multitude of glowing rectangles will ever be able to replace a single bumblebee. And that’s the real legacy of tech-wise parenting for me. It has shown me where to look for what I need most. Wonder comes from opening your eyes wider, not bringing the screen closer.

— Amy Crouch in the Forward to Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place

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It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter. But Taylor’s account of disenchantment has a different accent, suggesting that this is primarily a shift in the location of meaning, moving it from “the world” into “the mind.” Significance no longer inheres in things; rather, meaning and significance are a property of minds who perceive meaning internally. The external world might be a catalyst for perceiving meaning, but the meanings are generated within the mind — or, in stronger versions (say, Kant), meanings are imposed upon things by minds. Meaning is now located in agents. Only once this shift is in place can the proverbial brain-in-a-vat scenario gain any currency; only once meaning is located in minds can we worry that someone or something could completely dupe us about the meaning of the world by manipulating our brains. It is the modern social imaginary that makes it possible for us to imagine The Matrix.

To sense the force of this shift, we need to appreciate how this differs from the “enchanted” premodern imaginary where all kinds of nonhuman things mean — are loaded and charged with meaning — independent of human perception or attribution. In this premodern, enchanted universe, it was also assumed that power resided in things, which is precisely why things like relics or the Host could be invested with spiritual power. As a result, “in the enchanted world, the line between personal agency and impersonal force was not at all clearly drawn” (p. 32). There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power (p. 35). Things can do stuff.

— Smith, James K. A.. How (Not) to Be Secular 

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I recently finished Teaching a Stone to Talk, my introduction to Annie Dillard. It was a fascinating excursion. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has now moved higher up on my “To Read” list. If you’re unfamiliar with Dillard, here’s a good description from Sam Anderson’s review of The Abundance:

It’s unclear what to call Annie Dillard, where to shelve her. Over more than 40 years, she has been, sometimes all at once, a poet, essayist, novelist, humorist, naturalist, critic, theologian, collagist and full-throated singer of mystic incantations. Instead of being any particular kind of writer, she is, flagrantly, a consciousness — an abstract, all-encompassing energy field that inhabits a given piece of writing the way sunlight clings to a rock: delicately but with absolute force, always leaving a shadow behind. This is an essential part of what it means to be human, this shifting between the transcendent self and the contingent world, the ecstasy and the dental bill. We all do some version of it, all the time. But Dillard does it more insistently.

Dillard began publishing books in 1974. ‘‘Tickets for a Prayer Wheel,’’ a small collection of poems, was followed immediately by ‘‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’’ a long nonfictional account of her experience embedding, Thoreau-style, for a year of close observation of the titular waterway in Virginia. ‘‘Pilgrim’’ won the Pulitzer Prize and unleashed upon the world Dillard’s radical style: prose right on the border of poetry, dense with dazzling effects — strong metaphors, heavy rhythms, bold verbs, sudden parables, outlandish facts harvested from the darkest corners of the library. From the start, this has been Dillard’s mission: to crowbar surprise, sentence by sentence, into all the tiny gaps of our ordinary experience.

Above all, Dillard refuses to fall into traditional expository rhythms, to calm down, to be normal, to proceed with caution. She feels driven, always, to summon revelations out of nothing — to ‘‘call for fireworks, with only a ballpoint pen.’’

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Untitled by Rowland Hilder

Rowland Hilder (UK 1905-1993) February, 1988 pencil and watercolour 53 x 71 cm

Rowland Hilder (UK 1905-1993)

(via Lawrence Lee Magnuson)

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This terrible need to be needed often finds its outlet in pampering an animal. To learn that someone is “fond of animals” tells us very little until we know in what way. For there are two ways. On the one hand the higher and domesticated animal is, so to speak, a “bridge” between us and the rest of nature. We all at times feel somewhat painfully our human isolation from the subhuman world— the atrophy of instinct which our intelligence entails, our excessive self-consciousness, the innumerable complexities of our situation, our inability to live in the present. If only we could shuffle it all off! We must not— and incidentally we can’t— become beasts. But we can be with a beast. It is personal enough to give the word with a real meaning; yet it remains very largely an unconscious little bundle of biological impulses. It has three legs in nature’s world and one in ours. It is a link, an ambassador. Who would not wish, as Bosanquet put it, “to have a representative at the court of Pan”? Man with dog closes a gap in the universe. But of course animals are often used in a worse fashion. If you need to be needed and if your family, very properly, decline to need you, a pet is the obvious substitute. You can keep it all its life in need of you. You can keep it permanently infantile, reduce it to permanent invalidism, cut it off from all genuine animal well-being, and compensate for this by creating needs for countless little indulgences which only you can grant.

— C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves 

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“Lazarus in Spring” by Eugene Peterson

Burst of bloodroot, blush
Of bloom from under the burlap-
Textured shroud of matted
Oak leaves and pine needles,
Is the unsurprised surprise
When Lazarus comes forth.

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