Last year at this time, I posted “Early Spring.” It was intended to evoke spring’s sensuality while expressing sorrow that it might be nothing more than the haphazard product of natural selection. In spring, animals come to life while killing others, and wartime leaders commence spring offensives. The violence beneath the surface doesn’t prevent me from reveling in the season, but I can’t help asking myself how it is that philosophers through the ages have found their highest ideals in nature.
Responding last year to “Early Spring,” a reader, Josh, posted: “I am not sure you totally believe, given [your] hardheaded realism, that the voice of nature renders pleas for kindness and peace useless.” He quotes a wonderfully Transcendentalist sentence from his great-grandfather’s papers: “God speaks to us in the voice of nature, in the message spoken in the resonant chamber of the soul.”
Josh goes on to acknowledge the contemporary difficulty in statements of this kind: “I know there is tricky and old fashioned language here, like ‘God’ and ‘soul’ which I don’t tend to use much… Yes, … a speaker is using nature as a voice, but ‘nature’ (whatever that is) is a tricky word, and the idea that nature is ‘saying’ something is just as tricky.”
I, too, have felt nature speaking to me, and it can feel like God speaking.
I also agree that words like “God” and “soul” are tricky. They’re meant to label whatever it is that sustains us spiritually, as well as physically: in short, what gives meaning to our lives. Any label for “meaning” will inevitably discomfort some. Like “Christmas,” such words are to be used tactfully so as not to offend by assuming anything about our neighbors. Besides, they’re also elusive, that graceful word for lame, mushy, soft, squishy.
“God” and “soul” are just two words we have for this “meaning.” There are others: science, political conviction, art. Whatever word we choose, meaning is all tangled up with ideals, such as justice, wisdom and love.
Perhaps the least controversial word for “meaning” is “nature,” with or without Transcendentalist connotations. Then what exactly are the ideals we seek in nature? One of them can’t be justice. In nature, there are no ethics for the hunter or prey or in the imperative to survive. If any non-human creature has the capacity to ask “Why me?” nature’s answer would be a lethargic “Why not?” I find Christopher Hitchens’ rock-hard atheism unappealing, but he got this part right.
How about wisdom? Wisdom implies some sort of overriding intelligence, but the only way we perceive wisdom in nature is in its arrangements, or order. But nature’s order consists of inflexible laws, and we now know we cannot fathom them without sophisticated mathematical models and highly developed optics. Nature’s order isn’t an ideal. It isn’t something to seek; it’s something that just is.
What about peace? Walking by a stream or releasing tension on a veranda after a day’s work, we find peace in nature. But it’s pure illusion. As I rue in “Early Spring,” all around us is war in the constant struggle for survival.
Yes, there can be love in nature. I remember a PBS documentary filming a flamingo, after choosing a suitor in the annual mating dance, getting stuck in the mud and being unable to migrate with the rest of the flock. When her mate realized she was stuck, he stayed behind with her, though it meant certain death from starvation or predators. But that part of the documentary was moving if only because love is a rarity in nature. For most creatures, the drive to procreate may be strong, but the imperative to kill or be killed is paramount. Then there are the black widows.
Yet another meaning comes to mind: tolerance, such a high degree of acceptance within a species that there is no discrimination and there are no outcasts. Nature has flocks and herds. It also has prides—prides of lions whose alpha males kill the offspring of their rivals.
These contradictions between actual and idealized nature are what troubled me in “Early Spring.” There, I was reflecting on a moment when all the projecting we do in our search for meaning was stripped away, leaving so much that I wish didn’t have to be: constant anxiety about predators, frequent scarcity of food, and ultimately death. Among human beings, there’s no moral justification for what people elsewhere in the world or even just around the corner are suffering at the hands of their fellow man. Our very search for meaning can lead us astray into religious extremism and absolutist politics—fascism, communism and unrestrained capitalism.
Yet we persist in our search, finding meaning in a leaf, a poem, ecclesiastical art, a perfectly formed vase, a popular song, a distant star, a gesture. If meaning exists outside us, it does so only in our choice to see it there. It’s a human projection. That doesn’t make it bad. Borrowing from F. Scott Fitzgerald, nature requires us to hold two opposed ideas at the same time and still function.
My Sunday meditation occurred between two beautiful early spring days. On Saturday or Monday, when the essay begins and ends, I could have written my own encomium to nature. I could have written that our inexorable search for meaning may yet lead to the triumph of such squishy concepts as justice, peace and love. Let it be so. One year later, here in America, we need our ideals to guide us past a new threat to democracy.