Buckminster Fuller is described in Wikipedia as a: “designer, inventor, engineer, mathematician, architect, cartographer, philosopher, poet, cosmogonist and visionary.” He wrote over 30 books and qualifies as a true renaissance thinker. Among his many inventions is the “geodesic dome,” which inspired scientists who discovered “Carbon 60” (hollow carbon molecules) to name them “Buckminsterfullerenes,” or “buckyballs,” for short.
Two titles that could be added to Fuller are prophet and theologian. Fuller died 33 years ago, but his concept of “Design Science Revolution” has proven to be a prophetic foreshadowing of the “Intelligent Design” movement which is currently gaining acceptance in wider and wider circles.
As for theologian:
When I first heard about Fuller, I assumed that he was most likely another post-renaissance (“New Age”) practitioner of scientism who threw God out along with the pre-renaissance baptismal water. However, after reading his quote, “I seem to be a verb,” I became more curious and wanted to know more about him.
What I found was that Fuller retained the open-minded spirit of the true renaissance thinkers (Galileo-Kepler et al)) who attempted to integrate the physical, mental and spiritual essences of humanity. As a “free-thinker,” Fuller was not concerned with whether his fellow scientists (or anyone) agreed or disagreed with his views. This could not have been more evident than by his view on religion. He was clear to point out that, although his religion was vitally important, it was an extremely personal issue and not something that people should be “wearing on their shirtsleeves.”
Fuller must have appreciated the mystery of synchronicities and therefore would not have been surprised that by such an event, someone on Facebook shared this extraordinary link to “brainpickings” website and the shocking proclamation from Fuller:
“The synergetic integral of the totality of all principles is God, whose sum-total behavior in pure principle is beyond our comprehension and is utterly mysterious to us, because as humans — in pure principle — we do not and never will know all the principles.” Buckminster Fuller
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain
This is a wonderfully interconnected triad that gifted naturalist Annie Dillard would regard as a “bright snarl.” Without a Creator there would be no “astronomy” or evolution. Without evolution the universe would be oxymoronically stuck in the first nanosecond, before time began, with no cosmos. And with no cosmos, humans would not have evolved with the ability to contemplate the works of the Creator.
Two gifted writers have properly suggested that “Mystery” reigns supreme and only egoism and arrogance motivate scientists and theologians to assume that they have all relevant answers. Robert Jastro, former director of the National Aeronautics And Space Administration (“Until The Sun Dies,” and “God and the Astronomers”) acknowledged the limitations of “The Big Bang Theory:”
“At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
Jastro was a self-described agnostic, yet he used candor and levity to describe the inadequacy of his own thought process.
In an equally terse self-analysis, Fr. Robert Capon, “Hunting The Divine Fox stated:”
“Theology therefore is fun. The inveterate temptation to make something earnest out of it must be steadfastly resisted. We were told quite plainly that unless we became as little children, we could not enter the kingdom of heaven, and nowhere more than in theology do we need to take this message to heart.”
The “Big Bang,” the origin of life and the eventual evolution of human beings remain three of the great, unsolved mysteries of planet Earth. Anthropologist Loren Eiseley concluded his work, The Immense Journey with:
“Rather, I would say that if “dead” matter has reared up this curious landscape of fiddling crickets, song sparrows and wondering men, it must be plain even to the most devoted materialist that the matter of which he speaks contains amazing, if not dreadful powers, and may not impossibly be, as Hardy has suggested, ‘but one mask of many worn by the Great Face behind.’”
In his own words, “The Autobiography of Charles Darwin:”
“When thus reflecting [‘on the universe, including man’] I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man’ and I deserve to be called a Theist.”
Shame on Richard Dawkins, and other science atheists who deny, obfuscate, pervert or “cherry pick” Darwin’s words. They have sabotaged Darwin’s message to make it conform their soulless world, and what a cold, heartless world it must be. If one of Dawkins’ minions decides to initiate a nuclear war, he could shrug it of as a “random” result of Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” It is staggering to know that an overwhelming number of high school, college/university biology teachers agree with Dawkins.
Secular scientists are quick to point out that human beings and chimpanzees share 97% of the same DNA. While the fossil evidence suggests that humans and chimps evolved from a common ancestor over 5 million years ago, the obvious fact remains that chimps are chimps and humans evolved into the most extraordinary animals on the planet. Evidently that 3% increase led to the world’s greatest artists, poets, sages, musicians and, ironically, even scientists like Dawkins.
Much of Darwin’s theory can be proven in the laboratory and in the field. For 1000s of years, people have used “selective breeding” and “mass selection” as a means to develop more productive and useful plants and animals. However, this does not mean that his theory is complete and flawless. After a discussion with Alfred Wallace, he acknowledged that he failed to explain human “gifts” such as mathematical, musical and artistic genius. These qualities are almost totally absent in chimpanzees.
All of the genetic changes Darwin observed were minor and only rendered the offspring a small advantage of survival. Loren Eiseley quipped; the human brain grew “like a mushroom in the night.” This has equipped man with an indeterminate period of time of mental growth. There is no known biological cause for the rapid expansion of the two human cerebral hemispheres.
Lamarck’s theory of use and disuse is of no value.
The Leakey family, Louis, Mary and Richard verified the increased cranial capacity of modern man, but they did not demonstrate the compelling factor.
Stephen Jay Gould was a big fan of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” however he failed to show why or how the human embryo (in evolutionary time) suddenly gained the ability to generate a triple-sized brain.
Gould was also a fan of “punctuated equilibrium” which may explain the “fits and spurts of evolution,” but he could not explain the evolution of the human brain.
Pathetically, human geneticist, Richard Dawkins, recently inferred that the human brain evolved out of “nothing.”
The latest wrinkle in the evolution battle is the emerging consideration of “Intelligent Design.” Although the theory suggests that evolution is not a random, chance-born process, it does not describe a “designated designer.” Therefore, “Intelligent Design” does not explain the emergence of the human brain.
The fact of the matter is, by virtue of the laws of chance and probability, the human brain should never have evolved and so it is not surprising that its origin remains a mystery. Considering the universe, with its boggling time/space dimensions, life on Earth is supremely enigmatic. The Earth has been evolving for 4.5 billion years and yielded millions of plant and animal species before man arrived. Darwinian evolution does not need or explain “man.” If all these living forms survived by “instinct,” what need is there for consciousness, values, or free will? If “modern man” evolved 5 million years ago, we have lived on Earth 0.01% of its history and yet arrogant practitioners of Scientism claim that Mystery is irrelevant and that they have all the necessary answers.
Meanwhile, there is a moral and ethical disease that is pandemic in our society and had afflicted scientists as well. It is called “situational ethics” and scientists use it frequently. Lacking any evidence for the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of the first cell or the tripling of the human brain, secular scientists either ignore or obfuscate the issues or make up their own ethics and pander them as truth.
Photo credit: Toscano: Darwin’s Ape. Available Amazon.com
Typically, it is a literary travesty to reveal the end of a book to those who have not read it. In this case, however, I think it is justified. Readers seeing the words “INTELLIGENT DESIGN,” on a book are likely to mistake its meaning and importance. Ironically (and unfortunately) the term has become toxic, in part because of some Christian Fundamentalists who like to use it as a euphemism for God in an attempt to sneak Him in the backdoor of public schools. The term has also been obfuscated by skeptical, secular biologists who distrust all visions but their own.
Therefore, the last paragraph of Meyer’s extraordinary book reads:
“The theory of Intelligent Design is not based on religious belief, nor does it provide a proof for the existence of God. But it does have faith-affirming implications precisely because it suggests the design we observe in the natural world is real, just as a traditional theistic view of the world would lead us to expect. Of course, that by itself is not reason to accept the theory. But having accepted it for other reasons, it may be a reason to find it important.”
Modern scientists who are devout Darwinists can be just as guilty of narrow-mindedness as some literal interpreters of the Old Testament. Neither side of the evolution debate can withstand a word-for-word dissection. Galileo was aware of this when he properly suggested that the Bible includes many metaphors that are obtuse and difficult to comprehend. One of them is the Earth being created in 6, 24-hour days. This is problematic with the sun not being created until the fourth day. Another involves the procreation of Adam and Eve’s grandchildren, without some kind of “sinful,” incestuous behavior.
However, Darwin himself admitted in, Darwin’s Autobiography: “This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having and intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.”
Furthermore, he conceded that his theory could not explain the origin of life, the emergence of flowering plants, the emergence of the human brain and the role of spirituality in human beings.
Isaac Newton wrote about the universe (circa 1677): “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an Intelligent and Powerful Being.”
Approximately 150 years later, Thomas Jefferson agreed with Newton and thought that there was scientific evidence for design in nature. In 1823, he insisted so in a letter to John Adams: “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.” As a classic renaissance man, Jefferson was a brilliant scholar, skilled in both letters and science. As one of the most gifted “founding fathers,” he was a major contributor in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and US constitution. He was a strong supporter of the laws that separate church and state, however, he was also an advocate that; “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” These rights include freedom of thought and expression.
“Darwin’s Doubt,” should be required reading for all college/university biology majors. Furthermore, all college/university biology professors, pastors, priests and rabbis should read it as well. Of course they are free to take issue with any of Meyer’s positions, however, if they can temporarily set aside their petty prejudices, they may discover that more questions than answers remain in the evolution debate.
When “Intelligent Design,” “creation” and “evolution” are all presented to students as the mysteries that they are, they neither favor nor disfavor any religion and therefore do not violate the laws of separation of church and state.
However, this kind of “open-minded” thinking is not encouraged in most high school, college or university biology curricula. An overwhelming number of schools have either adopted an overt or tacit policy that bars the discussion of “Intelligent Design.”
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” – Albert Einstein
There are a growing number of practitioners of “scientism” who become exercised when their critics suggest that science may have some wrong conclusions. Paraphrasing Einstein’s logic, all scientists have been wrong on some issues or else they would have become a god.
Ptolemy, the Greek mathematician/astronomer, proposed a geocentric model for our solar system that lasted for 1400 years. Imagine that! For 1400 years, scientists and scholars walked around thinking that they knew the “truth” about the solar system. Ironically, history has repeated itself, as many scientists think that their thoughts are the center of the universe.
Lamarck was wrong about his theory of “use and disuse” and that acquired traits were passed on to offspring. Scientists of that time believed that mice mysteriously emerged from piles of rags and worms spontaneously grew in mud puddles.
Einstein was wrong about the “Steady State” theory and admitted that he falsified some data to favor his conclusions. Later, he sorrowfully acknowledged that it was the greatest mistake in his career.
In his autobiography, Charles Darwin admitted that his theory of evolution could not explain the origin of life or the evolution of humans. This confession is conveniently ignored by an overwhelming majority of high school and university biology teachers.
Carl Sagan’s description of how the first cells were formed (“COSMOS”) is pure fantasy, but is still being taught to millions of US students.
Nobel prize winner, Dr. Roger Sperry stated:
“One of the great unresolved paradoxes of science involves consciousness, free will and values, three long-standing thorns in the hide of science. Materialist science couldn’t cope with any of them, even in principle. It’s not just that they’re difficult. They’re in direct conflict with basic models. Science has had to renounce them—to deny their existence or to say that they are beyond the domain of science.”
In a recent debate on evolution, Richard Dawkins became one of Einstein’s fools as he tried to describe how evolution came from “NOTHING.” When the audience laughed, he looked puzzled and asked, “What’s so funny about that?” What he failed to grasp was that the people, who he regarded as intellectually inferior, used his own words to deduce that he was inferring that his brain must have evolved out of nothing. Little wonder they could not contain their laughter.
In his book, “The Great Design,” Stephen Hawking claims that the universe is so complex that it made itself out of “nothing,” which has rendered God obsolete. Either Hawking is wrong or the fundamental laws of physics (matter/energy can neither be created nor destroyed) are wrong.
There is nothing wrong with making errors during scientific research. In fact, the entire process of the scientific method depends on testing hypotheses to see if they are flawed. However, science becomes dangerously flawed when a “scientist undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge [and] is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”
There are many who think that Einstein’s contribution to society, as a humanitarian was more valuable than his work as a scientist. If this is so, then it is not surprising that his legendary last words were, “I still wonder how something could come from nothing?”.
Assuming that we don’t destroy ourselves first, what current scientific knowledge that we believe is factual, will people in 100 years laugh about?
Although I am not an authority on “Intelligent Design,” due to a very strange mystery over 40 years ago, along with some very curious high school students, we discovered the “ID” concept before it was named “Intelligent Design.” In a collective act of brilliance, the students questioned the efficacy of the traditional educational model of “massive memorization of minutiae” and subsequent mental regurgitation. Instead, they envisioned a high school advanced biology curriculum that featured creative, critical and investigative thinking.
They named the Class “Biodesign” and dedicated it to “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.” Of course, this included exploring the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. They discovered that he was a brilliantly creative biologist, however he was not a god and his theory had some major flaws.
After 40 years of exploring “biodesigns” I compiled some of the highlights in a book titled “Biodesign Out For a Walk.” Some readers have suggested that chapters 10 and 11 should be edited as a balanced curriculum addendum for high school biology classes. In the back of the book is a reference list of over 100 books that we used for guidance. Here are my top ten favorites.
1. “The Immense Journey,” by Loren Eiseley. This is one of the finest science books ever written. The book is about biology/anthropology/evolution; it is not a book about philosophy, religion or human spirituality, however all of those topics are understandably intertwined. Among the many awards Eiseley received was the Pierre Lecomte du Nouÿ award, presented to writers who described the overarching themes that unite science and religion.
2. “The Autobiography of Charles Darwin.” It is absolutely numbing that high school and university biology teachers almost universally ignore or obfuscate Darwin’s admission that he had no clue about human evolution.
3. “The Great Evolution Mystery” by Gordon Taylor. This is an excellent book and objectively approaches some remaining mysteries about evolution. He points out that Darwin’s Theory cannot explain “organs of extreme perfection”, like the human eye and brain.
4. “Alfred Russel Wallace; A rediscovered life.” Although this wasn’t published until after I retired, it is an excellent review of how Darwin and Wallace agreed and disagreed and corroborated many ideas that our students discovered. Wallace pointed out that Darwin had no explanation for the human “gifts” of musical, mathematical and artistic genius. They are not consistent with Mendel’s laws of genetics; therefore their origin remains a mystery.
5. “The Wilderness World of John Muir.” John Muir may be the greatest naturalist the world has known. This book was a huge part of the class, because many of the student revelations occurred in wilderness areas of Yosemite and Grand Canyon. Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club and regarded as “father” of the US National Parks Service. His life and work serve as a spiritual beacon for scores of millions of Nature enthusiasts. “From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens.” Does this involve “Intelligent Design”?
6. “Religions—Values and Peak Experiences“, by Abraham Maslow. Maslow, a noted psychologist, suggested that the study of human “spirituality” should be included in a “suitably enlarged” high school biology curriculum. He cited ways that, if done properly, the studies need not violate Constitutional laws separating Church and State.
7. “The Road Less traveled.” by Scott Peck. This book was on the NY Times best-seller’s list for over 10 years. Peck addressed the importance of balancing human physical, mental and spiritual components to achieve a harmonious life.
8. “Walden,” and “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” by Henry Thoreau. Many students observed (as Eiseley warned) that many evolutionary scientists have distorted scientific evidence in order to support their agnostic or atheistic beliefs. However, their greatest concern was with Thoreau’s cautionary reflection:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
They understood his warning that materialism, scientism and soulless pursuits were potential threats to their spiritual growth.
9. “The Soul of The World.” This little book is one of the most beautiful books in my library. It includes some of Eric Lawton’s amazing photographs of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Each photo is matched with some of the most profound poetry and wisdom as well as marvels and wonders of our planet.
10. “As a Man Thinketh.” by James Allen. James Allen’s philosophy became possible when liberal Protestantism discarded the stern dogma that man is sinful by nature. Instead it suggested the optimistic belief in man’s innate goodness and divine rationality. This reversal of doctrine, according to William James (the father of American Psychology) was the “greatest revolution of the 19th Century.” It was part of a move toward reconciliation between science and religion following Darwin’s publication of “The Origin of Species.” Darwin himself, hinted at the change in belief in “The Decent of Man” where he wrote: “the highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”
Although I have studied “Intelligent Designs” for over 40 years, I have more questions now than answers. This is not discouraging, however, because I am in the company of some of the great minds.
Meister Eckhart, 13th Century mystic, theologian, philosopher suggested: “The deepest secrets of life will not be discovered by science.”
Louis Thomas, author of, “Lives of a Cell,” suggested that a single cell is so complex that humans will not be able to fully comprehend or reproduce its functions.
Roger Sperry: Nobel Prize winner for pioneering “split-brain” brain research. He correctly pointed out that evolutionists have not explained the origin of human values, consciousness or free will. “Materialist science couldn’t cope with any of them, even in principle. It’s not just that they are difficult. They are in direct conflict with basis models. Science has had to renounce them—to deny their existence or say that they are beyond the domain of science.”
Albert Einstein wrote: “I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of that or that element. I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details.” (Intelligent Design)?
Loren Eiseley concluded “The Immense Journey:” “I do not think, if someone finally twists the key successfully in the tiniest and most humble house of life, that many of these questions will be answered, or that the dark forces which create lights in the deep sea and the living batteries in tropical swamps, or the dreaded cycles of parasites, or the most noble workings of the human brain, will be much if at all revealed. Rather, I would say that if “dead” matter has reared up this curious landscape of fiddling crickets, song sparrows, and wondering men, it must be plain even to the most devoted materialist that the matter of which he speaks contains amazing, if not dreadful powers, and may not impossibly be, as Hardy has suggested, ‘but one mask of many worn by the Great Face behind.’”
Friday, 3-16 turned out to be a “red-letter-day.” Ex-student Jared Grummer was returning to Seattle from Argentina and wanted to share some of his adventures. He had just completed a 5-month field-study exploring the genomes of the lizards of Patagonia. This involves the last leg of his efforts to obtain a PhD degree in herpetology from the University of Washington.
The weather was supposed to be spring-like and so we decided to meet at Lake Hennessey, about 7 miles east of the town of St. Helena. The weatherman was correct and following nearly 20 inches of rainfall in March, the lake was filled to overflowing and life was emerging in great profusion. As we walked and talked along the lake, western fence lizards sunned themselves on every log and rock. Two garter snakes must have felt our footsteps and slithered off the road and into the grass. Majestic ospreys soared overhead waiting for the chance to grab a fish in their talons. An elegant Great Blue Heron glided downwind and gracefully landed at water’s edge with only one effortless wing-beat. Cormorants skimmed by with wingtips nearly touching the water.
We found a beautiful rustic redwood bench to share a picnic lunch and, of course, some stories about our mutual passion for biology. Although our conversation was rooted in biology, it often branched smoothly into matters of spirituality and metaphysics.
The lake is only about 2 miles long, but it is plenty long enough to see the curvature of the Earth. Jared had read about seeing this in BOFAW, however, he was a bit skeptical. Seeing is often a prerequisite to believing and he was delighted to see the subtle arc. This conjured up the mystery of gravity and we laughed to think of Mike Sparks (another ex-student) who currently walks around “upside down” in New Zealand. ;o) It is one of the greatest natural mysteries as to how gravity can be strong enough to hold our feet on the earth yet not so powerful as to crush us.
We enjoyed recalling Isaac Newton saying: “I have described how gravity behaves, not how it works or who made the stars and planets, each with its own gravitational field.”
The moon was high above us and I recalled learning that it had to be the perfect size and distance from both the Sun and Earth to allow life to occur. Any larger or closer and we might have ocean tides of 100 feet or more—smaller or more distant and tides would not exist, hastening global oceanic stagnation. The moon also plays a role in stabilizing the Earth’s axis, which is 23.5 degrees. If the Earth were not tilted there would be no seasons and equatorial temperatures would make life impossible. This would likely lead to major global warming, drastically increased winds, tornadoes and hurricanes. There was much to see and talk about, but I was totally unprepared to witness something I had only seen on film or video.
All of a sudden, two Western Grebes popped up on top of the water and without using their wings, did a perfectly synchronized “prenuptial line-dance.” Essentially, they danced together for about 20 feet before they plopped back into the water. We were both highly amused. This happened several times until something even greater happened. THREE grebes exploded up on the water and danced about 20 feet, but reversed 180 degrees and without sinking, danced back about 10 feet before plopping back into the water. This produced some intriguing questions. Even with his binoculars, the events were too quick and too far away for Jared to determine the sex of the dancers. Were there three males trying to impress a nearby female? Were there two males and one female or visa-versa? And most beguiling of all, assuming that the female had the privilege of selecting a mate, what was it about the “aquatic ballet” that gave her clues about the potential ability of her chosen mate to help her raise a brood of chicks?
Perhaps equally important, how is it possible that the grebes can do something on water that even the world’s greatest ballerinas could not dream of doing? And, perhaps, because this is the week before Easter, the grebes reminded me that one of the many miracles Jesus is credited with was walking on water.
Sadly, it occurred to me that we have become a nation of people who do not believe in, let alone celebrate miracles. After all, Jared and I were riding on a bench that has a rotational velocity of 600 mph. We are living on a planet that travels @ 67,000 mph around the sun and our Solar System is traveling @ 515,000 mph through the Milky Way Galaxy. And yet, there we were, being calmed, soothed and inspired by the magical tranquility of the water.
Christie and I have been out to Lake Hennessey probably over 100 times and we have never seen the “Dancing Grebes.” John Muir commented that Nature always provides us with more visions that we could ever expect and this was true Friday, 3-18-16. The Grebes Dance
Jared and I met at noon and I was shocked to see that the afternoon had flown and it was after 4:00 pm when we left the lake. It was a supreme honor to share the life of a very bright and curious ex-student and see that he is bound for horizons that I will never see.
“Everything You Need To Know Is Contained In a Flower.” Buddha
Excerpt: “The Immense Journey” [How Flowers Changed The World] by Loren Eiseley.
“A little while ago—about one hundred million years, as the geologist estimates time in the history of our four-billion-year-old planet—flowers were not to be found anywhere on the five continents. Wherever one might have looked, from the poles to the equator, one would have only seen only the cold dark monotonous green of a world whose plant life possessed no other color.
Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there occurred a soundless, violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion nevertheless. It marked the emergence of the angiosperms—the flowering plants. Even the great evolutionist, Charles Darwin, called them “an abominable mystery,” because they appeared so suddenly and spread so fast… The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours.”
Living 600 years before Christ, Buddha lacked modern geological and botanical knowledge. However, his wisdom about flowers rings just as true today as when he proposed it.
The walls of the world’s hall of shame are covered with millions of portraits of mostly men who have committed heinous crimes against individuals and humanity, sometimes their own children. Most of these men had the misfortune of being raised by one or more abusive parents. John Muir had all the qualifications to end up on the wall. His father, Daniel Muir, was a harsh, religious zealot who whipped (mostly his sons) with a leather belt, almost on a daily basis. John was required to memorize nearly three quarters of The Holy Bible before the age of 11.
When Daniel moved his family to “Hickory Hill Farm” in Wisconsin, there was no water available. Because his 17-year-old son John was the strongest, he was assigned the task of digging a well. The well site was selected and the three-ft.-diameter bore was begun. After a few feet of soil and mixed stones were removed, John encountered mostly uninterrupted sandstone that had to be chipped into chunks using mason’s hammers and chisels. The work began at dawn each day and continued until dark. Daniel and John’s brother David would come to the well at noon and together they would raise the tailings to the surface, extract John and go to the house for “dinner.” Then it was back down into the well until nightfall. Muir later wrote that the project took several months to complete. One of Muir’s neighbors was quoted as saying, “Daniel Muir treats his animals better than his sons.”
Although the progress was painstakingly slow, he eventually chipped his way down to a depth of 80 feet. Then one morning, disaster struck. Daniel Muir had been warned about the danger of “choke-damp,” but elected to ignore the warnings. Often, when water trickles into caves or wells, carbonic acid gas accumulates. Sometimes the gas includes carbon monoxide, which can be instantly fatal to breath and sometimes the oxygen in a well can be purged out by heavier carbon dioxide gas, which then becomes indirectly toxic. One day, when Daniel and David lowered John down to the bottom of the well, he was overtaken by choke-damp and slumped over against the wall of the well. Nearly unconsciousness, he feebly murmured, “Take me out!” But when Daniel began to crank the windlass, he could tell immediately that his son was not in the bucket. In wild exasperation he shouted, “Get in! Get in the bucket and hold on.” Fortunately, Daniel and David were able to retrieve a badly gasping John.
At that time, choke-damp was purged from wells by placing a 5-lb stone in a gunny sack. The sack was then filled with straw and the open end gathered and tied with a 100-foot rope. When the sack was dropped into the well it would plummet to the bottom. By the process of “drafting,” fresh air was sucked down into the well and the toxic air was purged out. When the sack was rapidly retrieved, the process was reversed. Toxic air was “drafted” up and fresh air replaced it in the shaft. This process was repeated several times to make the well safe.
From that point on, Daniel and both sons took time to purge the well of toxic gas every morning and at noon before John reentered the well.
Several years later, and after countless Nature-induced epiphanies at Yosemite, John Muir described his near-death experience in the well as poignant metaphor for the dangers of the “galling harness of civilization.” I suspect that he regarded people being seduced by comfort, luxury and materialism as nothing less than Greek sailors foundering at sea due to the lethal attraction of the Sirens.
Yosemite cured Muir of many of the emotional scars that his father so cruelly inflicted. Perhaps ironically, he knew St. Matthew’s Beatitudes by heart and experienced first hand that; “man does not live by bread alone.” Little wonder he regarded himself as a modern John the Baptist who came down from Yosemite proclaiming: “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”
Fortunately, over our 50-year marriage, my wife and I were rarely “down in the well” at the same time. When one of us was “down” the other could rally as a spiritual cheerleader and exclaim, “Get in the bucket and hold on.” It became one of the most important lessons of our life.
Even though St. Helena is a relatively small town (where everyone knows everyone else’s business) I suspect that only Tom Burke’s family, a few friends and colleagues knew that, before he became a teacher, he seriously considered entering a Catholic seminary in order to become a priest. Obviously, his children and the nearly 1000 ex-students are grateful for his career reconsideration. However, he did not entirely cast his passion for the sacred aside. He excelled at teaching science, which included the mysteries and wonders of Mother Nature. Tom and John Muir were kindred spirits. In the introduction to “The Wilderness World of John Muir,” Edwin Teal wrote this about Muir:
“Yet he was intensely religious. The forests and mountains formed his temple. His approach to all nature was worshipful. He saw everything evolving yet everything the direct handiwork of God. There was a spiritual and religious exaltation in his experiences with nature.”
For those who knew and loved Tom, there is a striking similarity between Muir’s approach to Nature and his approach to working with students. He regarded each one as a special creation of God and treated him/her accordingly. This was rarely easy and poignantly described in Pierre Lecomte du Nouy’s classic book, “Human Destiny.”
“When a child begins to speak and to think, one must not be afraid to make his brain and his memory work. The quality of a child’s memory is surprising and is rapidly lost. The coordinating power between his ears and organs of speech is prodigious and rarely persists beyond the age of ten. A child can, without difficulty, learn to speak two or three languages fluently, without an accent, but this becomes almost impossible when he is over ten years old, and at that time requires a great deal of work and effort which, at that age, arouses a contrary reaction, a protestation, thus handicapping the result.”
Tom taught the fifth grade, which has been compared to trying to herd 25 hyperactive kittens in one direction. I am sure there were many moments when even Job’s patience would have been tried, but Tom handled these with a rare combination of patience and understanding.
Tom joined the Biodesign Class of ’85 on their trip to Grand Canyon. He was almost “monk-like” regarding his attire and was satisfied taking his old army boots along. Unfortunately, the soles were worn smooth and the upper 3 miles of the South Kaibab Trail were covered with three feet of ice and snow. The scene might have been funny except he scared us half to death; “step-slip-down on his butt! step-slip-down on his butt.” Several times he skidded to the trail’s edge, only to look down several thousand feet into the great abyss. It was the longest three miles that many of us had ever ‘hiked.”
Tom was genuinely scared, but he handled his fear with dignity, humor and grace. In fact, I think that would be a wonderful epitaph for him: Tom Burke handled life with dignity, humor and grace.
Mr. Burke had a huge impact on many of his students. Whether they learned important curricular or co-curricular lessons was left up to them, but I know that some of them went on to become teachers with the hopes of following in his foot prints.