Although today is the Summer Solstice (the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere) we have already lost 2 minutes of daylight in the morning and in about two weeks the Earth will begin its tilting process that will lead to the autumnal equinox in September.
For 1000s of years, people have used the stars as guides for physical, mental and spiritual direction. In terms of oceanic and land travel, this guidance can be a matter of life and death. Proper attention to seasonal changes could also be a matter of survival. However some observations may be more playful as in the case of tonight’s Strawberry Moon. “Strawberry Moon” is the title some Native Americans have used for the full moon that occurs in June, which marks the beginning of strawberry season.
Although physical survival is of paramount importance, for thousands of years people have been aware of the importance of religious and or spiritual traditions for personal and community survival. Although the terms religion and spirituality may not be interchangeable, I find it intriguing that the origin of the word “religion” is biological. The word derives from the Latin, “re-ligare.” Literally, this means to re-apply ligaments to hold your spiritual life together. There are countless ways of doing this, however naturalists like Muir, Thoreau, Emerson, etal recommended “going for a walk” into Nature for “recreation” or perhaps a “religious,” or “born again” experience.
Although John Muir knew all of the Old Testament (and Psalms by heart) he kept a tattered pocket-version of the New Testament (with the Psalms) with him on all of his adventures.
In “The Wilderness World of John Muir,” Edwin Way Teale wrote:
“Repelled by the harsh fanaticism of his father’s religion, John Muir belonged to no church. He gave freely when solicited by Protestant and Catholic alike. But he affiliated himself with no formal creed. Yet he was intensely religious. The forests and the 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. And he came down from the mountains like some bearded prophet to preach the beauty and healing he had found in his natural temple where he worshiped. He spoke with the fire of the old Covenanters. This religious fervor and spiritual intensity in Muir’s response to nature contributed much to the power of his pleading for the cause of conservation. He never based his arguments on economic considerations alone. He always appealed to men on a high moral plane. I know of no other writer, with the exception of Henry Thoreau, who had so pure and lofty vision of man’s ultimate relationship to nature.”
The summer solstice just may be a perfect time to pause, look up at the stars (or the Strawberry Moon) and be grateful for our physical, mental and spiritual seasons.
INTELLIGENT MEN DECIPHERING “INTELLIGENT DESIGNS”:
“For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.” Hebrews,” 3.
“All of Nature is but a metaphor of the human mind.” Emerson
It is illogical to assume that physical, mental and spiritual designs can be more complex than the artist/creator of the designs.
In the early 17th century, natural “philosophers,” using the light microscope, began to see things that could not be seen with the naked eye. Englishman Robert Hooke observed pockets of air within cork, which he called “cells;” Dutch scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek saw “wee cavorting beasties” in samples of pond water. I strongly suspect that he also saw images like this array of desmids and diatoms in a drop of pond water.
The origin of words has always fascinated me. In biology, many of the structures are self-explanatory; that is if you know Latin or Greek. The word “ecology” is a good example. The word is derived from the Greek words “oikos”= house and “logos,”= the study of: ergo ecology is the study of “houses.” Whoever coined the word fully comprehended the fact that every living thing lives in a “house” and the study of the interactions of all living “houses” emerged as ecology. John Muir was an “ecologist” before the term was coined.
With annual sales of over 100 million copies, there are estimates that over 5 billion Bibles have been printed. Regarded by many scholars as the “world’s greatest novelist,” Charles Dickens was often at odds with the “formal church” yet he opined:
“The New Testament is the very best book that ever was or ever will be known in the world.”
I suspect that if John Muir were asked, he would have agreed with Dickens. Muir carried a pocket version of the “New Testament and Psalms” with him nearly everywhere he traveled.
Religious arguments are generally a waste of time, however, there can be some areas of agreement. E.g., St. Paul’s contention that every human being is actually a “temple,” is a concept that is not incompatible with many world religions and many people who may not consider themselves as “religious,” but regard themselves as “spiritual beings.”
Understandably, modern scientists, atheists and agnostics are not equipped to deal with a spiritual parallel universe, however, St. Paul’s concept was not only clear to Dickens, it was perfectly clear to John Muir who saw Yosemite Valley as a pure reflection of the temple that he was.
It was fun to see students discover that they were “living, breathing, walking houses;” however, regardless of their religious or nonreligious background, it was thrilling to see some of them begin to regard themselves as “living, breathing, walking temples.”
As a retired, holistic-biology teacher, it is disheartening to see that, in the name of “political correctness,” our public schools and universities are being “spiritually sanitized” and millions of students are tacitly being taught that they are meaningless, soulless, random acts of chance and competition.
I have returned from Yosemite and Grand Canyon with 100s of high school seniors, nearly all of whom saw visions marvels and wonders that they could not describe in words. Regardless of whether they saw themselves as “temples” or not, nearly all of them felt renewed and spiritually invigorated with an enhanced sense of hope, purpose and meaning.
“To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” – Henry David Thoreau
In a bizarre synchronicity, after I wrote this blog I went to a local hospital to have some lab work done. A middle-aged couple was sitting next to me. I thought it was odd that the man had a large suitcase with him. After a few moments, he looked at his wife and blurted out, “I want you to promise me that you will shoot me in the head if I ever touch another drop of alcohol. It will save me a trip to the Golden Gate Bridge to end my misery.”
When I got home I Googled the hospital and discovered that they offer a 28-day alcohol/substance abuse recovery program; the cost is $18,000.
John Muir was amazed that people willingly trust their lives to a little glass-covered dial with a simple, wavering magnetic needle and not see that God, Nature and an inner awareness could guide them as well.
For some mysterious reason, early in the evolution of the Biodesign Class, I felt “guided” to attend a local “A-A” meeting. I was probably motivated by the fact that in the mutual process of exploring the deeper levels of our personhood, it was not uncommon for students to share the horrors of living with an alcoholic parent.
It might have been naïve or rude of me, but I did ask a member of the local AA chapter if I could attend. He thought it was a great idea.
It was not without doubt and trepidation that I entered the meeting. The first, and most shocking discovery was the wide range of members in attendance. The year was 1974 and somehow, I had not imagined that medical doctors, lawyers, CPAs, nurses, teachers, school administrators, clergy members, leaders of the community, even a few housewives would be there.
After the meeting began, the intensely high level of honesty and disclosure in their conversations shocked me. After reading about the program later, it became clear that some (if not all) of the members were dealing with a potentially self-destructive disease and allowing vague, deceitful or disingenuous comments could not be tolerated.
I also learned about “Uncle Bill,” who nearly died of alcoholism before he began the self-discovery process that led to the current program known as Alcoholics Anonymous.
I located a copy of the A-A “Big Book” co-authored by Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson. It was immediately clear that the heart of the program involved trying to master the “12-Step-Program.”
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
I an absolutely stunning example of what one person can do for the world, as of 9-1-2013, A.A. has a presence in over 170 countries, with an estimated total of 114,070 groups and more than 2 million members. And perhaps most extraordinary, the entire operation is operated by volunteers. These are people who have experienced the horrors of alcoholism and, more importantly, the joy of on-going recovery. This joy is frequently enhanced as they share with and guide others. This is tremendously important because recovery and rehab programs can be overwhelmingly expensive, often costing thousands of dollars per week.
Understandably, a program doing so much good work cannot do so without conflict. Secular-humanist psychologists go to great lengths to discredit AA. They often rail against the possibility that a mythical god could be involved in a person’s recovery. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the alcoholics can cure themselves and that A-A is “cult-like” organization that is dangerous and counter-productive.
In an interesting twist of fate, “step 12” on the AA list is a perfect corollary to John Muir’s life and work:
“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
Muir’s daily life typically involved “spiritual awakenings” and he dedicated his life to encouraging others to go to the mountains and be “reborn.”
There is a rural legend that domesticated turkeys are so dumb that they will drown themselves while looking up at the rain with their mouths open.
The term “birdbrain” emerged from the fact that, compared to humans, bird brains are extremely small. Most birds have pea-sized brains with the largest belonging to parrots. Ostrich brains weigh 41 grams, while human brains typically weigh 1,500 grams (3.3 lbs.). Bird brains lack the massive cerebral hemispheres, which enable human consciousness, memory, emotion, logic/mathematical skills, linguistics, music, creative arts, self-awareness and spiritual awareness.
It has long been thought that all (or nearly all) of avian behavioral and survival skills were controlled by the poorly understood, catchall term, “instinct.” In its extreme application, birds would be senseless living automatons controlled by instinctive behavior. It remains a mystery as to how much they are aware of who they are or what they are doing.
However, some recent studies with parrots ravens and crows have shown that, even lacking the neocortex, they are capable of cognitive skills and deductive reasoning that was never deemed possible. This will not come as a surprise to Native Americans who held birds in much higher esteem than Whites.
In Noah Strycker’s, The Thing With Feathers, he divides stories about birds into three categories; body, mind and spirit.
In the “mind” category, he writes about the amazing memory skills of the Clark’s Nutcracker. The birds depend on pine nuts to survive long, frozen winter climate. He noted that a single bird can stash as many as 5,000 mini-caches, which can contain tens of thousands of pine nuts. The caches are not marked and are typically covered with snow.
“It’s a radical mental feat: Nutcrackers somehow remember exactly where thousands of different clumps of seeds are buried without a single yellow sticky note, global-positioning waypoint, or silly mnemonic.”
In the “spirit” category, Strycker describes the courtship behavior of Bowerbirds. The males go through a process of creating elaborate “bowers” trying to seduce interested females. The bowers are made of attractive natural materials as well as man-made items that may be bright or artistic. They are not averse to stealing coveted items from neighbors in hopes of increasing their chances of attracting a suitable mate or mates!
Also in the “spirit” category, Strycker describes the amazing behavior of the Wandering Albatross. Although the birds live in solitude, they mate for life and mysteriously get together every two years to mate and raise their chicks. How they navigate or locate each other is pure mystery.
Arctic terns hatch in the Arctic region, mature enough in one season to be able to fly 12,000 miles south to summer in the Antarctic region. They obviously have a mysterious, internal biological GPS mechanism that allows them to navigate unknown territory.
John Muir’s story about his little dog “Stickeen” ranks among the greatest dog stories. Loren Eiseley’s story about a mated pair of sparrow hawks deserves a similar ranking.
Eiseley was on an academic assignment to collect animal specimens deep in “canyon country.” He successfully trapped the male partner and caged it in order to send it to zoo or ornithology research org. However, the next morning he had a change of heart and carefully released the bird.
“IN THE NEXT second, after that long minute, he was gone. Like a flicker of light, he had vanished with my eyes full on him, but without actually seeing even a premonitory wing beat. He was gone straight into that towering emptiness and crystal that my eyes could scarcely bear to penetrate. For another long moment, there was silence. I could not see him. The light was too intense. Then from far up somewhere a cry came ringing down.
I was young then and had seen little of the world, but when I heard that cry my heart turned over. It was not the cry of the hawk I had captured; for, by shifting my position against the sun, I was now seeing further up. Straight out of the sun’s eye, where she must have been soaring restlessly above us for untold hours, hurtled his mate. And from far up, ringing from peak to peak of the summits over us, came a cry of such unutterable and ecstatic joy that it tingles among the cups on my quiet breakfast table.
I saw them both now. He was rising to meet her. They met in a great soaring gyre that turned to a whirling circle and dance of wings. Once more, just once, their two voices, joined in a harsh wild medley of question and response, struck and echoed against the pinnacles of the valley. Then they were gone forever somewhere into the upper regions beyond the eyes of men.”
St. Francis of Assisi has been affectionately dubbed the, “Patron Saint of animals.” Perhaps this is justified because he regarded every bird egg, feather, wing-beat and heartbeat as indescribably perfect creations of the Creator of the universe.
Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to equal a need
Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells…
– Robinson Jeffers
In his wonderful poem, “Excesses of God,” Robinson Jeffers accuses God of being superfluous: [Lavish, superabundant, over-the-top.] I am upping the ante by suggesting that He can be a flamboyant showoff. I am not challenging God, but if a bolt of lightning strikes me, it will prove my point. How else can we explain what happened at Yosemite Valley on Wednesday, 9-30-15. Yosemite NP was celebrating the 125th anniversary of becoming a National Park. I am sure that rangers carefully planned the event, however, what they could not plan was the amazing and mysterious appearance of a double rainbow that arched over Yosemite Valley.
Scientists, secular humanists, skeptics and human Eeyores will dismiss the event as a spiritless, “random act” involving weather and light refraction. Really? Science is supposed to be based on facts and predictable results, neither of which applied in this situation. Common sense dictates that there were zero odds that could allow for the event to occur at the perfect time. To prove this, how many non-believers (or believers) would have bet money that the event would happen? The truth is that that the double rainbow was a splendid synchronicity, with no known causation.
John Muir considered Yosemite Valley as a natural cathedral. The millions of transcending experiences that Yosemite has generated bear witness to the wisdom of his contention. These events occur when people temporarily escape human limitations and transcend to higher levels of spiritual awareness. With this being so, imagine what park rangers (and visitors) must have felt, standing amidst Yosemite’s multiple natural iconic wonders, celebrating their 125th anniversary, when a brilliant double rainbow arched above them. It reminded me of a similar event that occurred in the Biodesign Class of 1980.
In the late 1970s, several successive Biodesign classes experienced beautiful rainbows on their Yosemite trip. It led me to become a little smug. Foolishly, I predicted to the class of ’80 that they would see a rainbow. However, the first two days were uneventful and by the third day a few of the guys began to heckle me about my boastful prediction. By the morning of day 5, our last full day there, I resigned myself that I would have to “eat crow” and apologize for my excessive pridefulness. I decided to wait until our evening class session and accept my well-deserved ribbing.
Excerpt: Biodesign Out For A Walk, chap. 24, Synchronicity and God:
After lunch, this class elected to go out into the nearby meadow and play a game that was a blend of rugby and human destruction-derby. I watched for a few minutes, but when girls began launching their bodies into the scrum, I left. I had much to do, cleaning and storing all of the kitchen equipment in preparation for a morning departure. As I worked, I noticed the increasing cloud cover, but smiled confidently. We were not on the Dome or on the trail so it was of little concern. About 40 minutes later, however, I heard a bloodcurdling yell from the meadow.
Denise screamed, “Mr. Young, come quick!”
I pictured a broken arm or leg or maybe worse. Hurriedly, I dried my hands and raced up the trail toward the meadow. Denise met me halfway, grabbed my arm, and dragged me along. When we reached the meadow, no one was huddling over an injured student; instead, all were standing and staring skyward in total silence. One of the most beautiful rainbows that I had ever seen arched across the sky, with Half Dome perfectly positioned below the arc. I joined the silence and was stunned and embarrassed at the same time. After a few minutes, one of the hecklers edged over and whispered, “OK, how’d you know?”
I shook my head in denial and said, “I didn’t, and I won’t make that mistake again.”
William Wordsworth wrote:
“My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky…”
I am certain that many hearts leaped up at Yosemite’s 125– year anniversary celebration. I am also quite sure that Robinson Jeffers, William Wordsworth and John Muir would agree that the beautiful double rainbow was a miraculous, ephemeral signature of God, claiming responsibility for creating one of the most beautiful valleys on planet Earth. His timing simply could not have been more perfect!
I don’t know if the current YNP Superintendent saw the double rainbow or what he thought about it. I do know that the entire Class of ’80 stood rapt (and wrapped) in awe and silent wonder. No one spoke. Instead, after a few minutes, the students quietly dispersed into The Valley, perhaps to contemplate what they had just witnessed. People will draw their own conclusions, however, I am convinced that, especially under the circumstances, I had seen a miracle.
I was supremely blessed to have slept on top of The Dome with 20 biology classes (when it was still legal). Each night offered a transcending experience that altered how I saw Nature, humanity and God. Like The Velveteen Rabbit becoming “real,” transcending experiences can be soul-transforming and last forever.
John Muir, Henry Thoreau and R.W. Emerson were proponents of the transcending power of Nature. The three men were not necessarily referring to single event, but events that can occur many times in wilderness settings. Although they may or may not involve an experience with a Supreme Being, Muir welcomed his followers to “come to the mountains and be ‘born again.’” It is not uncommon for people to have “out-of-body” experiences where their spirits are free to roam in the universe. Somehow, words like infinity and eternity often take on a deeper meaning. In fact, if dangling your feet over 4,800 of “free air” on the “Diving Board,” on top of Half Dome, does not move you, you may not have a spirit-pulse. One of the common results of transcending experiences is goosebumps. Goosebumps are the autonomic nervous system’s response to foreign (wilderness) events. The ancient part of the brain seems to comprehend that there are no words to describe the experience and a surge of adrenaline is released by the endocrine system to prepare the body for a “fight-or-flight” reaction. Spiritual fights and flights are often quite scary.
Excerpt: Biodesign Out For A Walk, Chap. 4, A Class Is Born.
“When we got to the top of Half Dome, we began to explore. I was drawn to the edge and amazed by the grandeur. I saw a slab of rock, known as The Diving Board, projecting out over the edge and into Yosemite Valley. The slab was about six-feet wide, twelve- feet long and about four-feet deep. I carefully inched my way out. Slowly, slowly, I decided to focus on the rock and not look down. When I got to the end, I very carefully stuck one leg at a time over the edge. After I was settled, I leaned over and looked down be-tween my legs into 4,800 hundred feet of “free air.” At first, I couldn’t breathe, and then my balls jumped up into my chest. I was about to explode. My heart was pounding. I thought if an earthquake hits now, it’s all over. I quickly got back on my knees, carefully pivoted, and crept back to safety.”
Intuitively, Toby described a powerful, visceral reaction to his transcending experience.
One year, the day that the Biodesign Class returned to school after their 6-day Yosemite trip, a group of them were out on the quad jubilantly discussing their experience. One of the senior boys, who was a vocal critic of the Class and me, approached a newly returned buddy and asked, “So, have you changed”? The Biodesigner beamed broadly and exclaimed, “You bet and it feels great.” His friend snorted and replied, “It’s just like I said, that Class is nothing more than a religious cult.”
One of my favorite Zen koans claims, “No two people have ever met and departed unchanged.” The same can be said for wilderness experiences. No “normal” human can enter the wilderness and emerge unchanged. Transcendence is a beautiful spiritual gift.
Warning: Henry Van Dyke’s epic poem, “THE GRAND CANYON,” is “soul food” and beyond the “fast-food” attention span. However, it just might be the most important poem you will ever read.Van Dyke plumbs the depth of Grand Canyon and the depth of the human soul. He challenges believers and non-believers to set aside their baggage of religious and scientific bias, pettiness, myths and shallow thinking and become one with Grand Canyon. Van Dyke concedes that, like the words infinity and eternity, Grand Canyon cannot be defined yet, as a poet, he cannot contain himself. There are one-liners galore that will convict, cajole, console, compel, comfort and inspire. Nothing will compare with hiking Grand Canyon, however, Van Dyke’s poem offers a hint of the mystery of transcending the human body and briefly becoming “at one” with the universe.
What makes the lingering Night so cling to thee?
Thou vast, profound, primeval hiding-place
Of ancient secrets,–gray and ghostly gulf
Cleft in the green of this high forest land,
And crowded in the dark with giant forms!
Art thou a grave, a prison, or a shrine?
A stillness deeper than the dearth of sound
Broods over thee: a living silence breathes
Perpetual incense from thy dim abyss.
The morning-stars that sang above the bower
Of Eden, passing over thee, are dumb
With trembling bright amazement; and the Dawn
Steals through the glimmering pines with naked feet,
Her hand upon her lips, to look on thee!
She peers into thy depths with silent prayer
For light, more light, to part thy purple veil.
O Earth, swift-rolling Earth, reveal, reveal,–
Turn to the East, and show upon thy breast
The mightiest marvel in the realm of Time!
‘Tis done,–the morning miracle of light,–
The resurrection of the world of hues
That die with dark, and daily rise again
With every rising of the splendid Sun!
Be still, my heart! Now Nature holds her breath
To see the solar flood of radiance leap
Across the chasm, and crown the western rim
Of alabaster with a far-away
Rampart of pearl, and flowing down by walls
Of changeful opal, deepen into gold
Of topaz, rosy gold of tourmaline,
Crimson of garnet, green and gray of jade,
Purple of amethyst, and ruby red,
Beryl, and sard, and royal porphyry;
Until the cataract of colour breaks
Upon the blackness of the granite floor.
How far below! And all between is cleft
And carved into a hundred curving miles
Of unimagined architecture! Tombs,
Temples, and colonnades are neighboured there
By fortresses that Titans might defend,
And amphitheatres where Gods might strive.
Cathedrals, buttressed with unnumbered tiers
Of ruddy rock, lift to the sapphire sky
A single spire of marble pure as snow;
And huge aerial palaces arise
Like mountains built of unconsuming flame.
Along the weathered walls, or standing deep
In riven valleys where no foot may tread,
Are lonely pillars, and tall monuments
Of perished aeons and forgotten things.
My sight is baffled by the wide array
Of countless forms: my vision reels and swims
Above them, like a bird in whirling winds.
Yet no confusion fills the awful chasm;
But spacious order and a sense of peace
Brood over all. For every shape that looms
Majestic in the throng, is set apart
From all the others by its far-flung shade,
Blue, blue, as if a mountain-lake were there.
How still it is! Dear God, I hardly dare
To breathe, for fear the fathomless abyss
Will draw me down into eternal sleep.
What force has formed this masterpiece of awe?
What hands have wrought these wonders in the waste?
O river, gleaming in the narrow rift
Of gloom that cleaves the valley’s nether deep,–
Fierce Colorado, prisoned by thy toil,
And blindly toiling still to reach the sea,–
Thy waters, gathered from the snows and springs
Amid the Utah hills, have carved this road
Of glory to the Californian Gulf.
But now, O sunken stream, thy splendour lost,
‘Twixt iron walls thou rollest turbid waves,
Too far away to make their fury heard!
At sight of thee, thou sullen labouring slave
Of gravitation,–yellow torrent poured
From distant mountains by no will of thine,
Through thrice a hundred centuries of slow
Fallings and liftings of the crust of Earth,–
At sight of thee my spirit sinks and fails.
Art thou alone the Maker? Is the blind
Unconscious power that drew thee dumbly down
To cut this gash across the layered globe,
The sole creative cause of all I see?
Are force and matter all? The rest a dream?
Then is thy gorge a canyon of despair,
A prison for the soul of man, a grave
Of all his dearest daring hopes! The world
Wherein we live and move is meaningless,
No spirit here to answer to our own!
The stars without a guide: The chance-born Earth
Adrift in space, no Captain on the ship:
Nothing in all the universe to prove
Eternal wisdom and eternal love!
And man, the latest accident of Time,–
Who thinks he loves, and longs to understand,
Who vainly suffers, and in vain is brave,
Who dupes his heart with immortality,–
Man is a living lie,–a bitter jest
Upon himself,–a conscious grain of sand
Lost in a desert of unconsciousness,
Thirsting for God and mocked by his own thirst.
Spirit of Beauty, mother of delight,
Thou fairest offspring of Omnipotence
Inhabiting this lofty lone abode,
Speak to my heart again and set me free
From all these doubts that darken earth and heaven!
Who sent thee forth into the wilderness
To bless and comfort all who see thy face?
Who clad thee in this more than royal robe
Of rainbows? Who designed these jewelled thrones
For thee, and wrought these glittering palaces?
Who gave thee power upon the soul of man
To lift him up through wonder into joy?
God! let the radiant cliffs bear witness, God!
Let all the shining pillars signal, God!
He only, on the mystic loom of light.
Hath woven webs of loveliness to clothe
His most majestic works: and He alone
Hath delicately wrought the cactus-flower
To star the desert floor with rosy bloom.
O Beauty, handiwork of the Most High,
Where’er thou art He tells his Love to man,
And lo, the day breaks, and the shadows flee!
Now, far beyond all language and all art
In thy wild splendour, Canyon marvellous,
The secret of thy stillness lies unveiled
In wordless worship! This is holy ground;
Thou art no grave, no prison, but a shrine.
Garden of Temples filled with Silent Praise,
If God were blind thy Beauty could not be!
Perhaps the most common mantra I chanted was, “I don’t care what you think, I care deeply that you think.” Contrary to what many people think, an overwhelming amount of education involves massive memorization and minimal original thought. I preferred the Socratic method of teaching, which involved asking students what they thought about reading assignments, and literature cited. If what they thought was their prerogative, what their eventual life-style, career choice or spiritual path (if any) was even more so.
Most students went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, engineers, architects, social workers, psychologists, biologists, house-wives (or house-husbands) and several became ministers, pastors and priests.
Wayne Neller is a Choctaw Nation/St. Helena Native. He attended local schools and after graduating from St. Helena High School, became an Episcopal priest, ecumenical pastor, substance-abuse counselor and author of several Christian evangelical programs. However, chapter 29 “Wayne” was not featured as a veiled form of evangelism, but as an extraordinary example of what one student experienced. For all I know, he might have become a lawyer, Buddhist monk, Sufi guru, or Native American Shaman. This, however, was his path and may or may not resonate with others.
When I began scribbling down the first stories, the thought that they might end up in book form never entered my mind. The plan was to collect some of the best stories and take them to Kinko’s and print 9 copies, one for each grandchild to read later. By a very strange synchronicity, ex-colleague Linda Wiliamson reentered my life and asked to see my scribblings. Amazingly, she tamed the beast, corrected many errors, reorganized the chapter sequence and produced something that Outskirts Press wanted to publish.
However, when the time came to submit Linda’s carefully edited manuscript, chapter 29, simply titled, Wayne, became problematic. I had major concerns about whether to include it or not. I sent final drafts of the chapter to friends who I knew were believers, non-believers and religious fence sitters. This list included the owner of a bookstore, high school English and humanities teachers and my support team. Shockingly, they were unanimous in their feeling that the chapter should be included. I think I was subconsciously hoping that they would discourage me. My battles to add a spiritual dimension to the Biodesign curriculum predicted that including the chapter would automatically cause the book to be banned from reading lists at all public high schools, colleges and universities. However, equally concerning, I worried that potential readers would falsely assume that the book was defined by chapter 29, rather than chapter 29 merely being one of 31 chapters.
I thought I made it clear that I was presenting many ways that people connect Nature with spirituality in a non-preferential manner. When readers of Biodesign Out For A Walk have mentioned that they thought the book was written from a Christian perspective, I didn’t k now if they were being critical or complimentary. I pointed out that quotes and references were used from Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Atheism, Secular Humanism, Agnosticism, Pantheism, Shamanism, Sufism and Native American Spirituality. All of these ideas were presented as a spiritual smorgasbord with no intention to influence or recruit students for any particular doctrine or “ism.”
In a discussion with Rabbi David Wolpe, Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard professor and world-renowned anthropologist, ironically borrowed the acronym NOMA from the Catholic Church. NOMA stands for “non-overlapping magesteria.” Gould stated:
“Science and religion are different enterprises and serve different purposes in our lives. Science is a limited domain about discovering facts and religion with other, and perhaps more important, questions such as why we are here and the purpose of the universe, about which science has nothing to say.”
The one area of science that might allow peeks through the wall separating it from religion could be wilderness studies. Great naturalists like Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace, Gregor Mendel, Louis Agassiz, Henry Thoreau and John Muir saw “God” in many aspects of their work.
In the end, the decision to include the chapter was facilitated by six members of my support team. My wife, my gifted editor and Abraham Maslow, who properly stated that identifying and discussing origins of human spirituality is not tantamount to teaching religion. After walking with John Muir and Loren Eiseley for over 50 years, I can safely say that they would embrace and applaud Wayne’s story.
And finally, Wayne was the most important factor as to whether to include his story or not. He understood well that it might encourage and inspire some readers; he also knew that it could generate anger, ridicule and rejection.
It is remarkable that Wayne heeded Loren Eiseley’s message about the importance of serving others and that he followed John Muir’s model of not worshiping the “Almighty Dollar” and worshiping the “God of all creation.” Wayne’s path was his path and I had nothing more to do with it any more than if he had chosen to be a doctor, lawyer or Indian chief. 😉
In the end, I thought that sharing his story was more important than any possible book sales that I might lose. It was simply the right thing to do. Surprisingly, of all the hundreds of e-mails, Fb comments, messages, letters and notes I have received, not one has been critical or mean-spirited about Wayne’s story.
Whether he can trace his genetic lineage back to a Biblical ancestor or because of his masterful acquisition of ornithological knowledge, Noah Strycker is superbly qualified to be the resident superintendent on the avian deck on a modern Noah’s Ark.
Rogue and retro are the two words that describe Stycker and therefore, “The Thing With Feathers.” Rogue because he is going where few modern biologists are willing to go; retro because he went back to the pre-renaissance, three dimensional thinking that preceded the “great schism” between science and spirituality. Post-renaissance biologists threw the baby out with the baptismal water, eschewing all ideas about spirituality as irrelevant at best and dangerously counter-productive at worst.
Strycker ignores ivory-towered elitists and practitioners of scientism by boldly including anecdotes, stories and wisdom about the physical, mental and spiritual qualities of birds and humans.
Most modern books include hyperbolic cover blurbs that often fail to reflect the book’s inner contents. However, the cover-claim that: “You have never read a book about birds like this before,” is patently true. There are many excellent books on birds currently available which TTWF will not replace; however, it will serve as an excellent complement to stand proudly on the bookshelves of bird-watchers and Nature lovers.
Strycker’s style reveals hints of John Muir’s deep reverence for Nature; Henry Thoreau’s insistence of the importance of transcending experiences; Loren Eiseley’s claim that mystery still reigns supreme; And Annie Dillard’s sense of the spirituality of all living things.
In the text, Strycker discusses:
A cockatoo that has better dance moves than many biologists.
Bower birds that have better artistic sense than many scientists.
Birds that sing more beautifully than humans.
Albatrosses that mate for life and are more faithful than 50% of the married couples in the US.
In a stroke of genius Strycker reveals that compared to universal knowledge, it is myopic biologists who have “bird-brains” and that birds are animals of extreme perfection that biologists are only beginning to understand.
Excerpt: Biodesign Out For A Walk, Chap. 9, “Gratefulness.”
“They sang because life is sweet and sunshine is beautiful.
A friend of mine describes himself as a devout atheist. He has a great sense of humor and didn’t mind when I asked him how he could possibly believe in “nothingness.” He laughed and said that it takes more effort to believe in nothing than have faith in something. Furthermore, he opined, “atheism is more difficult because we have no architecture or music to inspire us.” I still don’t know if he is serious or kidding.
This takes us back to the Wallace/Darwin debate where Wallace chided Darwin for having no theory about the origin of music. If no utilitarian philosophy can define the emergent beauty in a single snowflake, neither can one explain a stunning opera aria (or a simple three-note chord).
Some readers may find it odd to consider June Carter Cash’s, “Ring Of Fire” is a spiritual song. Like many Country/Western songs, the lyrics may be bawdy, ribald, painfully blunt and definitely not something you would expect to hear in church. However, she was describing potential pitfalls and perils of falling in love which were especially poignant in this case because she was falling for a deeply-troubled, highly-talented “Man in Black.”
In terms of spirituality, regardless of your personal musical taste, it seems like it would be difficult to listen to the, “Home free,” version of “Ring Of Fire” and not get caught up in the simple, a capella harmony of the group. As a group, they create music that transcends the boundaries of each solo singer. Perhaps more importantly, the group exhibits a joy and zest for life which are both spirit components. By doing so, they are a metaphor of the Biodesign Program. Students interacted in a harmonious environment and were able to generate and communicate values, ideas and wisdom that far exceeded the boundaries of each individual member.