I have a Twitter account but, far from engaging in embittered political crosstalk, I enjoy it for some weird little hobbies. I am on a “Mudlark” feed, for example, that shows me pictures of interesting historical items dug out of the thick Thames mud at London’s low tides; I hear from a number of British nature sites about the flora and fauna of fens and bogs in East Anglia; and I follow a couple of artists whose work grabs me by the middle.
Among these is a Welsh painter named Jackie Morris, who, when she discovered that the Oxford Junior Dictionary has dropped words like newt, acorn, bluebell, dandelion, heron, otter and wren to make room for terms like blog and voicemail, dedicated a painting to each linguistically banished object. The result was The Lost Words, which has taken UK classrooms by storm and launched a movement to “re-wild” childhood.
These stunning paintings illustrate poems and spells by Robert Macfarlane, who, my twitter feed tells me, is perhaps the best nature writer in England today. Which sent me, of course, haring off after his books until I got my hands on Landmarks for some absorbing summer reading.
Macfarlane’s first chapter is about the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. He describes the twentieth century nature writer Nan Shepherd’s lifelong love for the area and how, in her lifetime of exploration and terrific climbs, she found them “’not of myself, but in myself,’” experiencing a profound sense, as Macfarlane puts it, of “the inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.”
“While half asleep on the plutonic granite of the plateau she feels herself become stone-like, ‘rooted far down in their immobility’, metamorphosed by the igneous rocks into a new mineral self. Shepherd is a fierce see-er, then, and like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence.”66
An empiricist arriving at mysticism through immanence? And why does this series of abstractions, which probably leave you cold, fill me from head to toe with recognition?
Let’s start with some definitions
Empiricism: Most of my friends are secular humanists, and this is where they come from: all of our knowledge derives from observation of what is going on in the material world and from applying the scientific method by proposing hypotheses and validating them by experiment.
Mysticism: This is where I am coming from. In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the 14 alternate Gospels declared heretical by the early church, Jesus locates the kingdom of heaven within creation, which includes the human individual and natural objects: “split a piece of wood, and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” While official Christianity rejected materiality, declaring human beings existentially flawed while valuing only what was super-natural, mystics through the ages have continued to seek God in nature.
Immanentism: The belief that the world is pervaded with divinity. Or, as Spinoza put it, “God is nature.”
All right, but why does all of this move me through and through? Through and through is the point, here. One morning last week I was leaving Frankfort, Michigan on my way home from errands when I had a whim to take a walk along the Betsie Bay lagoon.
That late in the morning, I doubted there would be any birds to see, but I took my binocs anyway and entered a path where willows shimmered in a light wind off the bay and the air was redolent with honeysuckle. Cedar Waxwings were dipping and swooping in and out of a grove of sumacs heavy with dried berries; a Warbling Vireo (a little grey and brown bird which I rarely catch sight of among the high canopy) was warbling away in plain sight; a Vesper Sparrow was sitting on a low branch, while within the sweetness of the honeysuckle a Yellow Warbler sang “Sweet, sweet – I’m so sweet,” a Common Yellowthroat called imperiously to declare his nesting rights among the reeds, and a House Wren hopped along the fence in full throat, like a bubbling little wooden waterfall.
Did I mention that I have been quite anxious lately, getting my knickers all in a twist over family worries and my own ego dramas? All of that dissolved entirely away as I was seized from head to toe by the sight and sound, wind and fragrance I was experiencing then, on that path, in that particular moment.
Did I “loose myself” in nature? No, I was right there in heart and in body and in mind, profoundly embedded in the material world as I took my place with birds and fragrance, song and wind in our earthly paradise as a mere element of rather than imperious thinker about a natural world shot through and through with divinity.