Monday, May 31, 2010

Sermon: "John Muir & Reverence for Nature" (Delivered 5-23-10)

Reading by John Muir
How infinitely superior to our physical senses are those of the mind! The spiritual eye sees not only rivers of water but of air. It sees the crystals of the rock in rapid sympathetic motion, giving enthusiastic obedience to the sun's rays, then sinking back to rest in the night. The whole world is in motion to the center. So also sounds. We hear only woodpeckers and squirrels and the rush of turbulent streams. But imagination gives us the sweet music of tiniest insect wings, enables us to hear, all around the world, the vibration of every needle, the waving of every bole and branch, the sound of stars in circulation like particles in the blood. The Sierra canyons are full of avalanche debris - we hear them boom again, and we read the past sounds from present conditions. Again we hear the earthquake rock-falls. Imagination is usually regarded as a synonym for the unreal. Yet is true imagination healthful and real, no more likely to mislead than the coarse senses. Indeed, the power of imagination makes us infinite.

When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.
Almost two years ago I traveled to California. I had been asked to perform a wedding for two friends of mine, bohemians living in San Francisco’s Mission district. It was to be a camping wedding lasting four days in Yosemite National Park with immediate family and close friends staying at a campsite (without shower facilities.) On the second day, in the evening, the group of about fifteen of us hiked the short trail leading to Mirror Lake in Yosemite Valley. As dusk approached we stepped off the trail into the meadow and, standing under the majestic half-dome, I performed their wedding.

The couple asked for a non-traditional ceremony. So, the words I chose for the ceremony were drawn almost entirely from the nature writings of John Muir. I only changed the object of affection, from the rapturous love of nature to the rapturous love of partner. The words worked very well.

The origin of this sermon comes from a gift from Barbara S. About two months ago Barbara came to visit me during one of my Wednesday open coffee appointments and gave me a biography of the life of the famous naturalist and conservationist John Muir. I decided that this could make a good worship service. It turns out that the biography was pretty lousy, but that John Muir’s life was far more incredible than I had known. Fortunately, I supplemented my research with parts of the brilliant Ken Burns documentary series on America’s national parks.

But, before I turn to John Muir, allow me to pause for a moment. In gearing up for this sermon I was having so much fun that I began second guess myself. I wondered if there was maybe some hedonism at play. What does talking about reverence for nature mean when millions of gallons of oil are leaking into the Gulf of Mexico? When states like Arizona are proposing draconian immigration laws that would appear to violate the constitution? When the problems of the world are so immense?

But, I want to try to defend the merit of this worship service. The brilliant poet Wendell Berry wrote,
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
These lines by Wendell Berry give me goose bumps. They are so gorgeous. And yet, is there any truth to them? Many, many people have come to me and told me that despair for the world grows in them. And, I don’t think I have ever told anyone to go and lie down with the wood drake. It seems like something less than an entirely satisfactory response.

Let me be clear. The point of this morning is not to advise all of you to go and lie down with the wood drake. So, what good is reverence for nature then? Yes, that is a rhetorical question. It is actually quite good and quite important. And this morning’s sermon is really about why it is important.

Last month I gave a lecture entitled “This I Believe…” The lecture included two autobiographies attempting to give insight into why I believe what I believe. One was an academic autobiography, the story of my education. The other was a spiritual autobiography, the story of my involvement in Unitarian Universalism. I think that if there was one detail I should have added, it would have been to let you know about the role that the spectacular natural world played in my growing up. Both my parents were teachers and summers involved long camping trips to all of the great National Parks.

These were learning experiences. The trips offered early introductions to natural history, geology, botany, taxonomy, ecosystems, forestry, and conservation. They were also experiences in having my mind completely and utterly blown. Just imagine: The Colorado River has been slowly carving the Grand Canyon for two billion years. Just imagine: That tree on the rim of Bryce Canyon is older than Christianity. Just imagine: That black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains is so strong that it can utterly destroy the interior of that mini-van.

University of Texas philosopher Paul Woodruff defines reverence as the ability to simultaneously and virtuously hold three emotional states—awe, respect, and shame—in correct proportion. And, it was, among others, the Transcendentalist Unitarians of the nineteenth century who told us that when our human life grows out of balance, the experience of nature is essential in helping us to recalibrate ourselves.

Emerson and Thoreau, along with their European counterparts, were deeply concerned about a world like the one in which we live, a world in which technological ability exceeded wisdom, in which industrialization stunted the growth of the human spirit, in which oppression seemed to be increasing, and in which people seemed increasingly lacking in spiritual health. This is the experience to which we can contrast the story of the life of John Muir.

John Muir was a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his life is intriguing. He was born in Scotland and his family immigrated to the United States during his childhood. His family settled in Wisconsin and tried to make it as farmers. Muir was raised by a harsh father, a self-made preacher who fashioned his own strict and dogmatic understanding of Christianity. Bible memorization was central in the Muir household and by the time he left home, Muir had been forced to memorize almost the entire Bible.

As a child, John Muir was much more interested in observing the prairie wildlife than in trying to subdue it and transform it into arable farmland. Muir enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and studied the natural sciences but left and took an industrial job where he proved to be a talented and imaginative inventor. A factory injury caused him to decide to follow a new path and pursue his interest in the natural sciences. He set off from Indianapolis determined to walk to South America and to discover the headwaters of the Amazon River. He made it 1,000 miles by foot until he contracted malaria in Florida. This made him reconsider his decision to continue his walk to South America.

Instead, he took a boat to San Francisco and immediately began hiking the Sierra Nevada Mountains toward Yosemite Valley. He came to Yosemite in 1869. The first white men had entered Yosemite 18 years earlier. They were armed militia that had come to California along with the 1849 gold rush. They named the valley Yosemite thinking that they were naming it after the Indian tribe that had lived there. In fact “Yosemite” was an Indian word meaning, “The people who should be feared because they are killers.”

Muir found work at a sawmill in Yosemite Valley owned by James Hutchings, who was trying to develop a tourism business. With every spare moment, John Muir experienced the splendid environment of Yosemite. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address, he urges his listeners to “acquaint men at first hand with Deity.” Nature was Muir’s Deity. Ken Burns’ documentary on the national parks speaks of Muir as nature’s evangelist. Just as John the Baptist was eager to baptize believers in the Jordan River, Muir wanted to immerse others in nature.

He gave himself not a sprinkling but a full immersion. The cabin he built for himself in Yosemite was built over a babbling brook. Muir slept in a hammock and his floor consisted of stepping stones placed amongst the ferns. One day, while hiking to get a close look at the top of Yosemite Falls he decided to climb down on the slippery rocks and stand behind the falls in order to feel what the water felt. The wind changed and blew the waterfall into him. Had not his arm been anchored into the rock he would have been swept over the 1,000 foot drop. The thousands of gallons of water battered his head and gave him a concussion.

Once, while hiking in the winter, Muir decided to throw himself into an avalanche and ride it to the bottom. During fierce storms he would climb to the tops of tall trees in order to feel a connection with the trees. He soaked pinecones in water and drank the bitter mix thinking it would render him more “sequoiaical.” He often stood and tucked his head been his legs to view the world upside-down in order to acquaint himself with what he considered the “upness” of the world. And, in his journal, he describes an incident where he came across a grizzly bear in a clearing. He had been told that bears were afraid of human contact. So, Muir decided to test the truth of this claim with an impromptu experiment. He charged the grizzly bear running at full spring. The bear did not retreat. Instead, it reared up on its hind legs and Muir decided to abort the charge. He later wrote in his journal, "In my first interview with a Sierra bear we were frightened and embarrassed, both of us, but the bear's behavior was better than mine"

I would guess that most of us commune with nature a bit differently. But, for Muir, these experiences were deeply spiritual. “To go out is to go in,” he believed. By placing himself in the place of a waterfall, a treetop in a storm, tumbling snow, or a charging bear he developed an intimacy with the natural world at firsthand.

These experiences led him to a reverence of nature. Remembering what Paul Woodruff said, that reverence is a virtue that combines the feelings of awe, respect, and shame in correct proportions, how does nature lead us to an experience of reverence?

First, nature can fill us with awe. The incredible size and power of nature can make us feel very small. The author David Foster Wallace said that “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe.” But, the experience of nature can remove this delusional arrogance from us. The immensity of nature can help us to know that we are not at the center of the universe.

Second, Ken Burns’ documentary talks about the setting aside of the national parks as a placement of posterity above the present. A present-focused orientation values things according to their ability to bring immediate pleasure or profit. Such an orientation is self-centered and greedy. The idea that beauty and biodiversity ought to be preserved for future generations is an idea that causes us to resist our inclination towards instantaneous self-gratification.

Third, nature is slow. It teaches us patience. Mountains form over millions of years. Species evolve over the course on tens of thousands of years. It takes many lifetimes for a sequoia sapling to grow into a majestic tree. Encounters with animals are not something that we can order up “on-demand.” Sometimes we see bear or mountain lion. Often we do not. The slow pace of nature helps us to think of our lifespan in an entirely different context.

Finally, while nature can take away our own sense of arrogance and can teach us to resist our own insatiable tendencies, nature can also remind us of the power that we do possess and how that power can be used for good or ill. In an increasingly globalized world, in an increasingly interconnected world, the sum of individual actions grows exponential.

We all know the scenario. A young child sees a patch of flowers and snatches up a handful. The parent teaches a lesson. Yes, there are hundreds of flowers. Yes, you only picked a dozen. But, what if everyone did what you did? It is one of the greatest moral lessons. Our own individual actions are almost inconsequential in and of themselves. I can throw trash into the ocean or not throw trash into the ocean. My trash is small and the ocean is large. But, what if everyone did what I did? And, more to the point, why am I so special that I am exempt from standards I would wish that others would follow?

Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

This beauty, I say, has more than the power to heal and give strength. It has the power to inspire moral action and worthwhile living.

My colleague Rev. Erika Hewitt shared these words from Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King with me. The words were written after he had heard a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I share them with you in the spirit of levity and playfulness.
"Emerson gave us last Monday evening the most brilliant lecture I ever listened to from any mortal. It was on the identity of the laws of the mind with the laws of nature. He proved conclusively that man is only a higher kind of corn, that he is a squirrel gone up into the first class, that he is a liberated oyster fully educated, that he is a spiritualized pumpkin, a thinking squash, a graduated sun-flower, and inspired turnip. Such imagery, such wit, such quaint things said in a tone solemn and sublime! I have the most profound respect henceforth for every melon-vine as my ancestor (melancholic thought). I look upon every turtle as of kin. Tonight he lectures again. I fear I may lose it."