existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Tag: nature

The things that have helped me over the past year or so

This is a list of resources that have been an important part of my eudaimonia over the past year. I am excluding things that would not be available to most people – such as, for example, my friends. They are not in a particular order. Many of them were somewhat serendipitous. I will explain how I came by each of them so you can see for yourself!

They are vaguely in chronological order in terms of when I started paying attention to them.

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The colored world wakes up

After so much time time in the city, finally got to breath some country air and walk through the woods. No matter that it was in ~12 inches of snow. It was 61 degrees! Wonderful. I saw two pileated woodpeckers(!), some green shoots growing in a puddle of snow melt, and the most amazingly blue sky I can remember. When I got home there was a torrent of starlings in the trees behind my mom’s house all talking about the weather. They are an invasive species, but that isn’t their fault.

The green like jewel shoots under a
sapphiric blue sky blasted away
the numbing white noise of winter

The world as inheritance

It is sometimes said of eco-friendly practices that they are necessary if we are to continue living on this planet. The assumption is that resources are limited, and if we want these resources to continue to be available to future generations, we must limit our use of them. Is it necessary to leverage utilitarian arguments in order to advance the cause of social justice? Arguments in favor of prudence and care – redude, reuse, recycle – are cast in terms of rapidly-diminishing resources and the fact that we may have to be wise now so that it will last longer. Do we need to capitulate to this ultiltarian ethic? This may well be a Faustian bargain that proponents of eco-justice are asked to make.

The question, according to Erzium Kohak, is not what kind of world do we want to leave our children and grand-children, but what kind of people do we become when we only see the world around us as a supply – albeit limited – for our own purposes. The answer, in short, is that we do not become much at all. It is not so much the speed with which we grab, but the notion that the world is merely there for us to use as we like. We become much like the prodigal son who saw the inheritance as his, to do with as he liked. Yet in grabbing what, in his ruthless, glib, logic, belonged to him anyway, he gave up his claim to sonship and personhood. The next part of the story is simply the logical outcome of giving up this claim. He was tossed around by circumstances, used by the world that he aimed to use for his own pleasure.

In grabbing what is, in our own ruthless, glib, logic, rightfully ours, we give up our own inheritance as persons and as participators in a world of meaning. How do we want to live in this world? If we take our place as belonging to the world – not possessing the world – we might find that we do indeed have a place in it, and that it is sufficient for our needs. This depends on recognizing value beyond instrumental, and beyond the motive of attainment. It is understandable that we look at the world and see only wealth to be used, as the younger son must have long daydreamed about the money that belonged to him and that he could use for good fun. Understandable, but nonetheless destructive.

We’ve made a mess of things, of that there is no doubt. Not only have we squandered our money on easy living, but we’ve become strangers to this world, aliens and alienated. So much so that “natural” has come to mean “that which is not of us.” The world that looks back at us is dead, because we have turned it to our own use. And as the prodigal son thought of the well-fed servants on his father’s homestead, we see animals that all have bread enough. They all have a place in this order of creation, whereas we are dying of a hunger both physical and spiritual. How did we come to be strangers in the world over which we rule?

And what would it mean for us to come home?

The son did not return home demanding sonship – he rightfully recognized that he gave up his right to sonship. He came home to be a servant. He is given sonship, yet, but as a free gift, which is the only way it can be given and the only way it can be received. So also we, when we do not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, when we resist the opportunity to act as gods in this world, when we take the form of a servant, then we also will be given the glory of sons and daughters. When we humbly acknowledge the worthiness of our great inheritance – this magnificent world – then we will be ready to receive it. Becoming servants is the only way that we can live into our personhood. If we would become great in this world, we must become the world’s servant, not only of our fellow human beings, but of the whole order of creation.


No words of my own today, but here are some from Erazim Kohak:

The golden leaves line the river bottom, setting the water aglow in the autumn sun. The forest dies and is renewed in the order of time; the sparkling river bears away grief. In the pained cherishing of that transient world, the human, a dweller between the embers and the stars, can raise it up to eternity. That is the task of the human.

And Saigyo:

inviting the wind to carry
salt waves of the sea
the pine tree of Shiogoshi
trickles all night long
shiny drops of moonlight

First snow

The first snow fell this week in Philadelphia. I wondered what Basho might have said about it – he wrote many beautiful haiku about the first snow.

New Year’s first snow–ah–
just barely enough to tilt
the daffodil

The new year’s first snow–
how lucky to remain alone
at my hermitage

First snow
on the half-finished bridge

I did not have any verses to write about the snow, but it was beautiful and brought to mind that awe is still a viable response to the world. Despite many snowfalls, snow is still quite reliable in its ability to transfix me. This, even though I have also come to dread it. My changing attitude towards snow is quite possibly the signal of my transformation to adulthood. Enough of that, though! It is a vestige of childhood delight that greets the blazing white blanket as I step outdoors. No matter that evening will bring biting cold, and cars will bring dirt and slush. I thought I was wise when I grew out of my wide-eyed childhood wonder, but this was really the beginning of my foolishness. Now I must make effort to recover that wonder. The snow helps.

2 Haiku about the rain

light autumn rain
the clerk says it will snow
maybe tomorrow

light autumn rain
no one wants to sit down
just hurry home

3 Haiku about birds

Today the birds fly
Tomorrow I will miss them
So will the pine seeds.

Tree explodes skyward
Raining down its autumn fruits
The birds are frantic

Crooked bird-line south
Throwing calls down to the earth
Again and again

in the year that king uzziah died…

When I was a senior in college and things had begun to weigh heavily on me I got in my car and drove north through Mercy County to the Polk water preserve with my binoculars. I left behind uncertain futures and strained friendships, and came for woods and water, and to look for birds. Houses, trees, and streams were painted with bright jewel tones, and the country roads wound through places I had not seen before. With the fresh new air in my face and the sweet scent of the countryside, the world seemed to conspire with me in my plan for rejuvenation.

I found the preserve without much trouble and parked my car in a small gravel lot on the edge of a green field. The old scarred signboard told me with faded paper that this place was open to hunting at other times of the year, and that there were pair of ponds not far, hidden now by the tall mid-spring grass. The place was overwhelmed by red-winged blackbirds and their distinctive, brilliant kreonkaleeee. I watched them for a while flitting back and forth from telephone wire to tree to tall grass, then took my binoculars and set out to find these ponds. I was attracted by some strange-looking birds, ones that I had never seen before and followed them to a large rectangular body of water, obviously man-made. I realized soon enough that these were juvenile blackbirds, not yet with their glossy black coat, but the wing bars were already distinctive. Flashes of iridescent blue caught my eye, and I spent some time watching field swallows wheeling about over the water.

These darting bolts of blue held my attention so that I was startled out of myself by a great commotion of water, wing, and air somewhere behind me. It sounded like a great tumult, coming from the other pond still obscured by the grass; but what could make such noise? I scrambled hastily through the grass in time to see rising into the air a pair of bald eagles and a great blue heron. There was almost no time to register the sight – what luck! here to stumble upon them, and the hefty majesty of the eagles strange against the elegance of the heron – and they were nearly out of sight, the eagles gaining altitude quickly on the warm air, the heron speeding toward other water and other fish. Silence then. Even the locusts had stopped. I thought that they were, like me, in awe. Then I realized that they were waiting for me to explain the authority upon which I had stumbled into this holy conference. Had I traveled to a different world? Is that why holiness seemed to hang heavy as altar smoke? I was suddenly aware of the clumsiness of my clothes and my upright gangling gait. Sobered, I walked down to the creek, took of my shoes and washed my feet and my face in the water.

I stayed for some time longer, then got in my car and returned. When I arrived back at the school it was an unfamiliar world, like one seen in the wrong end of the binoculars. I saw some of my friends in the parking lot, and we went out to get some pizza. It took a while for the haze to shake from my mind, the pond and the sun and the black spots disappearing into the sky.

The Peace of Wild Things

This poem was very dear to me while I was in seminary.

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.

— Wendell Berry