The trees especially seem to bespeak a generosity of spirit. I suspect that the real moral thinkers end up, wherever they may start, in botany. We know nothing for certain, but we seem to see that the world turns upon growing, grows toward growing, and growing green and clean.
– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I think we can all learn from Annie Dillard. We might start by learning what she has from nature. She stares at it, sneaks up on it, darting from tree to tree, wide-eyed she takes off her shoes and socks, walks through the thick mud in search of the smallest creatures whose insane and intricate design suggest a greater universe full of wonder. Read a few sentences of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her Pulitzer Prize winner, and you will see.
There’s much talk about going green and saving the world and the end of mankind at his own hand. And as we enter yet another culture war over whether or not something (in this case global warming) really exists and something as simple as environmental stewardship becomes a politicized nightmare of over-complicated agendas (money grabbers and deniers) and apocalyptic rhetoric (will the world ever be destroyed again by a flood?) perhaps we need to go down to Tinker Creek and step around in the mud.
The world will end, not because of global warming and pollution, but because of boredom – the loss of wonder.
We are a people without wonder. In our planet, in the smallest things, in nature, and even more so in each other. G.K. Chesterton notes that we have sinned and grown old and have lost the eternal appetite of infancy. We can no longer see how shocking and exquisite the world really is. When Chesterton grew young again, he started to see the world through a lens of curiosity and surprise:
I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently…. I thought … that the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint.
Restraint is a natural outcome of wonder. And it’s clear, now, more than ever, that humanity needs to practice restraint. Not only for a green world, but for green souls – for life that “turns upon growing, grows toward growing, and growing green and clean.”
Restraint in our own lives is a seed, planted in dark, wet earth. It’s hidden from the eye and with time shoots from the mud, roots and stretches so that one day it provides fruit that lasts. We need to plant seeds of restraint into our lives. When we recognize that how we treat our neighbour and what we consume matters, as individuals and therefore, as nations, this is how we will save the world. Wonder at the miracle of nature – mankind and the smallest things – is the water that will grow the seed.
Go outside and find some trees. Don’t hug them, just spend some time to walk amongst them, dart between them, alone. Get close, number the ants walking along the bark. Sit in the grass. Be quiet and think.
Real moral thinkers, wherever they start, end up in botany.