This past weekend I was walking in a park near my home to watch a Cross Country Meet. It was strange, as it has been ever since I retired from coaching, to be out of the loop on a race day, so clearly feeling myself the outside observer rather than a participant on the inside of the experience.
But being an observer had its spiritual benefits. It was a cloudy, windless fall morning, one of those patches of autumn stillness that automatically induces meditation on things profound and full of feeling, but impossible to specify. I had brought my camera to give myself some official role to play for the team, but the colors and textures of the trees were so astonishing that I had to try to capture them.
That’s when I caught a glimpse of this fellow stretched out on a branch.
He seemed as captivated by the filtered gold and orange light I was. Who can say what a squirrel meditation might be like if we could, like the Once and Future King through Merlin’s magic, occupy that brain and body for a few seconds?
When I ran across Haskell’s piece in the times this week, I thought about that basking squirrel again, and about the believer’s–or in Haskell’s case, the agnostic’s–struggle to capture an affirmation of the transcendent character of being alive in words and concepts. (Check out his blog here.)
David Haskell spent a year watching what he came to call a “mandala:” a single square yard of Tennessee forest. And while much of the language he employs draws on spirituality, he reports that a close look at nature, including disturbing details like wasp larvae that eat the insides out of their host caterpillars, caused him to leave behind conventional ways of talking about transcendence and religious faith.
And yet, for me, he affirms–with a meaningful kind of “faith”–the value of working to find language for transcendent experience. He affirms the value of sharing out loud with one another our experience that life is “asking” for a deeper response from us that merely naming and noting things. Here are two excerpts from the piece in the NYT:
“Science, deepens our intimacy with the world. But there is a danger in an exclusively scientific way of thinking. The forest is turned into a diagram; animals become mere mechanisms; nature’s workings become clever graphs.”
His mediation on squirrels leads him to this insight:
“They are alive; they are our cousins. And they appear to enjoy the sun, a phenomenon that occurs nowhere in the curriculum of modern biology. Science is one story, true but not complete, and the world cannot be encompassed in one story.”
Finally, in an excerpt from his recent blog post on Rachel Carson, I see another confirmation of the “religious” dimension in his work. Rachel Carson was asked what she hoped her legacy would be. Haskell reports that she hoped her work would help ensure that children would retain “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
I spent the first part of my life compelled by the story of transcendence. For the last 15 years or so I’ve been trying to absorb the tiniest fraction of the story science tells of how matter and life have come to be in the staggeringly long progression of cosmic time. There have been, and no doubt will continue to be, dark days when the two stories are difficult to hold together in one heart and mind. But on that autumn morning in the park, I felt open and humble before the immensity of both. Maybe that is something of what it is like to be a squirrel.