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Nature and Our Meddling Intellect

Nature and Our Meddling Intellect

Adapted from Guidebook for a Son by Kelly Walker


“Our meddling intellect misshapes the beauteous forms of things…We murder to dissect.” William Wordsworth


“At best, we are taught to ‘appreciate nature’ as though it were merely a scenic attraction and not the source of life itself.” Tom Brown, Jr. Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking


Nature runs in intricate, age-old cycles. The soil gives to the plants; plants return their nutrients to the soil. Rain and snow fall in the mountains, flow to the sea, and are returned by the clouds. Humanity has stepped into this complex picture, often ignorant of or disregarding the contributions we owe nature as we take our place in it.

We replace the wisdom of nature with the cleverness of man.

We breathe it, it feeds us, and we are literally made up of it; and yet we view it as something outside of ourselves. Even our words imply a sense of separateness. “Environment” is something around us, not something we are a part of. It seems as if our commercial and hyper-scientific world thinks it can eat up the natural world and spit out something better, as if the synthetic and toxic can replace the organic and sweet. As Wendell Berry put it, we replace the wisdom of nature with the cleverness of man.

But we’re not so clever as we think we are, and in taking shortcuts to solve what we perceive as problems nature puts in the way of “progress,” we have created unnatural and virtually irreversible consequences. Often what have been seen as problems were things that were blocking our misguided and greedy notions of “progress” and manifest destiny, quietly counseling patience and wisdom. We should, instead, have slowed down and asked what kind of progress would have been truly compatible with the lands we were moving into. Sometimes so-called problems are simply mysteries of nature for which nature also holds the answers.

But we, in our arrogance, have thought so often that we can ignore nature and apply our own shortcut answers and make a better, “manageable” world. Beauty is too wild to be managed, too fragile to be carelessly used; it is to be cherished and protected.

We were meant to be stewards of the world, to beautify it and take care of it so that all may enjoy it. The Christian view of nature is that it is a creation of God expressing His character. We can learn about the Creator by experiencing the creation. The first job for the first humans, according to Genesis, was to “dress and keep” the Garden.

So how, you might ask, have Christian nations become so separated from the Creation? Why do most people live in large cities where they cannot see the wonders of the night sky? Why are our once wild rivers dammed up until they are no longer rivers, but rather a series of impotent ponds strung together like beads? Why is our air polluted and our water toxic? Why is it that most people have no connection with the soil and with growing plants, but instead buy all their food encased in plastic? Why do we have huge industrial “farms” that inject synthetic fertilizers into the soil until it is a nearly lifeless drug addict, while animal manures and other organic matters that could bring life to the soil in nature’s great organic cycle are considered problem waste? Why are we killing our oceans and the life in it that we so depend on?

We must stop thinking that all we have to do is wait for science to find a better cure.

How have we gone so wrong? The problems we see today in humanity’s relationship with nature are not just management problems. We must stop thinking that all we have to do is wait for science to find a better cure. These problems come from a lack of knowledge and wisdom to learn in humility from the Creation, and they stem from spiritual problems such as greed, selfishness and a lack of reverence. We have profaned the holy in our ignorance and impatience. We are beginning to pay for our sins and the sins of our fathers.

How sad it is that most people live on a planet they hardly even know, separated from what makes it special and divine. Our home is contaminated by pollution of land, air and water. We take the natural forms of things and change them at the molecular level, removing them completely from natural cycles, creating everlasting monuments to human folly and greed. Like disgruntled former employees, we have ransacked our job site. The contamination and destruction of our outer environment begins in our inner environment; they are physical manifestations of spiritual pollution. Garbage in, garbage out.

It is easy to get disillusioned and feel a sense of loss when we find that things are not as they should be. There are precious few “pristine” areas left in the world. Environmental problems are huge and constantly in our view—around us, on television, on the lips of teachers and politicians. Seldom do we hear good news about nature. It all saps the innocent joy that comes so naturally to a child. Unfortunately, the constant bad news we are subjected to builds in us a sense of anxiety. As our eyes are opened to reality, the windows of our souls can be darkened. And yet, not all hope is lost.

“A single tree? Well, life is a miracle and therefore infinitely of interest everywhere,” writes author, Wendell Berry. “We have perhaps sufficient testimony, from artists and scientists both, that if we watch, refine our intelligence and our attention, curb our greed and our pride, work with care, have faith, a single tree might be enough.”

I am not blind to the problems out there, and I do my part to combat them, but I will not let them own my soul, and neither must you. The saying goes, “think globally, act locally.” Necessary, yes, but perhaps it is even more powerful to say, “learn locally, act locally.” It is vitally important that you know the soils, plants and animals of your home area and then act on your knowledge for good. Do not give in to despair.

We are not ourselves when we are separated from the soil.

Learn about the part of the Garden where you tread, from the ground up. The soil beneath your feet is alive. Really. There are more creatures living in the tiny bit of dirt under your fingernails than all of the living things you can see in your town. If every person on the earth were shrunken down to the size of a soil microbe (such as various bacteria), all seven billion or so would be able to live in a teaspoon of garden soil.

Soil is, in fact, the great cleanser. The astounding variety of organisms living in the soil—and we are discovering “new” ones all the time—turn rank manure into sweet-smelling humus, feed dead bodies to flowers and can even devour diseases, pests, oil, gasoline and several pesticides in time. Soil is our start, our finish and our re-birth as our worn-out bodies are recycled and shared so that others may live. But most of us insist upon taking it with us, even if that “it” is a biodegradable speck of human flesh borrowed from the earth to house our spirits. (Some seven billion of us fit on a tiny bit of dirt and rock floating in the vastness of space. How we must look like microbes from a cosmic perspective!)

We spend our lives separated by layers of plastic, concrete and rubber from the womb of our existence; we even seal ourselves off from it in death. Our “eternal rest” is sold to us in the form of non-degrading coffins, with formaldehyde in our dead veins to ward off any evil microbes that might turn our bodies to dirt, that dirty stuff. We take from her all our lives but, even in death, we’re not willing to give back to our Mother. At least we know we can look forward to a well-preserved eternity in Elysian Fields of plastic grass.

Learn about the soil, as it is the cradle of life. Treasure it and get your hands into it every chance you get like a chest full of gold coins. Respect it as a living thing and take care of it, and it will take care of you.

There is a reason why wars have been fought over soil, why generations of people before our factory-farming society had intimate love of the land. We are not ourselves when we are separated from the soil.

Take your shoes off. You walk on holy ground.

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