Preview of my Kalamazoo paper


Next Thursday, I’ll be presenting at the International Medieval Congress on “Creation and Conversion in Northern Europe.”  The general idea is that creation featured heavily in both medieval missionary preaching and in the conception of what those missionaries were accomplishing.  The subject was first suggested to me by a reading of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.  Creation, God as Creator, nature miracles, they cropped up all over the place, particularly in connection with missionary work, and I began to wonder why.

It wasn’t the easiest subject to study, far harder than I assumed when I first proposed the paper.  Turns out, medieval authors weren’t particularly interested in laying out an explicit theology of conversion, nor were they forthcoming about what missionaries actually said to their audiences.  Nevertheless, I believe I’ve found some interesting stuff, with a lot of potential for further investigation, though I’m not sure how interested I am in pursuing that potential going forward.  The general idea of the various permutations of conceptions of creation in the Middle Ages (and earlier? later?), absolutely, but perhaps not in the realm of the missionary project.

My contention is that there is a coherent theological outlook that lay behind Carolingian/Anglo-Saxon (perhaps also the Irish) missionary work, one deeply linked to an understanding of creation and described well by Romano Guardini here:

These churches in their turn carried forward the blessed work, sanctifying space itself by spreading cemeteries, chapels and wayside crosses over the land.  The very land became hallowed by the presence of the Church at large.  Each church building itself through the supernatural rite of consecration symbolized and enfolded the whole of Creation.  Every part of a church building from the direction of its main axis to its most minute appointments was invested with a divine meaning which fused the cosmic picture of the world with the course of sacred history into a symbolic whole.

Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 20

I argue that what Guardini describes in the landscape was consciously occurring everywhere, from within the minds of monks in their cells to amidst the pagans of the Saxon wilderness.

That’s the basic idea, come get some specifics next Thursday at 10am in Kalamazoo.


A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is a classic of environmental literature and is quite good, with beautiful sketches of Leopold’s life and work on a sand farm in Wisconsin and his travels through Mexico, Canada, and the American west.  These sketches alone would make the book well-worth reading, but his underlying philosophy is also very solid, particularly in his recognition that conservation cannot be grounded in economic motives or even motivated by taking pleasure in the wilderness.  Rather, conservation must be founded on an ethics of the land, one in which contributing to the integrity and (importantly) beauty1 of what he calls the “biotic community” (essentially all the organisms living in a given habitat) is morally good and harming this community morally wrong.  So far, excellent and true.  Yet, the actual grounding of this ethic was lacking, resting largely on a gesture towards the beauty described in the opening sections of the book and a vague mention of Darwin.  This weakness stems, I think, from my one real quibble with the book.

The quibble is that Leopold tends to cast the mindset of his present (i.e. the late 1940s) as a perennial one, when in fact it is quite modern.  As a consequence, he’s not able to fully diagnose the severity of the problem nor is he able to draw on the wisdom of the past, a fault that ultimately undermines his arguments and cripples his ability to construct a truly robust land ethic.

For example, he writes about mourning the passenger pigeon, a bird once so numerous that its flocks blotted out the sun for miles, now vanished:

To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons

Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 112

Certainly poetic, but to cast loving what was as a newly emergent phenomenon is rather silly.

how terrible it will be,
when all the wealth of this world
lies waste,
as now in various places
throughout this middle-earth
walls stand,
blown by the wind,
covered with frost,
storm-swept the buildings.
The halls decay,
their lords lie
deprived of joy,
the whole troop has fallen,
the proud ones, by the wall.
War took off some,
carried them on their way,
one, the bird took off
across the deep sea,
one, the gray wolf
shared one with death,
one, the dreary-faced
man buried
in a grave.
And so He destroyed this city,
He, the Creator of Men,
until deprived of the noise
of the citizens,
the ancient work of giants
stood empty.

He who thought wisely
on this foundation,
and pondered deeply
on this dark life,
wise in spirit,
remembered often from afar
many conflicts,
and spoke these words:

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been!

The Wanderer

Of course, you might object, the anonymous Anglo-Saxon wanderer is not mourning for nature, but for a place, a time, and a people.2 But we’ve mourned for nature too:

I never had noticed it until
‘Twas gone, – the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill

It was not more than a hedge overgrown.
One meadow’s breadth away
I passed it day by day.
Now the soil is bare as bone,

And black betwixt two meadows green,
Though fresh-cut fag got ends
Of hazel made some amends
With a gleam as if flowers they had been.

Strange it could have hidden so near!
And now I see as I look
That the small winding brook,
A tributary’s tributary, rises there.

First Known When Lost, Edward Thomas

Of course, Thomas wrote only a few decades before Leopold, but nevertheless mourning for nature’s loss has a long history (I just don’t have any beautiful poems demonstrating the point that come readily to mind).  Medieval authors were well aware that it is not simply man who was cursed in the fall, but through him the world as well, and they grieved mightily for this loss, strove with all their might to restore it (this restoration is, after all, what salvation consists of).   They knew that we have always loved what we once had.  This is the love that leaves us restless, until we rest in Him.

Leopold recognizes the destructive stupidity of a lack or denial of this love, but misses that it is not the love that is “new under the sun,” but the pervasiveness of its absence. Certainly there were always those who did not cherish what was, but we used to not let them blather on about it so loudly in public.  We did not actively work to deaden the awareness that something has been, is being, lost.  In missing the novelty of what he diagnoses, he misses out on the full extent of its destructiveness.  Man could hardly have thrived without a love of what was, could hardly have called himself man at all, and indeed we’re struggling to do these things now.

Leopold  wants to transform man from a conqueror and ruler of nature, an absolute monarch despotically ruling the world, to a member of a community.  That sounds well and good, but here again we see that his mistaking of a current attitude for a perennial one has led him into error.  The mistake here is a prototypically modern understanding of authority, one which casts all exercise of authority as essentially tyrannical domination.3 But rule does not entail absolute, untrammeled power. Dominion over nature does not necessitate domination. Indeed, there is no such thing as earthly authority without obligation. The ruler is constrained, often more so, than the ruled. He rules insofar as he serves.

This truth is demonstrated by considering how Leopold’s solution undermines itself.  For what ethical obligation would man have to creation as a mere member of the biotic community?  As he notes, pigeons have no love of what was, bison do not worry about the environmental impact their grazing has on the field mice.  No, it is only because we are not mere community members that we must care for our fellow creatures.  It is because we are meant to rule that we are obligated to rule well.  Thus, the grounding of a land ethic, an ethic that is of vital importance, cannot be in our refusing the crown but only in our acceptance of it, and a realization that treating the crown as if it entitles us to rule like Louis XVI only leads to the guillotine.4

1. Remind me to delve into this deeper when I write about John Muir. Alternatively, remind me to write a book about environmental theology predicated on the idea that the aesthetic recognition of nature’s beauty is a salvific instance.
2. How distinguishable these were/are from nature is a question we’ll set to the side for the time being
3. In the background lurks the flawed anthropology of the modern era, that understands humans as, at their core, fully autonomous individuals defined above all by their wills. Any restriction on that will, therefore, is a suppression of the essential nature of a given individual and must, of necessity, be tyrannical. Thus, the end state of politics, ethics, etc. is a perfect freedom of the will. The consequences of this anthropology are far too far-reaching to delve into deeply here.  Leopold’s error is simply one manifestation.
4. There is a lesson in both Louis’s pretensions to absolutism and his mushy concessions to the people, each a misconceived half-measure.

Psalm 19, 18 in the Vulgate

The calm dawn gave no promise of anything uncommon…The sunrise we did not see at all, for we were beneath the shadow of the fjord cliffs; but in the midst of our studies, while the Indians were getting ready to sail, we were startled by the sudden appearance of a red light burning with a strange, unearthly splendor on the topmost peak of the Fairweather Mountains.  Instead of vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared, it spread and spread until the whole range down to the level of the glaciers was filled with the celestial fire.   In color it was at first a vivid crimson, with a thick, furred appearance, as fine as the alpenglow, yet indescribably rich…Beneath the frosty shadows of the fjord we stood hushed and awe stricken, gazing at the holy vision; and had we seen the heavens opened and God mad manifest, our attention could not have been more tremendously strained.
When the highest peak began to burn, it did not seem to be steeped in sunshine  however glorious  but rather as if it had been thrust into the body of the sun itself.  Then the supernal fire slowly descended…until all the mighty host stood transfigured, hushed and thoughtful  as if awaiting the coming of the Lord.  The white, rayless light of morning, seen when I was alone amid the peaks of the California Sierra, had always seemed to me the most telling of all the terrestrial manifestations of God.  But here the mountains themselves were made divine and declared his glory in terms still more impressive.  How long we gazed I never knew.  The glorious vision passed away in a gradual, fading change….We turned and sailed away, joining the outgoing icebergs, while “Gloria in excelsis” still seemed to be sounding over all the white landscape, and our burning hearts were ready for any fate, feeling that, whatever the future might have in store, the treasures we had gained this glorious morning would enrich our lives forever.
John Muir, The Spiritual Writings, 102-3, TA 152-4

Thomas Browne

I was first introduced to Thomas Browne in one of my favorite books, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.  How could I not be intrigued by Sebald’s distillation of Browne’s thought?

What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the shorthand and contracted forms of transient Nature, which alone are a reflection of eternity.

W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, 19

And, indeed, Browne is an intriguing thinker, an eclectic sort of man, with an appreciation of nature near and dear to my own:

Thus there are two bookes from whence I collect my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of his servant Nature, that universall and publik Manuscript, that lies expans’d unto the eyes of all; those that never saw him in the one, have discovered him in the other: This was the Scripture and Theology of the Heathens the naturall motion of the Sun made them more admire him, than its supernaturall station did the Children of Israel the ordinary effects of nature wrought more admiration in them, than in the other all his miracles; surely the Heathens knew better how to joyne and reade these mysticall letters, than wee Christians, who cast a more carelesse eye on these common Hieroglyphicks and disdain to suck Divinity from the flowers of nature.

Thomas Browne, Religio Medici19

Idiosyncratic spelling original.  Incidentally, Browne apparently invented the words electricity, medical, pathology, hallucination, and literary.  The list itself is an apt description of his works. More of Browne on nature:

I hold there is a general beauty in all the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind of species of creature whatsoever: I Cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare or an Elephant, ugly; they being crated in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes and having past with approbation that generall visitation of God, who saw that all that he had made was good, that is, conformable to his will, which abhors deformity, and is the rule of order and beauty. There is therefore no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving those irregular parts, as they become sometimes more remarkable than the principall Fabrick. To speake yet more narrowly, there was never anything ugly, or mis-shapen, but the Chaos; wherein not withstanding to speake strictly, there was no deformity, because no forme nor was it yet impregnate by the voyce of God: Now nature is not at variance with art, nor art with nature; they being both the servants of his providence; Art is the perfection of Nature; Were the world now as it was the sixt day, there were yet a Chaos: Nature hath made one world, and Art another. In briefe all things are artificall for Nature is the Art of God.

Religio Medici, 20

In Urne Buriall, perhaps a better showcase of his eclectic sensibilities than Religio Medici, he offers insight into the eternal struggle of the historian, enthralled by the fragments of the past, fighting a desperate and losing battle against the mists of forgetfulness:

Large are the treasures of oblivion, and heapes of things in a state next to nothing almost numberlesse  much more is buried in silence than is recorded, and the largest volumes are butt epitomes of what hath been.  The account of time beganne with night, and darnesse still attendeth it.  Some things never come to light; many have been delivered; butt more hath been swallowed in obscurity & the caverns of oblivion.

Browne, Urne Buriall, 141

The urns of the title were Roman funerary urns found in a field in England.  Browne marveled at how such fragile artifacts could be preserved yet undiscovered only a few feet below the surface, trod upon by who knows how many in the long centuries between their burial and discovery.  This discovery leads him to some truly wonderful prose and a near-bewildering survey of ancient funerary customs.  It culminates:

But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equall lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.
Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us.

Browne, Urne Buriall, 137

I like Browne, I like the way his mind works, and I’m keen to explore further, particularly in The Garden of Cyrus, his companion piece to Urne Buriall, which (I’m told) is a discourse on the interaction of art and nature hinted at in the above quoted passage from Religio Medici.  Fun stuff.

More on Nature on the Fringes

In the last post, we noted that, at the edges of things, the order of nature breaks down.  Exhausted by the work of creation, she begins to tire of her labor and the whole tapestry begins to fray.  It resembles the sea, unfathomable and vast, mysterious and dangerous.

There’s another factor on this particular edge, Ireland, which also disrupts the order of things.  Its roots lie in the deep connection between the natural and social orders.  At their heart the two are inseparable, both facets of the larger harmony of Creation as it extends through space and time.  To skip a good bit of exposition on the character of creation in medieval thought, we might get an idea of the general understanding by picturing an infinite and beautifully arranged series of imperfect mirrors, all reflecting a light so bright that it appears as darkness beyond black (cf. fuligin).  The natural and social orders are both a subset of these mirrors, simultaneously interlinking with and reflecting each other, giving us glimpses, tantalizing fragments, of the primal order which underlies them both.

The immediate consequence of this in Gerald of Wales is that the social structure of the bounds of the world mirrors the natural, less refined, unpredictable, raw and not fully formed.  Thus, the barbarism of the Irish,

They are a wild and inhospitable people.  They live on beasts only, and live like beasts.  They have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living (101).

He tells us with astonishment of sailors venturing near the extreme edge of the island encountering truly barbarous folk, men wearing only hides who had never seen bread or cheese, even taking some home to show their people as a wonder, who knew nothing of Christ (110-112).  Such men could only exist on the outskirts, beyond the pale of civilization (to say nothing of the customs which Gerald describes on the preceding page, kings confirmed in their dominion by intercourse with a mare).  On the fringes of the edge, where nature herself has grown tired, so to do the structures of man fail to take root.

Thus also, the forthcoming disruption of the Norman Invasion, which precipitated Gerald’s visit to the island and the writing of his account, is presaged by the warping of nature.  A frog, a poisonous beast which ought to have died upon contact with Ireland’s soil due to the island’s natural enmity towards the venomous is found alive after many days,

While the English, and more so the Irish, regarded it with great wonder, Duvenaldus, the king of Ossory, who happened to be there at the time, with a great shaking of his head and great sorrow in his heart at last said: ‘That reptile brings very bad news to Ireland.’ (52)

So too does the appearance of a fish “of unusual size and quality” possessing (among other wonderful things) three gold teeth prefigure the imminent conquest of the country.  Wales, Gerald tells us in his description of traveling through that country, experienced similar portents on the eve of their subjugation by the English.  Beware unusual fish.

Perhaps it is the fraying of nature and the corresponding simplicity of the political order which allows for an immediacy to the Irish encounter with nature, an immediacy which leaves the men closer to beasts, but which gives fuel to the fire of monastic devotion that even Gerald can’t help but praise.  This immediacy, the close connection to nature on the edges, provides the locus for the characteristically Irish devotion of exile and solitude which seeks the boundaries, places which lay bare the energies of nature in which we might glimpse flashes of her Creator and Guide.

Indeed, the predominance of miracles in Gerald’s account are nature miracles, animals behaving strangely, mysterious wells, holy hedges.  Like nature, there is a dangerous inscrutability to the saints of Ireland.  They are a vindictive bunch, inclined towards cycles of revenge and anger, capable of great holiness, but with danger lurking just under the surface (91).  In them we see a mirror of the order of the world in which they live-nature wild, unfathomable, and raw; society barbarous, violent, and unformed-for the sacred is a mirror too.

The Alexandreis, Book X

At the close of Book IX, Alexander has conquered the world, and sets his sites on more distant pastures:
The boundary of the world lies near at hand.
Not to provoke the ill will of the gods,
the world’s too narrow, and the breadth of the earth
is insufficient for its only lord.
Bu when I’ve passed beyond this conquered universe,
I’ll undertake to open to my followers
another world.  The strong man finds no goal
insuperable.  I hasten now to penetrate
the shores of the Antipodes, and view
the other Nature. Though you begrudge your arms,
I cannot fail in duty to myself.
I’ll think the entire world my theater,
and move my troops throughout its length, ennobling
ignoble lands and peoples by my wars.
While I stand as your duke, your feel will trample
lands hidden from all races by great Nature.
This troubles Nature, who decides she must put a stop to the Macedonian before he shatters the rightful order of things even more:
That same while, Nature with a mindful grief
recalled how both the world and she herself
had suffered insult from the prince, who’d called
the earth too narrow and prepared armed throngs
to lay open her secret parts.  Distressed,
her noble white hair tangled, she left off
her latest works, the figures she’d begun
to form of Matter, and in rage she ceased
instilling souls into diverse limbs.  Veiled
in cloudy mantle, toward the Styx she turned,
and to the hidden kingdoms of the second world.
The elements gave quarter where she trod
and rose to meet their Shaper. Newly calmed,
the air worshiped the advent of the goddess.
In vernal pleasure Earth’s flowers burst forth,
the sea reined in the waves more than its wont,
and now the tumid billows held their silence.
All things bestowed on Nature worth honor,
praying that what she’d sown she’d multiply,
and grant increase unto the seeds of things,
infusing warmth and moisture.  Paying thanks
to her creatures, she bade them keep her laws
and in nothing exceed the bounds she’d set.
So, Nature goes to Hell (!) and enlists Leviathan, “the father of all crimes and their avenger”, by threatening him with the possibility of Alexander laying siege to Paradise itself, “What praise is yours, serpent, what glory, that you cast the first man out, if such a garden should yield its honors up to Alexander?” (X.116-8) Can Hell be far behind?
Everything about this is fascinating.  The way Nature is portrayed – veiled, shaping matter, all created things growing calm at her advent – especially so (there’s an interesting parallel between creation’s reaction to Nature and the nations of the world’s reactions to Alexander later in the book).
Plus, I love the descriptions of Hell:
Without delay, he roused the shadowy town
and called a council, bellowing across
the ancient plain of evils, which there lay
hardened by ice, and ravaged by the snows,
unconquered by the sun or gentle breeze.
Anyway, as you might expect, the Devil is all about killing Alexander and sets Treachery to the task.  Stirred by treachery, Antipater does the actual killing and the rest is, literally, history.
There’s one more passage I found especially poignant.  Alexander knows that when he conquers the whole world he will die, yet he refuses to stop, unquenchable is his desire for glory and conquest:
No otherwise, the tiger sees far off
a herd of horses, and a bitter thirst
burns in he flashing jaws; then is she lashed
by hunger’s goad to drink in living blood,
and savagely devours the shredded limbs;
but if, perchance, upon a hidden path
the tracking hunter’s spear pierces her flank,
she wails, he blood poured out, and dies upon
the grass, still thirsting, still unslaked with gore.
What better way to describe the end of Alexander?


Man Eaters of Kumaon

Jim Corbett’s Man Eaters of Kumaon is a remarkable sort of book.  It’s written in a matter-of-fact style that seems almost impossibly authentic.  Corbett was a hunter, later conservationist, specializing in man-eaters, including the Champawat Tiger which killed over 400 people before Corbett brought it down (imagine! four hundred, the terror that must have inspired).  He died a decade before I was born, but nonetheless I can’t help but feel like I know the man.  His personality — stout, indomitable, utterly British — shines through the text.  He doesn’t shy away from recounting his fears, the hardships of the hunt, but it’s with an air of danger long past, a detachment only available to those who have stood in the face of death with great fortitude (another wonderful instance of this sort of tone can be found in Junger’s Storm of Steel).  It’s an excellent book, well worth a read, but what I’m most interested in is a single passage which Corbett nonchalantly lets drop in the first chapter.  Corbett had been fruitlessly pursuing the Champawat tiger during the day and stopped to rest at a bungalow constructed in the jungle.  His native guide refuses to stay the night, choosing instead to walk home alone through the jungle (which in addition to all the regular nasty things that are found in the jungle, definitely contains a tiger which has killed more than 400 people).  Corbett tells us:

I have a tale of that bungalow but I will not tell here, for this is a book of jungle stories, and tales ‘beyond the laws of nature’ do not consort well with such stories. (14)

How remarkable!  The utter sobriety of Corbett’s writing makes this comment so impossibly fascinating that I can barely stand it.  As far as I know, he does not explain this incident in any of his other books, although his first book of which very few were printed does contain the chapter (at least according to wikipedia, the font of all knowledge): “The Terror that Walks by Night”, but I have no idea if this recounts the story of that night and there seems to be no way to get my hands on it.  Thus, it remains a mystery, possibly an intractable one, but how can anyone’s imagination not be stirred by the image of Corbett, alone in the jungle heart, watching night creep round the walls?