Thursday, April 17, 2014

Living with a Wild God

Having spent the last eight months reading and discussing Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (see previous posts Sept., 2013-April, 2014) in my Unitarian Universalist Adult Religious Education group, it seemed serendipitous when I saw Barbara Ehrenreich interviewed about her new book.

An atheist writing about having had mystical experiences?  What would Dennett say?

Probably he would say what Ehrenreich herself said for years: temporary psychic break, “perceptual slippage,” sudden electrical or chemical power surge in the brain, etc., in any case, a perfectly rational and natural explanation.

Raised by atheist parents under the strong influence of her scientist father, Ehrenreich struggled most of her life with those rational and natural explanations that were never quite commensurate with the experiences themselves, experiences in which the natural boundaries of ordinary physical objects broke down and the world seemed to flame out in radiance.

She pursued a career in science herself, moving from chemistry to physics, finally earning a Ph.D. in Cellular Immunology, before becoming a free-lance writer more focused on the social science of feminism, economic inequality, war, militarism, and the politics of health care than chemistry, physics, or religion.

It was actually her research into the origins of human warfare that eventually intersected with her life-long quest to understand her seemingly “mystical” experiences.  The study of human evolution led her to, lo and behold, the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device or HADD (see previous post Jan., 2013), which Dennett cites to explain the rise of early religion in the form of animism and the human belief in other types of “imaginary agents.” 

For Dennett, this survival mechanism becomes overdeveloped, even as it makes the advancement of the species possible, resulting in supernatural belief and eventually the cultural evolution of organized religion.  By now, however, Ehrenreich’s faith in the certainties of empirical science has been undermined by the New Science of quantum mechanics and “non-linear dynamics.”  And she dares to ask the question:  If the HADD is reliable when it comes to detecting conventionally observable predators, why is it not reliable in detecting other, non-conventionally observable agents? In any case, how do we know that the latter type of agents is entirely imaginary?

In the end, she does not undergo any kind of religious conversion, but her “faith” in atheism has been shaken.  While, she says she does not believe in a god or gods or divinity or universal consciousness at work in the world, she keeps an open mind, neither drawing definite conclusions from her “mystical” experiences nor rejecting them as aberrations without any meaning.  There may just be more going on in the universe than our ordinary powers of human perception can take in, and “it may be seeking us out.”

Metaphysical musings aside, Ehrenreich’s book is also an autobiographical study of family dysfunction, a string of broken relationships, academic experimentation, political and social awakening, and self-exploration, all held together by the author’s lifelong quest for the truth about our inexplicable human “situation.”

She recounts tragedy, disappointment, misdirection, social idealism, political activism, success and failure with a cold, unsparing eye and a sharp wit.  There is no sentimentalism, no high-flown rhetoric, no glamorization, and no air-brushing of stark reality.  Ehrenreich’s unflinching rationalism, skepticism, and wry humor make her openness to the possibility of a “palpable Other or Others,” more credible than the espoused certainties of either true believers or confirmed non-believers.  She is not one to be seduced by easy answers or wishful thinking.   And that ethic applies to herself as well as to her “wild God.”

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Breaking the Spell VI

I found chapter 9 to be a fascinating discussion of why people are so attached to their religions as to foreclose any rational investigation of them.

Daniel Dennett cites three reasons:  1) love that is akin to irrational romance, 2) the postmodern academic restriction that only sympathizers are qualified to study religion, and 3) the “belief in belief” discussed earlier (see previous post Feb., 2014).

First, like lovers who eschew any rational questioning of their romantic attachments, many religious adherents appeal to experiences with the divine as beyond words, much less logic.  Just as critically analyzing a love relationship ruins the romance of it, so subjecting the religious experience to empirical study is completely antithetical to the experience itself, which transcends all mundane research.

I admit to a certain amount of sympathy with this line of thought, but when I consider how often irrational romantic attachment and religious enthusiasm can both lead to destructive, even violent, behavior, I welcome any study that helps us better understand these states of mind.  And I would think that romantic lovers and religious believers themselves would want to have some insight into the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy attachment.

Second, since the advent of postmodern identity politics, the whole idea of academic neutrality has been thoroughly interrogated and largely debunked.  A male can’t really study feminism because he is inherently biased in favor of his own gender.  The same applies to whites who attempt to study non-whites or privileged elites who study the poor.  Similarly, non-believers cannot escape their own bias when studying religion and are therefore less credible.  It takes a religious sympathizer who applies academic methods from “inside” the subject matter to arrive at the most reliable understanding.  Of course, women, non-whites, the less privileged, and religious sympathizers can’t escape their own biases either, but at least they speak from first-hand experience.  

Again, I see the value of this point of view, but as a white woman of professional class status I can also see the value of learning about my social situation from a non-white, non-professional male, who may be able to instruct me in how my attitudes and behavior affect him.  Similarly, as a Unitarian Universalist I think I can learn from an outside observer of my religious denomination.  If absolute objectivity is impossible, then surely the most complete understanding comes from both an inside and outside analysis.

Finally, just as Americans who criticize the United States are sometimes told, “America, love it or leave it!” so those who question religion, even from within, perhaps especially from within, are often made to feel like traitors.  The “belief in belief” is so powerful because, just as extreme patriots believe their country would be better if all its citizens displayed unquestioning loyalty, so religious adherents often believe that the world would be a better place if everyone held an unquestioning belief in God. 

This last deterrent to the rational study of religion raises the question of what religion is good for.  Earlier (see previous post Jan., 2014) Dennett had conceded that false belief can yield benefits, such as greater confidence, optimism, and even enhanced physical and mental health.  In this chapter he cites empirical studies to support such ameliorative effects of religion, but he claims the research results are mixed and withholds judgment until more thorough research can be done. 

This certainly seems fair.  At least he does not dismiss the possibility out of hand that religion may be good for people, regardless of its truth value.  Even if the possibility is confirmed, Dennett raises another question, namely what are the side effects of false belief, and do they outweigh the benefits?  More importantly, is religion the basis of morality?  And that question will be addressed in the next chapter.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Healing Emotional Wounds

Having heard the story before it was written, I anxiously awaited the publication of this 2013 book (http://healingemotionalwoundsbooks.com/) by my college classmate Nancy Welch, a pediatrician and Director of the Health Department in Chesapeake, Virginia, my home state.

We had met during orientation week at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, VA, in 1964.  She took the biology and chemistry academic track and took the English and humanities track, so we didn’t have a lot of classes together, but we always knew each other.  In 1968, she went off to Duke Medical School and I,  to the University of Virginia.  I can’t remember exactly how we reconnected in the 90s, but she always sent a Christmas card after that, and when I visited relatives in the Tidewater area of Virginia, we would get together for lunch.

That’s how I came to hear the story behind this book, not only of the events it recounts but also the story of its composition, the editing process, and, finally, the long-awaited publication.

It is hard for me to believe that I know someone who went through the experiences Nancy narrates in this book, the story of suddenly deciding in her fifties to adopt two children from the Ukraine and raise them as a single parent.

I had lived, as the military dependent of my career Army father, first in Taiwan, then in Okinawa; later I had lived in Germany for nine months as an adult, never having studied the language.  Even so, I was shocked by the conditions Nancy endured on her two trips to the Ukraine, not knowing a word of the language.  Those circumstances, it would turn out, were the least of the challenges she faced.

The two children she adopted (Alec and Alyona—not their real names) had both suffered early infancy and childhood trauma from neglect and abuse.   Alec was later diagnosed with Asperger’s and Alyona with Bipolar Disorder.  Into Nancy’s staid, professional, single life, they brought chaos, disruption, and violence, which were what they knew and how they coped with their own internal pain.

Alyona had already been adopted once by an Italian family and returned to the Ukrainian orphanage because she was so violent.  Nancy was determined, however, that she would succeed with these children.  It took years of patience; the support of church, neighbors, colleagues, friends; the help of therapists and counselors; professional care; sheer endurance; a stubborn refusal to give up; and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of love; but eventually Nancy, Alec, and Alyona became a family, bonded by love, trust, and a sense of pride for having overcome such tremendous odds. 

Were you to meet Alec and Alyona today, at age 21, Nancy says, you would not believe the events of the book were true.  They are thriving young adults ready to move on into their future lives, knowing that their mother will be there for them, no matter what.  It is hard to imagine how any obstacle they might face in the future could be insurmountable, given all they have been through.

When Nancy wrote the first draft of the book, she says, her editor tossed it back to her, saying, “You've told the story of the children, but you haven’t told your own story, the story of why you did this and how.  This is your story too.”

A private, professional person, Nancy had to learn how to open herself up to self-disclosure, allow herself to become vulnerable, and share her motivations; her doubts and fears, as well as her hopes and dreams; her failures, as well as her successes; and her own personal story of growing up in a loving, supportive family; building a successful career; and finally deciding, based on a personal conviction of being called by her faith; to become a mother.

As a literature and rhetoric scholar, I recognize the story of the children as a classic redemption narrative, following the pattern of sickness-recovery-health, and the story of the author as a kind of quest tale, as trials are suffered and obstacles overcome.  It could also be read as an identity quest as Nancy's character and self-concept are repeatedly tested and ultimately vindicated.

It might not even be too great a stretch as to view the narrative as a kind of salvation story, for Nancy, with help from her community and from health professionals to be sure, was the primary agent by which these two severely wounded children were saved from what could have surely been a very dark fate indeed.

But, for the most part, I read her book, as a personal friend, full of admiration for all Nancy had accomplished, not only with her children, but also with her task of turning her parenting experience into a readable, sometimes heart-pounding, sometimes heart-wrenching, always inspiring testimony to the power of determination, commitment, and ultimately, of love.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Breaking the Spell V

In chapters six and seven, Daniel Dennett goes on to speculate on how folk religion developed into organized religion and became institutionalized , or, as he says, “domesticated,” complete with “stewards,” such as shamans, imams, rabbis, clergy, and other leaders who use their power to ensure the perpetuation of belief, religious practices, organizational structures, and, of course, their own positions.  These stewards use fear, deception, the promise of rewards, and organizational hierarchy, as well as, appeals to a Higher Power to maintain their positions and sustain the religion.  Religions act like corporations, developing a “brand,” competing in the “marketplace,” and selling “goods” to their “customers.”  A “God you can talk to,” who offers eternal life, is the ultimate consumer good.

In chapter eight Dennett discusses how “the stewardship of religious ideas creates a powerful phenomenon, belief in belief,” which reinforces the need, even the duty, to believe.  This belief in belief serves to deter rational questioning and disinterested investigation.  One form that it takes is the redefinition of religious terms to make them ever more resistant to empirical doubt.  Thus “God” develops from a supernatural, anthropomorphic being to an abstract concept, a concept, like infinity, which seems compatible with math and science. 

To say that Dennett casts religion in a cynical light would not be too strong a statement.  Repeatedly, often sarcastically, he inveighs against religious insistence on belief in “fictions.” 

As stated in a previous post (Jan., 2014), I continually find myself wondering if Dennett is capable of suspending his disbelief long enough to appreciate the power and, yes, the truth, of imagination.

Can fiction ever tell the truth?  Can religious “fictions,” understood figuratively or symbolically, embody an important truth of human experience?  Just because a story or belief is literally false, does that mean it cannot be true in a larger sense?

In the 18th century there were a group of literary critics who argued that it was irrational and unrealistic for a play to move freely through time and space.  If a play takes three hours to perform, it should take place in three hours.  Similarly, since a play can only be performed in one place, the action on the stage should occur in one locale.  They also thought the action should be limited to one plot.  Otherwise, the spectators would not be able to suspend their disbelief enough to appreciate the performance.  Shakespeare, of course, broke all these rules of the “three unities,” as they were called.  And Samuel Johnson famously derided these critics, arguing that “the audience is always in its right mind” and can both believe and disbelieve at the same time.  That is, the audience is capable of knowing that a dramatic performance is both imaginary and “true” at the same time. 

Surely, even an atheist can appreciate the power and truth of religious myth.   Let’s take the story of Jesus Christ. 

Most Christians probably consider it to be a unique story, but actually it follows the familiar pattern of a hero/quest myth found in almost all, if not all, cultures: (1) mysterious or miraculous origin, (2) hiding, (3) initiation and divine signs or special powers, (4) preparation, meditation, withdrawal, refusal, (5) trial and quest, (6) death and the scapegoat, (7) descent to underworld, (8) resurrection and rebirth, (9) ascension, apotheosis, atonement.  Not all hero myths contain every element, but all roughly follow the same outline. (See David Leeming's *Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero,* 2nd ed.)

In the case of Jesus Christ, (1) he is born of a virgin, (2) he is born in a kind of “hidden” place, a manger, (3) he shows a maturity beyond his years during his conversation with religious teachers, (4) he spends  forty days and forty nights in the wilderness resisting the temptations of Satan and preparing for his “quest,” (5) he calls his disciples and undertakes his ministry performing miracles and spreading his message, (6) he is crucified and dies as a scapegoat for human sin, (7) he is buried in a tomb, (8) he rises from the dead, and (9) he ascends into heaven and is deified.

So, if we dismiss the story as factually and literally false, on what basis can we affirm its truth value?  For one thing, we can affirm that, regardless of time and place, some individuals seem to acquire special status.  These individuals perform outstanding acts or make noteworthy contributions to their communities.  In turn, their communities elevate them and attribute unusual qualities to them in recognition of their accomplishments.  Hero myths thus represent the enduring human truth that some individuals rise above the rest of us and that the rest of us confer upon them a distinctive standing.  Likewise, these myths embody the truth that, as humans, we seek role models, mentors, and heroes, who inspire and lead us toward our own higher life.

From a psychological perspective, we can also view these myths as representing the universal story of each individual’s life journey.  As we grow, we become conscious of ourselves as having a distinct identity.  We often think of ourselves as having a special calling or mission in life.  We may face threats to our survival; we look for signs of our “destiny” or our unique goals in life; we seek success in one form or another and we prepare ourselves to achieve it; we encounter obstacles and trials that must be overcome in our life’s “quest.”  Not all “heroes” are successful, and we may experience a failed quest, perhaps more than one.  Regardless of success or failure, we must face death, but we take comfort that we will live on after death, even if it is only in the form of the memories of the living or the legacy we leave behind.   Psychologically, our apotheosis is the mark we leave on the world.

Thus, the literally false myth embodies the symbolic truth of our sense of unique identity, our individual life journey, and our shared human experience of trial and quest, success or failure, suffering, death, and the hope, if not the conviction, that our life was significant.

Stripped of its religious meaning, the story of Jesus Christ is the same story that we each live, and that is perhaps one reason the story can resonate powerfully even for an atheist, assuming the atheist has not rejected imagination along with religion.

Monday, February 10, 2014

"Ain't I a Woman?"

Recently I saw a flurry of activity online regarding Sojourner Truth’s famous oration “Ain’t I a Woman?”  I thought it might be an anniversary of the speech, but when I finally had time to look it up I found it was delivered on May 29, 1851, at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.  Given that I had blogged on the famous speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. (see previous post August, 2013), it seemed appropriate to rank Sojourner Truth right up there with them. 

The problem is that her speech was extemporaneous.  Unable to read or write, Sojourner Truth dictated her memoirs to a friend, but left no written version of her speech.  One of her fellow abolitionists, Marius Robinson, who attended the convention with her, published his transcription of her address in the June 21, 1851, issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle, an abolitionist newspaper:

“I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can't take more than our pint'll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won't be so much trouble. I can't read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.”

Twelve years later, in 1863, Frances Dana Parker Gage, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, published a different version, which has become the accepted and famous one:

"Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter. I tink dat 'twixt de niggers of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin' 'bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all dis here talkin' 'bout?"
"Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear de lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen 'em mos' all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?"
"Den dey talks 'bout dis ting in de head; what dis dey call it?" ("Intellect," whispered someone near.) "Dat's it, honey. What's dat got to do wid womin's rights or nigger's rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yourn holds a quart, wouldn't ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?"
"Den dat little man in back dar, he say women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wan't a woman! Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin' to do wid Him."
"If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now dey is asking to do it, de men better let 'em 'Bleeged to ye for hearin' on me, and now ole Sojourner han't got nothin' more to say."

Besides the obvious differences in content, including the famous title “Ain’t I a Woman?” Gage gave Sojourner Truth a Southern “plantation dialect,” but the ex-slave was born in New York and grew up speaking Dutch until she was nine years old.  She may have had an accent, but it wouldn't have been of the style rendered by Gage. In addition, instead of 13 children, most of whom were sold into slavery, as Gage has it, it is documented elsewhere that Truth had five children, only one of whom was sold into slavery. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ain%27t_I_a_Woman%3F)

Given the lack of any written record and the 12-year time difference, it seems fair to conclude the famous version of the speech is as much Gage as Truth.  Some of the stylistic devices and content appear in both versions and might be taken to be most authentic, and Gage seems to have based her “liberties” on the original.  However, Gage has no doubt tailored the 1851 speech and her commentary on it to suit, not only her distant memory, but her own rhetorical purposes in 1863.

We can surmise that the original relied on the devices of repetition, colloquialism, and Biblical allusion; the claim to be as strong as a man; the plea that women are due their “pint” of rights compared to a man’s “quart”; and the  argument that Christ was born of women without any help from a man.  All these appear in both versions. 

It clearly makes the most sense to consider Sojourner Truth’s speech as part of the oral tradition, a kind of folk literature.  The author may not be “anonymous” in this case, but we have no way of knowing the exact form of the original.

Should Sojourner Truth be ranked with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., as an orator?  It is made more difficult to say without the ability to compare authentic texts, not to mention delivery.  However, her speech clearly made a memorable impression on its audience of the time.  How many other speeches from the abolitionist and women’s rights movements have entered into the cultural mainstream?  If the familiar version is greatly embroidered, it may be so in part because the original was so powerful.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Breaking the Spell IV


In Chapter Five, “Religion, the Early Days,” of Breaking the Spell (see previous posts Sept.-Nov. 2013), Daniel Dennett continues to speculate on how religion could have evolved from what he calls the “intentional stance” of early humans.  According to Dennett, our ancestors developed an instinctive attribution of agency to “anything complicated that moves” as a survival mechanism.  This instinct, he suggests, over developed into a “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device,” which in turn led to the population of “imaginary agents” (things, animals, and people with special powers).  This hypothesis can explain, not only superstitions, divination, shamanic healers, but also early religions such as animism, totemism, animal deities, etc. (see Nov. 2013 post).

Regardless of whether this is true, it’s a fascinating idea that does make a certain sense.  We also seem to have evolved as a species that is intent on understanding and controlling the world around us.   Not only do we seek explanations for phenomena we don’t understand, but we also seek explanations that are beneficial.

In the case of superstitions, if a repeated act on our part results in either a good or bad outcome more times than not, we may infer a cause and effect relationship.  We repeat the acts that have had a good outcome and avoid those that haven’t.  If our beneficent act doesn't work on occasion, it must be because we aren’t always doing it right or with the right attitude.  Psychological studies have shown that there is a kind of placebo effect to certain superstitions.  The athlete develops a ritualistic behavior before a game in order to ensure a good performance.  His or her belief in the efficacy of the act (or the “lucky charm”) actually does build confidence that contributes to enhanced performance. 

Similarly, as Dennett states, our belief in the healing power of some agent serves as a kind of “health insurance.”  Our belief in the efficacy of the agent actually contributes to our healing.

Or take prayer.  How many of us, in a moment of panic, will utter a prayer to the universe, even if we don’t necessarily believe in a supernatural being who hears us?  Yet it can have a beneficial comforting effect, or reassure us that in a situation over which we have no control, at least we’ve done something!  I know atheists and agnostics who practice prayer, because they benefit from listening to themselves, akin perhaps to keeping a diary or journal.

Another tactic is to use divination, coin tosses, a roll of the dice, astrology, Tarot cards, fortune telling, or some other fictive device to help us make decisions.  I’ve done this myself.  Can’t make up my mind? Toss a coin.  If I’m disappointed in the outcome, then I take the opposite course.  It’s a way to determine my gut feeling when my mind is muddled.

The anthropologist and scholar of myth Claude Levi-Strauss theorizes that mythology serves to resolve contradictions we encounter in human experience, or at least create the illusion of resolution. Confronted with phenomena we don’t understand we seek, not only an explanation, but an explanation that is psychologically and emotionally satisfying. 

In Dennett’s terms, having attributed agency to “something complicated that moves” how do we explain it when the agent ceases to move and appears to lose its agency, in other words, when it dies?  Where does its animating spirit go?  The contradiction between life and death is no doubt the most overwhelming of all and perhaps the one that gives mythology, religion, and the arts their most enduring power.

The universal cycle of myth from creation to apocalypse to resurrection reassures us of life continually reemerging from death, surely as Spring follows Winter.  Religion offers the promise of our survival in spiritual form.  And the arts externalize the deepest dimensions of our lived experience, enabling us to enjoy the illusion of resolution, or, in some cases, to resign ourselves to our fate.

Agnosticism requires us to live with ambiguities and uncertainties, whether we hold out hope for the existence of an unseen spiritual reality or not.  Atheism requires us to accept the absence of such a reality.  Those who hold these beliefs take refuge in their conviction that they are not deceiving themselves, though, for all they KNOW, they may be missing something.

But for many, perhaps most, of us, neither of those alternatives can provide that psychologically and emotionally satisfying explanation for the mysteries of the universe, and certainly not for that ultimate contradiction between life and death. 

Such is the enduring power and appeal of religion.

And even the non-believers may find themselves benefiting from the placebo effect of harmless superstitions, faith in medical treatments, the practice of prayer, decision-making tricks, or that suspension of disbelief, which brings them to real tears in the presence of a powerful fictive illusion.  And do we really want to break those spells?

One wonders if Daniel Dennett has ever experienced the actual life enhancement, restoration, healing effect, or transformation that follows from the fabrications, deceptions, and “imaginary agents” of great art, music, or literature.   And does he really want to break those spells?

Monday, December 30, 2013

"In Winter in the Woods Alone"


In Winter in the Woods Alone

 

In winter in the woods alone
Against the trees I go.
I mark a maple for my own
And lay the maple low.

At four o'clock I shoulder axe
And in the afterglow
I link a line of shadowy tracks
Across the tinted snow.

I see for Nature no defeat
In one tree's overthrow
Or for myself in my retreat
For yet another blow.

Robert Frost, from In the Clearing

 

 I’ve never been hit by a tornado (the closest passed by a few miles away) or flood or forest fire or other natural disaster.  I’ve weathered a few hurricanes and blizzards in my time and I’ve suffered through heat and humidity.  But blind luck and modern conveniences have spared me any serious harm from nature’s worst. 

What has taught me the most about the dark side of nature is no dramatic event, but rather the long, cold, dark, unrelenting Minnesota winter.  I’m now experiencing my thirty-fourth, having lived in Minnesota since 1979.  Some have been milder or shorter than others.  The last one was extremely long, as a series of heavy snowfalls reached into April.  This one started early with a heavy snowfall in early December followed by bone-chilling temperatures below zero that we usually don’t experience until January. 

I’ve learned how to dress for the cold and have never had frostbite, though, frankly, I find a damp cold closer to 32 degrees F above worse than a dry cold below zero.  Nonetheless, day after day of frigid sub-zero temperatures is a stark reminder of nature’s silent, potentially deadly, power.  It only takes twenty minutes for exposed skin to get frostbitten in such temperatures.  If you somehow get stranded outside or if your furnace fails, you are in a no-nonsense, life-threatening situation.  You learn, not only how to dress for the cold, but how to keep an emergency kit in your car if driving any distance,  get your furnace checked on an annual basis, and keep a supply of wood handy for the fireplace just in case.

Robert Frost’s New England winter poems seem mild by comparison.  No one would be “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” when it’s ten below! (See post December, 2010)  But if Frost captures the meditative calm of winter in that poem, he captures some of the human struggle with nature in this one, published in 1962. It hardly gives us a dramatic image such as “nature red in tooth and claw,” or Thomas Hobbes’ image of the state of nature as “nasty, brutish, and short,” or Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.”  Instead the image of a man in conflict with nature is rendered in rather simple, muted terms of moving “against the trees” to chop down a maple, presumably for winter warmth.

In this “one tree’s overthrow” Nature suffers “no defeat,” and in one man’s “retreat” there is likewise no defeat for the human species.  This encounter of “man against nature” ends in a draw.  Though nature throws its worst at us, it also provides the means by which we survive.  In Frost’s world there is a balanced reciprocity in the human “battle” with nature.  The same could be said of our Minnesota winters, assuming we use our wits and our best resources to contend with them.  Nature tests us, teaches us, and disciplines us, and as we rise to meet the challenge we grow stronger and, perhaps, wiser.

That last line of Frost’s poem troubles me though.  The human axeman retreats “For yet another blow.”  If it’s another balanced blow in proportion to Nature’s power, then it continues the cycle of human survival (and perhaps advancement?).  But if it’s a blow that upsets the equilibrium of Nature, if it’s a blow such as the excessive exploitation and destruction of the natural environment in recent decades that has resulted in an accelerated rate of climate change that threatens our very survival, then it’s an ominous blow.

Did Frost foresee the possibility of human excess upsetting the balance of nature to the degree that we see today?  I don’t know.  It’s certainly not apparent from this poem.  Only in retrospect does the thought arise that the human “battle” with Nature may be out of control. 

Which will prevail, human power or human wisdom?  If it is human power that prevails, then it may well backfire and lead us backwards to a more brutish life, if not extinction.  If it is human wisdom, then it may not be too late to restore some semblance of balance.  Science tells us that time is running short.

One thing we can be sure of.  Nature will have the last word.