Epilogue: Wonder (Touching Snakes and Other Wildness)
“. . .[Scientific passion]. . .is summed up in that childlike, but infinitely complex word, wonder. . . Wonder. . .goes through various stages, evolving both with age and with knowledge, but retaining an irreducible fire and spontaneity.”
~Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder
I started writing a little book, calling it “Divorcing the Divine: The Good and the Great Beyond God.” Catchy title. I thought of weaving “lessons” from my experiences of failed marriage into some understanding of failed faith. I only got as far as comparing “irreconcilable differences” and emotional stress before realizing this endeavor was not going to be much fun and even less enlightening, at least at this point in time.
One analogy from this “failed book” lingered because it has to do with fingers and touch and wildness. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. But it is the story of my enjoyment touching snakes, and bees and newts and an occasion spider.
I currently live near the San Francisco Bay which I can see a sliver of across the pastureland, passed the eucalyptus and ponds beyond. The ponds (I like to call them “lakes”) are part of the sanitary district’s water treatment plant that I often refer to as “the sewer factory” which of course it is not. When I walk on the gravelly and grassy pathways around these ponds and saunter further along the muddy rivulets and salty marshlands I frequently see a colorful variety of birds. Egrets, ducks, clapper rails, cormorants and other residents can be seen alongside bands of Canada geese and huge white pelicans gliding over majestic, solitary Great Blue herons. And remember, these are “sanitary ponds” with “reclaimed water.” Now and then we even spy a playful pair of river otters. It all seems quite wild, in a suburban kind of way. Along these walks, especially on the levees crisscrossing the marshlands, I often spot a rippled brown stick across the path ahead that causes me to slow and proceed on full alert. More often than not this “stick” transforms into a snake. Though we have rattlesnakes in the area, this particular micro-climate eco-system generates large numbers of mice and duck eggs and gophers, hence a most ideal habitat for the gopher snake. While these slithering, scaly creatures can get fairly large, most are only a few feet long, a couple of inches around and harmless to anyone who isn’t tiny, furry, four-legged or on the half-shell.
What I like to do, when I haven’t frightened the snake away, is to stop, speak softly (out of habit) and slowly bend down for a closer look. I’m fascinated by the intensity of these silent predators, fully aware that I’m no doubt interrupting their shopping-hunt for food. If I’m close enough, and the creature seems distracted, I lean down and softly, gently touch. Only once has one turned toward me and (I’m sure I heard this) hissed. The best moments are when the snake hasn’t rushed off and I can slowly stand erect and step away to continue on. Then I can at least imagine that I haven’t caused much disturbance or reinforced his/her fearful, defensive instinct against yet another threatening human.
I also am aware in these times that this animal is indeed threatened and may not be alive to be seen another day, on another walk. Parts of these levee trails are regularly mowed or weed-whacked and a fairly steady stream of walkers (too many with canines, in my opinion) as well as runners and bikers come along. It’s possible that most gopher snakes end up as food for the very creatures who are their main competitors in the hunt for food: the raptors. This is prime hawk country, and owls nest in these parts too. So it’s just as likely I won’t see any one particular snake again unless it can avoid all the dangers of being a fairly defenseless ground-dweller.
When it comes to trail encounters with newts and bees and slugs and just about anything that won’t fang my finger, I’m a toucher, I sense there is a need to make contact, if only for a brushing moment. Yes, I understand that the oils and bacterias on the human skin can cause harm to some creatures sometimes. I’m aware and try to be careful. I acknowledge, this is my need, my curiosity at play here, and maybe it’s more play than I admit, but I don’t think so. I think it is the contact and even a fleeting sense of “relation” and maybe “inter-dependence.” A vestige of my “spirituality”? Exactly. But this is so much better, and fulfilling and, I would say without hesitation, more wise and respectful and present, with so much more potential for learning just about anything and everything I have to learn. That’s saying a lot, I know. I know.
And, so, you may be thinking, what’s all this have to do with anything resembling “spirituality” and wonder and such? If you have to ask.
Identifying and, I guess in some sense calling for, a conclusion to this thing we’ve always referred to as “Spirituality,” is asking for a divorce because there is no relationship remaining. There is no life left, no health, no energy, no delight. There is no real connection, no electric touch, no commitment, no will to love and learn and journey on together. Honesty calls for an admission: the wonder is gone.
The same for faith and god and religion and spirituality and supernatural hokum and poke-us. The otherworldly realm of “spirituality” offers, when you bend right down and touch it, nothing– no wonder, no joy, no hope, no actual touch at all. For many of us, it leaves one disappointed, feeling jilted, depressed. Then, the good part. Liberation to move on and live on.
Recovering wonder can be like recovering sanity and stability after the trauma of addiction or a failure or loss of any kind.
In my first Philosophy text in college, The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant introduced us to the “love of wisdom” by introducing us to the troubling dichotomies of our time, badly in need of that wisdom. The radical faults and fractures and divorces between people and worldviews were due in part to the observation that, “Human knowledge [has] become too great for the human mind.” Even as he writes in the mid-twentieth century, Durant reasons we’re overloaded (sound familiar?) and splintering into fields of specialization. He says, “The specialist [puts] on blinders in order to shut out from his vision all the world but one little spot, to which he glued his nose. Perspective was lost.” Then the gap between knowledge and what we do with that knowledge grew wider. “In the midst of unprecedented learning, popular ignorance flourished, and chose its exemplars to rule the great cities of the world; in the midst of sciences endowed and enthroned as never before, new religions were born every day, and old superstitions recaptured the ground they had lost. The common person found themselves forced to choose between a scientific priesthood mumbling unintelligible pessimism, and a theological priesthood mumbling incredible hopes.”
Calm. Take a breath. I haven’t yet found myself in complete agreement with the historian, that the last century was at this extreme of bifurcation, rent asunder by either pessimism or un-believable hope; on the other hand. . . . I suppose it can’t be denied that we were cut apart (by wars, politics, culture, race, gender, religion, etc), and the gulf has only widened in our minds and thereby the corporate schizophrenia has permeated our communities, our nations, our world. Polarization is the new norm. And how “new” is that? He’s right though, “priesthoods” claim their authority and vie for our allegiance. We’d better be thinking or the “popular ignorance” will continue to flourish and infect. Philosophy can’t be the only answer; a rigorous practice of pragmatic wisdom can’t be the only solution. Or? Can you name another? Spirituality? Really? Should we choose the old superstitions and allow them to “recapture the ground they had lost”? Sad to say, we tend toward escapes, dodges, avoidance, denial and distraction. Drugs or the supernatural? Pick your poison.
All those years ago, reading Durant alongside my Bible, yellow highlighted and worn with use, as I was emerging from my saturated evangelical worldview/heavenview, I was beginning to pay attention to the mumblings from all sides, and wonder: can we think and reason our way through and out, out of the caves of ignorance (echoes of Plato), beyond the gods we have known? And I wonder still. We have to, don’t you think? Don’t we think? How delightful to participate in the voyages, the expeditions, the adventures of discovery available on every saunter into the natural world! How incredibly enlivening to retain that “irreducible fire and spontaneity”!
It’s an audacious claim to announce “the end of spirituality” but shouldn’t we at least prayerfully consider it (smile)? This claim, this book, these essays aren’t really about some “Atheist agenda” or “Secular takeover” of the “Christian World” or “Christian Nation.” All hot-button ways to agitate the masses and split us all up even more than we are. The disturbing point is, the voice of reason is now going to be heard on a regular basis–the bells are ringing from someplace other than cross-crowned towers–and the more those voices and those bells are heard, the more religious and spiritual claims to divine authority are going to be challenged and dragged into what John Burroughs called “the light of day.” It’s not always pretty or fun, only essential, and so freeing.
It’s time–it’s always time–to touch the wildness, of Nature, of our own nature, of what it means to be a wondering, wonder-full human being. I will continue to touch because I would rather touch and feel more human, more alive, when I touch the snake and the bee and the newt and the spider, as well as another fellow homo sapiens. They mean more than an imagined heaven above and beyond where the disconnect, the divorce, is enthroned for eternity. Here, and gladly here we are in the greatest garden of eden imaginable (where snakes are not feared, and can be touched), fruited and fed, shaded and sheltered by the ever-growing, ever-evolving tree of knowledge and life. And it is a forest of trees. It is good, isn’t it? It’s so good. It’s really very good.