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intimations

Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

The child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
(Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up”)

William Wordsworth

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream
It is not now as it hath been of yore-
Turn whereso’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;—
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home…

Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call

Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.
Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a Mother’s mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.
Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,
A six years’ Darling of a pigmy size!
See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,
With light upon him from his father’s eyes!
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learn{e}d art
A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral;
And this hath now his heart,
And unto this he frames his song:
Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside,
And with new joy and pride
The little Actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his “humorous stage”
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation.
Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul’s immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a Master o’er a Slave,
A Presence which is not to be put by;
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!
O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That Nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest;
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:—
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:
But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
And let the young Lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts to-day
Feel the gladness of the May!
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

 

Saturday, August 15, 2015 – 6:13am  (with thanks to on being)
Photo by Hamish Irvine

Wild Sanctuary

BY TOM JABLONSKI,  GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
worked in the environmental field in industry, consulting, and government for over 25 years. He lives in Blaine, Minnesota and blogs at Ecological Leadership.

A patch of wilderness, a remnant of land not completely taken over by humans at that point in time, surrounded me. It was a small strip of land located between Highway 65 and the vacant land that paralleled it to the west, and the housing development in which I lived.

At one time the land was likely cleared and the earth had been reshaped. Old berms and piles of dirt marked the landscape, but the wild vegetation had reclaimed the disturbed soil. My observations were interrupted by the call of some animal. I thought it might be a bird, crying out in a loud shrieking that almost drowned out the sound of traffic on the highway. The call got louder and then softer. The chickadees that flitted around the nearby trees seemed to ignore it. What was the call and who was making it? And what was my call?

I had been doing some volunteer work to try and fill my day with some meaning, but the tasks did not fill me with the sense of accomplishment I sought. What was it like to experience a real sense of accomplishment? Maybe it was not experiencing accomplishment that kept me going. For what more was there in life once accomplishment had been achieved?

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Round Lake in St. Paul MN.

Credit: Jim Brekke License: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The leaves had mostly fallen off all the trees, and they lay covering the ground. A brown layer interspersed with a patch of black where the leaves had been pushed away to expose the rich, black humus below — a silt-sand-organic matrix filled with microscopic life.

As was typical of those times of solitude, two airplanes sliced through the sky above, their engines churning out there own matrix of noise, exhaust, and propulsion. The sun broke through the overcast sky, sending a strong beam of light and warmth my way. Some remnants of grass dangling from a brown stem rocked back and forth in the breeze that blew through the tangle of wilderness. The trees in the area appeared to be a hardy lot: poplars, box elders, and other shrubs.

A red fox walked through the clearing in front of me, wandering within 30 feet of where I sat. It passed through sniffing the ground, not seeming to notice me as I watched and marveled at the site of it.

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A fox near Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado.

Credit: Max and Dee Bernt License: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

And then it faded away into the past year’s dried grass. Times like those were good times. This patch of wilderness brought me back to the areas of wilderness I spent time with during my childhood. Going to that place reminded me how sacred those small patches were. They were sanctuaries for life, for creation, for sanity.

So what was it that brought me to that spot at the time when the fox would share its presence with me? And was it the fox that made the strange call I heard when I first came to the place? What brought the leaf down from the tree above and caused it to land in the open spot between my left thumb and forefinger? Were all of those happenings merely coincidences, merely chance meetings of different life forms? Or was there a connection, was there meaning, a message to me telling me what I was called to do? Or was it that I simply enjoyed sitting there, observing, savoring; escaping the places that did not seem to fill me with the same sense of awe.

Small birds somewhere in the distant treetops sang a soft short song — a calling out, an experience of joy, a voice announcing a presence. A crow much further away cawed. The hum of the traffic masked the softer sounds, the more distant sounds. And vines enveloped the tree and the brush, below which I sat ruminating my life.

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Light illuminates the Reservoir Canyon Trail in San Luis Obispo, California.

Credit: Steve Corey License: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The tree that I sat under reminded me of the tree that the Buddha sat under while experiencing nirvana. What creatures, what voices, which distractions called out to the Buddha as he pondered his own life? Was there more to enlightenment then simply being present to that which existed around me? Was the moment all there was? Now that I had found it, was I called back to chop wood and haul water, clean bathrooms, vacuum and go on with the volunteering jobs that did not give me the sense of meaning and accomplishment I sought? Could it be that smiling at some kids or helping one or two of them to zip up their coat was all I needed to accomplish that day?

Questions like those would not likely be answered. They likely existed to simply keep me prodding along, to keep living, to keep moving, and to keep interacting. It seemed like it was the interactions of life that could give me the sense of accomplishment I desired.

The time of reflection, serenity, and existence would not hold meaning if it was not shared through the interactions called life. Maybe what I needed to do was to not just focus on the fox, or the voice of the bird, but to pay attention to the brush, to the distraction, to the traffic, and the long grass that hid the fox. The breeze picked up, the sun receded behind a cloud, and I felt chilled. It was time to recede myself from that remnant of wilderness, time to return home to face the distractions of my life, time to focus on the mundane, the ordinary, and find what I sought.

A strange call reverberated dull. Questions of meaning filled the skull. A fox — red, soft, and close to the ground — walked through the place as leaves tumbled down. Sniffing the earth, searching, and blending, it entered the zone, the place of grass bending. The red coat began to disappear, its white-tipped tail the only memory it was near. Time, space, and tranquility. It seemed that was what life could be.

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Mattawoman Creek

Photos and narrative by Jim Long

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Egret amid Lotus blooms at tidal-freshwater Mattawoman Creek, Charles Co., MD, photographed by Jim Long, August 16, 2007

An example of the botanically rich tidal-freshwater marshes of Mattawoman Creek. Submerged aquatic vegetation breaks the surface in the foreground. Behind the Great Egret is a “pickeral weed-arrow arum low tidal freshwater marsh,” perhaps a locally abundant community in eastern Maryland, but uncommon globally (G3-Nature Serve). Wild Rice towers above, and the yellow blooms beyond are American Lotus, ranked S2 (“imperiled”) in Maryland. Mattawoman is one of three sites in the state where natural populations of this emergent are found. Further removed are high-marsh communities, that in fall will dazzle with blooming Bidens. And in the background is a riverside woods – symbolizing the importance of a forested watershed in maintaining the water quality that makes such high-quality marshes possible, not to mention the most balanced fish food-web and most productive fishery in the Chesapeake Bay, enjoyed by unusually large populations of Herons and Egrets.

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Photo of Lotus and Rice
Lotus field & Rice at tidal Mattawoman Creek, Charles Co., MD, photographed by Jim Long, August 16, 2007

Even when the American Lotus is not blooming, the circular, bluish-green elephantine leaves stand out in the tidal freshwater marshes of Mattawoman Creek. The more common Wild Rice nods above.

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Photo of Lyre Leaf Oak along Mattawoman Creek
Lyre Leaf Oak at non-tidal Mattawoman Creek, Charles Co., MD, photographed by Jim Long, May 13, 2007

A venerable Overcup Oak, Quercus lyrata, anchors the bank of the fluvial portion of Mattawoman Creek. Also known as the Swamp Post Oak or Lyre-leaf Oak, this elegant specimen measures 13 feet in circumference at breast height. Overcup refers to the acorn’s cap, or cup, that nearly encases the entire nut. Maryland is at the northern edge of the Overcup’s range and was once ranked on the state RT&E list. Unfortunately, this specimen lies in the path of a proposed new highway in Charles County, the ill-conceived extension of the county’s Cross County Connector through the Mattawoman Watershed. Please see http://www.mattawomanwatershed.org for more information.

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Photo of Cedarville Marsh with Ironweed
Ironweed at Cedarville marsh in non-tidal Mattawoman Creek, Prince Georges Co., MD, photographed by Jim Long, early October, 1997

A successional beaver meadow in the upper reaches of fluvial Mattawoman Creek near Cedarville State Forest shows late-blooming bonesets and, in the foreground, a New York Ironweed. Beavers once engineered habitat variety such as seen here throughout much of the continental United States.

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Photo of Cardinal Flower
Cardinal flower at tidal Mattawoman Creek, Charles Co., MD, photographed by Jim Long, August 16, 2007

The open habitat in a tidal freshwater estuary supports many moisture-loving flowering plants, including the occasional Cardinal Flower, also a habitué of streamsides.

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Photo of Shadbush along Mattawoman Creek
Shadbush along tidal Mattawoman Creek, Charles Co., MD, photographed by Jim Long, April 8, 2007

A Shadbush arcs over tannin-stained Mattawoman Creek near head of tide. While not necessarily a riverside tree, the Shadbush is named for its time of bloom around the start of the migratory American Shad spawning runs that once surged with great schools throughout the rivers of the east coast. The location of this fine specimen is especially appropriate, as Hickory Shad, a close cousin to the American, visit this reach of stream in April and May. Mattawoman exhibits unusually large numbers of American Shad as well, as stocking with fry protectively raised from local eggs gradually increases numbers in the Potomac River, even as populations remain depressed throughout the eastern seaboard. As with all migratory animals, anadromous fish like the Shads, which live in the ocean but must spawn in freshwater, are threatened by a human-dominated environment.

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Photo of Tickseed Sunflowers along Mattawoman Creek
Tickseed sunflowers at tidal Mattawoman Creek, Charles Co., MD, photographed by Jim Long, October 2, 2007

In fall, Tickseed Sunflowers, or Bidens, seem to dominate the high-marsh habitat throughout tidal freshwater Mattawoman Creek. Among the flowers are tree snags that have succumbed to gradually rising water levels, possibly a consequence of the sea-level rise observed over the past century. Increasing rates of rise are predicted as a consequence of global warming. Climate change may bring big changes to freshwater tidal marshes through flooding – many marshes are thwarted in migrating by urbanized encroachment – and saltwater incursion. Non-tidal waters are also at risk, as larger predicted weather fluctuations exacerbate the flood & low-flow “flashiness” that urbanization brings to our streams.

mattawoman lotus bed

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

August 11, 2014

The month of July features a special blooming of the yellow lotuses at Mattawoman Creek, which boasts one of the largest fields of American Lotuses along the western side of the Chesapeake Bay.

There was no better way to see this sacred flower, than from a kayak, as a group of 26 kayakers recently discovered in this photo.

Mattawoman translates as “where one goes pleasantly.” [The river is one of] the most productive spawning grounds for migratory fish such as hickory shad and yellow/white perch throughout the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a rich and vital resource that always presents opportunities to view wildlife, including egrets, herons, wood ducks, ospreys, beavers, tree swallows, and hawks. But it’s also common to see American bald eagles and American green tree frogs.

—Dom J. (DJ) Manalo, Rockville, MD

DIP PADDLE; PULL; REPEAT.

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Thanks to Patrisearts:

My paddle felt familiar in my hands, even after 18 months without setting sail in my lovely battered plastic kayak. A twice-postponed trip came about, at last, on a perfect day.

This is an easy to have a boat, really. It’s plastic, it floats even when full of water. No ports or holes in the hull to leak, nothing to rot. Very little gear required.Just get it on and off the car, drag it to the water, shove off and…. ahhh.

There is nothing like that glide, the feel sound and smell of the water all around you.  Such a smooth flowing sensation, and the sound of the dip, pull, swirl, lift, dripping, and repeat again, finding  your rhythm, it’s exquisite, it’s ancient, it’s instinctive.

We all know it’s lovely to look at:

The name comes from Capt. John Smith’s 1608 map, where it is labeled Mataughquamend, an Algonquian compound translated as “where one goes pleasantly.”

My local kayaking river is the lovely The Mattawoman Creek,  a short tributary of the very long Potomac River. Hailed as one  of the most pristine river ecosystems in the state, Mattawoman is prized as a trophy bass nursery. The river also hosts increasingly scarce  anadromous fish like shad, alewife and herring.  Mattawoman’s sweet, wild, water is much appreciated by birds and fish, fisherman and paddlers. I love it because it’s still pure enough to swim in

THOSE MAGNIFICENT FLYING THINGS

Pandion haliaetusor osprey, with cargo

The bird count wasn’t spectacular, but the bird behavior was great. I watched a gang of male red-wing blackbirds harassing a large white Egret, buzzing the tall bird, who ducked and squalked and lunged at them comically. Later we saw the white bird flying, still trailed by hostile red-wings. Real-life Angry Birds!!

Osprey were on the hunt all up and down the stream. More than once I saw them flying with a nice fish in their claws, back to the brood, or for lunch on a favorite branch. They look like a loaded bomber, carrying their cargo below, but there is no way they’ll let that fish go until they’re ready.

Later, a half dozen swallow fledglings begged fitfully on a low hanging branch as mum and dad ably demonstrated hunting on the wing. I paddled right up to them, and they just eyed me, until I spoke. That always breaks the spell. They flew away with perfect grace.

Nelumbo Lutea, the American Lotus, has the largest bloom of any plant native to the US

FLORA IN ABUNDANCE

The rivers edge is lined with waterplants,: wild rice, cattail, pickeral weed with its lavender spike, spatterdock, the round yellow waterlily and her cousin the American Lotus, which is just beginning its glorious blooming season. These unfurl huge platter-sized leaves that repel water, rolling it into rounded pools like mercury. And the grand blossoms sway on tall stems, each cream petal large enough to drink from. Apparently a thoroughly edible plant, this lotus is found throughout north America

We only saw a few in full bloom, but plenty more ready to burst into bloom in weeks to come. The showy redwings perched on them for lovely effect.

Einstein’s God: Krista Tippett and Theoretical Cosmologist Janna Levin on Free Will, Science, and the Human Spirit

by

“How we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at… Science and religion… ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.”

Seven decades after a little girl asked Einsteinwhether scientists pray, Peabody Award-winning journalist Krista Tippett began interviewing some of the world’s most remarkable scientists, philosophers, and theologians about the relationship between science and spirituality in her superb public radio program On Being — the same trove of wisdom that gave us Sherwin Nuland on what everybody needs and Joanna Macy on how Rilke can help us live more fully. Tippett, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal for her ennobling work, collected the best of these dialogues in Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library) — an immeasurably rewarding compendium featuring such contemporary luminaries as Parker Palmer, Freeman Dyson, Andrew Solomon, and Sherwin Nuland.

Lamenting that we have “lost a robust vocabulary for spiritual ethics and theological thinking” in the “polite, erudite, public-radio-loving circles” of public life, Tippett writes in the introduction:

The science-religion “debate” is unwinnable, and it has led us astray. To insist that science and religion speak the same language, or draw the same conclusions, is to miss the point of both of these pursuits of cohesive knowledge and underlying truth. To create a competition between them, in terms of relevance or rightness, is self-defeating. Both science and religion are set to animate the twenty-first century with new vigor. This will happen whether their practitioners are in dialogue or not. But the dialogue that is possible — and that has developed organically, below the journalistic and political radar — is mutually illuminating and lush with promise.

Illustration from Thomas Wright’s visionary 1750 treatise ‘An Original Theory,’ found in Michael Benson’s book ‘Cosmigraphics’—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

Tippett invokes her grandfather, a “preacher of hellfire and brimstone” with a “large, unexcavated mind that frightened him” and “sharp wit, a searching attentiveness, a mysterious ability to perform mathematical feats in his head”:

People like him became the object of erudite parody, straw men easily blown down by prophets of reason. His kind of religiosity was small-minded at best, delusional at worst, and, most damnably, the enemy of science.

The mundane truth is this: my grandfather did not know enough about science to be against it. I summon his memory by way of tracing, for myself, why I’ve found my conversations with scientists to be so profoundly sustaining. It is not just that they are intellectually and spiritually evocative beyond compare. Cumulatively they dispel the myth of the clash of civilizations between science and religion, indeed between spirit and reason, that we’ve accepted as the backdrop for so many tensions of the modern West.

[…]

How we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at. Light appears as a wave if you ask it “a wavelike question” and it appears as a particle if you ask it “a particle-like question.” This is a template for understanding how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true.

And it’s not so much true, as our cultural debates presume, that science and religion reach contradictory answers to the same particular questions of human life. Far more often, they simply ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.

Hardly anything illustrates this notion more crisply than a line from the bewitching novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines“To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.” — by astrophysicist and theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, one of Tippett’s interviewees, who studies the shape and finitude of the universe. In her conversation with Tippett, Levin reflects on the relationship between mathematics and truth, central to both her novel — which explores the parallels between the extraordinary minds of computing pioneer Alan Turing and mathematician Kurt Gödel — and her life:

I would absolutely say I am also besotted with mathematics. I don’t worry about what’s real and not real in the way that maybe Gödel did. I think what Turing did, which was so beautiful, was to have a very practical approach. He believed that life was, in a way, simple. You could relate to mathematics in a concrete and practical way. It wasn’t about surreal, abstract theories. And that’s why Turing is the one who invents the computer, because he thinks so practically. He can imagine a machine that adds and subtracts, a machine that performs the mathematical operations that the mind performs. The modern computers that we have now are these very practical machines that are built on those ideas. So I would say that like Turing, I am absolutely struck with the power of mathematics, and that’s why I’m a theoretical physicist… I love that we can all share the mathematical answers. It’s not about me trying to convince you of what I believe or of my perspective or of my assumptions. We can all agree that one plus one is two, and we can all make calculations that come out to be the same, whether you’re from India or Pakistan or Oklahoma, we all have that in common. There’s something about that that’s deeply moving to me and that makes mathematics pure and special. And yet I’m able to have a more practical attitude about it, which is that, well, we can build machines this way. There is a physical reality that we can relate to using mathematics.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Michael Benson’s book ‘Cosmigraphics’—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

When Tippett stretches this into the difficult question of whether “the fact that one plus one equals two [has] anything to do with God,” Levin — a self-described atheist — echoes Tolstoy’s quest for meaning and answers with remarkable poetry and poise:

If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable. All the other things are remarkable, too. It’s really, really astounding that these little creatures on this little planet that seem totally insignificant in the middle of nowhere can look back over the fourteen-billion-year history of the universe and understand so much and in such a short time.

So that is where I would get a sense, again, of meaning and of purpose and of beauty and of being integrated with the universe so that it doesn’t feel hopeless and meaningless. Now, I don’t personally invoke a God to do that, but I can’t say that mathematics would disprove the existence of God either. It’s just one of those things where over and over again, you come to that point where some people will make that leap and say, “I believe that God initiated this and then stepped away, and the rest was this beautiful mathematical unfolding.” And others will say, “Well, as far back as it goes, there seem to be these mathematical structures. And I don’t feel the need to conjure up any other entity.” And I fall into that camp, and without feeling despair or dissatisfaction.

The emboldening poetics of Levin’s orientation to the universe and its meaning — at the heart of which is the same inquiry Alan Watts tussled with in probing what reality is— comes alive in this passage from her novel:

In the park, over the low wall, there are two girls playing in the grass. Giants looming over their toys, monstrously out of proportion. They’re holding hands and spinning, leaning farther and farther back until their fingers rope together, chubby flesh and bone enmeshed. What do I see? Angular momentum around their center. A principle of physics in their motion. A girlish memory of grass-stained knees.

I keep walking and recede from the girls’ easy confidence in the world’s mechanisms. I believe they exist, even if my knowledge of them can only be imperfect, a crude sketch of their billions of vibrating atoms. I believe this to be true… I am on an orbit through the universe that crosses the paths of some girls, a teenager, a dog, an old woman…

I could have written this book entirely differently, but then again, maybe this book is the only way it could be, and these are the only choices I could have made. This is me, an unreal composite, maybe part liar, maybe not free.

Another 16th-century painting by Francisco de Holanda from ‘Cosmigraphics.’Click image for more.

Therein lies the obvious question — a question raised memorably and somewhat controversially by C.S. Lewis — of free will in a universe of fixed laws. Levin tells Tippett:

I think it’s a difficult question to understand what it means to have free will if we are completely determined by the laws of physics, and even if we’re not. Because there are things—for instance, in quantum mechanics, which is the theory of physics on the highest energy scales—which imply that there is some kind of quantum randomness so that we’re not completely determined. But randomness doesn’t really help me either.

[…]

There is no clear way of making sense of an idea of free will in a pinball game of strict determinism or in a game with elements of random chance thrown in. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a free will. I’ve often said maybe someday we’ll just discover something. I mean, quantum mechanics was a surprise. General relativity was a surprise. The idea of curved space-time. All of these great discoveries were great surprises, and we shouldn’t decide ahead of time what is or isn’t true. So it might be that this convincing feeling I have, that I am executing free will, is actually because I’m observing something that is there. I just can’t understand how it’s there. Or it’s a total illusion. It’s a very, very convincing illusion, but it’s an illusion all the same.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s revelatory work on intuition, exposing the lack of correlation between our confidence in our beliefs and the validity of the evidence behind them — something that often manifests as “the backfire effect” — Levin considers the nature of these convincing illusions to which human nature so easily succumbs:

Our convincing feeling is that time is absolute. Our convincing feeling is that there should be no limit to how fast you can travel. Our convincing feelings are based on our experiences because of the size that we are, literally, the speed at which we move, the fact that we evolved on a planet under a particular star. So our eyes, for instance, are at peak in their perception of yellow, which is the wave band the sun peaks at. It’s not an accident that our perceptions and our physical environment are connected. We’re limited, also, by that. That makes our intuitions excellent for ordinary things, for ordinary life. That’s how our brains evolved and our perceptions evolved, to respond to things like the Sun and the Earth and these scales. And if we were quantum particles, we would think quantum mechanics were totally intuitive. Things fluctuating in and out of existence, or not being certain of whether they’re particles or waves — these kinds of strange things that come out of quantum theory — would seem absolutely natural…

Our intuitions are based on our minds, our minds are based on our neural structures, our neural structures evolved on a planet, under a sun, with very specific conditions. We reflect the physical world that we evolved from. It’s not a miracle.

And yet, crucially, the lack of evidence for free will is by no means a license to abdicate personal responsibility in how we move through the world:

If I conclude that there is no free will, it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice. There’s a practical notion of responsibility or civic free will that we uphold when we prosecute somebody, when we hold juries or when we pursue justice that I completely think is a practical notion that we should continue to pursue. It’s not like I can choose to be irresponsible or responsible because I’m confused about free will.

Six decades earlier, and long before the dawn of modern astrophysics, Anaïs Nin madea humanistic case for the same.

Einstein’s God is a spectacular read in its entirety, as is Levin’s novel. For more perspectives on the relationship between science and spirituality, step into the cultural time machine with Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Jane Goodall onscience and spirit, and Sam Harris on spirituality without religion.

 

Krista Tippett is always the best.  Thank You!

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory