What I didn’t learn in school

Sometimes “prey” can be as heroic and transcendent as “predator.” Predators exemplify focus, locking in on one thing. But the hunted exemplify a wider awareness, scanning the Surround for threat. Sometimes, the hunted seek high perches so they can see farther, enlarging their awareness of what is out there rather than simply cowering in a concealed place.

The question was “what was the most important thing you didn’t learn in school?” My immediate response was “how to steal fire from the gods.” School has interfered with my education at least as much as it has contributed to it. All that time—all those annoying assignments wasting time, the essence of life, in ways that might have a point in some totalitarian dream. One of the more important things I’ve learned has been how to steal fire from the gods—a task I haven’t heard explicitly mentioned in any classroom.

Eric Voegelin is best on how that works: great artists perceive in the metaxy some cosmic order. We all have glimpses of the eternal way things are, but our greatest artists give those glimpses tangible form in an artifact that others can experience. This brings the divine order within reach of people who are building an earthly order.

Such glimpses occur in proportion to the amount of time we spend in nature, trying to see. Nature is the great text of this world. But it is not a simple text, and we see much farther into it when we study the heritage of great literature that we have. The history of humanity has been a long process of waking up, and we latter-day have more riches available than we have time to access.

A simplified formula: All civilizations are formed around a core of great literature. The source of all great literature is divine revelation from the Beyond.

To be fair, I have done a lot of reading in response to school work, and that reading has been vital to all my most important learning. In my best classes—those taught by professors who enthusiastically knew more than they could say—I read many more book than I was assigned.

But it has been writers who have been my primary teachers. From Solzhenitysn I learned that one person who refuses to lie can bring down a corrupted regime. What vitally important knowledge! The old tyrannies of this world will all burn in God’s holy fire, when we have learned what it is and how it work. Such things have not been talked about in the schools I had access to.

An autumn frame of mind

In a sense, nature has no endings. Things repeat and repeat in patterns large and small. Through all that humans are a trajectory that gets higher and broader., if we will hear and see.

In a sense, nature has no endings. Things repeat and repeat in patterns large and small. Through all that commotion and continuity, a person may choose a trajectory that speaks of permanent things.

I’m paying more attention now than I ever have to bird migrations—the scale of which is staggering—at the same time I’m feeling a deepening discontent with where I am, intellectually and spiritually. I sense unseen movements taking form around me and being answered within me. Because I’m at work during the days, the most vivid parts of my life now seem to be sunsets in a world becoming more autmnal by the day.

At work, the officialese about change has become a habit for many people, a way of nodding off or going with whatever flow the guy at the front of the room is peddling. It gives an illusion of having mastered what we have not mastered and do not, I suspect, even see. It feels a bit stultifying.

But outside toward evening the geese in small family flocks rehearse flying in formation, from wetland to grainfield and back. Hundreds of geese in groups of 8 or 9 or 20 in constant commotion. Much of the summer they’ve been at nests in families, feeding on shoots, unable to fly due to the molt. Soon they will form up into larger flocks for a thousand mile trip, probably to Utah or Nevada or Arizona. Their great migratory flights almost define the seasons.

Watching them gives me an odd feeling of kinship, seeing a group that allows a kind of individuality in which all take care of each. The birds stay in family groups all year, feeding and nesting and migrating together. This year’s babies will return to this place next year with their parents.

If one goose goes down along the way due to injury or illness, two others peel off and accompany it, staying with it until it recovers or dies, then rejoining whatever flock is passing. Geese are intelligently social, and they allow others to join their flocks, though the original pair, which mate for life, remain in charge and the current year’s youngsters remain their priority.  They maintain hierarchies, one of which is visible in their flight formation. It’s not a rigid hierarchy and leading is more a burden than an indicator of superiority. The lead goose changes fairly often. When the leader gets tired, it drops back and another goose, male or female, takes the lead. The unity is gorgeous and it keeps them safe.

Right now all this year’s youngsters are in full flight, and they are everywhere, highly visible out on open water and in the sky.

Some birds have already left. I don’t see the osprey anymore. The blackbirds—both yellow-headed and red-winged—are still here but with the nesting over they are no longer territorial. They move about in flocks numbering in the thousands. What I’m appreciating this year about migrations is the deep focus on moving on. A tern will fly right past a savory mess of fish offered up for free (though gulls, which are going nowhere, erupt in a noisy contest for a morsel). The birds suddenly ignore the normal temptations and distractions because they are filled with a larger purpose.

The great human migrations have often been like that. In America, the great migrations of black people from the south to the north and people from all over the world, including those of my tribe, into the West display a similar focus on a vaguely grasped promise of something that must lie ahead.

At work, when I escape the change agents, I’ve been reading in preparation for a Holocaust unit I teach to sixteen-year-olds. I’m approaching it by analyzing the two cultures that were in conflict: the Jews and the modern social Darwinists. One feature of the Jews that caught my attention was that they are the first nation ever that came into being while on a journey. Abraham was going toward something and, later, so were the followers of Moses. What they left mattered less than what they looked toward. Their nation did not develop slowly over ages in a fixed place like the English or the French. They were formed around some words and a covenant that bound them to each other and to a shared purpose, and they inhabited change like their truest home.

For people of the Book, the real migration was a spiritual journey, from one state of being to something harder to understand and more liberating to live. We now live  at a time when many people are finding kindred experiences. Things once vital wither. The green turns gold. Things fall apart.  And yet there is something ahead, something worth preparing for, something worth heading toward.

Escaping the mundane

Hudson Smith receiving a pass at Polson High School.

Sports offer moments of transcendent action and beauty to people otherwise deadened to all the glimpses of eternity which flood through the matter of everyday life.

There, above the mundane world, he’s transfigured in a moment of pure longing and effort, suffused with the beauty of athletic strength and agility. Sports may be the closest some moderns come to the transcendent—to the realm of metaphor where we glimpse spiritual realities through the facts of the material world.

The receiver rises above the horizon, the earthly world of gravity and shadow, into a magically-hued sky, reaching out in the throes of intense effort and intense longing for what might descend from above. It’s not just a football, but also a signifier of glory and meaning.

The story also includes a defender, momentarily hapless, and a referee, judging events by the low standard of rules, which in only necessary, making the game possible. The game itself—that partakes of a different realm. Both the defender and the ref become irrelevant to the hero at that brief moment of success, all power and grace.

Emerson: nature and words

Hawthorne branches in blossom...

An English Hawthorne in May. The boughs were popular for May Day decorations before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, after which the trees did not bloom until mid-May. The ancient Greeks carried hawthorn branches in wedding processions, as emblems of hope.

I intended to start summer by reading Voegelin on Plato. I’m interested in what they both say about the metaxy–the inbetween of the immanent and the transcendent, where we experience being. For young people unfortunate enough to have grown up under the influence of a deconstructive culture which drowns out reality with propaganda, replacing God’s kingdom with their own, their most sacred feelings and emotions are reinterpreted within a bottomless self endlessly chattering amid legions of desires and fears.

I want to think more about today’s language wars, which lie at the heart of modernity’s global contests to replace Creation with Ideology.
I’ve been re-reading Emerson’s “Nature” –or at least listening as I drove the old truck to Missoula for a couple yards of compost. I was surprised at how prescient Emerson was in his discussion of language. He begins his chapter on language with three statements about nature and language:

1. Words are signs of natural facts.
2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.

I read these words when I was in college, but I don’t remember them making any particular impression on me. Today they seem precisely the needed counter to the chorus of antichrists substituting myraid uncertainties for every natural fact. They would destroy such words as male, female, marriage and family by positing endless expanding tangles of meanings, as though the tree of life were a bramble thicket.

Emerson understood nature as language, a way of thinking consistent with Genesis, where God speaks our world. Words refer to realities–to categories that actually exist in Creation, and we can speak truth:

A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, — and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation, who for a short time believe, and make others believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature.

It is from nature that we get the images that allow us to think about such things as hope and majesty. Our words are true to the extent that they evoke things as they really are.


Autumn on Mission Creek

In November, the lines of the garden suggest rather than impose. Our little acts of care continue, but the big show is that of a nature quite beyond our choosing.

November garden

Grace becomes more evident, and we see how little of the splendor we enjoy is due to our own effort.

Caring for the November garden is somewhat like teaching amid late modernity.

The work continues, though the mood shifts. In spring, the work is part of hope that one can stay ahead of growth–the green explosion that has the power to overwhelm any design intended by the poor gardener. In late autumn, the work is preparation for destruction by the coming cold. The pump is drained and covered. Less hardy plants such as roses and peaches are mulched. Willow leaves that decay to an impervious, grass-killing mat are raked up and hauled away.

Here in the north country, the days shorten. The world is darker. Even daylight is suffused–the sun seems farther away, and more days are foggy, most days overcast.

It’s natural to want light without darkness. Fear of the dark is deeper than superstition, and so we create the glare and costly disenchantment of around-the-clock artificial light.

In the diminished garden, beauty persists, in an old, familiar key. The leaf fall is heavy in a yard bordered by a creek with cottonwoods more than a hundred feet tall. I came home from work last week and all the garden  beds, the lawn furniture that had not been stowed, odd tools I had not put away, were blanketed in a heavy, wet mat of  grayish yellow leaves.  All was drab and cold, like desolation.


Moments of autumn beauty resonate with memory of what was and clarity about what is coming.

Much of the work is just cleaning the mess–imposing a tiny order that nature does not need, but that we need. We need places and places need our care.  Several hours of raking and hauling revealed again the pattern of green grass, octagonal and round beds and straight borders, of paths to the creek and sauna and secret garden. It re-established the human order of a garden, pushing back the wilderness.


red spirea leaf

It isn’t death, exactly. It’s a phase.

The leaves are not removed so much as rearranged. Many are moved to the annual gardens, where they will suppress weeds and compost slowly until early spring, when I will begin tilling them into the soil. Some are used as mulch for weed suppression under aspen and mountain ash plantings on the east border of the meadow.

November reveals that it is the endless work of care that defines the gardener. French philosopher Chantal Delsol has been among the best commentators on late modernity. She observes that it is our predicament–poised as we are between our frailty and our hope–that makes of us gardeners:

path through November

All our paths are precarious–momentary designs amid forces we cannot wholly know or constrain.

The interplay of frailty and promise forbids us to dismiss all philosophies of man as illusory and compels us to reflect on humanity. Because the human fabric remains imperfect, it cannot be reinvented by the will or indefinitely molded by desire. It commands respect through its weight and resistance to manipulation. We must try to understand this frailty before we can put a face on the promise. The presence of evil prevents the future from creating its own order; it must respect a certain givenness of being which must always remain largely unknown.

The Constitutive incompleteness of man forbids him to attempt to turn perfection into reality. But he can care for what exists, and it is probably this caring that defines what is uniquely and properly human. This style of being, as it were, expresses itself in the attention man pays to the world he has inherited in order to understand that world. The world we inherit and share is full of being, in the sense that forces are at work that we did not ourselves introduce. Having focused on reinventing the world, we must now turn our gaze toward the potentialities of being. Our fascination for planning must be replaced by attending to desirable possibilities. In order to care for, improve, and clear the brush away from what exists, we must keep in check our will to begin again ex nihilo, loving both existence and those beings who exist. That is, we must love them more than the products of our own minds.

The failures of the twentieth century reveal who we are. We are not demiurges. We are gardeners.

We see with more than our eyes, and the acts of care in November are done with fallen seeds in the top inch of soil in mind–as well as tubers and bulbs and roots beneath the soil. We may lament the passing of summer, but we don’t languish in our laments. Both faith and experience teach that spring is not merely a possibility. It is certain.

Winter is not death, but a phase. Some things we love and would not choose to part with are gone for now, and some of the work is done to prepare for their return–the fragrant ebullience of daffodils blooming through late winter snow. In nature, autumn is planting time. Seeds without number fall and are blown about with profligate bounty. The darkness and decline are preparation.

Our work is care–for life that has a nature and a telos apart from our own.