Tag Archive 'philosophy'

Feb 07 2017

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Burroughs Book Finally in Print

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At long last, the Burroughs book is in print. I’ve been reading his essays for decades, and toying with the idea of selecting and publishing excerpts from his work for nearly that long. He wrote over 30 books on nature. I’ve been crazy enough to read most of them.

The full title of this book is Universal Nature: Philosophical Fragments from the Writings of John Burroughs. As the title suggests, the excerpts I have selected tend towards the abstract. While Burroughs was the master of the quaint nature essay – quite often writing about songbirds – he delved deeply into philosophical matters as well.  In his later years he became interested in the tension between science and religion. His was an utterly naturalistic worldview, of course, so he leaned as heavily towards pantheism as I do. Hence my obsession with him.

While Burroughs comes off as a simple, white-bearded countryman observing birds and the like, he was a surprisingly complex character in real life. My biographical introduction puts his work in context, showing how his thoughts emerged from friendships, travels and fruit farming in addition to extensive reading. The excerpts are organized chronologically, making it clear how his perception of wild nature evolved over time from the particular to the universal.

You can get a copy by going to my website WoodThrushBooks.com. It is also available at Amazon. I hope you find the natural philosophy of John Burroughs as intriguing as I have.

 

 

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Sep 22 2013

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Campfire Meditation

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campfireThere comes a time when nothing here in the developed lowlands can cure what ails me, when I must load a few essentials into my backpack and head for the hills. It doesn’t have to be a vast wilderness area. Any pocket of wild woods will do.

I go alone. No one but my dog Matika accompanies me, that is. She makes good company in the woods because she’s not human.

I hike for several hours, sweating away much of my frustration with what passes for civilization. Then I start looking for a good place to camp. By the time I am comfortably ensconced in the woods, it is getting on towards evening. I build a fire to cook dinner. Afterward, as the sun is setting, I slip into campfire meditation.

Flames dance inside a small circle of stones at my feet. I feed thumb-sized sticks into the fire to keep it going. Placement is essential otherwise the pan-sized fire will quickly burn out. I pay careful attention. Eventually random thoughts give way to something else, to a deep calm, to clarity.

Hours pass. The moon rises, an owl hoots in the distance, the nearby feeder stream gurgles, and all is right with the world. When I start running low on wood, I let the fire burn down to embers. Then I put it out. But in the morning I do it all over again – this time with a pen and field journal in hand. Campfire meditation becomes campfire philosophy. And that’s pretty much what I’m all about.

 

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Feb 19 2012

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Reading John Burroughs

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Once again I am reading John Burroughs – a turn-of-the-century writer who practically reinvented the nature essay. Heavily influenced by Emerson and second only to Thoreau in his passion for the natural world, Burroughs has intrigued me for years. Yet I have shied away from him time and again, fearing that the yawning chasm between his work and modern sensibilities might prove infectious.

More than one literary critic has called Burroughs “quaint” – a damning term to be sure. I cringe whenever I hear it. That’s like being accused of being both frivolous and irrelevant. Granted, the word might apply well to the many bird watching essays that made Burroughs so popular in his day, but it completely ignores the man’s more philosophical side. In the last few years of his life, that part of him really flourished.

John Muir and John Burroughs are the “two Johns” of late 19th, early 20th century nature writing. Most self-proclaimed nature lovers relate more to the former than they do to the latter. That’s because Muir was an activist in his day, a promoter of national parks and a founder of the Sierra Club. All that is much in keeping with the spirit of modern environmentalism. And Burroughs? Well, when he wasn’t writing pieces for mainstream magazines or hanging out with industrialists like Henry Ford, we was thinking too much. A quick perusal of Accepting the Universe, published shortly before his death, is proof positive of that.

Yeah, those of you who have read my heavier work know which side of Burroughs I prefer. In one essay he writes: “We cannot put our finger on this or that and say, Here is the end of Nature,” and I’m all over it. “The Infinite cannot be measured,” he adds, and I couldn’t agree more.  Yeah, Nature with a capital “N,” going well beyond politics. Am I the only nature lover alive today who cares about the things that JB pondered in his old age? One of the few, certainly.

The essays of John Burroughs are good for the soul. I find his ruminating, rambling style a welcome change from the superficial, sensational nonsense so prevalent in the media today. So I will continue reading his work and thoroughly enjoying it despite the musty smell that emanates from the hundred-year-old books that I hold in my hands. Sometimes nothing will do but the classics.

 

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Sep 29 2010

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Mountain Stream Philosophizing

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Sometimes I head to the mountains to escape my thoughts.  Other times I take my intellectual baggage with me.  The other day was a good example of the latter.

Even as the rush of the mountain stream filled my ears, and the intoxicating smell of autumn leaves tickled my nose, I brooded over a comment made by a world-renowned physicist a week or two earlier.  He had said that a Creator was not necessary, that the universe could have arisen spontaneously from nothing.  I immediately scoffed at the notion, but it ate away at me regardless.

Order or chaos – it all comes down to that, doesn’t it?  Either the universe is organized according to certain immutable laws, or all events are essentially random.  Recent cosmological discoveries point to a Big Bang occurring 13.7 billion years ago, to a singular event giving birth to the universe as we know it, thereby ruling out the possibility that things are now as they have always been.  But that leaves the non-religious thinker no choice but to embrace utter randomness.  And that’s a tough pill to swallow.

Order or chaos?  While fly fishing a mountain stream, I see plenty of both.  All around me there are downed trees, rotting wood, and the quiet tumult of growth and decay, yet the leaves overhead are turning gold, completing a cycle set in motion many centuries ago.  Rocks are strewn about haphazardly, as are twigs and branches, yet the stream itself follows the inexorable tug of gravity.  Is wild nature ordered or chaotic?  A good argument can be made either way.

A small brown trout rose to my showy fly, an Ausable Wulff, then all was quiet for a while.  When I spotted a cloud of tiny, slate gray mayflies hovering over the water, I changed to another fly – one called a Blue-winged Olive – that better matched the hatch.  I was betting that the hungry mouths beneath the water’s surface would know the difference.  This bet didn’t escape the philosopher in me.  I was betting on natural order and was not disappointed.  Several trout splashed to the surface, chasing my tiny gray fly.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have the eyes to see my offering on the water so I missed the strikes, leaving all matters philosophical unresolved.

Shortly thereafter, I resorted to my showy A. Wulff, which is much easier to see.  I soon hooked and landed a ten-inch brook trout.  It didn’t make any sense, really.  You’d think a big, old brookie would know better than to rise to something that looks as out of place as an A. Wulff.  Clearly Mother Nature was making fun of me, mocking my assumptions.  Or maybe we just don’t have enough information to really know what’s going on around us.  I laughed long and hard at that, while returning the trout to the drink.  There’s always a rationalization, isn’t there?

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May 21 2010

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Nature and Existence

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Nature and Existence is now in print.  I’ve been working on this slender volume for years and am pleased to finally release it under my imprint, Wood Thrush Books.  Weighing-in at only 85 pages, this book packs a big punch for its size, or at least I think it does.  But I’ll let you, dear reader, be the judge of that.

While each essay in this book can be taken individually, they should be consumed as a set.  Together they outline a quirky worldview – a philosophy of wildness.  Definitely not for the faint of heart, or for people who think they know how the universe is organized.  But for those of you who have ever gazed deep into the night sky and scratched your head, this book might be of interest.

If a thoughtful, well-written nature essay can be likened to a glass of fine wine, then this is white lightning.  Yeah, sheer moonshine.  Be ready to get drunk with wild ideas.

In this book, I trade in paradoxes, ambiguities and outright contradictions – the stuff of life, not classrooms or churches.  And while I often wield the powerful tool of reason, that’s not where I put my faith.  There is too much mystery in nature for it to be grasped by reason alone.  And that’s where my argument begins.

Nature and Existence touches upon the known and the unknown, wildness, civilization, the laws of nature (or the lack thereof), Darwinism, cosmology, our relationship to the planet, physical and non-physical realities, the emergence of life, and what it means to be human.  Did I forget anything?

In another time and place, I would have been burned at the stake for writing a book like this.  But nowadays, in the Age of Information, whacked-out ideas like these can easily be ignored.  It’s your choice.  Go to http://www.woodthrushbooks.com to learn more about this book, or continue surfing the Internet.

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Feb 02 2010

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An Antiquated Humanism

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Last week I finished reading a book called The History of Nature and drew surprising insight from it.  I found the obscure tome in the science section of a used bookstore a few years ago.  The book was published in 1949 so you can imagine how out of date the science in it is.  But the last few chapters – “The Soul,” “Man: Outer History” and “Man: Inner History” – looked interesting.  I bought the book and read it despite its age.

The book was written by C. F. von Weizsacker, a German nuclear physicist.  Von Weizsacker was the first to identify nuclear reactions as the energy source for the sun and stars, so he was no slouch when it came to science.  The first three-quarters of The History of Nature is a good review of what humankind had learned about Earth and the cosmos by 1949.  But this heavyweight scientist wasn’t much of a philosopher, as the last quarter of the book clearly illustrates.

This comes as no surprise.  Few heavyweight scientists are heavyweight philosophers, as well.  In this age of specialization, we don’t even expect it.  As C. P. Snow pointed out a half century ago, science and the humanities have developed into two separate cultures.  Therein lies the problem.  The more we compartmentalize knowledge, the harder it is for any of us to see the big picture.  I give von Weizsacker credit for attempting, at least, to bring all knowledge together in a synoptic view of things.  Most thinkers don’t even try.

That said, what struck me about von Weizsacker’s worldview was the inconsistency of it.  “Body and soul are not two substances but one,” he states outright, suggesting a worldview one that would expect from a Platonic thinker, a Rationalist from the Enlightenment, or a Buddhist.  Then he blathered on about the rise of free thought over instinct, good and evil, and the virtues of the Christian love, as if this kind of dualism wasn’t at odds with his original body/soul statement.  Fuzzy thinking at best.

As I finished this book, it suddenly occurred to me that Humanism, preached by religious and secular thinkers alike in the middle of the 20th Century, is now antiquated.  The contradictions of it have simply become too glaring.  That we, Homo sapiens, are qualitatively different from the rest of nature is something any informed person living today must find very hard to swallow.  What basis is there in science for this kind of thinking?  At what point did we abandon our animal selves?  When exactly did we divorce nature and become human – when we turned to agriculture and started building towns, or when we started burying our dead and painting on cave walls?  How about when we fashioned the first tool?  When Lucy walked upright across the savanna, was that the beginning our separation?

No, I don’t see it.  I don’t see human nature apart from Nature.  Nor do I see human progress as the gradual removal of our selves from the physical environment.  Certainly, our ability to think abstractly – to love, hate and reason – is an integral part of our humanity, but so is eating, sleeping, dreaming, bleeding and sex, to name but a few of our more down-to-earth attributes.

If we are serious about being fully human, then we must cultivate our affinity with wild nature instead of alienating ourselves from it.  Besides, the wild is as much within us as it is out there.  Like all things in nature, we are evolving, but the words “progress” and “human” do not go together very well.  For better or worse, a human being will always be an animal to some extent.  And I for one revel in that fact.

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Dec 11 2009

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Philosophical Tramping

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President Obama is one of the more thoughtful, intelligent, and humane world leaders to come along in recent years, and that is why he has received the Nobel Peace Prize ahead of any real accomplishments.  All the same, he didn’t shy away from harsh geopolitical realities when he gave his acceptance speech yesterday.  It made a lot of people squirm, I’m sure.  Realism or idealism?  “I reject this choice,” he said in his defense of “just war,” thus exposing him self to criticism from all quarters.  And suddenly I feel a tremendous urge to pull on my hike boots and go for a long walk.

Some insights come to me instantaneously, while I’m conversing with someone, reading, driving, showering, or just staring out the window.  Others have to be wrenched from the deepest recesses of my brain.  Complex problems, harsh realities, difficult matters both personal and universal – these I cannot face while sitting or standing still.  My legs have to be moving in order for me to gain any fresh insight into them whatsoever.  I am one of those “philosophical tramps” that Barbara Hurd talks about in her book, Stirring the Mud, who can face great difficulties only by walking.  And now, after reading Obama’s acceptance speech, I have much to consider, requiring a good, long stretch of the legs.

I too reject the false choice between realism and idealism – between the harsh realities that all pragmatists learn to accept over time, and the unsinkable hopes of dreamers.  But it’s a tough place to be, between the two, and only the perpetual contradiction of wild nature gives me room enough to maneuver between what is and what could be.  Only in the wild does anything human make sense to me, including my own pragmatism, my own cherished dreams.

The other day I cut tracks in the snow while walking among the trees, trying my damnedest to get to the root of personal matters that have been troubling me for quite some time.  On other outings, I have walked to gain a morsel of wisdom concerning metaphysical matters way too abstract to trouble most people.  Personal or impersonal, it’s all the same to the wild.  That oracle doesn’t differentiate between the one and the many.

Perhaps we shouldn’t either.  Perhaps that which affects one of us affects us all.  Perhaps the most profoundly philosophical matters are those that determine how we go about our daily lives.  The gas in the tank of my car, for example, is geopolitical.  Its emissions will have an impact, great or slight, upon every other creature on this planet.  That’s something to consider, anyhow, as I’m motoring to the nearest trailhead.  And perhaps that’s what Obama was driving at in his speech.  I don’t know, I’m not sure, so I’ll go for a long walk and think about it.  That is, after all, what we philosophical tramps do.

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Jul 27 2009

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Nature and Irrationality

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From what I can tell, there are two prevailing approaches to nature these days: the holistic and the rationalistic.  Those who take the holistic approach perceive nature as a seamless whole, which holds itself in eternal balance – when undisturbed by humans that is.  Those who take the rationalistic approach assert that there is a logical explanation for everything in nature, even the allegedly erratic behavior of individual plants, animals and people.  This is the fundamental difference between East and West, between the philosophies of the Orient and those that arose from ancient Greece.  Or so we are told.  But I don’t buy it.

In the 21st Century, a third approach is emerging – one that fuses the holistic with the rationalistic, the East with the West, the right brain with the left.  In this approach, Mother Earth is respected even as science is embraced.  Taking this approach, reasonable men and women work as stewards, helping nature restore itself to its proper balance.  But I don’t buy this, either.

There is, of course, that old-time view of nature as a world “red in tooth and claw,” where strong prevail and weak perish, but aside from a handful of libertarian anarchists, I’ve never met anyone who truly believes this.  The problem with this approach is that civilization keeps getting in the way.  What room is there for civility in such a world, for law and order?

The way I see it, the wild has no place in any of these views.  And when I say “wild” here, I mean truly wild – wild in a way that no theologian, scientist, or philosopher could ever fully explain.  The wild as fundamental contradiction, as aberration of nature, as inherent absurdity.  I seem to be one of the few people who believe that wildness of this sort exists.

After several decades of rumination, I have reached the conclusion that nature is predicated by the irrational.  I don’t think there can be any serious discussion about nature without the thorny issue of wildness being addressed, first and foremost.  And yes, I suspect that wildness and irrationality are cut from the same cloth, that all deviations from the norm are, in fact, as much a part of nature as the norm itself.  In other words, nothing stands outside of nature.

So go ahead and call me a Pantheist.  I won’t deny it.  It would be irrational for me to do so.  Then again, it’s hard to say how I’ll react to any box drawn around me.  And this is precisely why wildness, human or otherwise, is so dangerous.

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May 01 2009

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The Politics of Nature

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People naturally assume that I’m eager to save the planet from the ravages of industrialism, protect all endangered species from extinction, and preserve as much wild forest as possible.  Surely someone as passionate about wild nature as I am must be an environmental activist, or so the conventional line of reasoning goes.  This assumption is made by liberals and conservatives alike, and confusion registers visibly in their faces when I deny it.  And when I add that I reject “-Ist” and “-Ism” altogether, that I’m too much of a philosopher to be truly political, most people peg me as a fence-sitter and leave it at that.  Who can blame them?  Action is what matters in this world of ours.  Words are only words.

I studied too much political theory back in college – that’s the problem.  I learned all I could learn about Socialism, Fascism, Republicanism, Democracy, Theocracy and the rest of it.  I even cultivated my own alternative political philosophy for a while.  But all that is just theory.  Politics is the concentration and exercise of power to project one’s own cherished values onto the world.  Ideology is merely the excuse needed to get the job done, to mobilize other people to action.  As a would-be propagandist and pamphleteer, I see right through the advertisements, both left and right.  In other words, I know bullshit when I see it, and no “Ism” is an exception to the rule, not even Anarchism.

Generally speaking, I am reluctant to voice this opinion of mine – and that’s all it is, really – because there’s no advantage in offending nearly everyone else on the planet.  But make no mistake about it, I don’t care to wave any flag, even one with a picture of Mother Earth on it.

While activists break into two distinct camps, warring with each other in the political arena, global warming continues, thousands of species disappear, and the wild forest grows smaller. When the liberals are in power, laws are passed protecting the environment – keeping Big Business from trashing it, that is.  When the conservatives are in power, those laws are rescinded or new ones are passed, enabling businessmen to profit from the use and abuse of natural resources no matter what.  Back and forth the pendulum swings, year-in and year-out.  To what end?  Do you really believe that one side will ultimately win this battle?  Do you really think that an activist of any stripe can do anything that can’t be undone?

What’s at stake here is quality of life – the quality of our lives, not those of trees, whales or spotted owls.  It’s really more a matter of economics, not politics.  When enough people grasp the true cost of their shopping mall world, and what is lost in the process of perpetuating it, there will be little resistance to salvaging what’s left of the wild.  Most people act in their own best interest.  All any real lover of wild things needs to do is show them exactly what’s at stake.  Then nature will take its course.

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Feb 11 2009

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Does Nature Exist?

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This week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin – the man whose name is practically synonymous with evolution.  It’s a good time to celebrate natural science, or at least acknowledge Darwin’s work.  But evolution has become politicized, like everything else.  When reading about an organization currently pushing the slogan: “evolve beyond belief,” I am tempted to dive into the fray and argue that belief and evolution are not mutually exclusive.  Then I remember who/what I am and where I really stand on this matter, and out comes this question: Does nature exist?

You think I’m kidding.  You look out the window at the sky, the trees, and the songbirds at your feeder and you think: “Of course it does.  It’s right here before us as plain as day.”  But I’m not so sure.  That’s why I call myself a philosopher and why most people despise philosophy.  Guys like me ponder for days on end what the average person accepts as common sense.  It seems pretty silly, I’ll admit that.  But in my defense, let me say just this:  Five hundred years ago, common sense dictated that the Earth was flat and the sun, moon and stars revolved around it.  Common sense isn’t wisdom.  The smallest kernel of new knowledge can radically change its trajectory.  If nothing else, Darwin’s life and work illustrates this.

If you’re one of those people who despises philosophy, now’s the time for you to click away to a more entertaining website.  Google “evolve beyond belief” if you’re bored.  I’m sure you’ll have fun with that.  But those of you who don’t mind delving deeper, read on.

No, I’m not kidding.  “Nature” is one of those words, like “truth” and “love,” so loaded with assumption that it’s practically meaningless.  The single most important assumption we make is that Nature exists at all (yes, that’s Nature spelled with a capital N).  If chaos rules the universe, as some scientists and philosophers insist, then what we perceive as order is only an illusion.  So my apparently absurd question can be better worded this way:  Does natural order reign in the universe or is the appearance of it only an illusion?  God or physics – take your pick.  You can believe in one or the other, but to use the word “nature” in any meaningful way, you have to believe in some kind of organizing force.

These days I’m deep into the revision of a philosophical piece that’s a real pleasure to work on.  But every time I come up for air, I am tormented by the kind of false choices that dominate the media and all conversations related to it.  Then suddenly I catch my reflection in the mirror: I am the madman yelling “pears” when everyone else is arguing apples and oranges.  Of course I’m tormented.  I insist upon being a philosopher in a world where the vast majority of people would rather argue than think.  So I should either accept that torment as an occupational hazard and get on with my work, or join the fray.  Hmm…  What would Darwin do?

Those of you who know my drill know that this is when I usually grab my rucksack and head for the hills, more to ruminate than to relax.  But let’s forget about me for a moment and think about that hard working 19th Century amateur scientist who put a wrestler’s hold on the idea of Nature and didn’t let go.  What was he really trying to tell us?  This is worth considering, I think, on the anniversary of the day when that exceptional mind came into the world.

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