NATURE: Earth Music by David James Duncan

Earth Music by David James Duncan

From Portland Magazine

I hold the thing we call “nature” to be the divine manuscript.  I hold the infinite wilds to be the only unbowdlerized book we possess of the Authorship that gives and sustains life.  Human industry is shredding this book like an Enron document.  Some call this shredding “economics” and “freedom.”  It’s not quite a lie.  But the freedom to shred the divine manuscript is not an economics any lover of neighbor, self, or Earth wishes to practice.

A spiritual hero told me when I was young that “true happiness lies in making others happy.”  Having found no happiness seeking it for myself, I tried seeking the happiness of others, and found this unlikely statement to be true.  The formula was not without side-effects, however, once self-giving starts to give you joy, you grow bewildered by the specter of selfishness, fall out of the nationalist/capitalist loop, and limp about in search of healthier hopes.  A new source of hope for me: the growing reverence for nature and its mysteries among scientists.

Though science itself never caged us, until recently the sciences were committed to mechanistic paradigms and an obsession with the physically measurable that made reverence possible only by disconnecting spirituality and scientific thought.  The so-called “Enlightenment” and its empirical thinking led, sans spirit, to the effective naming of things, cataloging of things, dissecting, extracting, and reconstruction of things, to create the modern world as we know it.  By the late twentieth century, the same divorce between spirituality and science had led to genetically warping even the most sacred living things, filing corporate copyrights on ancient living things, and raping, monoculturizing, extincting, and abstracting ourselves from living things as if we were not living things ourselves.


I see two chief causes for the countering outburst of reverence in science – one famous, the other infamous.  The infamous cause: suffering.  How many biologists, botanists, ethnologists, anthropologists, have been forced to renounce their fields in mid-career because their living objects of study have died out before their eyes?  How many more have been so dismayed by the world’s barrios, biological dead or disease zones, slave job and oil war zones, that they’ve abandoned their disciplines to become peace activists or humanitarians?

The famous cause of the new reverence among scientists: the new physics.  Quantum mechanics have changed the way we see the universe.  The old proton/neutron/electron atom, for instance, is as unfit for describing matter as we now understand it as a Model T Ford is unfit for negotiating a contemporary freeway.  Atomic particles are now said to derive from “immaterial wave packets”; space is now said to have had ten original dimensions that collapsed, at the beginning of time, to form the “superstrings” of which subatomic particles consist.  Field theory.  Morphogenesis.  It’s hard to keep up with all the ways that physics is telling us that Space, Time, and Matter derive from something infinitely subtler and greater than all three.

One upshot of all this has been a sea-change in the kind of thinking that we can now call scientific.  Reason, though still a crucial tool, is no longer Science’s despot king.  Intuition, imagination, poetry, humility, and reverence now also play their roles, leading to the possibility of scientific statements such as these:

WILLIGIS JAGER: “There aren’t two kinds of laws: matter and mind.  Rather, there is a single continuous law for both matter and mind.  Matter is the domain of
space in which the field is extremely dense.”

ALBERT EINSTEIN: “In the new physics, there is no place for both field and matter, because field is the only reality.”

TEILHARD DE CHARDIN: “Concretely speaking, there is no matter and spirit. There exists only matter that is becoming spirit.”

FREDERICK SOMMER: “Spirit is the behavior of matter.  Perception does not take spiritedness into a state of affairs that does not already have it.”


My daily work is reflection, imagination, and story-telling.  The recent sea-change in science has returned the modifier “scientific” to a place of honor in this work.  When, for example, I first read in my teens of medieval cosmologists referring to a “music of the spheres,” my reason howled in protest because its “education in science” had trained it to do so.  Despite reason’s howling, though, my heart at the time told me: You have heard such music.  The science of today adds that if “field is the only reality” and “there exists only matter that is becoming spirit,” it is scientific not only to ask my heart where I heard spheric music, but to try to hear it again.

Exploring my heart, I recalled that, years ago, I read the Upanisadic description of a state in which “the soul perceives infinite hugeness and infinite smallness as one and the same,” and felt a strong intuitive resonation.  Then, years later, I found in the Koran the statement, “All creation in the hands of the Merciful One is smaller than a mustard seed,” and felt the same resonation.  Then last year I learned of a mathematician, Georg Cantor, who proved in demonstrable mathematical fashion that infinities come in an infinite range of sizes, and that any Infinity, being a unity and hence complete within itself, must include itself, and be a member of itself, “and thus can only be known through a flash of mystical vision.”  And then one morning last spring, while cleaning my study, I opened a dusty National Geographic and found a Hubble Space photo of 150,000 galaxies swirling in a job of universe “the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length,” and tears rose because, in an instant, the entire preceding series of scriptual and mathematical images swept through me, filling me with the profundo hum of an indescribable music.

That night, after watching the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, I dreamed that I was shot dead by a hundred machine guns, shot so many times that a dark bullet-driven wind blew my soul irrevocably away from even my dead body and I was invisible and afraid and had neither breath nor voice with which to call out to my God.  I called out in bodiless desire anyway, and a spheric point pierced the wall of the grim gray world in which I drifted, the point expanded, tore that world’s wall apart like so much wet kleenex, a light poured through, and I saw my Beloved’s cheek and brilliant eye peeking at me through the hole, just that much of him, yet there was such love in that eye, such What-a-trick-I’ve-pulled! glee, that a posthumous existence without need of this body felt not just possible but certain, and I woke with a jolt of joy, hearing the same kind of music.  So when, the next day, I read Annie Dillard writing, “There is no less holiness at this time – as you are reading this – than there was the day the Red Sea parted.  There is no whit less might in Heaven or on Earth than there was the day Jesus said, ‘Maid, arise,” to the centurion’s daughter, or the day Peter walked on water, or the night Mohammed flew to Heaven on a horse.  In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture.  ‘Each and every day the Divine Voice issues from Sinai,’ says the Talmud.  Of eternal fulfillment, Tillich said, ‘If it is not seen in the present, it cannot be seen at all.'”  I felt an urge to shout: Hallelujah, Annie!  You’re singin’ the morpho-genetic gospel now!

If field is the only reality and all matter is becoming spirit, I daresay this shout can be called scientific.


The sensations of field, of palpable presence, of hum, still come over me walking the mountains or cities, wading the traffic or trout streams.  I don’t seek such sensations.  They just unfold, unlooked for, in the course of what comes.  A spring aspen leaf might brush my face, and I’ll close my eyes and find myself feeling the tiny, self-contained universe that is a spring-green aspen cell suddenly making two of itself, and growing because it loves to.  I’ll witness “fruitful multiplication” in our Montana-winter-blighted fruit trees or the year’s brood of Bantam chicks, the creek’s insects or the river bottoms’ whitetail fawns, the newborn wood-ducks, the kingfishers, the killdeers, and wonder comes upon me in the form of music as the densities, unions, and division of love are made palpable.  I’ll stand by the ocean, see the slight curve of horizon, feel the ocean’s hum, and see: the very seas are a single spherical note.  I’ll have the sense, standing in running water, that I’ve been not just close to the molecules flowing round me but inside them: that I’ve experienced, in the womb or aeons earlier, the coming together and breaking apart of spheric particles of H and of O.  I’ll witness the aging, sickness, and deaths of plants, animals, family, friends, self, the migrations to new climes, transmigrations into unknowns, jolts into new awareness or bodies, slow breakdowns by organic or industrial attrition, transformations of earth, water, matter, energy, clouds, leaves, souls – and a vast pulsing harmony and an anguish of joy will fill the bit of me left unabsorbed.


It’s time I stopped building sentences now and stepped down to the creek, as I’ve done half my life come evening.  This time of year I’ll look for the rainbows that migrate up from the bigger rivers to spawn.  And I’ll find a pair, if this spring is like the last eight, in a tiny side channel a quarter mile downstream.  As I approach them on my belly I’ll be crawling across spheroid grains of white granitic sand.  I’ll then lie like a Muslim, watching a female trout an arm’s length from my eyes beat her body against gold-colored pebbles, build a stone nest, and fill it with a thousand lit-from-within orange spheres.  I’ll watch the male ease over like one of the gray-black snow clouds above.  And when the milt pours down, each nested sphere will suddenly love to divide and divide till it’s a sphere no longer but a tiny, sphere-eyed trout.  I’ll encounter the same trout over the slow course of summer, drifting down toward the rivers, growing by dividing, defeating time; I’ll catch them now and then, release most, eat a few, and the survivors will return in twelve or sixteen seasons, bearing the milt clouds, glowing spheres, and hidden fields that carry the genius of trout toward my children’s children’s world.  There’s not much more to discuss here.  Either fields beyond matter exist or they don’t, the kingdom of Heaven is within us or it isn’t, and each and every day the Divine Voice issues from Sinai, every inch of Creation is pierced by Its song, and every point, cell, particle, field is so moved by the Music that it loves to sing, swell, shrink, leap, divide, and bear all fruit and all life and all death and all regeneration in response, or It doesn’t.

But my honest experience is: It does, it does!


I have no rational idea “what it means” when consciousness revs up and perceives mystery or field amid mind, amid life, amid matter, but oh do I have perceptions of what it means.  And if I am ever to rise to the Beauty that is Truth, I must describe these perceptions as consciousness Truly perceives them.  I therefore confess life-long love for a wilderness found outside myself, till once in a while I encounter it within – a wilderness entered, it seems, through agenda-less alertness at work, rest, or play in the presence of language, rivers, mountains, music, plants, creatures, rocks, moon, sun, dust, pollen, grains, dots, spheres, galaxies, grains of sand, stars, every sort of athletic ball, cells, DNA, molecules, atomic particles, and immaterial forces, till it suddenly “inside-outs” me, leading to the perception and adoration of synergies and harmonies that leave my mind wondrous happy but far, far behind my heart.  It’s a wilderness my dog, Reason, will never succeed in sniffing out, chomping up, or rationally defining, yet a wilderness I’ve been so often and gratefully assailed by that I’ve lost all but comic interest in my good dog’s sniffing and suspect that even the dog begins to enjoy itself when we get flipped into wilderness’s heart.

I believe – based on hydrogen clouds giving birth to stars, exploded stars to planets, spring stormclouds to snow, snowbanks to rivers, orange orbs to trout; I believe based on lives collapsing into ashes and dust, and dust bursting back to life; I believe based on spheric shapes singing, dividing, creating cells, plants, creatures, creating my children, sunflowers, sun, self, universe, by constantly sacrificing all that they are in order to be reconfigured and reborn forever and ever – that when we feel Love’s density, see its colors, feel its pulse, it’s time to quit worrying about reason and words and cry: “My God!  Thanks!”

If I stake my life on one field, one wild force, one sentence issuing from Sinai, it is this one: There is no goal beyond love.

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