By Basil E. Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Mother Nature, known as Demeter in ancient Greece, likes to dress herself in splendid ornaments of flowers, foliage, rocks, rills, and other artworks. Who can fail to appreciate the beauty of cliffs and rocks, such as the immense El Capitan monolith in California’s Yosemite Valley, especially in artistic black and white photographs by John Muir? What is her purpose in such displays? Nature’s purpose is clear in the colors and shapes of flowers or the feathers of birds of paradise: the propagation of the species. You could say the same about the beauty of a young woman’s body, a great favorite of painters and sculptors. But what about other lovely forms, such as rocks, brooks, and sea waves? Artists do work to express themselves in their creations and communicate their deepest feelings to the rest of us lugs. Their purpose is clear. But Nature is not human or even a living thing to the largest extent; what is she after? I define an artwork as a thing of beauty, what you and I and most people appreciate as beauty. Nature’s purpose in her artworks is to inspire us to live better lives. That is why we’re filled with such deep peace and satisfaction in the presence of her works.
Unfortunately Mother Nature and Demeter are creatures of human imagination. Demeter of the Greeks was mainly concerned with agricultural production and general fertility. Not surprisingly so since so much of biological activity has to do with fertility and procreation. Nature in general outside the realm of living things is uncaring, totally indifferent to the fate of humans, other animals, or plants. Periodically Mother Earth or Nature explodes in fiery volcanoes, violent earthquakes, covers her soil with hostile glaciers or droughts, blows at us and other creatures with deadly winds, typhoons, hurricanes and other such niceties. Sometimes she invites asteroids and comets that wipe out much life. From all appearances Mother Nature is an uncaring, occasionally an evil, Stepmother.
Still we the living survived on Earth’s surface and waters for billions of years, in spite of difficulties and trials–even because of hardships which have forced us to evolve. For sure we have on this planet a web of life, creatures competing for space and food, but also cooperating. The droppings of animals feed plants, which feed animals with fruits and vegetables for the “purpose” of propagation. Predators eat their prey but also keep it healthy by culling the weak animals in the prey population. Humans eat plants and animals but also cultivate them and improve them insuring their survival, albeit in captivity.
And so what if Mother Nature is only in our imagination? Is the concept less valuable if it only exists in our heads? The image of the Earth Mother guides people to respect their natural environment and tend it with greater care. Our feelings about Nature lead us to respect wilderness areas, allowing wild animals and plants to carry on with their lives without our often destructive interference. The peace and tranquility John Muir experienced in Yosemite Valley and the California Sierras led him to write about landscapes unspoiled by human activity and photograph lovely sights, inspiring the American nation to preserve Nature’s wonders for all posterity.
Posterity will actually enjoy the fruits of evolution in Nature. Evolution is the key to Nature’s purpose. The beautiful sights we see were not caused by a purpose as we humans conceive it, but are the outcome of evolution in plants, animals, and of humans. We have evolved in this environment over billions of years, whether our original spores spontaneously appeared on Earth or descended from the sky on board an asteroid. This rocky or watery environment is what we have always known as home; also the sun, moon, and stars above our heads.
Thus we’re filled with pleasure and awe looking at the night sky resplendent with moon and stars, the canopy under which we have loved and slept for eons.
Those of us who live in cities always bathed in artificial light seldom see the splendor of the night or the glow of dawn. We cannot see the sparkle of our galaxy the Milky Way because of air and light pollution. We miss the breath of the Earth, and our souls hunger for it, so we seek distractions and forgetfulness. I experienced such a hunger.
So I left the city and settled on land in the county of San Diego together with my brother George. As boys we wondered over the hills and valleys around our town in Greece, picking wild flowers and chasing rabbits. We swam in a river or a pond. We climbed rocks and trees to survey our domain. We played hide and seek with other boys in the wilderness peopled only by an occasional herder of goats or sheep.
In the early evening as dusk settled I was filled with wonder and awe looking at the hills and their shadows, the rising moon and the morning star of Venus. As a child and now as an older man, I still admire the works of nature, the animals, the lovely pines and stately cypress trees of Greece. When quite young I loved to imitate the speech of goats, sheep, cows, pigs, and donkeys, and the music of birds and insects, such as crickets, and I still occasionally do so in my village of Katakilos.
I look upon the lush hillsides of Katakilos, across the canyon to the cow pastures and hear the occasional deep mooing. I am filled with immense satisfaction, feeling perfectly at home.
These feelings most of us experience have an explanation in scientific evolution and procreation, but the explanation is not complete. Something magical and mystical still remains in the experience which we cannot quite express in scientific prose. Poetry expresses these feelings better. Walt Whitman’s “A Song of the Rolling Earth” comes to mind, or William Butler Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
Yeats: “I shall arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning, to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
I was thrilled to read the poem by Yeats as a young man, and I was deeply moved upon hearing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony or Antonin Dvorak’s Overture In Nature’s Realm.
This poetry, this music, expressed my feelings when looking upon slow moving clouds in the sky, the peaks of mountains, flowing streams and lakes, or majestic rocks. I resolved I would never be far from the rolling earth, not now while alive, not when my body eventually decomposed and mingled back into the soil of my native planet.