A Forest Hymn

14 01 2013

spring green

The groves were God’s first temples. Ere man learned
To hew the shaft, and lay the architrave,
And spread the roof above them,—ere he framed
The lofty vault, to gather and roll back
The sound of anthems; in the darkling wood,
Amidst the cool and silence, he knelt down,
And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks
And supplication. For his simple heart
Might not resist the sacred influences,
Which, from the stilly twilight of the place,
And from the gray old trunks that high in heaven
Mingled their mossy boughs, and from the sound
Of the invisible breath that swayed at once
All their green tops, stole over him, and bowed
His spirit with the thought of boundless power
And inaccessible majesty. Ah, why
Should we, in the world’s riper years, neglect
God’s ancient sanctuaries, and adore
Only among the crowd, and under roofs,
That our frail hands have raised? Let me, at least,
Here, in the shadow of this aged wood,
Offer one hymn—thrice happy, if it find
Acceptance in His ear.

tree's eye view

Father, thy hand
Hath reared these venerable columns, thou
Didst weave this verdant roof. Thou didst look down
Upon the naked earth, and, forthwith, rose
All these fair ranks of trees. They, in thy sun,
Budded, and shook their green leaves in the breeze,
And shot towards heaven. The century-living crow,
Whose birth was in their tops, grew old and died
Among their branches, till, at last, they stood,
As now they stand, massy, and tall, and dark,
Fit shrine for humble worshipper to hold
Communion with his Maker. These dim vaults,
These winding aisles, of human pomp and pride
Report not. No fantastic carvings show
The boast of our vain race to change the form
Of thy fair works. But thou art here—thou fill’st
The solitude. Thou art in the soft winds
That run along the summit of these trees
In music; thou art in the cooler breath
That from the inmost darkness of the place
Comes, scarcely felt; the barky trunks, the ground,
The fresh moist ground, are all instinct with thee.
Here is continual worship;—Nature, here,
In the tranquility that thou dost love,
Enjoys thy presence. Noiselessly, around,
From perch to perch, the solitary bird
Passes; and yon clear spring, that, midst its herbs,
Wells softly forth and wandering steeps the roots
Of half the mighty forest, tells no tale
Of all the good it does. Thou hast not left
Thyself without a witness, in these shades,
Of thy perfections. Grandeur, strength, and grace
Are here to speak of thee. This mighty oak—
By whose immovable stem I stand and seem
Almost annihilated—not a prince,
In all that proud old world beyond the deep,
E’er wore his crown as lofty as he
Wears the green coronal of leaves with which
Thy hand has graced him. Nestled at his root
Is beauty, such as blooms not in the glare
Of the broad sun. That delicate forest flower
With scented breath, and look so like a smile,
Seems, as it issues from the shapeless mould,
An emanation of the indwelling Life,
A visible token of the upholding Love,
That are the soul of this wide universe.

black and white

My heart is awed within me when I think
Of the great miracle that still goes on,
In silence, round me—the perpetual work
Of thy creation, finished, yet renewed
Forever. Written on thy works I read
The lesson of thy own eternity.
Lo! all grow old and die—but see again,
How on the faltering footsteps of decay
Youth presses—-ever gay and beautiful youth
In all its beautiful forms. These lofty trees
Wave not less proudly that their ancestors
Moulder beneath them. Oh, there is not lost
One of earth’s charms: upon her bosom yet,
After the flight of untold centuries,
The freshness of her far beginning lies
And yet shall lie. Life mocks the idle hate
Of his arch enemy Death—yea, seats himself
Upon the tyrant’s throne—the sepulchre,
And of the triumphs of his ghastly foe
Makes his own nourishment. For he came forth
From thine own bosom, and shall have no end.

evening willows

There have been holy men who hid themselves
Deep in the woody wilderness, and gave
Their lives to thought and prayer, till they outlived
The generation born with them, nor seemed
Less aged than the hoary trees and rocks
Around them;—and there have been holy men
Who deemed it were not well to pass life thus.
But let me often to these solitudes
Retire, and in thy presence reassure
My feeble virtue. Here its enemies,
The passions, at thy plainer footsteps shrink
And tremble and are still. Oh, God! when thou
Dost scare the world with falling thunderbolts, or fill,
With all the waters of the firmament,
The swift dark whirlwind that uproots the woods
And drowns the village; when, at thy call,
Uprises the great deep and throws himself
Upon the continent, and overwhelms
Its cities—who forgets not, at the sight
Of these tremendous tokens of thy power,
His pride, and lays his strifes and follies by?
Oh, from these sterner aspects of thy face
Spare me and mine, nor let us need the wrath
Of the mad unchained elements to teach
Who rules them. Be it ours to meditate,
In these calm shades, thy milder majesty,
And to the beautiful order of the works
Learn to conform the order of our lives.

William Cullen Bryant
autumn understory




The Dearest Freshness

28 12 2012
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
“God’s Grandeur”
Gerard Manley Hopkins
river sunset

For the Beauty of the Earth

29 11 2012

Philistine. Christians may yet think first of the people of some three thousand years ago who fought repeatedly with the Hebrews. Originally from Crete, they migrated to the southeast shore of the Mediterranean Sea and established five cities that waxed and waned for a millennium. They disappeared as an ethnic group at the time of the Maccabees, but the word derived from their existence—Palestine—remains to this day.

In the minds of the general populace, the word philistine (spelled without capitalization) denotes a person who is boorish or uncultured and proud of it.  More precisely, a philistine is one who for art would not care to give even five smooth stones from a stream. Evidently, unlike the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, the original Philistines left no legacy of words or music, sculpture or architecture. Even the ancient Hebrews, who contributed little to the arts in general, nevertheless had great poets.

Here are a few lines from a great Hebrew: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Who is their Artist?

As it was written by another Hebrew, consider His heavens, the work of His fingers, the moon and the stars, which He has ordained. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth His handiwork,” declares the psalmist.

What is to be our response?

“O give thanks unto the God of gods… O give thanks to the Lord of lords… to Him who alone doeth great wonders… to Him that by wisdom made the heavens… to Him that stretched out the earth above the waters… to Him that made great lights… the sun to rule by day…” The lovingkindness of this Artist endures forever.

And yet, what really is our response? Do we care? Or do we treat the art of the earth with the kind of giant contempt against God manifested by Goliath of Gath? Are we collaborators with those uncircumcised Philistines?

This has nothing to do with the worship of Gaea. It has everything to do with the worship of the Lord God.

This is not primarily about science, junk or otherwise. This is about art. (Note, however, that hard science’s improving perception of the anthropic principle provides plenty of reason to appreciate the Artisan’s creation of cosmos from chaos.)

Art. We may not know the difference between a fresco and a fresh coat of paint, chiaroscuro and charcoal, or rococo and hot cocoa. Even so, who among us would take a finger painting presented with pride by a child and use it to light a barbecue fire? Who among us would take a watercolor given with love by a grandchild and use it for toilet paper?

Now turn this around. Suppose you paint a picture of the lilies of the field, and it measures up to the best of Dürer and Michelangelo, of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, of Constable and Turner, of Monet and Van Gogh, of Homer and O’Keeffe. Even Solomon in all his wealth could not buy it from you. Instead, you give the painting to your children. What would you think if they cut it up to make illustrations for a seed catalogue? If they peeled it apart to obtain sample chips for a paint store? If they burned it to smelt the cadmium and titanium and other minerals from the pigments? If they tore it to pieces so they could puff spit wads at one another? To borrow a line from Saint James and King James, “these things ought not so to be.”

It is written: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28 NAU).

It is also written, several times: “The earth is the Lord’s.” (See Exodus 9:29, Deuteronomy 10:14, Psalm 24:1, and 1 Corinthians 10:26, 28.)

When God put mankind in the Garden of Eden, what was His intent? The King James Version of the account employs two words—dress and keep.

In the original Hebrew, dress means work. More specifically, it means to work for, to serve another, to serve the Lord as subjects of the Lord.

In the original Hebrew, keep has a range of meanings.  Observe, reserve, and preserve. Regard and guard. Care. Ward. Save. The word can even mean treasure and celebrate.

We are to dress and keep a garden. But what do we do?

We build our houses upon the sand of a beach or floodplain.  When the rain descends, and the floods come, and the winds blow and beat upon those houses, and when they thus fall, we require our taxpaying neighbors to rebuild them, and in the same place.  Then we want those neighbors to pay for projects to protect them, and at the expense of the environment, too.

We build our houses upon the sands of a desert.  We then require our farming and ranching neighbors to give up their land for water projects, and later give up their water rights so we may have green lawns we overload with fertilizers and pesticides, which in turn run off to despoil waterways and wetlands. We require other neighbors to strip mountains and fill valleys and foul the air so we may power gadgets, gizmos, and games.

To borrow a line from Saint John, “And there are also many other things… the which, if they should be written every one… even the world itself could not contain the books…” With regard to such carelessness and even contempt for ecology, what would Saint James say to it all?

Here are the bottom lines.

Reverence for God truly includes reverence for the beauty and goodness of His creation. Besides, the lives and livelihoods of our neighbors, who are also His creation and whom we are to love if we say we love God, depend on it.