Thursday, April 10. Good Friday in the Christian calendar. My spouse is worshiping alone, her church being locked up, a sign of these pandemic times. I go for my usual walk in the foothills. Spring blooms, mostly fritillaries and glacier lilies, dot the north slope of the hill in back of our home, which stays moist into May. Yellow petals hang above rich, lily-like leaves, all surrounded by the emerging shoots of meadow grasses. Even the ubiquitous cheatgrass, which will turn brown in a matter of weeks, is a lively green. Life is bursting forth from newly warmed soil. I think of Goethe’s lines from the first part of Faust, where his protagonist observes the scene outside the city gate at Easter:
Released from the ice are river and creek,
Warmed by the spring’s fair quickening eye;
The valley is green with hope and joy;
The hoary winter has grown so weak
He has withdrawn to the rugged mountains.
From there he sends, but only in flight,
Impotent showers of icy hail
That streak across the greening vale;
But the sun will not suffer the white;
Everywhere stirs what develops and grows . . .
(trans. Walter Kaufmann)
How can one’s thoughts not be elevated in such surroundings, even in a time of world crisis? How can one not think of renewal, or meditate upon the idea of resurrection? I turn to the original German in this famous passage, and note that the last line I’ve quoted—the words Kaufmann translates as “develops and grows”—are actually Bildung und Streben, two terms which I’m sure Goethe did not choose lightly. Bildung in its simplest sense means “education,” but it carries much deeper connotations. Wikipedia calls it “the process of harmonization of mind, heart, selfhood and identity,” a term for how the individual learns to take on a constructive role within society, typically by undergoing a period of adventure and travail during one’s youth. It is exemplified by the Bildungsroman, the German literary form which Goethe himself employed in his early novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Streben, or “striving,” is another of those meaning-laden words Germans use so often, and can denote a person questing for power, moving with determination toward some goal, or (as in this usage) a plant reaching for the light. Clearly Goethe is not using these words to mean only that flowers and plants are pushing up from the earth in spring; they are stand-ins for the greater human quest toward knowledge and power, which obsesses Faust and leads him into mortal difficulty. Goethe is framing the human struggle as if we arose out of the Earth itself--which of course we did. We see this made explicit at the very beginning of the tragedy, where we witness Faust contemplating the symbol of the macrocosmos, which “with mysterious potency/Make nature’s hidden powers around me, manifest.”
Faust then turns the pages of the old tome he has pulled from his shelf to the symbol of the Earth spirit, which fills him with a strange sense of power:
As if I’d drunk new wine I’m glowing,
I feel a sudden courage, and should dare
To plunge into the world . . .
But, when he pronounces the name of the spirit, a red flame appears and a voice quickly puts the old doctor in his place, telling him he is “Peer of the spirit you comprehend/Not mine!” With this the earth spirit vanishes, leaving poor Faust to search anew for the powers and understandings he seeks.
I leave the meadow and walk back down the street toward home, scanning the open hillsides, listening for birds, trying to relish this moment as much as I can. It is noticeably quieter than usual, and even the dull roar of the city, five miles distant, seems to have lessened. There are fewer cars and trucks on the canyon road and the intervals of quiet are longer. “Quiet” is a poor term, of course, for an atmosphere filled with small sounds—leaves rustling in the wind, a robin’s call, a hawk’s cry, the whole movement of air through the oaks and pines.
Later today, with the warm weather, the figurative gates of our city will open and hundreds of its citizens will stream out and head up into our canyon: bicyclists, runners, people going for a drive or a ride on their Harley. The sounds they make range from the slap of runners’ shoes on pavement, the conversation of cyclists riding alongside each other, the usual car noise, and the loud rumble of the motorcyclists. The latter sound can be heard from a mile off, and will increase throughout the day until by late afternoon it becomes a more or less continual roar. By then all peacefulness will have vanished from our canyon, and I will shelter in my home office with the radio on.
I think about those two words from the German: Bildung--to become educated in the larger, most useful sense; to realize one’s place in the world; to find one’s own way to contribute. Streben—the striving that is so much a part of our western civilization and is both our highest aspiration and our ultimate downfall. Faust, the epitome of the learned man, looks back on a life of pursuing knowledge and finds that the encompassing, universal comprehension he seeks has eluded him, so he turns to darker forces for help. This is a very old theme—a mortal human seeks godlike powers and cuts his ties with the Earth to obtain them. Tragedy inevitably follows.
Goethe set these opening scenes at Eastertide, a time of enormous significance for Christians as well as for pagan mystics, as represented in the ancient book of wisdom with which Faust summons various spirits. Faust observes the citizens of the city streaming out into the open air, singing, dancing, and flirting with each other, while a column of soldiers marches off toward a far-off war with the Ottoman Turks. He tells his assistant, Wagner, who accompanies him, of his ineffectual attempts to treat victims of the plague many years earlier, for which the peasants still thank him, though he believes his remedies poisoned more than were saved. “I must live/To hear the shameless killers blessed,” he laments. Could Dr. Faust’s times be more like ours than we have imagined?
My mind is not really on spiritual matters this morning, just trying to take in the sights and sounds of this little piece of the planet on which I walk. My personal Bildung story has for the past six decades led me to places like this, where some force or spirit has had its way with me, cleansing ill thoughts, filling me with joys I cannot name, and awakening a better nature in me. Just to step outside the door on a morning such as this is to realize that the world out there is the only real one. This puts me at odds with my Christian neighbors, but there I stand. Though I read many old texts, I feel no need to summon spirits from their dusty pages, nor do I seek them in sacred groves; the sight and sound of green and growing things (striving upward, the eternal Streben nach Licht) is enough.
So much of modern life, on the other hand, is made up of the striving toward power, exemplified above all by the quest for speed and control. The kind of education which might moderate and direct this quest is often lacking—the sense of proportion, the correct place, the knowledge of where certain things belong. This applies to the sonic environment as well, a realm to which I seem to be peculiarly attuned. To me, race cars and motorcycles belong on a track, but if one desires to exercise these machines in the free and open air, a certain respect for other ears is called for. But the point seems to be to make one’s mark through some kind of sonic shock wave, to impress others with one’s power. The noise coming from the road is representative of the entire way we handle power in this culture. It brings to mind the conquistadors and friars who displayed the military and spiritual might of western civilization (sixteenth-century shock and awe, as Jared Diamond points out) in these heathen lands many centuries ago.
Maybe I’m wrong about this, and these folks who surround themselves with cylinder explosions are just seeking an escape, and they find it most easily by immersing themselves in in a sea of sound, no different than at a rock concert. The generous view is that we each choose our own means of getting away from the city and the life it represents. Many powersport advertisements employ the word “freedom,” as though a motorcycle or snow machine were a magic carpet, and perhaps in a weird way they are. I know that when I head for the desert in my truck I feel that lure of open spaces, although it doesn’t really begin to sink in until I switch off the engine, hoist my pack, and begin to walk.
There’s also a sense of freedom to be found in strolling quietly among these foothills, where one can observe, smell, feel, touch, and hear as much of the life that lives here as our senses allow. To set aside striving for a while and simply listen. To me this is a form of reciprocity, somewhat akin to what Robin Wall Kimmerer describes as the indigenous relationship with the land, which calls for giving something in return for what we so bountifully receive. I don’t carry a pouch of corn pollen with me to sprinkle on the glacier lilies, nor do I believe they need a physical offering, so my gift, poor as it may be, is to look and listen.
At heart (and this is as close as I’ll come to spiritual matters here) I do not even think that the plants and animals blossoming and growing all around me need or want my gratitude. Mostly they need to be left alone. They will do fine without my strewing benedictions on them this morning. What seems to be called for is to absorb the lessons they offer, without getting too anthropomorphic. To understand that beauty is, or should be, paramount in our lives, that it is something we must cultivate and celebrate in all its forms, but especially those which spring out of the Earth. To not destroy that which grows free—without our aid or direction--not unless we first sit down and think for a good long while. To realize that the Earth is a living provider to all forms of existence, not a storehouse to raid as we see fit.
Many of us these days are being forced into a much slower pace of life, which perhaps allows us to see things we might otherwise miss. My own life hasn’t changed a great deal, other than my usual car travel being limited, and that’s probably a good thing. I see people out walking I haven’t seen before. Even the air in town seems clearer. All these improvements are being purchased at great cost, especially for those who can least afford it, which tempers the quiet and the beauty, but the changes are still undeniable. What if we were to make these adjustments deliberately, as a matter of personal choice and public policy? What if growth, power, speed, and control were not the prime motivators for our economy? What if convenience and easy entertainment were not prized above all else? Would there not be more of the natural world around us to enjoy?
What it might take to achieve this, I do not know. I only hope that the path to a quieter and less crowded future does not involve disease, collapse, and social disintegration. It should not be required of us to disappear as a species in order to make room for nature. There is a choice to be made of which direction to follow, and we don’t have very long to make up our minds. We are not Faust, though we too often assume his mantle. Instead, we must set aside for a moment our great, learned wisdom, and turn humbly to the spirit that animates this Earth.