Sermon on nature writing for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, from Ian Tattum

You might have seen the latest images from the James Webb telescope showing, with never-before-seen precision, galaxies across the universe, and which also allow us to look back into unimaginable depths of time. Those visual images sprung into my mind during last week when I was dipping into an earlier moment of scientific revolution.

I was in the Linnaean Society Library, which is near the entrance to the Royal Academy, where the librarian had very kindly allowed me to read two late-seventeenth-century books by the pioneer scientist John Ray. You have heard me talk about John Ray before. He was the person who developed the systematic study of plants, inventing the word ‘botany’, and made similar strides in ornithology. At the beginning of his book, The Wisdom of God, which I had in my hand, he laid out the principles of what became known as natural theology, explaining why he thought the only alternative theories of the time as to the immensely rich variety of life (the title is taken from Psalm 104) were not as good as the one that saw God as the artificer/creative engineer of life.

Aristotle had argued that the universe had always been there and all of its creatures, while the Roman Epicurean Lucretius had come up with a theory of chaotic atomic interactions. Imagine infinitesimally small ball bearings bashing into each other and randomly bringing everything into existence. For Ray there was too much beauty and complexity in the world for these theories to satisfy. The words of the psalm seemed to Ray to fit perfectly with what scientific discovery was revealing:

How manifold are thy works, O Lord? In Wisdom hast thou made them all’

I was quite surprised by what Ray wrote. He observed that already, thanks to the telescope, stars that the human eye could not see unaided were beginning to be discovered, and he suggested that, in the future, many more, even an infinite number, would be discovered. He also speculated that, as in our solar system, many of those stars would have planets of their own and that (remember this was 1671) each planet would have unimaginable life forms.

For Ray, the whole universe, from the tiniest plant directly beneath his feet to a far distant alien world, was a wondrous place, revealing God’s purpose and glory and open to human discovery and understanding. Although Ray was a reticent sort of man you can feel his focussed excitement about all these new discoveries.

Recently, I wrote another article for Church Times – this time on nature writing and spirituality. As the book I was basing my reflections on started with Gilbert White, I began with him too, but this morning, in deciding to share some of the ideas I wrote about, I opted to start with John Ray, as he propounded the principles that White followed a century later when he wrote a natural history of Selborne. The book is Modern British Nature Writing, 1789- 2020, and reading it I was cheered that, in its attempt to trace the legacy of Gilbert White down to today, it acknowledges the theological, or at least spiritual outlook, of many writers who have had a huge influence on the way we have come to think about the natural world.

So, to begin with Gilbert White himself.

The religious sensibility of White has often been downplayed, and the poetry he wrote to give it voice is usually overlooked. In ‘On The Rainbow’, for example, he contrasted romantic and superstitious reactions to seeing a rainbow with the attitude of ‘the sage’, who reflects on its creator and its symbolic meaning and begins to pray:

‘Thou mad’st the cloud,
Maker omnipotent, and thou the bow;
And by that covenant graciously has sworn
Never to drown the world again.’

Charlotte Smith (1749- 1806) is a writer who is becoming, very justifiably, better known. Like White, she too wrote in depth about the patch she lived in (in her case, around Brighton in Sussex), but very unlike that of the bachelor cleric, her life could never be characterised as one of tranquil rural retreat. Forced into marriage at fifteen to an irresponsible and violent husband, Charlotte had twelve children, and she wrote partly to stave off penury. She produced poetry, fiction and educational books, such as A Natural History of Birds, Intended chiefly for Young Persons (1807). But she broadly shared White’s theological outlook, seeing observation of ‘Nature’ as providing a glimpse of God’s Laws, which she believed would always remain beyond the reach of human understanding.

The startling progress made by the sciences from the beginning of the nineteenth century eroded such confidence, and we find later writers, formally Christian or otherwise, trying to prevent the unravelling of mystery. One such was Charles Kingsley (1819-75), now best remembered as the author of The Water-Babies, for his Broad Church theology and commitment to social reform. New scientific discoveries and the industrialisation which accompanied them were perceived by many, including Kingsley’s close friend John Ruskin, as leading to reductionism and materialism. Kingsley, however, welcomed the new discoveries; he was one of the first notable champions of Darwin, but suggested that the new sciences opened an avenue to see beyond what he termed ‘carnal’ attitudes to nature. Kingsley argued that nature and landscape could aesthetically and spiritually uplift the human soul. His book Glaucus: Wonders of the Shore ( 1855), is a perfect example of this and helped to inspire the Victorian craze for seashore life.

Richard Jefferies (1848- 1887) shared similar concerns about the reductionist nature of forms of knowledge, which he feared leaned too much towards documenting and controlling the non-human world, but he embraced a form of mystical paganism.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (1893- 1981) has captivated people, including the hugely influential Robert Macfarlane, who have fallen in love with wild places at a time when they are disappearing from around the world. Shepherd was influenced by Theosophy and Buddhism, and her writing displays a deep ecology, where rock, soil, air, animal and human have an inescapable connection and a shared but diverse consciousness, which is more metaphysical than aesthetic.

In 2016 Charles Foster published Being a Beast, about his attempt to experience the life of other animals by adopting their lifestyles. He decided to get closer to the lives of wild creatures by spending time living in a hole in the ground and eating slugs like a badger and raiding city bins in the dead of night like a city fox. He described this as a kind of ‘literary shamanism’. His experiment in thwarted empathy was a means to expose the gap between animal and human perception and ways of living! In his more recent book about swifts, The Screaming Sky, Foster plunged deeply into the gulf between human experience and these remarkable birds, and quotes R. S. Thomas favourably for the humility of his point of view:

‘I am learning to bring
Only my wonder to the contemplation
Of the geometry of their dark wings’

It seems to me that it is inescapable that caring for the natural world and being anxious about ecological collapse demands much more than a political response. For John Ray and Gilbert White, everything began with wonder and praise at the unimaginable creativity of God, and the realisation that humans are part of a majestic universe worthy of attention and love. Many of the nature writers and science writers who are around today do seem to be committed to a re-enchantment of the world. They leave little space between facts and a sense of ‘wow’. Very few put this down to the glory of God, but there is an unacknowledged and unspoken sense of what we might call holiness and sacredness in much of the books I read.

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