150 Years of the Atlantic May 2006

Nature & Environment

This is the fourth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature, Wandering Home and the forthcoming Deep Economy.
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The Divine Soil
April 1908
By John Burroughs

John Burroughs, a popular nature writer whose circle of friends included Walt Whitman, John Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt, argued in 1908 that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution should be viewed not as an insult to the dignity of humanity but as evidence of the divine in nature.

When Darwin published his conclusion that man was descended from an apelike ancestor who was again descended from a still lower type, most people were shocked by the thought; it was intensely repugnant to their feelings. Carlyle, for instance, treated the proposition with contempt. He called it the “gospel of dirt.” “A good sort of man,” he said, “is this Darwin, and well meaning, but with very little intellect” …

One of the hardest lessons we have to learn in this life, and one that many persons never learn, is to see the divine, the celestial, the pure, in the common, the near at hand—to see that heaven lies about us here in this world … Why, we have invented the whole machinery of the supernatural, with its unseen spirits and powers good and bad, to account for things, because we found the universal everyday nature too cheap, too common, too vulgar. We have had to cap the natural with the supernatural to satisfy our love for the marvelous and the inexplicable. As soon as a thing is brought within our ken, and the region of our experience, it seems to lose caste and be cheapened …

It jars upon our sensibilities and disturbs our preconceived notions to be told that the spiritual has its roots in the carnal and is as truly its product as the flower is the product of the roots and the stalk of the plant. The conception does not cheapen or degrade the spiritual, it elevates the carnal, the material. To regard the soul and body as one, or to ascribe to consciousness a physiological origin, is not detracting from its divinity, it is rather conferring divinity upon the body. One thing is inevitably linked with another, the higher forms with the lower forms, the butterfly with the grub, the flower with the root, the food we eat with the thought we think, the poem we write, or the picture we paint, with the processes of digestion and nutrition. How science has enlarged and ennobled and purified our conception of the universe; how it has cleaned out the evil spirits that have so long terrified mankind, and justified the verdict of the Creator: “and behold it was good.” With its indestructibility of matter, its conservation of energy, its inviolability of cause and effect, its unity of force and elements throughout sidereal space, it has prepared the way for a conception of man, his origin, his development, and in a measure his destiny, that at last makes him at home in the universe.

The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is, “Look under foot.” You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the centre of the world. Stand in your own dooryard and you have eight thousand miles of solid ground beneath you, and all the sidereal splendors overhead.

Volume 101, No. 4, pp. 440–449

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