“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea,” wrote Antoine de Saint Exupéry.
I long for the immense, endless and eternal nature of all things beautiful. Sunrises and sunsets, mountain ranges, oceans, the night sky, the links of love and blood and bone and skin that connect humans across time and space. And I think of what boat we might build as something that will hold us as we sail out to live in ways that will make us more worthy of the company of such boundless beauty.
This weekend I attended a gathering of scientists and conservationists and un-quantifiable “ists” who love the mountains and alpine zones of New England and the world with a rare passion. It was splendid to be in such company—to know that in a room of mostly strangers, there is something bone-deep held in common. And, in light of that shared spirit, I sat through numerous presentations by various scientists explaining their technical work in the name of research and conservation and preservation.
But, like Walt Whitman at an astronomy lecture, I found myself growing foggy. In the facts and figures and PowerPoint slides, I felt that the perfect wonder of these places was going unsung. I trust that those who do science find it their best way to decipher the wild wonder and ragged glee that beauty leaves on our hearts. That they take their “Rite in the Rain” notebooks out into the hills and tabulate the columns, charts and diagrams because the endless immensity of what they find begs to be brought forth in the language they speak. I hope so, that their numbers are the same as my words, and we all understand that these tools can only gesture towards the unspeakable immensity of such things.
I say “they.” Because I am not a scientist. When I read nature guidebooks, when I listen to presentations of scientific findings, my poetic imagination pulls up image after image and I am lost in a sea of stories. That alpine zones are like small islands, scattered across the mountainsides and far northern reaches of the globe—a terrestrial constellation of small beauty amid the snows and harsh winds of the world—this is more poetic psalm than science. Read the Latin names of plants, the descriptions of their habitat and abilities to survive, and the poetry is as real as your beating heart and the breath that catches in your lungs. Diapensia lapponica. Stellaria borealis. Silen acaulis. Betula glandulosa.
It rankles more than a bit to see the wonder and poetry squeezed out of sight by science and research. For one, this makes it harder for anyone with an unscientific approach to crack into conservation—it makes the world salvation solely the province of the scientists, which is a lot of weight for all those good, geeky Atlases to hold up on their own. I struggled for years against my better-suited nature because all the obvious avenues towards conservation, preservation, and world salvaging went through the sciences. And, when you, like I do, find the Periodic Table, the food chain and the water cycle fascinating as proof of the holy connectedness of all things, it makes it a challenge to fill in the right numbers on all your charts and graphs, your tasks and the available work for building this ship we need.
Science and logic, they have their place. But, if what we are out to do here is save the world, it is truly a battle for hearts and bodies, not minds. We need to allow ourselves to long for the immensity and unknowable things out there, and, if we must measure that, then we must weigh all that wonder equally with the numbers and graphs of science. Research has limits, the heart has none.
Like any other good liberal, I have a canvas tote bag with a quote from Thoreau on it: “Things do not change; we change.” All that research and science, this is only saying that change is happening in the world, change that we the humans are largely responsible for. The world will not get better without our changing our own ways of being. And, so the question we are left with, at the end of the science is what will make us change into the sort of deeper-thinking, humbler, happier and kinder-to-each-other-and-the-wider-world people we might still become?
I don’t know. But I suspect that the answer must be wilder and more immense than can fit on any box-and-whisker plot, that our individual and collective passions for the world will overwhelm any scientific model. Perhaps the good science being done—the tasks and wood gathering for this ship—can drive policies that will shape us into a better-being society. I hope so. But I think that the for these actions responsibility and honor lies more fully in our own hearts, in recognizing the reality and longings for beauty, and acting on that in whatever way is right for each of us, scientists and poets and astronomers and shipbuilders and humans all.