In 2004, my colleague Lance Larsen and I found ourselves across the table from the novelist Marilynne Robinson who had agreed to an interview while visiting the campus of Brigham Young University. Her novel about her home in northern Idaho, Housekeeping, exemplifies as well as any novel I know how indispensable great art and a home landscape are to each other. Lance asked her about the degree to which landscape shapes our self-understanding. She answered: “I’m beginning to wonder if I could make a distinction between character and landscape.” Lance pressed her further, asking which comes first, human self-understanding or our awareness of our surroundings. She then gave this stunning response:
There’s probably nothing stranger than the fact that we exist on a planet. Very odd. Who does not feel the oddness of this? I mean, stop and think about where we actually are in the larger sense. It seems to me as if every local landscape is a version of the cosmic mystery, that it is very strange that we’re here, and that it is very strange that we are what we are. In a certain sense the mystery of the physical reality of the human being is expressed in any individual case by the mystery of a present landscape. The landscape is ours in the sense that it is the landscape that we query. So, we’re created in the fact of ourselves answering to a particular sense of amazement.
Which only begs the question, what explains the fact that so many of us do not feel this amazement? We certainly seem to have been in a hurry to engineer ourselves out of this state of stupefaction before the cosmic mystery, as if we wished life could be of our own making, as if the strangeness of finding us here on an earth of unimaginable age and of numberless forms somehow diminishes or even terrifies us. Because when we really consider the miracle of life—the odd chance of us being here and the wonder of so much extravagant expense and all for what?—we are reminded of our mortality and our fragile belonging in an ancient home of mutual interdependence. The paradox is that in this realization of our relative insignificance, we also discover our unique human privilege: the privilege to experience wonder in the face of nature’s variety, beauty, and grace. There are several reasons to believe in our exceptionality in the creation, but surely our capacity for awe must be one of them. As the theologian William Brown puts it, perhaps we should rename ourselves: not so much homo sapiens (knowing man) as homo admirans (wondering man). So it is a particularly sad waste of human capacity to squander the chance to express gratitude to our Giver for the gift of being alive.
The landscape is just one temporary and particular manifestation of a life force that for millions of years has shaped mountains and rivers, valleys and lakes, animal and plant forms. And all of these forms are a creative response to the particular limits imposed by time, weather, and place that physical life imposes on all. To have life, to have existence as human beings, is to have inherited relationships among particular plants and animals, particular watersheds and land forms, and with particular climates where we find ourselves. These are relationships born of improvisation, collaboration, and imagination. Our charge, it would seem, is to learn the particulars of where we live and live creatively in the interest of the ongoing health and flourishing of all life forms. When we contemplate the temporal and spatial range of creation, we can only conclude that to live and die for human flourishing alone is puny and insufficient gratitude for what the Giver has done, especially when human well-being is defined by short-term materialism and comes unnecessarily at the expense of the rest of life. Pessimists will say we have to choose between the proverbial logger and the spotted owl. My religion suggests otherwise. It teaches faith that all of life—human and more-than-human— can have joy in posterity, fullness in flourishing, that the fishes and the fowls should fill the waters and the air.
If Robinson is right, we bear an existential responsibility to create the meaning of our existence not out of the substance of things—things that we can make out of the flesh of the earth or things that we can own—but out of the substance of our amazement. One wonders what our economy and our culture would look like if we lived with a deeper appreciation for the mystery of physical existence. Robinson says the landscape is not ours in the sense that we own, engineer, or make it after our own image. It is only ours to the extent that we detach ourselves from proprietary notions of permanence, of invulnerability, and reliable security. To be amazed is to be astonished. Thunderstruck. Dumbstruck. Unable to speak but lit up, connected to heaven by an electricity that destroys shallow and self-absorbed individuality and, in its place, plants the seed of recognition of our great belonging to all things. Then maybe we learn that we don’t have to choose between being cherished separately or being just one life among so many. Maybe we learn that self-worth is not merely defined by what sets us apart but by honoring our common inheritance with the world.
Poetry, music, and art are born out of a desire to feel belonging in such a context of commonality. The arts are the recuperation of speech after speechlessness. And unlike the vast treasures we have taken so thoughtlessly from the earth, these are the clean and renewable resources of astonishment. Renewable and renewing resources. I do not mean merely our love for Ansel Adams calendars or our love for the exotic and extreme forms of beauty we have photographed, painted, and praised as a nation in the Tetons, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or our beloved Zion. Love of exotic and extreme natural beauty that does not stem from an intimate love for our local landscape is the equivalent of pornographic desire. It wants nature as a thing that pleases when we pay and that we can ignore at will, but not as a partner in a committed relationship of mutual and unconditional flourishing.
Maybe we resist the task of caring for nature here at home because everywhere we look, we see memorials of our own clumsy and often thoughtless transformations of the wilderness. We all know the health of this place—the Provo River, Utah Lake, and the air we breathe—has been severely compromised. What was once a thriving watershed that provided life on the valley floor for a broad diversity of plants, fish, large and small mammals, birds, insects, and for human populations for thousands of years has, in a mere century and a half, become a narrow channel of water through a wilderness of concrete, chasing the animals to higher ground and driving eleven species of fish, native only to Utah Lake, to extinction. Only two native species of the lake have survived this war. One, the June Sucker, an endangered species if there ever was one, is the keystone species of the watershed and perhaps the single most important reason our pioneer ancestors managed to avoid starvation in this valley. One would think we would have felt dismay at this impending loss a little more keenly.
A proposal has emerged to restore the Provo River delta and the Sucker’s spawning ground to its original home just north of its current location on the shores of Utah Lake. This comes at some cost to property owners, to be sure, costs that federal funds for the Endangered Species Act are intended to compensate. This is no easy sell, but to listen to the anger of our citizens over the proposal, one wonders if we have lost a sense of honor for our shared home, not to mention that we seem to have utterly failed to learn even the basic principles of Boy Scout stewardship. Pessimists call restoration hopeless nostalgia for a past we cannot recover but ironically, like addicts, they seems obsessed with going back again and again to the same mistakes of the past. And like addicts, they never explain why we should believe that doing nothing to mitigate against our errors will lead us out into a brighter future. Restoration is messy and hard work, but like repentance, it is turned to the future not the past and earns us a closer and more intimate appreciation for where we live.
On my office window hangs a work of art by a former student of mine, Sarah Judson Walker. It is a stained glass representation of the restoration of the Provo River in Heber Valley, a restoration that took the better part of the 1990s and millions of dollars of mitigation funds from the Jordanelle Dam to complete. No one would argue that the restoration has been perfect, but few believe that the return to a meandering wetland more populated now with osprey and hawks, a healthier fish population, and a growing mammal population was anything but a triumph of engineering, of artistic insight, and of a newly steeled moral deference for the creativity of life that has nurtured that valley for millions of years. Like great art, ecological restoration is a memorial to a chastened and humble recognition of the world as a gift. Sarah’s stained glass piece imagines an aerial view of the restored curvature of the river’s bends, freed from the straitening confines of an ethos of private gain. This is water as shared life, as collective rebirth, not water as a commodity. I keep Sarah’s work in plain view because as the sunlight pierces through its artifice, it reminds me that we still stand a chance to restore a deeper artistic and ecological imagination here at home. Maybe standing on the shores of a restored river delta pouring into Utah Lake wouldn’t provide the same romance as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but it might provide something more important: confirmation that our own creativity can partner, rather than compete, with the creativity of nature. This would be no small gift to give in return.