Notes from a Very Small Island

A small island with a few fir trees sits in a still lake.
Ian Wagg/Unsplash

WITH MY SOLO CANOE loaded down by camping gear and a cooler full of beer, wine, and cold cuts, I paddle out onto Lake Umbagog, a quiet eight-thousand-acre body of water that stretches across the Maine–New Hampshire border. Spear-shaped fir, spruce, and white cedar frame the lake in deep green hues. Otter, moose, and mink are said to prowl the marshy banks. A solitary loon bobs in the distance. The day is warm and bright, and a cool June breeze is combing narrow furrows onto the surface of the water.

I balance the wind on the stem of my canoe with a paddle stroke my grandfather taught me thirty years ago. Back then we explored the coves and inlets near the Chesapeake Bay, where my grandparents lived in a small stucco parsonage. Some years later, my grandfather talked a fishing buddy into selling me this canoe for one hundred dollars. My grandfather was a forceful country preacher, and people had a hard time telling him no. From the other room, I could overhear him saying into the phone, “Well Bill, he’s just a poor graduate student . . .’

By turning the paddle away from the stern at the end of the stroke, I carve the letter J into the water, a kind of one-letter poem that dissolves into a small eddy and must be reinscribed over and over. As a kid, I remember watching from the bow seat of my grandfather’s canoe as he performed the J-stroke with a deft deliberateness. He handled his paddle with such fluid ease, the water never even splashed around the blade as he turned it into the curve of the J. I try to emulate that artistry now, but out in the middle of Lake Umbagog I find myself struggling against a strong headwind. After about two hours of paddling south, then east, toward the Maine border, I see the number 35 blazed in white on a boulder and realize with a sudden thrill that this is my island. At least for the next several days, it is mine alone.

The bow of my canoe eases to a halt between two exposed roots of a tall cedar that stands on the sandy shore. The island is about the size of a football field. It is all wooded except for a small clearing where a picnic table sits next to a stone fire pit. I haul my gear out, pitch my tent on a bed of pine needles, set my portable kitchen (which amounts to a propane stove, a burnt pot, and a fork) on the picnic table, and unroll my sleeping bag inside my small tent. Thus ensconced, I pour some white wine into my blue camp cup and take a stroll around the grounds. An archipelago of stones and boulders defines the northern tip of the island, while at the southern end, one wild orchid, a pink lady-slipper, grows in the shade of some pines. Its single seed must have blown over from the mainland a few hundred feet away. The flower, which looks like a pale, slightly deflated windsock, is the only thing blooming on the island.

Walking west to east, about forty yards from shore to shore, I cross over from New Hampshire into Maine. A bifurcated white birch stands in the middle of the island near my campsite, and I amuse myself by imagining that the state line cuts right between its forked trunk. What taxes might I incur simply by walking from one side of the island to the other? Had I an automobile on island 35 (a ridiculous thought), I’d have to buckle up as I crossed over into Maine. New Hampshire remains the only state in the union that doesn’t require all drivers to wear seatbelts. Consequently, some have proposed that the state motto, “Live free or die,” be changed to “Live free and die.” I sympathize, though, with the anticonstraint crowd. As one who refuses to wear a seatbelt on (admittedly shaky) libertarian grounds, I raise my cup to the independent spirit of the Granite State.

BECAUSE I LIVE IN KENTUCKY, I am surprised at how early the sun rises in these northern latitudes. I’m up at six on my mist-shrouded island, tossing out the dregs of last night’s wine and replacing it with traditionally terrible camp coffee. Sugar improves it though, and as I sit in my folding chair the cool air and the hot coffee cast a promising feel over the day. Slowly, the sun starts to burn away the mist. Fish are rising up to snatch midges and mayflies from the surface of the lake.

On a small island — particularly alone on a small island — one has the sense of standing outside all institutions. Here, the only rule I must follow is: take only notes, leave only feces.

For the latter, there is a discreetly placed privy in the middle of the island, surrounded by shrubs. The island is also our most persistent metaphor for solitude. And solitude, we are told, is the condition out of which philosophy arises. I myself have no ambitions for making any contribution to the field this week, but I have brought with me a slim volume of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (translated by the classicist-modernist Guy Davenport). Actually, a volume of Heraclitus by definition must be slim, since all that has come down to us are so-called fragments — epigrams on philosophy, nature, and the human mind. And because a canoe, unlike a backpack, lends itself to transporting a small library, I have also brought along a few books by other men who lived alone, and in their aloneness contemplated the fragments of Heraclitus: Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Merton, and my friend and mentor, Guy Davenport.

Nietzsche called Heraclitus “the royally secluded, all-sufficing Heraclitus.” Between 540 and 480 bc, the Greek philosopher wrote from an island of his own choosing, a self-imposed exile outside the city of Ephesus. Like Nietzsche, Heraclitus was considered by his contemporaries elitist and reclusive. And like an itinerant street preacher named Yeshua, Heraclitus spoke in images that suggest meaning, but do not spell it out. Much remains left to the reader.

Every collection of his fragments begins with the same passage:

The Logos is eternal
but men have not heard it
or men have heard it and not understood.

Through the Logos all things are understood
yet men do not understand
as you shall see when you put acts and words to the test I
am going to propose:

One must talk about everything according to its nature,
how it comes to be and how it grows.
Men have talked about the world without paying attention
to the world or to their own minds,
as if they were asleep or absent-minded.

For Heraclitus, the Logos was not the “word made flesh,” as in the Gospel of John, but rather, in Martin Heidegger’s translation, “the primal gathering principle” of the natural world. It is the invisible syntax that holds individual beings together, and, because invisible, it can only be known intuitively. Fundamentally, we might think of the Logos as an ecological principle that affirms the natural world’s interdependence. It marries the hawk moth to the primrose, the lichen’s fungi to its algae. Each element of the natural world follows the law of its own nature, an internal Logos, which is also reflected in the higher principle that gathers all things together. Thus Emerson would write, “Within man is the soul of the whole.” But the problem with man, as Heraclitus observed, is that he doesn’t hold true to his own nature. He talks about the world and his own mind without actually paying attention to either.

Heraclitus wrote in the third fragment, “Men who wish to know about the world must learn about it in its particular details.” We must leave the realm of abstract law, particularly the realm of morality, and return to the details — the realm of science and poetry. The great American poet A. R. Ammons, who wrote with a very clear-eyed attention to the natural world, once said in an interview that he had tried in his poetry to eliminate all vestiges of the Western tradition. “I really do want to begin with a bare space with streams and rocks and trees,” he said, then added, in reference to Heraclitus, “If I get back to the pre-Socratics, I feel that I’m in the kind of world that I would enjoy to be in.” The Western tradition, after Heraclitus, too often disparaged the natural world as only appearance, only a shadow on a cave wall. For these thinkers, the truth lay somewhere else, and could only be understood by men who turned from the world toward either the ascetic purity of the Christian tradition or the abstract philosophy of the Platonic tradition. Heraclitus, like the Buddhists of China and Japan, simply accepted the natural world as he found it. It was neither good nor bad.

Even the First Parents yearned for the abstract laws of good and evil that had nothing to do with the very particular world in which they lived. Yahweh, after finding that they had eaten from the forbidden tree, said with disgust to the angels, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). Consider, then, that the whole experiment of the Garden of Eden was to create a realm that did not follow the laws of good and evil, but followed its own natural laws. There is no other explanation for Yahweh’s startling remark to the angels. Adam and Eve had abandoned the Logos for the logic of good and evil, and that is why they were kicked out of Eden.

Heraclitus believed we must look at the world as the First Parents did before they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He was not only a pre-Socratic thinker he was a prelapsarian thinker. The world needs no justification. It simply is. Sitting in my canvas chair, staring out at calm blue lake, I feel this 2,500-year-old observation to be profoundly contemporary. More to the point, I feel it to be profoundly necessary.

AFTER A BREAKFAST OF INSTANT GRITS and Vermont sausage, I paddle from island to island, looking for other wild orchids, hoping maybe to see a moose along the shore. Clouds cast blue shadows into the pockets of green ridgesides that surround the lake. Now and then the wind sweeps up a small chop on the open water and my canoe cuts across the blue waves with a cleaving rock of the bow. Then everything settles down again. The loons issue their seemingly random calls from the middle of the lake. A couple of mergansers lower their landing gear and settle down on the water not far from my canoe. We all just float.

There is a quiet intensity to a day like this. It almost makes you shaky. I lie down flat in my canoe with my head on my life jacket and close my eyes. I imagine myself as a seed inside its pod, a violin lying quiet in its case. Thoreau wrote that, when floating on Walden Pond, he sometimes stopped existing and began to be. I think it is a crucial transition, that move from merely existing into an experience of clarity and intensity that truly deserves to be called being. Here I can read the wind and the water from the stern seat of my canoe. While I experience and observe Heraclitus’s tenet that only change is unchanging, I sometimes feel as if I inhabit a moment with neither a past nor a future. I feel as if I inhabit both time and space with an intensity that in some way erases the distinction between the two.

On the way back to my island around dusk, I notice whirligig beetles that look like little black seeds spinning across the surface of the water. According to my field guide, each one’s eyes have two parts, enabling it to see above and below the surface of the water at the same time. It is as if these beetles inhabit two worlds.

“Eyes are better informers than ears,” wrote Heraclitus. When I grew into adulthood, I often felt I would have been better served as a child if I had spent more time in my grandfather’s canoe, observing the ducks in the marshy coves around his parsonage, and less time in his church, listening to dire sermons about my woeful inadequacies before God. My grandfather was really two different men outside, in the unroofed church of his canoe, and inside the whitewashed walls of his sanctuary. And since his death five years ago, I have struggled to reconcile the master paddler, the man who loved the mountains and rivers of Virginia, with the man who preached that we live in a fallen world from which we are in desperate need of salvation.

About fifteen years ago, shortly after he retired from the ministry, my grandfather admitted to me something I never thought I’d hear him say: he might have been wrong. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night,” he confessed, “stricken with the fear that, all these years, I might have been preaching the wrong thing.” Specifically, he might have been wrong to preach such a punishing message of guilt, sin, and blood sacrifice. Perhaps he had been too hard on his congregation. Perhaps he had emphasized the Apostle Paul’s gospel of fear at the expense of Jesus’s teaching of love and forgiveness. This admission both shocked and relieved me. Finally, I thought, my grandfather and I might talk honestly about religion and the inevitable doubts that accompany one’s faith. I had my share of doubts, compounded by a secret sense of guilt that I had betrayed my grandfather’s religion, and so betrayed my grandfather. And for a while we did have interesting conversations about whether Paul had really understood Jesus’s message, or whether he had distorted it into something Jesus himself would not have recognized.

But gradually, as my grandfather’s health failed, as his relationship with my only uncle deteriorated into a tense, ugly silence, and as my grandmother drifted slowly into a quiet dementia, I watched my grandfather return to his earlier conviction that this world is a realm of disappointments, a toilsome proving ground where we strive to earn admittance into heaven. Late in life, he would bring himself to tears at the dinner table when, during a rambling blessing of the food, he began contemplating the pain Jesus must have suffered to save him, my grandfather, from this sinful world.

By then, I had come to believe, as it says in the Gospel of Luke, that “the kingdom of God is before us,” spread gloriously across the natural world; but my grandfather had wholly abandoned that idea and was hoping desperately for a kingdom on high, something better than the mortal pain of this earthly realm.

Thirty years earlier, his son, my father, had committed suicide. He had followed his father into the ministry but never seemed comfortable at his own pulpit, and he lacked my grandfather’s fist-pounding conviction. My uncle, my father’s only brother, made three suicide attempts of his own before descending into a pharmacological torpor and eventually multiple-organ failure. For years, I had wanted my grandfather to accept some responsibility for both of his sons’ despair. More specifically, I wanted him to acknowledge that the Church, and his own punishing version of Christianity, bore some of the blame.

One night after dinner, my grandfather and I sat on the sea wall outside his parsonage and watched as the last oyster boats returned home for the day. When I asked if he thought religion played a role in my father’s suicide, he replied, slowly, “I think your father was confusing what God wanted him to do and maybe what I and his mother wanted him to do. We had to finally realize that there were some questions in your father’s mind between religious authority and human freedom. As time went by, I could see that he felt he was not free.” We both sipped our coffee. I said nothing. My grandfather went on: “The poor child felt that he would never be able to accommodate himself.”

I suddenly realized, that was it. To accommodate, “to fit with measure,” as the Latin root, accommodatus, translates — this my father could never do. He could not find his own measure within the world, but instead spent so much time trying to measure up to my grandfather’s expectation. Or, put another way, accommodation means to find some middle place between where one comes from and where one hopes to arrive, like a motel after a long day of traveling. My father could never find accommodation — either within his father’s religion or within his own attempt to preach and understand the Gospels. But suicide is the one human act that requires no accommodation. The suicide need never return, like the prodigal son, to the father’s house. He is unbeholden. The suicide cannot be questioned; the suicide cannot be punished. To turn a gun on oneself is to release oneself into a moment — an endless moment — of freedom.

Heraclitus thought that, too often, we let other people tell us what our own minds are like. I think this was my father’s fatal mistake. And it is one I inherited. I let my grandfather, whom I loved profoundly, tell me what my mind should be like, how pure my thoughts should be, until I felt as if my life had become, under his stern tutelage, one great act of renunciation. Everything worldly — the sensuous, the intoxicating, the rhythmic, the aesthetically pleasing — was suspect, a temptation.

Nietzsche, himself the son of a minister, wrote that, in Christianity, “I never fail to see a hostility to life.” In my grandfather’s church, this hostility was indeed strong. With my grandmother at the organ, the congregation would sing, “This world is not my home. . . . ” It is a sentiment that infuses much of American religious fundamentalism, and much of mainstream Christianity. But it is one I came gradually to distrust until I finally decided that, if I was going to escape my father’s fate, I would have to abandon my grandfather’s beliefs.

However, unlike the “conversion experience” to Christianity, disbelief is not a cataclysmic event. In my experience, I found that religious convictions vanish more like mist off the water. You can’t say when they disappeared, but you know they are gone for good. Then, what you have left is the world, its mountains, rivers, and lakes, which you tell yourself are the lineaments and the blood flowing through the veins of a more enduring god.

AT DUSK, I WATCH through binoculars as a beaver noses across the water toward its lodge near the shore, patrolled by a group of grackles and sandpipers. I too am preoccupied with branches. The mosquitoes and horseflies had been quite bad on my first night in camp (much larger than their southern cousins), so I intend to combat them with fire on night two.

Scouring the island for fallen limbs and driftwood, I find, in the dry brush on the north end, a foot-long piece of a birch branch one inch in diameter. Its bark is smooth and deep reddish brown. A beaver has sharpened one end to almost pencil-like precision. It occurs to me that if my island were suddenly besieged by, I don’t know, say, hostile seatbelt enthusiasts, this sharpened birch branch might help stave off an attack. I decide to keep it in my tent, next to my sleeping bag.

I also find a piece of driftwood that looks as if it has been deliberately sculpted into something that would not seem out of place in a modern art museum. It has a kind of base and, as I set it on the picnic table, it evokes something vaguely figurative, some prehistoric creature of the sea. A series of intricate, wavelike patterns weave across the dry, gray bark as if for years Lake Umbagog has been writing its own autobiography on this soft, impressionable wood. The piece of wood has been shaped by the most elemental forces — wind and water, perhaps even fire — the same forces that the modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi strove to emulate in his own work.

Guy Davenport has written, “What is most modern in our time frequently turns out to be the most archaic.” It occurs to me that this little piece of driftwood was fashioned by the most archaic forces of all. Davenport further observed that our modern passion for the archaic in art “is a longing for something lost, for energies, values, and certainties unwisely abandoned by an industrial age.” This seems absolutely correct to me. I suppose it is the same longing that caused me to heave my canoe into the back of my truck and drive halfway across the country to this lake, with its preindustrial solitude. Perhaps I came here to enact some urge buried deep in my genetic past, and thus deep inside myself. A primitive boat and a primitive paddle brought me to a campsite labeled as “primitive” on my map. And here I feel I am at the source of something. The source of the Androscoggin River, in fact, but also the source of some unmediated, authentic experience.

I crumple up the local paper I bought in town, build a tipi of kindling, then stack some fallen branches around it. The wood is dry and a fire catches quickly. The mosquitoes seem only partially deterred by my blazing pyre, so I pull on a long-sleeve shirt and settle in for an evening of fire-gazing.

“Everything is made of fire,” claimed Heraclitus. What is fascinating about this ancient remark is how it turned out to be so improbably true. Werner Heisenberg, one of the twentieth century’s most important nuclear physicists, wrote in Physics and Philosophy that “modern physics is in some way extremely near to the doctrines of Heraclitus. If we replace the word ‘fire’ by the word ‘energy’ we can almost repeat his statements word for word from our modern point of view.” Twenty-five hundred years after Heraclitus, Heisenberg found his thinking much closer to modern physics than any philosopher who had followed him. Furthermore, Heraclitus did not try to separate himself from the natural world as philosophy has done from Socrates up to Descartes. It was Descartes, most profoundly, whose philosophy created a terrible sense of separateness between mind and body, human beings and the natural world. He destroyed the Logos, the gathering principle, by reducing the world to a set of objects that had little connection to one another.

In important ways, quantum physics rescues us from the tyranny of Descartes and returns us to the Heraclitean point of view. In the late 1920s, Heisenberg and Niels Bohr discovered that they could not observe the goings-on of the subatomic world without altering what they saw by the very act of observing it. Thus science undermined the Cartesian belief that man can stand outside nature, against nature, and moreover, that man can manipulate and destroy nature without suffering the fate of a species who is himself an interdependent part of that world. The object is really only another subject.

But if Heisenberg understood the Heraclitean fire as an analogue to subatomic physics, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton saw it as a religious force, an inner light, our connection to the Logos. Merton lived for three decades at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, a town known more for its bourbon than its piety. For many years, Merton resided alone in a hermitage at the edge of the monastery, where he contemplated pine trees and wrote some of the twentieth century’s most beautiful meditations on man and God. He interpreted Heraclitus as saying, “Our spiritual and mystical destiny is to ‘awaken’ to the fire that is within us, and our happiness depends on the harmony in conflict that results from this awakening. Our vocation is a call to spiritual oneness in and with the logos.”

Despite their different perspectives, Heisenberg and Merton seemed to agree that a fire — the Logos — does indeed pervade all things and hold all things together. Whether this is a subatomic principle or a religious belief in a divine presence that suffuses all of nature doesn’t really matter. Heraclitus was writing before philosophy had become a discipline. In the pre-Socratic world, thinking had not been divided into religion, science, poetry, or psychology. Perhaps this is why Heidegger felt so strongly that when philosophy moved indoors, when it became a “study of the schools,” it abandoned being by dividing thinking from the Logos; it turned the Logos into an unnatural logic that falsely convinced Homo sapiens that he was a rational animal, and therefore above the laws of nature. After Heraclitus, philosophy turned away from the practical and aesthetic question, How do we accomplish being in this world? to the metaphysical question, What is truth?

I think about the coniferous woods that surround Lake Umbagog, now cast in silhouette against the darkening sky. In each tree, in each species, there resides an innate intelligence that says, We have found our niche; we have figured out the answer to your first question. As for the second question, they reply, It never occurred to us to ask. During my time on Lake Umbagog, it never occurs to me either. But I think of how this question of truth — the Ultimate Truth — obsessed my grandfather to the point that he made it nearly impossible for his sons to try to find an answer to the first question, one that would have allowed them to find some accommodation, maybe even some happiness, in this world.

And it wasn’t just my grandfather. It seems to me that a great majority of us human animals have become so consumed with the second, ultimately unanswerable question that we have done a very poor job learning the art of being, and of allowing others to be — namely the 1.8 million or so other species with whom we share the planet. Homo sapiens are in the middle of creating the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, due largely to overpopulation, overconsumption, pollution, and the destruction of other species’ habitat. Climate change alone could destroy 25 percent of all plants and animals on the planet by 2050, and 50 percent by the end of the century. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that the monotheistic nations, those obsessed with their own one truth, are largely responsible for bringing the world to this brink. Indigenous cultures and Eastern religions have traditionally been far more concerned with the question of being over the question of truth. As Nietzsche put it, “Buddhism does not promise but fulfills; Christianity promises everything but fulfills nothing.” Buddhism places the kingdom of God before us, in the here and now, while the Apostle Paul said God’s kingdom was an otherworldly reward for suffering through this vale of tears. And really, herein is the root of our most modern sin: we do not love the world enough.

AT NIGHT, I AWAKE to hear a crazed tremolo that sends a shiver through the darkness: something has spooked the loons. In the morning, two tree swallows are courting in the branches of a maple that hangs over the water. The male darts in small, mischievous circles around his mate, picking at her tail feathers.

The last time I came to this lake, I was married — happily, I thought at the time, or at least happily enough. But, slowly, my wife and I turned into strangers. Nietzsche said a marriage should be a long conversation (though it’s odd that he would have known). Our conversation quite literally drifted into an awkward silence. Then one day I walked out of that life and into this one. I bought a small house in an old neighborhood with wide front porches and a corner store. I can walk there for groceries, as well as to the university where I teach and to the downtown movie theater that shows independent films. My life has taken on a somewhat Heraclitean feel.

I now find myself single, childless, unbeholden. And I find myself thinking of two other unbeholden, Heraclitean walkers: Thoreau and Nietzsche. Nietzsche said walking was thinking, and he spent hours doing both in the mountains surrounding Turin, Italy. Thoreau declared himself a saunterer by occupation and even invented an etymology for the word: sans terre, meaning to be without land, and therefore at home wherever he went. Thoreau would spend six hours a day walking the forests and fields of Concord, Massachusetts. And out of such solitude came Walden, just as out of Nietzsche’s mountain rambles came his masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Did they need their solitude to incubate their genius? Would marriage and family life have redirected their energies, softened their uncompromising critiques of Western bourgeois civilization? It is obviously quite possible to write great books surrounded by family; Dickens and George Sand managed it quite well. But I think there are certain books — Walden and Zarathustra, for instance — that can only come out of a deep solitude, perhaps even a wounded solitude. Both authors had been rebuffed in their proposals of marriage, after which Nietzsche turned to the Alps and Thoreau to the rivers and ponds of Concord. In the wilderness, they each practiced and articulated the art of self-invention. They replaced the Socratic call to know oneself with the Heraclitean injunction to become who you are.

Can such a philosophy of self-invention still be accomplished within a marriage, within a family, within a community? For the sake of our survival as social animals, we had better hope so. But the solitary experiments of Nietzsche and Thoreau, because they are solitary, throw the act of self-invention into dramatic relief. Everything else is cleared from the stage so we can watch Thoreau strip his life to the bare essentials, then build it back up according to his own needs and his own nature. Nietzsche’s invocation of a new man, a free spirit, an “immoralist,” was not, as has often been said, a sign of his nihilistic elitism; it was rather a call for Germans, for Americans, for modern men and women, to become much more interesting people. The great enemy in Nietzsche’s writing, as in Heraclitus, is mediocrity. Nietzsche disapproved of modern Christianity precisely because it encouraged a herd mentality, a loss of originality, an unthinking acceptance of a moral code that seemed to him too hostile to life. Morality should affirm life (Nietzsche loved italics) in all of its manifestations, not deny it. To invent a self, a morality, a style — that, for Nietzsche, meant to elevate one’s life to the level of art.

BEING — IT’S A BIG SUBJECT. Too big, alas, for the language we’ve invented to discuss and define it. But often, I think, we have tended to use language as a cage, something that traps words inside rigid definitions. And because, as a species, we have never been able to agree on those definitions, and because language has never been able to objectively represent the world around us, some of the most important modern philosophers — Nietzsche, Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Richard Rorty — have called for an “end of philosophy.” More specifically, they have called for a turn, or a return, to literature and poetry. Looking back on his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote in 1886, “What I had to say then — too bad that I did not dare say it as a poet: perhaps I had the ability.” In an essay called “Symbolism: Communication or Communion?” Thomas Merton made the helpful observation that while science and philosophy aim at communication through signs, the highest form of poetry achieves a level of communion. If the scientific sign classifies the things of the world, the poetic symbol reconciles them, and us with them. It bridges the split between subject and object, as if to replace the divisive logic of the Tree of Knowledge with the poetry of the Logos.

Art is a better interpreter of life than morality — that’s the conclusion Nietzsche reached in The Birth of Tragedy. The early Greeks, the founders of tragedy, did not try to explain away life’s suffering as something they deserved because they had disobeyed God (indeed, there was nothing at all moral about their gods). But that is not to say the Greeks didn’t suffer. Rather, they transformed suffering, gave it shape, through art. Then, by inventing the Olympian world, and by telling the story of gods and men through tragedy, they created a kind of trinity out of art, religion, and the natural world.

Like Thoreau, Nietzsche preferred the Greek gods to the Judeo-Christian God because the Greek deities did not judge the world, but rather justified it as what Nietzsche called “an aesthetic phenomenon.” They did not stand apart from the world, but rather, as Yahweh did in the prelapsarian world, they strolled through the garden in the cool of the evening.

To raise one’s experiences to the level of art is to make them worthy of contemplation. Then life gains intensity, vividness, resonance, and meaning, taking on the same qualities as art. And by Nietzsche’s logic, to transform one’s life into a work of art is to achieve the divine in this world. But this aesthetic impulse, so strong in Nietzsche, was not enough to justify my own father’s life to himself. And what I keep coming back to is this: the unbearable Christian belief that he had inherited the congenital sinfulness of Adam, that he was born broken, into a terrible separateness, blinded my father to seeing this world as anything other than a life best left behind.

The Logos of John’s Gospel is God made flesh in order to redeem human beings, through blood sacrifice, from this world. The Logos of Heraclitus is just the opposite. It is the great Intuition that redeems this world as it is. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Thoreau — these are the true heirs of Heraclitus because they urge us to return to the question of how we find meaning — how we make meaning — in this world. And at the end of philosophy, the way we both find and make it is through the language of belonging.

Recall that before the First Parents ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they did not judge the world; they simply affirmed it. When Yahweh marched all of the animals of the garden before Adam and asked what he — Homo loquax — wanted to name them, Adam created the names out of the same substance — the pneuma, the breath — with which Yahweh called the world into being. And because the Greek pneuma can be translated as both “breath” and “spirit,” we can say that it was out of inspiration that Adam named the animals. Yahweh did not intend the natural world to be a courtroom where sin is measured along a continuum of good and evil; he intended it to be a work of art. And like all great works of art, it was a realm governed by its own internal laws: improvisation, adaptation, complementarity, and harmonic tensions.

The talking animals were meant to follow these natural laws. They were meant, as Heraclitus said, to be “an organic continuation of the Logos.” They were not meant to sever that connection, and as a consequence become judges, priests, or literary critics. They were certainly not meant, like the six characters in Luigi Pirandello’s famous play, to go in search of their author. What characters do that? The notion is as absurd as Pirandello meant for it to be. No, the talking animals were meant — we were meant — to be caretakers, both through language and in actions. “Man is not the lord of beings,” wrote Heidegger. “Man is the shepherd of Being.”

Poetry, I think, is the ultimate language of belonging. To overcome all of the painful acts of separation that followed man’s expulsion from the Garden — that is the work of poetry. Unlike Plato’s realm of eternal forms or the Apostle Paul’s eternal salvation, the best poetry calls us back to this world. The true poem captures not just what is seen, but the experience of seeing. Poetry, we might say, is the aura thrown around an ordinary object to show that, in fact, it isn’t ordinary at all. The poem, then, is a microcosm, held together by its own invisible Logos, that shows us how to transcend the mistake of seeing the world as merely a collection of objects, separate and insignificant. Poetry is a religion that redeems us in the here and now. It couldn’t save my father, but I think it might save me.

SITTING ON THE ROCK emblazoned with the number 35, I watch a solitary loon through a pair of binoculars. The plumage on its wings is black and white and looks from here like a complicated musical score. Its head is dark black and its eyes bright red. The loon floats, preens, dives, bears its white breast skyward.

The floating life: I’ve been practicing it for the last few days — paddling, writing, watching — and I am beginning (again) to understand its many virtues. Every now and then, the loon lets out a short yodel, or dives for a fish. Since it sits, or floats, at the top of the food chain, the adult loon has no predators; it can afford these idle days.

Still, this apparent nonchalance is deceptive. Northern loons are now dying at an accelerated, unnatural rate. And the reason has a lot to do with the eastern part of my home state, where strip miners are blasting off the tops of mountains so they can harvest, as quickly as possible, the thin seams of coal that lie hundreds of feet below. Everything that isn’t coal is bulldozed down into the valleys. The water is toxic, floods are constant, and much of the air isn’t fit to breathe. After these Appalachian mountains are destroyed, their coal is trucked off to fire power plants that provide half of the United States’ electricity. When that coal is burned, it releases into the air not only the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, but also mercury — forty-eight tons of it each year. Wind currents carry the mercury hundreds of miles to the northeast, where it works its way up the food chain from plankton to crayfish to fish, then to loons. That mercury severely damages the loons’ central nervous systems, harms their vision, and is extremely toxic to developing embryos. One-fifth of the loons tested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been contaminated with enough mercury to disrupt breeding.

And it isn’t just loons who are sick. They, like their emblematic predecessor the canary in the coal mine, are a sign of human maladies as well. A National Academy of Science report warns that sixty thousand babies born each year in the U.S. could have been exposed to enough mercury in utero to cause permanent brain damage. Still, the Bush administration has worked consistently over the last eight years to weaken regulations on the release of mercury into air and water.

“The mind of man exists in a logical universe but is not itself logical,” wrote Heraclitus. Why else would we knowingly contaminate the air we breathe and the food we eat? Why would we risk our children’s health just so we can air-condition houses that are on average 50 percent bigger than they were thirty years ago? Why else would we — I’m speaking of Americans now, who make up only 5 percent of the world’s population — generate 25 percent of the carbon dioxide that is causing our global climate crisis?

One can examine any healthy watershed to see that the natural world is itself “logical,” governed by the Logos. A forest demonstrates an intelligence it has been honing for millions of years. From the level of the canopy down through the understory to the shrub layer, the herb and fern layer, and finally the soil layer of decomposing leaves, forests form intensely symbiotic communities. Bees pollinate wildflowers; leaf shredders serve up food at the headwaters of streams; termites break down dead logs; worms aerate soil around plant roots; squirrels distribute acorns. Each species finds its niche and learns to adapt, through cooperation, to its surroundings. Each species depends on another and so has a stake in maintaining the health of the entire forest community, the entire watershed. In the broadleaf forests closest to where I live, the mixed mesophytic, seventy different tree species have learned to coexist interdependently, sharing light and resources. Hemlocks and beeches keep to the streams, oaks and hickories share the middle elevations, and pines form the high, dry crowns of the ridgetops. The flora and fauna have worked out a complex charter whereby each species inhabits its own niche. There is no waste, no imbalance, no “progress.”

But man, said Heraclitus, “who is an organic continuation of the Logos, thinks he can sever that continuity and exist apart from it.” If traces of three hundred industrial chemicals can be found in the umbilical cords of American newborns, if we have brought on a cataclysmic change in the climate, if we are destroying habitat at a rate by which we will lose 50 percent of all species by the next century, and if we are consuming natural resources so rapaciously that little will be left for our grandchildren, by what definition is this “logical”? That is to say, why, when, how did we, the clever animal, adopt the supremely illogical notion that we can have infinite economic growth on a planet of finite resources? The fundamental reason we have adopted such an unsustainable, unhealthy, and unsympathetic way of thinking is because, as Heraclitus said, we have severed our connection to the Logos. We have let the logic of the strip mine replace the Logos of the forest.

The Greek word ethos translates into English as “dwelling place.” To find the holy here, to find the kingdom of God before us — that could be the beginning of a new ethos, a new way of dwelling in and with the natural world. The great naturalist Aldo Leopold called this way of thinking and acting “the land ethic.” It means that we, the talking animals, must stop thinking of ourselves as conquerors of the land and must start understanding our role as members of a land community.

Anyone who has ever seen a mountain blown apart knows what conquerors of the land can do, what they are capable of. I don’t think we yet know what members of a land community might accomplish. But to begin, we must, as Leopold famously said, start thinking like a mountain. We cannot simply think about the deer, or the trees, or the coal. We must listen to the Logos; we must start thinking again about the wholeness of being.

ON MY FIFTH MORNING on the island, I wake to find the sky darkening and my cooler empty. I hastily stuff my gear into a large waterproof pack and break camp. As I paddle away, I am accompanied by that complex emotion many travelers experience — the draw of home, coupled with regret at having to leave this place. In the distance, I can see the blue speck that is my truck. Soon it will be taking me back to patterns and routines that often feel like they have more to do with existing, rather than being. For the last few days, I have lived suspended in a prelapsarian fantasy, in a realm at once real and imagined. The Heraclitean ethos of dwelling rightly, however, must be applied to how one dwells among others as well as how one dwells alone on an island in the middle of a lake. Solidarity must be the sequel to solitude. To practice daily the art of belonging to this world — to belong to it wholly and sparingly, with humility and sympathy — that would be the truly heroic accomplishment.

When I have my canoe packed back onto my truck and I drive back south, I will have time to think about these things. But for now, my paddle takes the measure of the moment and does not find it lacking.

Erik Reece is an American writer, the author of two books of nonfiction Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia and An American Gospel: On Family, History, and The Kingdom of God,  and numerous essays and magazine articles, published in Harper’s MagazineThe Nation, and Orion Magazine. He also maintains a blog “The Future We Want” for True/Slant.


  1. An extraordinary piece of thought and writing. Throughly enjoyed it. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which must yet have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.”

  2. I agree that this is an extraordinary piece. I just returned from Italy and have been caught between worlds, caught between place and time, and you anchor it beautifully for me. You so softly and gently present the information we need to live in this world and change it, knowing and honoring each precious breath as seed. Thank you!

  3. Well, I had a productive day planned. Then I read this beautiful piece, and now I’m headed to a local stream to read, reflect and wonder.

  4. Ah, yes, I will do the same. We will both paddle with a J that holds a deeper truth of what productivity means in transforming a day.

  5. Magnificent – if only everyone would read, understand, and act accordingly.

  6. Wonderful piece. Thank you for the offering and description of Logos and of ethos and the lake, and the tie to the author’s personal story.
    Being steeped in the ’emptiness’ of nature is so (ful)filling?
    Tim Siegel Friends Wilderness Center, Harper Ferry, WV

  7. Stunning! Thank your for this remarkable effort. The notion of relationship- what separates meaning from nothingness, love and loneliness- must return to us as a primary epistemological construct. Leopold extended this notion to the land. So beautifully woven- Heraclitus to the present-in a view of the world and our participation in it so fundamentally at odds with the atomistic Platonic view, Descartes etc. Bush’s final acts of degradation/deregulation are based upon the notion that human beings are lords and conquerors, not participants in relationship with the land or each other.

  8. So far there are eight of us who admire the piece. I’ve sent it to all my Republican acquaintances (there are two); but how will we make space in enough hearts for this thinking of Being to do its work? Who are those who can read it and hear it?

  9. An 8 year old student in my class drew a beautiful loon. Now I need to tell him gently that they are endangered because of coal production. I had heard that there is no such thing as clean coal from a daughter who heard a group called The Coal Miners’ Daughters. This talking animal will continue to talk to her students and to the rest of the people who may think that coal is the answer. Please send this to Barack OBama. We need to continue informing all politicians that the search for safe energy is needed. We are not the conquerers and controllers of the land…we share it with all of nature. We must respect and conserve it for the survival of all.
    Thank you for reminding me in such a beautiful way.

  10. One of the most outstanding pieces I have ever read.
    The Sanskrit saying, “Tat Twam Asi” meaning “You are That” says the same thing- You already are, you do not have to become.
    Sincere thanks.

  11. Yes, a beautifully written essay – thank you, Erik Reece. Modern humans have “severed our connection to the Logos,” and are under the illusion that we are separate from the natural world. We don’t see the connections. Coal companies don’t see the mountains and the lives they destroy, meat-eaters don’t see the animals that were killed for them, and urban people don’t see the inspiration of nature. The only “logic” behind our destroying our own sources of sustenance is blindness to the connections. As Henri asks, who will read and hear this message – that we are not separate? If a big majority of people don’t hear the message, and soon, the human race is in big trouble.

  12. A manifesto on life – live the one you desire or wither under the weight of others’ beliefs. Profoundly liberating. Cheers to both Mr. Reece and Orion.

  13. Thank you for this wonderful work. As Claire reminds us that you have reminded us of the “severed connection to the Logos” I offer this quote: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

    Thank you for weaving the J stroke of nature, philosophy and “poetry [as] religion that redeems us in the here and now.”

  14. A refreshing gift on a day off to read your essay. Please write again.

  15. This thread is a wonderfully timely and perspicacious example of what need to be happening now. Thanks for all you are doing to protect biodiversity from mass extinction, to preserve Earth’s body from wanton dissipation, to halt relentless degradation of the environment and, with a bit of luck and a great deal of work, to save the family of humanity from reckless endangerment as well as to spare the human species from an even worse threat.

    Make no mistake, the Orion Blog is making a positive difference. Even though the ‘talking heads’ in the mainstream media, the ones who are owned by economic powerbrokers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians, wish all of us would go away, we need to keep going.

    Sincerely yours,


    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  16. Your search for answers has been a gift to me and helped me in my search, which may be the quest that we all share: to understand our lives. I read your article several times a day because it gives structure to my thought and comforts me. Thank you.

  17. Know that Jesus want’s us to take care of this world, and steward it. Through us he will repair this broken world, spiritually as well as physically. The word did become flesh and came down and showed us how to live and to save us from the “world”. This “world” is anything that separates us from god it should not be taken as thinking as nature is no good and we need to leave it. God said it was good in the beginning and that it will be restored to perfection! Part of that i take to mean getting rid of this current environmental degradation. But also reconciling us back to him. <3

  18. A thought-provoking article that has inspired me to BE rather than exist. This article reminded me of My Ishmael when it talks about the life styles of the Native American’s. To the white man it was viewed that the since the Native Americans weren’t progressing and that it was up to the whites to change that. The Native Americans didn’t ask for truth, they didn’t even ask to how to be, they simply did BE. So while I understand what the article is saying about the “talking animals” not being able to be, it was wrong in the sense that there are some people who do just BE its just we tend to view those select few to contain preposterous ideas that can not be fulfilled.

  19. your essay is all over the place. you need to learn to control your will. if it was about the canoe ride it would be a great piece, however, this is a mud flinging hoping all the mess will stick. 2 out of 4 stars.

  20. “We do not love the world enough”.

    What a blessing is this brilliant writing. I will give this to my friends for Christmas.

    I will write a longer letter to Erik Reece– but now, after a hike in the silent snowy woods here this afternoon, I discover this online conversation and must acknowledge all who find ourselves knit together with this courageous and strong current.

    I smiled to find Mary Oliver’s poem following this in the printed journal. How appropriate…her opening lines in THIRST: “My work is loving the world.”

  21. Deeply appreciate this piece — perhaps because it taps into that daily challenge of being surrounded by the Christian mindset to “do well so that we may eventuall receive all that has been promised” vs. “this life, today, is fullfilling and worth our attention and care.”

    We all judge too much and too often. And we can all benefit from a bit more poetry in our lives!

    A great piece to read to start the new year!

  22. My 2nd son of 10 children asked me to read this article, I think to ponder some deep meaning from it. It saddens me to see people break their vows of marriage, as the author did. It saddens me to see him childless and adrift in life seeking meaning. And what really saddens me is to see man once again blamed for all the earth’s problems and the the arrogance of thinking that somehow we are responsible for its demise. What drivel. Instead of complaining, about how terrible the world is, why not go out and make a difference in the life your are wasting now.

  23. Erik
    Wow check out what Mark Armstrong said. Very interesting take on the article.

    I loved the article, of course, – but I also found myself wondering if you could bring the same conversation to your everyday life, and keep up that connection day to day rather than have to go to some island to reflect and reconnect. Isn’t that the point? Don’t all of us need to engage with place and life on an ordinary day-to-day level? I’d love to see you pull off the same kind of thread, but do it while you are driving a car, buying soap, doing laundry, turning electric lights on and off, answering the phone, opening up one of those idiotic plastic packages so much junk comes in these days, etc. etc. etc. OH PLEASE oh please. I hope you will consider writing another piece like this one, but from your everyday life. Where is it – that connection – can it be found “here” in the swirl rather than “there” on the island? If you can’t do it, most of the rest of us wouldn’t be able to, either.

  24. Listening to the conversation with Eric Reece a good point was made out that once we treat our fate and the worlds fate as one then we’ll understand more about ourselves and the Earth and how we are connected.

  25. So well written and just beautiful, bravo. One thought, Joseph Campbell might have said yes to achieving higher thought and being married. Thank you for a wonder piece. My Dad would have loved it. He died this April, I wish I could have discussed this with him

  26. Thank you for your sincere sharing of your logos. Maybe it would be helpful to realize that the early Greeks did advocate knowing oneself
    being essential to finding harmony with all life. Above the portal of Apollo was inscribed the injunction “Know Thyself”. That is what Jesus is essentially teaching, and I grieve that your dad and grandfather, as most sincere Christians, did not, and still do not understand it.

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