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Wednesday, November 21 , 2018, 1:34 pm | Mostly Cloudy 65º


Dan McCaslin: The Moral Order in Nature — There Is Only Today!

What will you make of each precious day? Try giving a few hours of your focus to moving about outdoors and away from the grind

La Cumbre Peak Click to view larger
Dragon’s Back and La Cumbre Peak. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

I recently quoted novelist Annie Dillard emphasizing the importance of living in the moment: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” As our Anthropocene era’s frantic pace and political uproar continue to accelerate, it becomes harder and harder to follow this obvious advice to seize the day — that is, to live in the moment with the joyful freedom that comes from believing there is no tomorrow (carpe diem).

Sometimes the heavy exhaustion associated with a 10-mile hike — substitute your favorite extreme physical activity/exercise here — so permeates one’s awareness that you’re able to become totally focused during the last few arduous miles.

Plodding and observing, feeling and sighing with slightly pained awareness … chanting the old 1970s mantra hurts so good! You manage efficient one-pointed focus on the dusty path just in front of you, aware of big holes or snakes or fallen limbs.

These occasional experiences can help us recover vigor and juvenescence, inspire us to unite completely with the sweaty moment, and perhaps even muffle the overactive cerebral cortex and its endless goal-setting. Cellphones don’t work, and you feel comforted by the vast solitude all around (the San Rafael Wilderness is 240,000 acres).

Buddha wisely counsels the individual to accept that there will be an end to physical existence (death!), so stop waiting for tomorrow, or thinking about your uncertain pension, or whether the Democrats win the House of Representatives in November’s election.

A favorite writer of mine, Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker about the lessons of the 19th-century utopians, states that we too often “want to get past the room we’re in in order to break out and change the universe.”

On weekends or vacation days, how often do we go directly into nature and play hard? Do our kids witness us in action in the Stone Age world that our species spent 99 percent of its existence evolving in and through?

Do our actions parallel our rhetoric about the human need to get outside and move around in the wild or near-wilderness areas? I know Davy Brown is now $20 a night, but you can still pull off to the side of the road near Davy, Nira or Figueroa campgrounds and kip overnight (no fires) for free with your children.

And there actually is a “moral order” in nature: It has its own authentic value that we humans can study. You can reason it out while experiencing the outdoor exertion and even occasional “pain” and healthy stress.

Philosopher Peter Woodford’s The Moral Meaning of Nature (2018) bears the interesting subtitle "Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion." Early German Darwinists like Friedrich Nietzsche seized on his points about the fecundity of nature, of the extravagant bonanza of life, and the astounding variety of the species Charles Darwin saw during his five-year voyage on the Beagle.

In their "philosophy of life" (Lebensphilosophie) theory, Nietzsche along with Henri Bergson and other continental Europeans fully understood how making a representation of nature (the world) is in itself a value-laden activity. The Lebensphilosophie movement went against Auguste Comte’s positivism and the ascendancy of materialistic science.

Thus in the 1880s, almost 140 years ago, thinkers like Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard and Bergson understood what many modern scientists fail to see even today: All of our scientific theories and hypotheses, e.g. the Big Bang theory, always involve a subjective, “value-laden” human perspective.

Big science at its worst has come to resemble religion in some frightening ways, and “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris sound like Old Testament prophets in their denunciations of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions.

In teaching my middle school history classes, on Fridays or days I assumed students might have reduced focus (e.g. after Halloween!), I would occasionally begin the session by bellowing: “TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE! Get out some paper. Write down the first five things you will do today (it’s a free day)!”

Amid some laughter, we would often end up in face-to-face discussions about several topics, often about “human values,” and eventually I’d include the idea that there is only one day, and one present, the inescapable now.

What will you make of this precious day today? Do you feel any gratitude for waking up this morning, and all this beauty was already present? You’ve awakened on third base, to use a baseball analogy, and either you preen by telling yourself “I hit a triple,” or you look around and expressing gratitude prepare to run to home plate.

While we might add unneeded stress to already hectic days in an accelerating society, in effect we’re forgetting we also inhabit that individual “room” that Gopnik mentions. But he wisely cautions us that some lessons in life teach us that change really does begin at home, even in our minds first, then our local actions. “We can’t escape rooms on our way to worlds. The world is made of rooms.”

Giving a few hours of your daily focus to moving about in near-nature and away from white noise, cars, social media, the incessant news — smell the roses on your strenuous path today since they may be gone tomorrow and the fragrance with them.

Carpe diem. See you out on the trails, and bring your children!


» Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, July 30, 2018, page 62; Peter Woodford, The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and Its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2018); Richard Dawkins, The God-Delusion (2006); Sam Harris, The End of Faith (2004); Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) — together with the late Christopher Hitchens they make up “the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism.”

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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