Saturday, April 30, 2011

Discovering Your Journey

Do you possess a meaningful sense of place, an emotional connection to the life and land around you? Or how about a strong sense of history, an affective connection to the deep time story of you? If you’re like most of us, your answer to both questions is no. A little reflection will reveal the immense depth of this problem. How can we ever hope to live sustainably if we don’t care about the places we live? As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould once claimed [1], “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.”

Until very recently, virtually all cultures were rooted to their native places by origin stories—or cosmologies—that provided explanations for the origin and ordering of the world around them. Although present-day indigenous peoples and most followers of religious traditions have a cosmology, the bulk of us living in Western industrial societies don’t. Previously, I have written in this blog about the scientific Epic of Evolution, that astonishing and staggeringly beautiful account of our deep time evolutionary history that has emerged from within science over the past several decades. Following in the giant footsteps of Thomas Berry [2], I am convinced that this grand narrative, arguably science’s greatest contribution, has the potential to unite humanity and root us in both local places and deep time. Yet to date the evolutionary epic remains virtually absent from our culture. Why?

Some would point to the efforts of religious fundamentalists to suppress evolution. Others would underline Western culture’s myopic focus on the present day, with the implicit message that almost everything that came before is irrelevant. Still others would note that the deep scientific insights at the core of the cosmic story tend be highly counterintuitive; as I've said before, it’s not easy to grasp the notion that we are chunks of starstuff living on the side of a giant, spherical rock hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour! While these factors and others are certainly involved, the single greatest obstacle preventing widespread dissemination of the Epic of Evolution may well be abstraction. To date, the evolutionary epic has been presented as a grand saga uniting all of humanity within a single cosmic unfolding. Yet absent has been a clear means of grounding this story in everyday experience, where it could assert its full emotional (as opposed to merely intellectual) impact.

At first glance it would seem that cosmic evolution has little in common with everyday experience in local places. After all, the former deals with the biggest scales of time and space, whereas the latter is concerned with the very intimate nearby. But imagine for a moment communicating the universe story entirely through reference to local characters and features. To give a few examples from my home, a forest-clad mountain might serve to tell of the origins of galaxies and stars (with all heavy elements in the rocks forged within stellar furnaces); a gurgling creek could become the vehicle for speaking of the birth of molecules (combining oxygen and hydrogen to become water); a majestic redwood could convey the story of life learning to harness the sun’s energy; a spawning salmon could become the entry point for telling of the first back-boned animals and their transition onto land; a raven flying overhead offers a fine protagonist for conveying the story of reptiles, dinosaurs, and birds; and the indigenous Miwok peoples offer a vibrant focus for telling of the birth of humans and their changing relationship to the land. The entire story might be conveyed outdoors in a natural setting, engaging the full range of listeners’ senses. The essential point here is that the key characters of the cosmic journey (galaxies, stars, landscapes, bacteria, plants, animals, culture, etc.) are all present today in one form or another in every place. So any place can be used to convey the full splendor of the cosmic saga.

This “cosmolocal approach” provides the opportunity for reciprocal illumination of place and story. On the one hand, the Epic of Evolution offers a wondrous narrative context that adds meaning to local place. On the other, local places provide the characters and direct experience that makes this evolutionary epic alive, immediate, and engaging. Each version of the story can be tailored not only to place, but also to the age and knowledge base of the audience, from children through adults. Importantly, these stories should not be presented as received ‘truths.’ After all, like science generally, the story of cosmic evolution, although well established in its fundamentals, is still provisional in some aspects, and will undoubtedly “evolve” itself. More importantly, the cosmolocal approach opens the door for each person to construct his/her own unique version of the Universe Story, selecting the most meaningful local characters with which to explore and convey this saga.

The beauty of the evolutionary epic is that it allows for an endless variety of interpretations, each one informed by specific historical, cultural, spiritual, and ecological contexts. Certainly the grand cosmic saga is not compatible with all religious beliefs,particularly fundamentalist notions of creation within the past 6,000 years. But just as the world’s spiritual traditions have adapted to the reality that the Earth does not exist at the center of the universe, so too must we now accept, indeed embrace, the fact that we live in a dynamic universe that has been unfolding for billions of years.

Ultimately, the cosmolocal approach has potential to simultaneously foster both a deep sense of place and history. This way of understanding the universe is not new, of course. Indigenous peoples have used it for many thousands of years to root their origin myths in intimate details of their homelands. It’s high time that we married this ancient wisdom with modern science to root ourselves in both local place and the greater cosmos.

In closing, I strongly recommend that you check out a spectacular, newly released documentary, Journey of the Universe, created by my very wise and talented friends, Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker (together with a team of others). "JOTU," as the project is labeled, is the amazing culmination of many years work, offering a brief, jaw-dropping synopsis of the evolutionary epic. Go to:


1. Gould, S. J. 1993. Unenchanted evening. Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History. Norton, New York. (p. 40)

2. Berry, T. 1990. The Dream of the Earth. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.

All images derived from National Geographic: