Conversations with the Earth: Geologist Hans Cloos on the Complementarity of Art and Science in Illuminating the Splendor of Nature and Reality
By Maria Popova
German geologist Hans Cloos (November 8, 1885–September 26, 1951) belongs atop the hierarchy of great nonfiction writers — a scientist who wrote about his subject matter with a poetic conscience and an expansive sense of aesthetic harmony. Marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, herself a poet laureate of science and the catalyst of the modern environmental movement, was a great admirer of Cloos as a singular writer who “illuminates his scientific fact with rare intuition and perception,” effecting an uncommon enchantment with the living reality of nature. Perhaps because Cloos was also a poet, philosopher, musician, and painter, he wrote beautifully not only about science itself but about the complementarity of science and the arts as a joint mode of knowing reality in its fullest dimensions. That is what he explores in the opening chapter of his lyrical posthumously published autobiography, Conversations with the Earth (public library) — a splendid, underappreciated book, which Carson lauded as “deeply significant, and deserving of wide and thoughtful reading.”
A generation after Bertrand Russell extolled the superiority of “love knowledge” over “power knowledge” in the scientific outlook, Cloos writes:
The present is the era of man. Our struggle for survival dominates the scene; we increase or diminish other forms of life to nourish our own. A thousand other ages have preceded us, a thousand more will follow. The patient earth has offered its growing life thousands upon thousands of times to the warmth of the sun, and it might thrive and be transformed, and eventually vanish to provide space, light, and sustenance for new and different kinds of life. Restlessly the earth has changed, like the ever-moving sea. Lands and mountains rose out of the sea, only to be returned again to the ocean.
But the present is the era of man. Today knowledge reigns supreme. For the first time since its beginning our planet, earth, sees and understands itself. For a billion years the earth rolled on, quite blind and mute. It has used up all this enormous period of time in forming, out of plants and animals, through millions of unfinished experiments, the organ through which it will recognize itself. For a billion years the patient earth amassed documents and inscribed them with signs and pictures which lay unnoticed and unused. Today, at last, they are waking up, because man has come to rouse them. Stones have begun to speak, because an ear is there to hear them. Layers become history and, released from the enchanted sleep of eternity, life’s motley, never-ending dance rises out of the black depths of the past into the light of the present… We translate the earth’s language into our own, and enrich the already bright and colorful surface of the present with the knowledge of the inexhaustible abundance of the past.
While our scientific knowledge of the universe may always remain incomplete, Cloos observes, the path to such knowledge is open to all willing to make the effort. But there is a different mode of knowing the universe that requires a different self-election:
There is another, inner way, a way that is not accessible to everyone. It leads from the unconscious within ourselves to the imponderable and invisible in the earthly environment. It is this way which binds the artist to the world. He who walks this trail sees the beauty of the earth, and hears its music.
Why does man find beauty in a landscape? Is it not because he is a part of nature, inwardly subject to nature’s laws, because he has an unconscious insight into the internal order of the earth, into the rhythm of its repetitions, the harmony of its lines and surfaces and the balanced interplay of its parts? And does not our delight in the contemplation of nature grow out of the harmony between the music of our own soul and the music of the earth?
Nearly a century and a half after Schopenhauer examined the essential difference between how art and science illuminate reality, and a century after Frederick Douglass called for the complementarity of observation and contemplation in cultural progress, Cloos considers the art of speaking of and for nature:
But man, ever the thinking, exploring man who has made it his life’s work and duty to listen to nature’s voice, can scarcely hear “music” every moment of the day. It is human custom, and geology affirms the practice, to explore the natural order by sober, patient observation and by logical deduction, and to describe what has been found os that anyone can readily understand and enjoy it.
The experienced observer does more than merely report and recite. He guides the eager student to an understanding of the earth. He may chart the scientist’s steep, barren road of sober observation and strict deduction, or the artist’s gentle road of contemplation and empathy. And, finally, he may point out his own unique way, the path of the initiated, which leads him from the laboratories and libraries to the meadows and flower gardens of the living earth.
Echoing Carson’s assertion that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Cloos plumbs the elemental core of our relationship with nature:
Two fundamental principles stand out above all others:
As parts of the earth we depend on its inorganic substance and on the eternal change which it undergoes. And as children of the earth we are subordinate, dependent particles in the unceasing stream of life.
A century after Margaret Fuller made her sublime proclamation that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Cloos returns to the essential complementarity of art and science in our quest to know reality at its richest:
How closely akin are music, the purest and most ethereal of the arts, and mathematics, most sober of the sciences, however unlike their forms may be. He who hears the music of the earth will find that pleasure in its melodies is more than a light and gladsome enjoyment. He will find, indeed, that the experience furnishes another and deeper understanding of the language in which the world [speaks] to us.
More than half a century later, Conversations with the Earth remains a beautiful book deserving of a far wider readership. Complement it with Richard Jefferies, another forgotten poet laureate on nature and another of Rachel Carson’s heroes, on how nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between us and the Earth, and Loren Eiseley, who remains a gold standard for lyrical science writing, on the relationship between nature and human nature.
Published February 5, 2018