Being an Earth Ecstatic: Poet Diane Ackerman on the Spirituality of Wonder Without Religion
By Maria Popova
Some years ago, at a gathering exploring our human search for meaning through a kaleidoscope of perspectives in the middle of the redwoods, I sat down for a conversation with an astronomer I had just met, who was about to become one of my dearest friends. Backstage, the bond became instantly clear as we each arrived giddy to surprise the other with an homage to the nexus of our worlds — we had both realized that it was the anniversary of the discovery of Pluto (both suspecting the other would not have); we had both endeavored to honor the occasion with a poem (both suspecting this might impress the other); we had both chosen the same poem: “Pluto” from Diane Ackerman’s forgotten treasure The Planets — a suite of breathtakingly beautiful, scientifically accurate poems celebrating the Solar System, which awed Ackerman’s doctoral advisor, one Carl Sagan.
We laughed rapturously, hugged amply, then stepped onstage for our public conversation, which inevitably turned to the question of spirituality — a term I have regarded with growing unease over the years, watching it become increasingly sullied with the dangerous antiscientific neo-mysticism of New Age ideologies. Asked about my own orientation to spirituality, I thought about the only two things that have always reliably given me the feeling of sublimity and transcendence, which religion promises: music and nature. I thought about Walt Whitman, this poet laureate of the natural world who might be the closest thing I have to a guiding spirit — about how he considered music the profoundest expression of nature, but only an expression of that largest reliquary of transcendence. I thought about the redwood cathedral near the auditorium — about how appropriate it is to call this living temple of time a “cathedral.”
I am thinking now about Ackerman herself — a poet who believes that “wonder is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart, [for] even a tiny piece of it can stop time”; a writer of dazzling prose about the science of nature, who rises to the rare level of enchanter — and about how she explores this very notion in a passage from her altogether wondrous book An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain (public library). Having subtitled her suite of poems for the planets A Cosmic Pastoral, Ackerman makes a bold case for reclaiming the reverence of nature and the language of wonder from the vocabulary of religion:
People often use religious terminology when they speak of the spiritual or transcendent. Our yearning to find whole-ness as holiness, and at-one-ment as atonement, fills a need ancient and essential as air. Because English vocabulary offers few ways to describe religious events, except in churchly terms, I often resort to such words as sacred, grace, reverence, worship, holy, sanctity, and benediction, which I cherish as powerful feelings, moods, and ideas. I’m an Earth ecstatic, and my creed is simple: All life is sacred, life loves life, and we are capable of improving our behavior toward one another. As basic as that is, for me it’s also tonic and deeply spiritual, glorifying the smallest life-form and embracing the most distant stars.
Ackerman elaborates on this lifelong conviction in her conversation with conservationist and science writer Connie Barlow, woven throughout Barlow’s Green Space, Green Time: The Way of Science (public library). Half a century after the poetic scientist Rachel Carson observed that “our origins are of the earth… so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Ackerman considers the restive swell of need in the modern breast — the need for a conviction that something larger than ourselves matters and that we finite creatures, “the small bipeds with the giant dreams,” can not only partake of its sanctity but steward it with our own actions. In a sentiment evocative of Denise Levertov’s splendid poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World,” Ackerman reflects:
There’s a terrible hollowness, an emptiness at the core of society right now that comes from our trying to exile ourselves farther and farther from nature. Nature is something that most people visit on weekends. Yet we evolved to be intimately tied to nature, to feel whole and natural when we belong to nature, and to respond to that ever-changing fantasia of the seasons. The harder that we try to deny that heritage, the more alienated we become.
With an eye to the etymology of the word holy — which shares its root with whole and has its Indo-European origins in the notion of the interleaving of all things — she tells Barlow:
I have no trouble using a word like holy to describe a place in the wilderness where I might feel an intimate relationship with the cosmos.
Ackerman hastens to temper this with something that has long troubled me, too, in the orientation of certain writers and thinkers in the spirituality industry — for it is very much an industry of marketable ideology — who eagerly appropriate fragments of science to illustrate certain beliefs, but stop at the threshold of the larger reality, before the fragments cohere into a fuller context that threatens those beliefs with incompatible evidence. Ackerman tells Barlow:
Liberal religious authors I encounter often show gratitude to science for providing not so much answers as more and more mystery. These authors revel in an enchantment with mystery and find much of their spirituality there. But at the same time I detect an underlying reluctance to be fully and completely open to everything that science may reveal. There’s a worry that some answers science might produce could bring spiritual discomfort.
Ackerman contrasts this orientation with her own “ecological spiritualism” and revisits the deep fulfillment of her “personal religion” as an “Earth ecstatic”:
I believe in the sanctity of life [in the ecological sense] and the perfectibility of people. I believe we should regard all life forms with dignity, respect, affectionate curiosity, and the kind of protectiveness family members feel for one another.
Complement with Lucille Clifton’s spare and sublime ode to the interconnection and dignity of all life (found in one of the finest books this year) and Mary Shelley on what gives meaning to our lives when all else crumbles, then revisit Ackerman on the evolutionary and existential purpose of play and the secret life of the senses.
Published December 23, 2020