When I was ten years old, I shot a songbird, a tiny, yellow and gray Canada warbler, with an air rifle, and the shame of that moment still sears my conscience.
To this day, I vividly recall picking it up and being overwhelmed by its beauty and symmetry. I still see every intricate detail, still feel its final warmth. It became my definition of grandeur. What it had been, what I had done, became my catechism, my touchstone, the base of my criteria for conduct. What we do that benefits songbirds is good, what we do to harm them is bad.
In later years, I found grandeur in other places — in the high arctic, in the back of beyond of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in B.C.’s Coast Mountains, in the generosity of a Palestinian school teacher in a refugee camp outside Tripoli, in Lebanon, during the fighting with Syria, in photographs of Earth taken from space.
We have a need for grandeur, I think. It gives context to our lives. Without it, what measure do we have for our aspirations? What poetry for our lives? What base for our judgments?
As Thomas Berry says in his latest book, all things evolved from the same nuclear elements. Each species took a different path, but all paths were built from the same flagstones.
If we, he says, meaning humans, are the universe writ small, then the universe is us writ large. Deep within our genetic coding, he suggests, as within the genetic coding of all things, is a memory of the wonder of creation, of following a particular path, and of being part of an infinite number of paths.
It is in our perception of grandeur, I think, that this deep memory of creation finds expression. And as Berry says, when we bring degradation upon any part of creation, it is a loss torn from our souls. Our genetic memory of completeness is violated. The poetry, wonder, and spiritual exaltation that memory has embedded within us is dampened. It is a « degradation of the interior world of the human,’’ he says.
His book is titled The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Bell Tower, New York, 1999, $19.95 in paperback), and don’t be misled by the title. The great work is not the book, it is the task at hand — it is to « carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth,’’ to a time of healing for the planet.
Think of the great work facing us « less as the result of some scientific insight, or as dependent on some socioeconomic arrangement,’’ he says, and more as a change of culture, a return to a sense of the sacredness of life, and a celebration of its infinite diversity — learning again, as it were, to participate in a glorious orchestral symphony.
We have time to make the transition, he says, but barely. We are living in a moment of grace during which change is possible. But the moment will pass, as have all such moments throughout history. He doesn’t speculate on what Earth would be like if we fail in transition. But with the devastation we can already see, surely we need no road map.
However, there is hope on the horizon. Despite the recalcitrance of federal and provincial governments, I see an enormous longing across the land for a better way. An awareness that, for Earth, things are going desperately wrong. A growing desire for fundamental change.
One expression of this longing is found in the movement to establish an Earth Charter, which will be presented to the United Nations next year. The charter would enshrine respect for all organisms in a statutory declaration.
I fervently hope we can seize this moment of grace to the fullest. I know how diminished I felt without that single Canada warbler. I would grieve me beyond bearing to see children and grandchildren forced to live with an immeasurably greater sense of diminishment.