The Oldie: Profitable Wonders – August 2009
The seventeenth century metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne in the introduction to his major work Centuries of Meditation’ had a mind to fill it with Profitable Wonders’. Not, obviously, the profit of income over expenditure but rather the profit that is advantageous to those who recognise what it means to live in an enchanted world. “You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself flows in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars,” he wrote, “till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, you are earnest to persuade others to enjoy it too.”
For Thomas Traherne there was nothing too commonplace that did not command his attention. Here the obvious of our everyday lives becomes, on reflection, distinctly non-obvious. “What diamonds are equal to my eyes, what gates of ivory to the double portal of my lips and teeth. Is not sight a jewel, is not hearing a treasure, is not speech a glory."
And there is nothing so full of profitable wonder as the natural miracle of self renewing life marching down through the ages in such an abundance of shape, form, attributes and propensity as to encompass the full range, and more, of what might be possible. Why should the ten thousand species of birds yet be so readily distinguishable one from the other by their pattern of flight, or the shape of their wings, the colour of their plumage or the notes of their song? “By their melodious accents they gratify our ears,” observed John Ray, the original ‘twitcher’, founder of the scientific discipline of ornithology and direct contemporary of Thomas Traherne. “By their beautiful shapes and colours they delight our eyes, without them the hedges and woods would be lonely and melancholy."
Four hundred years on we should, by rights, be vastly more appreciative of such profitable wonders for we now know so much more about the natural world and the deep complexities that underpin it. Yet one could search a shelf’s worth of biology textbooks in vain for the slightest hint of the extraordinary in their detailed exposition of the fact of zoology and botany, anatomy, physiology or embryology. Science no longer does ‘wonder’ for it is in thrall to the belief that there is nothing in principle it cannot account for, where the unknown is merely waiting-to-be-known. This presupposition of understanding that would reduce that near infinite diversity of life to the nuts and bolts, proteins and enzymes of which all living things are made, disenchants the world by propagating the illusion we know so much more than we do, or can.
It was not always thus for biologists of preceding generations were inspired by the grander vision that ‘the truth’ lay rather in the intricate interdependency of the living world. Thus, the survival and prosperity of our species is, as the one time Professor of Natural History at Aberdeen University J Arthur Thomson points out, utterly dependent on the labours of the humble earthworm—without whose exertions in aerating the dense, inhospitable soil there would never have been a single field of corn.
"When we pause to think of the part earthworms have played in the history of the earth, they are clearly the most useful of animals. By their burrowing they loosen the earth, making way for the plant rootlets and the raindrops; by bruising the soil in their gizzards they reduce the mineral particles to more useful forms. They were ploughers before the plough, five hundred thousand to an acre passing ten tons of soil every year through their bodies."