Categorized | Our Town

In The Sublime

Posted on 19 August 2011

By Richard Gambino

I’ve loved the East End for many years, for many joys. One of the best is nature. I feel deep in me words Walt Whitman wrote of “Paumanok” [this land’s old Indian name]: “I throw myself upon your breast my father,/I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,/… Breathe to me while I hold you close the secret of the murmuring I envy.”

The secret in the murmuring of vital life, heard here on the East End twenty-four hours a day. If we listen.

One day in early July, Gail, my wife, called me quietly to come to a room at the back of our home. Just outside were two small fawns. New life, renewed life, the throbbing current of life making this earth a miracle in a sea of ice-white stars. For a layman, I have plenty of knowledge of what science says about life — more on this in a moment. But there is something beyond this — and in that beyond I’m also like Whitman: “I perceive I have not really understood any thing,/not a single object, and that no man ever can,/Nature … taking advantage of me/to dart upon me and sting me.”

It’s a gentle sting, the sight of new life, an affectionate pinch to the depth of my soul rather than a discomfort — the grace of renewed life. So, I look at photos I took of the fawns in July, and compare them to the growing fawns that still frequent my land. (I also can’t forget another photo, in the Express on July 14, of two Sag Harbor policemen giving oxygen to a fawn that had been hit by a car on Rt. 114.)

A few years ago in Yellowstone National Park, I was alone, standing atop a long, gently sloping hill, totally absorbed in looking through my camera, set on a tripod. (Nature photography is my hobby.) I became aware of a rumble behind me — and turned to see a herd of bison running up the hill toward me. Very fast. Fear shouted at me to run in a panic. Reason told me running was useless, and to just stand as still as possible. I heeded reason, and the herd passed very close to me. In some long minutes they were all past me, on their way down another slope of the hill.

But the surprise was that my fear left me while they were still running so close to me. I was actually thrilled to be so near the strong, fast-moving animals. It’s a feeling that Kant called “the sublime.” That is, being close to a very great natural force, but not feeling personal danger from it. (Although, of course, I was in danger. More humans are killed in Yellowstone by bison than by grizzly bears or wolves.)

In the sublime feeling, I was part of that great living force. Also, the time of the bison running past me was much longer in my experience than as measured by a clock. When fully alive, time lived is radically different than time measured mechanically by clocks. I can still close my eyes and let my memory bring those feelings again to me. I wonder, could we be to fawns what the bison were to me, a sublime, not a lethal, experience? Just a childish thought.

So, coming back to science, I value its writs. But they don’t spoil my wondrous amazement at the two white-spotted young deer near my window. As Whitman put it, “… the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d.”

It is that Me that is moved by the clear doe-eyes of the new-life beings I gazed at and photographed through the screen of my window. (A reminder that our mortal limitations constitute a screen through which we must peer at the miracle of life.) Walking the ground I walk, and breathing the air I breathe, the fawns, like the bison, open my awe to infinity, literally to a wonder that can’t be fully answered by our categories of matter and energy, time and space, logic and physical evidence. In fact, the development of science in the past few decades, and especially our better understanding of it, increases my wonder at life, in contrast to the limited, strictly materialistic understanding that reduces life to “nothing but” chemistry and physics. The development of cybernetics (the science of information; not only its communication, but also its roles in determination and control) has opened vast new insights into nature.

For example, experts tell us that if the DNA (an information system) of each human, which accounts biologically for what he or she is both as a member of the species and as an individual, were strung out in a straight line, that line would reach from the earth to the sun, and back, six times. (The DNA of each of the fawns might not be quite that long, but is also beyond imagination in its scope and complexity.) More, the all-but-incredible complexity and diversity that life exhibits — there are upwards of 10 million living species of animals and plants on earth — goes against one of the basic laws of science, the law of entropy, i.e., that when left on their own, physical entities tend to go, or “break down,” from the complex to the simple. On an even more basic level, the elemental chemicals of which our bodies are made (the same ones as the fawns), e.g., oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, etc, either each or all together, are without any information, let alone the information needed to create life, and develop life ever from the more simple to the more complex.

A gene is not just a biochemical entity, but also contains information. Interacting together with an astronomical amount of other information carried in the other genes in a person (or a fawn), we have an individual human (or deer). Without that information system, we would have only a collection of chemicals. Science cannot tell us how that information “got into” chemicals to form life. Or as one writer put it, science cannot explain how “informationless matter — energy is a splendid information maker.” (A joke my chemistry teacher in high school told us in the mid-1950s was that in terms of that science, a human is nothing but a bunch of inexpensive chemicals and some buckets of water.)

Think of genes as a pile of alphabetic letters, each of which by itself has no meaning. Meaning — and value — come into being only when the letters are combined and organized to give complex information, say the meaningless pile of letters turning into Hamlet when Shakespeare organized them. In short, creativity gives meaning and value.

Science cannot give us ultimate answers about life, including an answer to the question of why there is life rather than just non-living matter and energy. But on the most basic level, today’s science deepens my wonder regarding life, my awe of it, and identification with it. When I’m fully alive.

RICHARD GAMBINO offers Whitman’s way: To consider East End life, and so “invite” one’s “soul.”

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