Henry David Thoreau, always a prankster with words, once described Walden as “mediterranean”—literally, “in the middle of the land.” As our evening waned, the winds stilled, and the unbroken surface of the pond absorbed the surrounding terrain, the hardwood reds and yellows vibrant enough to survive the dusk.
Light in the Canyon
Since that October morning at the edge of the Canyon, I will occasionally recall that lookout at Navajo Point when a liturgy or familiar prayer provides words for my own spiritual longing or wonder. The morning vista reminds me what prayer often is—an appeal for divine light within the landscape of religious tradition and practice.
If science and faith are still often at odds, there are also concerns about the rapport between science and democracy. At risk is the health of the American “social contract with science”—the will of the republic to invest in research and grant the investigator broad freedom, confident that the scholarly community will insist on professional rigor, ethical protocols and intellectual generosity.
The Body of Christ: A Visit to Orvieto
This spring, once again, Orvieto's residents will gather to watch the mystery cycle. It is as if the English literary genre—molded anew by American hands—has come home, returning to the very site from which the Corpus Christi tradition took wings.
My tale today is about a writer reawakened, not silenced, by the intellectual foment of the 1640s. Not simply the gray reminiscence of winter, Bradford's late work is a mix of memory and desire, and it allows us to eavesdrop on one of the most mercurial moments in the history of England, Old and New.
Nathaniel Hawthorne—who was never a Lincoln man—told the story about his discovery of an old “rag of scarlet cloth,” greatly faded and frayed, among the cobwebs at Salem’s Custom House. You probably know the story that Hawthorne dreamt up from there.
But a trip through Europe veers, inevitably, into the backstreet corners and public corridors where Christians, Jews and Muslims have spilled each other's blood. For the most part, America lacks those tragic symbolic spaces—except one.
This call for obedience—the challenge to approach the Scriptures as a compelling moral vision and not simply a moralistic code—requires a wide reach, some grasp of logic, empathy, creativity, intuition, patience and foresight, in other words the full range of the imagination.
The call from our son Daniel—late afternoon on Thursday, about 6:30—was calm, reassuring. He anticipated that we would soon hear about the fires scorching the hilltop chaparral of Montecito, and was eager to report his shelter in the cinder-block gymnasium. The danger, at least then, seemed remote: we talked of homework and soccer matches.
Growing up in Southern California, I never dreamt of a white Christmas. The best we could hope for was fog. Every few years an early morning cloud layer would seep inland from the coast on Christmas, bringing a small dose of Dickens into suburban Los Angeles.
Green Cards, Pilgrim Feet
This Thanksgiving, once again, our oldest son will migrate home from college. As usual, there will be no custom duties on his laundry, and we will hear about his current classes, especially one on immigration. At some point during the Detroit Lions’ annual loss we may review a few theories of border control. And perhaps, just because it’s Thanksgiving, we will recall those famous “illegals”—the Pilgrims.
Perhaps one day an alumna from Grace’s course at ECHO, now with her doctorate in botany or astrophysics, will load the Shuttle with petri dishes full of seeds and plant specimens for study in microgravity or head a UN delegation on soil erosion.
The Dynamo and the Dom
When we arrived, an immense plywood image of an American Saturn rocket, as tall as the tower itself, was affixed to the front of the Dom. The two-dimensional facsimile was an advertisement for a space exhibit in town, and the promotional ploy had already made a stir. Throughout the fall, my students and colleagues turned the rocket into a Rorschach for their musings on American values.
For a brief season, then, the prospect of uniting the Angel of Hadley and the Salem judges into a single fable was nearly irresistible. The chance to let a mysterious exile with a Roundhead pedigree forecast the American Revolution even as he was halting the madness in Salem seemed like a quick way to strike literary gold. What remains to be said is why the tarnish came so quickly.
Whenever we roll out the old canvas, we must be a diversion for the neighboring campers, most of them with their fiberglass frames and nylon canopies. Our hollow aluminum poles, with their flute holes and plugs, probably seem as strange as a slide rule. But our kids have loved the ritual. For us, the second-generation tent, with all of its rips, patches and arthritic zippers, is as much ceremony as shelter.
Actually, I love voting in the Hamilton town hall. Walking into the old Federalist building, with its Georgian portico and creaky floorboards, makes me feel closer to those early, nervous days of American independence.