The Living Tapestry of the Earth

Scott McVay, writing in the Prelude to “The Biophilia Hypothosis” (1993) edited by Kellert and Wilson says:

“My conscious entry into the living tapestry of the Earth was through the whale tribe…My mentor was Ishmael, who on one occasion in “Moby Dick” was linked by a monkey-rope to Queequeg, a seasoned harpooner, standing on the slippery dead whale’s back where he was stripping off the beast’s blubber. Ishmael reflected on this “humorously perilous business for both of us…so that for better or worse, we too, for the time, were wedded, and should poor Queerqueg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honour demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake.” Ishmael goes on, says McVay:

“I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals.”   (McVay’s italics)


Melville published Moby Dick in 1851 but the closeness in the above example to the idea of an interconnected universe is striking. Though the fully-fledged idea had to wait for James Lovelock (2005) with Gaia Theory and the idea of the Earth as a self-regulating system and maybe a living organism. I used the idea of an umbilical cord connecting us to the earth through which we are kept at an optimum temperature and with a supply of air to breathe and water to drink, food to eat etc. in “Gaia: the Question of Consciousness” (see writings on this blog). But the idea has been around for a long time and I guess one could go back to Plato and his “Timaeus” and later Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists. It was certainly around in Shakespeare’s time. In his “Midsummer Night’s Dream” we have the realm of spirit, i.e the faeries, influencing the weather and the harmony of the world of mortals. One of my favourite speeches in Shakespeare is Titania’s in Act 2 Scene 1, which concludes:


“…the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which.

And this same progeny of evils comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.”


We might all be saying this with Titania in 2017! This Christmas I have also found this awareness of spiritual connexion in the poetry of John Donne (1572-1631). Most people know the famous quote from “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation xvii.” A prose work written during a serious illness:


“No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”


Donne’s poetry is full of allusions to this connexion with the “living tapestry of the Earth” as Mc Vay calls it. His well-known poem “The Flea”, often trivialized because of the poet’s mischievous sense of humour, is yet deeply mystical. In one of the most minute forms of life visible to the naked eye, a flea, we see the mingling of life, a microcosm of the larger world of marriage and reproductive life as humans know it. “Oh stay”, he says, in the sense I think of, “hold on a minute look deeper”:


“Oh , stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, nay more than married are.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is:”


And, to some modern readers, his rather dull joke about theology and the idea of three gods in one, the Holy Trinity, adds to the mystery of this unification of life.


“Let not to this, self murder added be,

And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.”


In an age aware of much smaller beings like single cells and atoms, it always makes me think of the reproductive forces going on within my body in its viral and cellular forms of life.


In so many of his love poems he delights in this mystical union between lovers but it is not just that; it is aided and abetted by the elements of the Earth itself, so all conspires to harmony and more complexity in a way that Teilhard de Chardin would have well understood. Teilhard writes in “Hymn of the Universe”:


“Without any doubt there is something which links material energy and spiritual energy together and makes them a continuity. In the last resort there must somehow be but one single energy active in the world. And the first idea that suggests itself to us is that the soul must be a centre of transformation at which, through all the channels of nature, corporeal energies come together in order to attain inwardness and be sublimated in beauty and in truth.”

(in “Hymn of the Universe” “Pensées, 13”)


In Donne’s “The Ecstasy”, a longer poem, very reminiscent of the thinking in Plato’s “Phaedrus”, we have this idea of two souls mixing energies of which we “know not what”:


“ But as all several souls contain

Mixture of things, they know not what,

Love, these mixed souls doth mix again,

And makes both one, each this and that.”


I love the humorous colloquialism of “this and that” but it’s not the later Cartesian split of interior and exterior, it’s the wonderful still surviving unity of the early 17th century; some of this and some of that as ingredients of the whole.


It is the constant reference to nature and the elements that gives his poetry this warp and weft of the tapestry of the Earth: his lover’s tear becomes “thy sphere”, the globe, the Earth itself in “A Valediction: of Weeping” and the images of the moon, the sea and the wind sustain the metaphor:


“O more than moon,

Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere

…but forbear

To teach the sea, what it may do too soon;

Let not the wind

Example find,

To do me more harm, than it purposeth;

Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath…”


And yet these references to nature are not romantically elaborated to become mythical or personifications of the gods or addressed as deities, as one might find in Shelley or Keats, but they are comparisons made in the knowledge of science as Donne knows it: the Earth is a sphere, the moon influences the tides, and then mystically the wind and breath become the symbol of life and harmony. That is not romantic metaphor it is an insightful creative observation of the facts.


In his essay on the metaphysical poets T.S. Eliot comments:


“A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”


And I suppose it is this holistic quality that brings me back to the “tapestry” metaphor, the connexion that Melville sees, and its great unification in Lovelock’s Gaia; a biosphere of dependent interrelationships.


Sadly as Donne was writing Rene Descartes was also beginning his work and in 1664 published a very different world view as much a cause of what in the above essay Eliot calls a “dissociation of sensibility” as were the poets Milton and Dryden that Eliot points to.


The Living Tapestry of the Earth was were we began and Teilhard puts it like this:


“Let the starry immensities therefore expand into an ever more prodigious repository of assembled suns;

let the light-rays prolong indefinitely, at each end of the spectrum, the range of their hues and their penetrative power;

let life draw from yet more distant sources the sap which flows through its innumerable branches;

and let us go on and on endlessly increasing our perception of the hidden powers that slumber, and the infinitesimally tiny ones that swarm about us, and the immensities that escape us because they appear to us simply as a point.”

(Pensées, 4)


A belated Happy New Year to all my friends.


































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