I spent ten days this month in Alaska, at a writing conference sponsored by the author Leslie Leyland Fields. From a small private island just off the large island of Kodiak, Leslie and her family run a commercial fishing operation. The twenty of us who flew in from “the lower 48” had to adapt to the wilderness setting: outhouses, no hot water, no cell phone service, and a limit of ten minutes per day on the Internet (yes!).
By its sheer size and remoteness, Alaska puts human beings in their place. Less than a million people populate a state twice as large as Texas (which has 28 million and still seems uncrowded). Before the conference, as we flew over Kodiak Island in a float plane, our pilot pointed out specks on the lush green hills: “Those brown dots are a herd of elk, and the white ones on the cliffs are mountain sheep.” During that hour-long flight, we saw no human settlements, only a handful of secluded fishing cabins.
I got a glimpse of the way the planet must have looked at the dawn of creation, before our species multiplied to seven billion and reshaped much of it with our industrial might. At the same time, I felt pity for those who grow up in cities such as Jakarta, Beijing, or Los Angeles, believing the world consists of foul gray air and dirty concrete. From the plane we saw blue-tinged glaciers, silvery salmon streams, and majestic stands of Sitka spruce trees. As a backyard gardener, I marveled at the forests and colorful meadows that flourish without cultivation, sustained only by water falling from the sky.
Recall, in the creation story God pronounced the world good even before the creation of man and woman. God’s later instructions on caring for the land carried the tone of a concerned father surrendering his property to unreliable children. If you defile the land, God warned the Israelites, “it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you” (Leviticus 18:29). Nor, God added, should siege armies cut down fruit trees: “Are the trees of the field men, that you should besiege them?” (Deuteronomy 20:19).
Clearly, God cares deeply about the fate of the earth. The naturalist John Muir, who treasured “the world as God sees it,” remarked about the fossil record, “It is a great comfort…that vast multitudes of creatures, great and small and infinite in number, lived and had a good time in God’s love before man was created.”
Whales barely survived the last century, tigers and rhinoceroses teeter on the verge of extinction, and elephants may be next. Our float plane, however, was ferrying us to visit Geographic Harbor, a prime spot for observing grizzly bears (more properly, “coastal brown bears”), a species still plentiful.
Nothing undercuts human hubris like a grizzly bear. A big male can weigh a thousand pounds and still outrun a race horse. I once interviewed a Canadian teenager who leaped onto the back of a mother grizzly that had attacked his girlfriend. When he plunged a six-inch knife into the sow’s shoulder, she roared and snapped her head back, breaking his wrist and flinging him ten feet in the air. Then, one swipe of her claw peeled the skin off his face and skull. Amazingly, he lived, though he lost an eye and an ear and had to endure ninety surgeries to repair the damage. (Ever grateful, the girlfriend overlooked his scars and married him.)
As I stood in Geographic Harbor amid a dozen grizzlies, I felt anxiety, yes, but also an appropriate sense of awe. We humans made small, slow movements, and tried not to look the bears in the eye. The grizzlies sniffed the air, reared up on their hind legs, chased each other, slapped at salmon—in short, they did whatever they wanted. Wilderness teaches humility by reminding us that we are a part of nature, not its masters.
Nature also inspires a sense of wonder. For years it puzzled researchers that another species, polar bears, never showed up on the aerial infrared photographs used in animal censuses. Strangely, they showed up very dark on ultraviolet photographs, even though white objects normally reflect ultraviolet light rays. In 1978 a U.S. Army Researcher discovered the reason: polar bear hairs are transparent, not white. Under a scanning electron microscope they appear as hollow tubes, lacking any pigment. They trap ultraviolet rays, hence the dark images on ultraviolet photos. Meanwhile, the fur provides such efficient insulation that the bear’s outer temperature stays virtually the same as the surrounding ice—which explains why polar bears do not show up on infrared photos.
Atheists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins explain away such design marvels as the result of unguided mutations that get naturally selected over time. I have had conversations with scientists who likewise accept randomness as the underlying force that somehow produced the diversity and complexity of all creatures on earth. Still, as one admitted, “There are two questions no scientist can answer: Why is there something rather than nothing? And, Why is that something so beautiful?”
I believe Christians underestimate the power of beauty. Books of theology begin with abstract qualities like omniscience and omnipotence, though beauty is surely the most obvious fact of creation, a bright clue to the nature of our Creator. Jesus himself drew a contrast between an ostentatious king and an everyday flower: “Not even Solomon in all his splendor is dressed like one of these wildflowers.” I think of that verse when I hike the Rocky Mountains and turn a corner to find a carpet of wildflowers, radiating beauty in a wilderness void of humans.
Beauty abounds in nature. A collection of seashells, gathered from beaches in the Philippines, Kenya, and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, comprises the most beautiful artwork in my home. By any standard these castoff excretions of brainless mollusks represent art of the highest order, but for whom—and by whom? It takes faith either way, to see beauty as a freak accident, or as the intentional expression of One for whom beauty expresses essence. Augustine chose the latter course, tracing beauty to its source. “I have learnt to love you late, beauty at once so ancient and so new!” he confessed; “…in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you.”
As I saw this month, Alaska presents “those lovely created things” in abundance. A bald eagle gracefully landing on the highest branch of a towering Sitka spruce, lifting his head and tucking in his wings as if posing for a photograph. A pod of fin whales rhythmically spouting geyser-like columns twenty feet high. Sea lions craning their necks to better view the small boats encroaching on their territory. Sea otters floating on their backs with a furry pup nestled on their stomachs. They took my breath away, these fleeting brushes with what transpires in nature regardless of whether any human observes. Both the sea lion and the grizzly eyed me with a combination of curiosity and warning. This was their world, and I an uninvited guest.
It saddens me that some of our best naturalists, committed to a materialistic point of view, lack the sense of wonder that expresses itself in praise. Equally, it saddens me that so few Christians devote their lives to the study of God’s created world. “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them,” wrote the psalmist (111:2).
In his great poem on nature, “Providence,” 17th-century poet George Herbert asks,
But who hath praise enough? Nay who hath any?
None can expresse thy works, but he that knows them…
As a model I look to John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. John’s Scottish Presbyterian father scorned his son’s interest in nature as frivolous and ungodly, wanting him to follow the example of Paul, who “desired to know nothing among men but Christ and Him crucified.”
Instead, John found resurgent faith in the realm of nature. The smallest plot of ground, he said is “ten thousand-fold too great for our comprehension, and we are at length lost, bewildered, overwhelmed in the immortal, shoreless, fathomless ocean of God’s beauty.”
God loves matter. It is God’s creation, after all, and our own attempts at creativity yield but a poor imitation. We can, however, provide the appropriate words of response: wonder, praise, awe, mystery. More, we can treat this world not as a cosmic accident, one that has neither design nor purpose. Rather, we can honor it as the gift of a magnificent Artist who has fashioned it for us as a home in which to thrive—and who asks that we respond with gratitude and the proper care befitting such a gift.