Blogging the Pope’s “Praise Be”: on Nature as a book
In Chapter 12 of Pope Francis' encyclical, "Praise Be," in our language, just before he launches into an appeal to all people to come together to save the world, the pontiff brings up the idea of nature as a book.
He writes (in a passage that is, may I say, too rich to be truncated):
12. What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty. Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.
The metaphor of nature as a volume of writings has been with us long before the paperback – since the Greeks. The Book of Nature, the idea was called, and (as usual) Aristotle has a lot to do with whipping it into a shape we can recognize. The metaphor/idea was inculcated in many of the Christian faith growing up over the centuries. To give an example John Muir grew up with the concept and in his youth likened Nature to a book, with Scripture to be revealed. He talked of glaciers writing their stories on the walls of Yosemite.
But as Muir grew older, and as he grew as a writer, he moved away from that metaphor. (As discussed in Frederick Turner's biography "Rediscovering America.") Nature was too fluid, too alive, to be likened to dead things, even if they were words on paper.
The pontiff doesn't directly confront this weakness in the thinking, but he has an answer for it. Because Saint Francis so loved wild things, and connected wild things with God, he reserved a part of the friary garden for that divine purpose. So the Pope sanctifies wilderness.
Here's Albrecht Durer's simply unbelievable watercolor of much the same idea, called, in our language "Great Piece of Turf." It's said to be painting's discovery of ecology: