the ethics of elfland

when i attempt to grow plants i have the nasty habit of making my plants conform to my notions of beauty by plucking a leaf here, pruning a stem there. unfortunately, shortly afterward, they die.

rather than making my plant conform to the straight streets and perpendicular lines of the human world, i should have cut and pruned my own nature, my own notions of what comprises beauty. what i mean is, if i can look at a field of ugly winter grass it might not be the fault of the grass or the winter, but with me.

if there is a problem, i think it lies in the fact that, as far back as i can remember, nature has not changed. i’ve allowed that consistency to convince me to call nature “normal” and therefore label it as “common.”

g.k. chesterton, in “the ethics of elfland” sheds some light at this point:

First, I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism; saying that everything is as it must always have been, being unfolded without fault from the beginning. The leaf on the tree is green because it could never have been anything else. Now, the fairy-tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every colour has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red of garden roses is not only decisive but dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood. He feels that something has been done.

chesterton puts himself in the position of a philosopher in fairyland, where a leaf on a tree does not have to be green by mere biological necessity, but could have been any color at all. in this frame of mind he draws certain conclusions about the insufficiency of any other way of looking at the world to truly enable us to see the beauty which surrounds us. for all of our lifetimes leaves have been green, the sky has been blue, and the dirt has been a muddy sort of brown. we do not ask ourselves why this is true; the mere fact that it is true seems to be sop enough for our curiosity. because of its consistency we run the risk of coming to think of nature as monotonous. in my thinking, that attitude goes wrong at three points: 1. it assumes that that world is dull 2. it assumes that the world is inevitable and 3. because it makes the first two assumptions, it inevitably becomes dull itself.

chesterton sees it the other way round:

the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again. The grass seemed signaling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. The sun would make me see him if he rose a thousand times. The recurrences of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation…

the modern world has gone wrong in its thinking about nature and the fracture happened at the very foundation. we have taken a wrong turn at the very start of the journey, but, as another british intellectual asserted, in such a situation the one who turns back first is the one who is furthest ahead. science exists in establishing boundaries, and that is well and good because there are so many boundaries to be established, but when science becomes a worldview those boundaries can lead people to forget that our fundamental position as finite human beings is that of those dwelling in the midst of a great mystery. nature is one of the most potent of the mysteries paraded before us every day. if this is true, then thinking of grass as merely an organism that is playing the puppet to the pressure of its own dna is to distort its true nature by foisting upon it an improper reductionism. thinking the boundaries of our sight are the boundaries of all there is to see we walk casually past earth’s ripe fruits, never suspecting them to be in the midst something dramatic by the mere fact of their existence.

rather, we must come at the natural world from the other way round, as chesterton again says:

this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful

if nature shows itself green in leaves and blue in sky and brown in dirt, and does it in all the world for all of time, why should we call that common? it is better to understand the world as a wild and startling place because it could have been much different. we would all be astonished at the trees if we awoke tomorrow to find that the leaves had all turned blue, but why are we not caught with wonder when we awake and find that have been turned green? there is a delight in nature as it is that we can tune ourselves to. if not, then we will just go on pruning and picking until it fits our sense of what it should be, and afterward it will be stripped of the beauty of what it was.

in my own life this lesson has come slowly. i read the ethics of elfland for the first time in the middle of the colorado mountains, and i had plenty of fodder to help me think about the things chesterton was saying. i found myself somehow leading backpacking trips of high schoolers for a summer. i loved the idea of what i was doing, but – in my honest moments i had to admit – i had no eyes for the beauty all around me. i felt the lack. i wanted a way to look out over some beautiful vista and be shocked, but too often all i could muster was a fleeting, mild surprise which passed into boredom if i stared too long. i remember sitting alone in a field where we had made camp that night staring at the tall pines of the tree line and chesterton’s words were echoing around in my head – “the world is a wild and startling place that might have been quite different” – and i felt as though i could almost see what he meant.

that is the thing with the mysteries as deep as nature – you only get them in fits and starts. it isn’t like learning multiplication. you may not be good at the multiplication tables but if you study hard enough you will get them eventually. there is a finite number of things to understand and a person is able to grasp them completely. with the great mysteries it is different. each new insight does not diminish the wonder they contain, quite the opposite, they expand it. that night backpacking was the first beginning of a wonder at something that had been unfurling itself before my eyes every day. i was just learning to see it.

we can learn again to be surprised by what is. the truth is, until we are surprised we will not really see it at all. what i am talking about is humility, of accepting nature on its own terms. it has more to do with listening and watching than anything else. the world continues much the same as it always has done, but we must not make the mistake of calling that normalcy. the proper response to the infinite encore of nature is not dissatisfaction or boredom, but gratitude. chesterton closes:

perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

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One Response to the ethics of elfland

  1. Thanks for the post. Orthodoxy was a pretty difficult read for me, and I should probably partake in some of it again. I might have a mind a little more capable of comprehending him now.

    I’ve always kinda questioned the idea that God could have made another world or could have made some things about it different. Genesis 1 and 2 says he made it “good.” If the universe, both physical and spiritual, is a full manifestation of his goodness, then could that mean the way the world is is the only way he could have made it? Maybe any other way wouldn’t have been a full expression of that goodness in him. Though I am hard pressed to imagine how red leaves instead of green leaves could be “less good.”

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